Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Nam Hoon Tan, Nancy, The “Foreignness” of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1-9: A Study of the Origin and Development of a Biblical Motif (BZAW, 381; Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. xvi+222. Hardcover. US$95.00. ISBN 978-3-11-020063-8.

Nancy Tan's thesis seeks to reclaim the “foreignness” of the Foreign Woman (hereafter FW) in Proverbs 1–9. She argues against scholars who impute a moral dimension to the figure by reading her as an adulteress, and also against those who read the figure as representative of strangeness, the “outsider” writ large. Instead, she interprets Proverbs' FW both in the context of an intermarriage crisis of the early post-exilic period depicted in a contemporaneous Ezra-Nehemiah and as closely aligned with an “original” FW in Deuteronomy (Dtr) and the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), i.e., the woman who leads Israelites to worship foreign gods. Apostasy not sexuality, she argues, is at issue in Proverbs.

Ch. 1 offers a lexical study of the two terms repeatedly used for the FW figure,  (נָכְרִיָּה) נכרand  .(זָרָה) זר Tan finds that נכר unambiguously means “foreign,” as long as “foreign” is “not understood too precisely in modern national terms,” but rather in the sense of “ethnic, or religious (as in the particular sense of ‘nonYahwistic’)” (p. 14). “Ethnicity,” in turn, means a sense of cultural distinctiveness and a “social identity (based on a contrast vis-à-vis others) characterized by metaphoric or fictive kinship” (p. 16). (She is unable to sustain this definition, however, sometimes seeming to contrast “foreignness” and “ethnicity” [pp. 59, 64] and often simply reducing ethnicity to religious difference.) זר, on the other hand, “encompasses a broader sense of ‘otherness,’” and may sometimes refer to Israelites; however, its meaning must be understood in the context where it occurs: since in Proverbs it always occurs with נכר, then it, too, must mean “ethnically/religiously foreign.”

Ch. 2 discusses the concept of foreignness and the motif of foreign wives in early post-exilic texts: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi (the first two in relation to Dtr). Despite Tan's insistence in ch. 1 that נכר and זר always mean the same thing—ethnically foreign—here she draws attention to the intra-Israelite identity struggle, including its economic dimension, that most scholars now acknowledge underlies at least some of the polemic of Ezra-Nehemiah. As she notes, the association of “foreign wives” with non-Yahwistic cults is at best indirect in these books, despite their appeals to Dtr/DtrH. Ch. 3 focuses on the motif of foreign wives in DtrH, with particular attention to Jezebel as the archetype of the FW—the woman who leads Israelites into apostasy—though DtrH has a different sense of foreignness than Ezra-Nehemiah, Malachi, or Deuteronomy itself.

Ch. 4 is the heart of the argument, attempting to make the case exegetically that Proverbs 1–9's FW is directly related to that of Dtr and DtrH (now not distinguished from each other), “rather than … a straightforward depiction of a sexual predator or adulteress” (p. 81). Ch. 5 deals with direct references to the FW motif in other wisdom literature (other passages in Proverbs; Qoh 7:26; 1Q184; and LXX Proverbs), while Ch. 6 turns to the FW in Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon. In both these chapters Tan argues for the transition from the “original” FW, concerned only with the seduction of Israelites into apostasy, to a sexualized figure that emphasizes the danger of adultery (or, in WisSol, to abandonment of the figure altogether). An Appendix treats briefly a range of other texts where the narrative judgment on the FW and intermarriage is more complicated.

The bibliography of this book shows wide research and the argument is carefully mounted. I was, however, left unpersuaded of the thesis. Here are some of my concerns[1]:

1. Much hinges on the unargued, and now often disputed, dating of Proverbs 1–9 to the “early” post-exilic period (presumably the mid to late fifth century, though this is already a century after the first return), and its direct connection to the marriage reforms depicted in Ezra and Nehemiah,[2] which themselves are only arguably historical, at least as told in these sources. Tan's argument seems circular: the asserted contemporaneity of Proverbs with historical Ezra and Nehemiah becomes a significant part of the rationale for interpreting its FW in terms of the intermarriage issue.

2. The lexical analysis of נכר/זר, another crucial component of the thesis, is based on the untenable assertion that genre and literary context are irrelevant for determining nuances of meaning: if נכר means “ethnically foreign” in one context, she says, it must mean the same in every other, and thus also זר along with it. Counterevidence is disregarded: Tan notes in passing Isa 28:21's use of the word pair זָרָה/נָכְרִיָּה for the work—strange but hardly “ethnically foreign”—of YHWH against the leaders of Jerusalem, but ignores the question it raises for her lexical argument. More generally, it was odd to read the criticism of other scholars' failure to “appreciate the colourful, poetic rhetoric of the texts” (p. 27) by someone arguing for the univocality of key terms, even in poetic contexts.

3. The exegesis of Proverbs is largely driven by the prior conclusion that נכר/זר can mean nothing other than ethnically (now, simply, religiously) foreign. All apparent sexual language is only a metaphor for right or wrong worship. Thus, e.g., the FW of Prov 2:16–19 is a foreigner who seeks to seduce the young man to apostasy—the argument here has to rely, however, on Malachi rather than on Dtr/DtrH—even though she is said to “forget the covenant of her gods (or: her God).” Even metaphorical adultery is said to be absent in Proverbs 7. The meaning of the FW's statement “There is no man in his house…” (7:19) is regarded as ambiguous and “can hardly be about adultery per se” (p. 99); the poem as a whole is about apostasy alone. Prov 6:24–35, which refers unambiguously to adultery, is deemed irrelevant: it comes from another source and “cannot be used to define the FW” (p. 95). Yet it would seem that the final editor of Proverbs 1-9, at least, did have some such idea in mind.

4. The analysis that Tan advances in the volume might have benefited from some theory of metaphor. To illustrate, in my own study, Wise, Strange and Holy, I found such a theory (Lakoff’s) helpful in analyzing the Strange Woman imagery in Proverbs, Ezra-Nehemiah, and other narrative texts as an expression of identity rhetoric in the post-exilic period. Like Tan, I argue that the Strange Woman should not be reduced to an adulteress; on the other hand, I also try to offer an account of how that imagery functions to create a figure with multivalent meaning that might be read in different ways at different times, precisely in the context of identity struggles that themselves may have taken different forms at different times. By the same token, I argue, the fact that apostasy is associated with the FW in some contexts may be highly relevant, but not literally intended, in others. That is, the sense of apostasy's evil may be invoked even in a situation where apostasy is not the problem, which as Tan admits, it is not in Ezra-Nehemiah.[3] Thus my argument is not simply, then, that the Strange Woman is “a voice in defiance of the patriarchal order of society,” as Tan characterizes it (p. 8), but an ideological reading of the various nuances of gendered strangeness—ethnic or national, sexual, religious, non-priestly, false but seductive speech—in the Second Temple period that complicates many of the points argued by Tan within Proverbs itself and in DtrH material like the Samson and Solomon narratives—as well as offering substantive development of a number of the texts she treats in her Appendix. My point here is not to advocate for my argument, but to raise the issue that by failing to address it properly, Tan may have missed an opportunity to nuance (and thus strengthen) her own position. But this is just an example of my more general comment:  Had Tan approached her topic in way more informed by Lakoff's or any other main, contemporary theory of metaphor, her argument would have been more nuanced and, in my opinion, her conclusions more persuasive.

5. Tan demonstrates well the foregrounding of sexual language in the iterations of the FW figure after Proverbs (though she might have given some consideration to feminist critical analyses of Ben Sira that have appeared from the early 1990s on). But these texts could as easily be evidence for sexual meanings later drawn from a multivalent Proverbs as for a significant shift in the meaning of the figure. And, even here, sex may not really, or only, mean sex.

In sum, I find too many difficulties with the argument to be persuaded by it. Nonetheless, Tan successfully presents a wide, well-organized range of data and an original thesis that many will want to consider carefully for themselves.

Claudia V. Camp, Texas Christian University

[1] I might also note a problem with the English style. I assume from the numerous syntactical irregularities throughout the book—sometimes so profound that I struggled with the sense—that the author is not a native English speaker. I sympathize with the challenges involved in such a situation, but de Gruyter did no service to the volume’s author or readers by publishing it without further attention to its readability.reference

[2] For similar arguments, see Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Bible and Literature, 11; Atlanta, GA: JSOT/Almond Press, 1985); Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Social Context of the ‘Outsider Woman’ in Proverbs 1-9,” Biblia 72 (1991): 457-73; and Harold Washington, “The Strange Woman (’šh zrk/nkryh) of Proverbs 1-9 and Post-Exilic Judean Society,” in T. Eskenazi and K. H. Richards (eds.), Second Temple Studies: Temple and Community in the Persian Period 2 (JSOTSup, 175; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994): 217-42. But see also, e.g., Christl Maier, Die ‘fremde Frau’ in Proverbien 1-9: eine exegetische und socialgeschictliche Studie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995); Camp, Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); and Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary (AB, 18A; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2000) for reasons to date Proverbs somewhat to significantly later. Tan shows her familiarity with these sources but generally does not directly engage her argument with theirs. reference

[3] A better case for apostasy as the problem is made by Blenkinsopp in “The Social Context of the ‘Outsider Woman’,” see n. 2 above.reference

[4] I would also recommend Gail Streete's The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible (not in Tan's bibliography) for a systematic overview of the Strange Woman figure throughout the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998). reference