The opening chapter of Proverbs directs the reader to “hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). This command recurs throughout the book, and it establishes that the advice and wisdom provided in Proverbs should be valued as highly as parental advice. Moreover, these words place teachings from a male figure on the same level of significance as teachings from a female figure, which implies that a woman’s insight on living righteously is just as significant as a man’s instruction. Woman Wisdom is introduced later on in the first chapter, as she “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks” (Proverbs 1:20-21). Woman Wisdom is described as a prophet in this passage, which is significant because most, if not all, of the main prophets in the Old Testament are men (Camp, 87). Overall, the first chapter of Proverbs presents women as wise and insightful matriarchal figures whose contributions to the moral structure of society is of great importance to strengthening everyone’s relationship with each other as well as everyone’s individual relationship with God. It signifies a woman’s teachings on morality and righteousness as authoritative, and it calls for all people to treat her words as those of a prophet (Camp, 87).
After the first chapter, the role of Woman Wisdom moves away from an independent and authoritative prophet, and shifts towards taking on the role of a man’s wife (Camp, 88). Moreover, the introduction of the Strange Woman balances the authoritative teachings of righteousness delivered by Woman Wisdom. The latter half of chapter five touches upon the nature of male relationships towards both Woman Wisdom and the Strange Woman. The text advises men to “drink water from your own cistern… let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe”(Proverbs 5:15, 18-19). The ‘cistern’ and ‘fountain’ are metaphors for the sexual properties of a man’s wife. It also refers to the wife as a ‘lovely deer’ and a ‘graceful doe’, which are positive descriptions. However, the righteous woman in this passage is no longer independent and authoritative. Rather, her personality compares to a docile fawn that is the property of the man, providing him with love and sexual pleasure (Camp, 88). The author then asks “why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (Proverbs 5:20). While choosing the prostitute over his wife is regarded as substantially sinful behavior, the choice itself is ultimately decided by the man, essentially giving him all the power and responsibility in his marriage. Proverbs shifts from depicting a righteous woman, Woman Wisdom, as a significant and independent prophetess to a complacent housewife totally reliant on the decisions of her husband. It is clearly shown in chapter five of Proverbs that men have dominance over women in society, especially over their wives (Newsom, 125-126).
Although Woman Wisdom represents the ideal wife, her role in the beginning chapters of Proverbs is to teach about living a moral life. She opposes Strange Woman, who represents sin and temptation, in the way she speaks about righteousness and wisdom. Throughout chapters 1-9, the Strange Woman is characterized as an unfaithful, dangerous, forward prostitute, as well as a wanderer with seductive speech. All of these qualities embody temptation, and are often hard for sinful men to resist (Camp, 92-93). In chapter 7, the authors wrote a story about a married man who was approached by the Strange Woman, and she persuaded him to follow her back to her house to have sex (Proverbs 7:10-27). The experience of this man is “like an ox to slaughter...like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life,”because by committing adultery, the man has chosen the path of death (Proverbs 7:22-23). This story is important to exposing the Strange Woman’s deviousness because Proverbs is a guide to what God’s followers should and should not do, and to the consequences of associating with the Strange Woman are deadly. Falling for the Strange Woman’s temptation is equivalent to choosing sin. Since "her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death,”men choose the path of carnal love and the physical world, which leads them onto the path of death, rather than the path to Heaven (Camp, 92)-93. Only by following Wisdom’s advice does a person get the chance to choose the path of life, he has chosen the path of wisdom, chastity, and God.
Woman Wisdom personifies everything a follower of God is supposed to choose to obey. She represents chastity and love, and is described as living in prudence, and being “better than jewels,” to explain that wisdom is better than any earthly treasure (Proverbs 8:11). In chapter 8, Wisdom speaks to God’s followers with advice on how they should live their daily lives, and what qualities they should strive to obtain on earth. The authors are using Woman Wisdom to guide uncertain followers towards the path of life and Heaven by showing them that Strange Woman leads to death, but by practicing Woman Wisdom’s advice, they will be led to God and Heaven (Camp, 88). Wisdom says, “learn prudence, acquire intelligence…hear, for I speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right…all the words of my mouth are righteous…take my instructions instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her,” to provide a guideline for how God’s followers should live, because earthy goods are not meant to be valued more highly than God (Proverbs 8:5-11). Woman Wisdom not only speaks on how people should live, but also on how they should not live because she understands what the path to Heaven requires of God’s followers, and ends her dialogue with “and now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways,”because her teachings are necessary to understand and follow for a person to be accepted into Heaven by God (Proverbs 8:32).
In chapters 8 and 9 of Proverbs, Woman Wisdom is merely a personification of the path to eternal life with God, and the powerful, independent nature of this woman does not exist in reality. The women that do exist in reality are much more comparable to the wife described in the second half of chapter five, or even the Strange Woman. This is evident in the final chapter, which is dedicated to describing the ideal wife from the husband’s perspective. It begins with an oracle taught to King Lemuel by his mother, which warns him against giving his strength to women, as they “destroy kings” (Proverbs 31:3). As the male ruler of society, Lemuel takes heed of his mother’s warning to not become caught up with women, as they will extract his power. While this is not meant to deter Lemuel from finding a wife, it is certainly a caution against becoming close with women, most of whom are perceived as evil temptresses (Camp, 86). The chapter goes on to describe the characteristics of the ideal wife. She is a “capable” wife, “far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10). She provides for her husband with “all the days of her life,” carrying out various homemaking activities such as staying up late at night to cultivate clothing and linen, providing food for the family and tasks for her servant-girls, and planting and maintaining a vineyard (Proverbs 31:11-19). These tasks are historically classic stereotypical duties of a housewife, as the ideal wife lives to serve her husband and her household. It goes on to say that“strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:25-26). This is a very significant passage in Proverbs because it connects the mother figure from the first chapter, and Woman Wisdom, to the ideal housewife that is being described. There is an attitude of significant respect towards this type of woman, but her role in society is not characterized by her prophecies of righteousness and wisdom, rather, it embodies solely her skill of maintaining her household. While this skill is quite valuable in the patriarchal society context of the Old Testament, it still places women beneath their husbands. The goal of an ideal women is to be a housewife, serving the husband with all the days of her life (Newsom, 129-131). The final chapter of Proverbs brings gender roles full circle, as the motherly Woman Wisdom is revealed to be a housewife that is meant to serve her husband in the best way she can. Proverbs was written for the purpose of being a biblical reference for questioning followers to access in times of doubt on their actions. It represents a guideline for how God’s followers should and should not act, and the authors use women who personify wisdom and sin to portray the rights and the wrongs. Moreover, it provides advice for the type of woman a man should marry, and develops a blueprint for how a woman should act as a wife (Coogan, Dell, 896). The Strange Woman represents temptation and sin, and the experiences men have during encounters with her always end in death because they have chosen to value earthly pleasure over God’s commandments. Woman Wisdom preaches the commandments, and the earthly characteristics followers of God should strive for because only through following her advice are people put on the path of life and Heaven (Camp, 92-94). Woman Wisdom is perceived to have authority and independence at first, but in the end is a divine role model for housewives of that age (Camp, 86). Only by understanding the differences between these two personified women will God’s followers be guided towards the path of love and chastity, since sin and temptation are in human nature, and are difficult to refrain from. This comparison between the Strange Woman and Woman Wisdom also brings light to the gender roles in a patriarchal society context, as men are clearly favored as more significant societal figures, and women are depicted as deceitful prostitutes or ideal housewives that supplement their husband’s morality and relationship with God (Newsom, 129-131). While the presentation of the Strange Woman and Woman Wisdom appear to give women power in the social hierarchy, closer examination reveals that these women are ultimately the subjects of men. Overall, gender roles in the book of Proverbs are a product of the patriarchal society in which the text was written.