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Medieval Exegesis and Religious DifferenceCommentary, Conflict, and Community in the Premodern Mediterranean$
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Ryan Szpiech

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780823264629

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823264629.001.0001

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Late Medieval Readings of the Strange Woman in Proverbs

Late Medieval Readings of the Strange Woman in Proverbs

(p.187) 12 Late Medieval Readings of the Strange Woman in Proverbs
Medieval Exegesis and Religious Difference

Esperanza Alfonso

Fordham University Press

This essay analyzes the exegetical treatment of one recurrent image from the book of Proverbs (2:16–19, 5:1–23, 6:20–31, and most significantly Chapter 7), that of the ishshah zarah (“strange woman”). After repeated warnings against her dangers, she is described as an alien who ensnares and deceives young men through wily tricks. Considered as the countertype of Wisdom (portrayed as a woman in Proverbs 1–9) and the “woman of strength” (eshet ḥayil) of Proverbs 31:10–31, the “strange woman” provoked abundant commentary among post-biblical Jewish exegetes who interpreted her as a symbol of heresy, idolatry, the study of secular rather than religious sciences, or primal matter itself. The author focuses on a little-known group of biblical commentaries written between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries to explore the ways in which Jewish exegetes in a post-Maimonidean era used the image to convey changing and conflicting views on gender and to identify and protect purity from pollution, the sacred from the secular, orthodoxy from heterodoxy, and ultimately, the community from the Other. Her analysis shows how images of gender and sexuality could be used as a touchstone for revealing changing intellectual trends in exegesis, philosophy, and even polemical writing.

Keywords:   Book of Proverbs, Strange woman / ishshah zarah, Jewish Biblical exegesis, gender studies, Biblical portrayal of Wisdom

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