Which woman will you choose? That’s the question that stems from Proverbs 1-9 in what can be deemed the Lady Wisdom discourses. Here we find two women: Lady Wisdom, who calls out in the streets for the Israelites to follow her, and Dame Folly, who does the same. The difference between the two, according to the text, is good versus evil.
The author of Proverbs believes that Folly is out to get you. Throughout the first section of Proverbs, she is described as beautiful with capturing eyes (6:25), dressed as a harlot (7:10), and she prepares her face to lure men (7:13). Additionally, she leaves her husband and her God (2:17)—another passage saying it this way, “her feet do not remain at home” (7:11).
The author of Proverbs makes a point to give his opinion of her, saying she is boisterous and rebellious (9:13; 7:11) and unstable (5:6). Probably a hyperbolic insult, but the author says she is “naive” and “knows nothing” (9:13)—he called her an idiot.
More important for our study here, though, is how Dame Folly calls out to the men of the city, and how that might relate to other deities. In Proverbs 9:14-15, we read: “She sits at the doorway of her house, On a seat by the high places of the city, Calling to those who pass by, Who are making their paths straight.”
There are two points of interest, here. First, she is calling out to those who are attempting to live a righteous life—“who are making their paths straight.” Second, she is sitting by the high places. Because of these, the immediate correlation for some appears to be that of a cultic prostitute.
Proverbs 2:16 speaks of her flattering words. 5:3 describes her lips as “smoother than honey,” and 6:24, 7:5, and 7:21 give similar descriptions. 7:13 describes her as seizing and kissing a man. 7:8-9 says that she goes out at night, and 7:12 describes her as “lurking.” With all of that said, perhaps 7:13-20 are the most convincing:
[…] she said to him, “I have fresh meat at home; today I have fulfilled my vows! That is why I came out to meet you, to look for you, and I found you! I have spread my bed with elegant coverings, with richly colored fabric from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deeply of lovemaking until morning, let’s delight ourselves with sexual intercourse. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a journey of some distance. He has taken a bag of money with him; he will not return until the end of the month.
Obviously, Dame Folly is a sexual creature. The argument goes that although given in a narrative form, Dame Folly is likely not an actual woman but a representative of something more idealized. The answer some give is that Dame Folly is a representative of the goddess.
Othmar Keel, in his book Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, gives a wonderful evolution of an understanding of the goddess from an unknown fertility deity in the Chalcolithic period to the naked goddess in the Early Bronze Age to what might be the asherah later on—though what is and is not Asherah is debated. From iconography, Keel believes that one can see a move from the naked goddess to the naked goddess with branches, and from this to merely the head of the naked goddess with branches and then to simply branches or trees. From the same images, the pubic triangle of the naked goddess can be seen in the image of the tree. This goddess appears to represents fertility in the land, and indeed the goddess Asherah is often understood in the Ugaritic texts as the mother of seventy gods with El.
Because of this iconography, and because of the apparent mention of prostitution in the Hebrew Bible, it is assumed that the goddess was the goddess of prostitution and that the practice of prostitution on Canaanite festivals was adapted into Israelite religion. Thus, Dame Folly might represent more than a mere ideological antithesis to Lady Wisdom but a practical and material antithesis in the cult.
With all of this said, a true understanding of who or what the goddess was is still, and probably will always be, unavailable. The fluidity of any religion makes for understanding any goddess rather difficult. Instead of having an encyclopedic definition of the goddess in Canaan, we are stuck with some in-depth textual examples, but from a different culture. Instead of having multiple Canaanite references, we have biblical exhortations against Asherah. As biblical and historical exegetes, we are placed in a rather sticky position of attempting to piece together the being of asherah without seeing the big picture and with very many pieces of the puzzle still missing.
One question that has arisen is the question of sacred prostitution. Phyllis Bird notes that “the notion of ‘sacred prostitution’ as ritual sex in the service of the cult is […] problematic, despite the hold it has gained in virtually every textbook and commentary.” Indeed, Richard Hess says that although this idea has “enjoyed great popularity[, i]t lacks only one thing: evidence.” The idea of nakedness, as in the Qedeshet, does not necessarily assume fertility or erotic behavior, and there are no texts that would associate the act of prostitution with any one cult. Sexual debauchery is evidenced in the Hebrew text, as well as in other outside sources, but there isn’t anything that truly connects it with the theology of fertility. Hess goes on to discuss the excessive sexual debauchery as a naturally occurring at festivals. Did sexual orgies occur during religious festivals? Sure. Does that mean that these actions were somehow connected with the theology of fertility? Maybe, but there just isn’t any hard proof. There is obvious abhorrence of promiscuity within the Israelite theology, but abhorrence from one does not mean a theological mandate in the other.
Beyond the possible disconnection between prostitution and the theology of the cult (the sacred prostitute) lies the disconnection with Dame Folly of Proverbs and prostitution. Nowhere in the text is Dame Folly actually ever called a prostitute, just an adulterer. She is said to dress as a prostitute, but the text makes it seem as if she is leaving her husband and attempting to lure in men in order to have affairs. It is possible that she did prostitute herself, in Proverbs 7, but even here it is obvious that the purpose was to afford the paying of vows and not a profession. Moving beyond Proverbs, even within Hosea is prostitution not entirely proven. It is more likely that the idea (both literally and allegorically) is one of leaving one’s husband (or God) in order to entertain another man (or deity). If Dame Folly was a prostitute, there is nothing to connect her to the cult, but she doesn't seem to be a prostitute. Of course, the lack of prostitution in both examples means that she might still be related to the cult.
The back and forth possibilities of Dame Folly can be tamed when taken in comparison to Lady Wisdom, but what exactly is wisdom? There is a range of terms associated with “wisdom,” and in the Torah the word is used in an essence of having a skill: Exodus 31:3 equating wisdom with all kinds of craftsmanship. Solomon was given political wisdom/skillfulness by God, in 1 Kings 5:26, resulting in a peace with Hiram. In 1 Kings 2:6, a woman, “in her wisdom,” cut off the head of a man rather than displeasing the mighty Joab. Because of all of these, Earnest Lucas suggests the meaning life-skill: “the ability of the individual to conduct his life in the best possible way and to the best possible effect.”
This “life-skill” of wisdom is directly connected with the “fear of the LORD” in Proverbs 9:10, and in Proverbs 1:7 the “fear of the LORD” is connected with moral knowledge. Basically, “wisdom,” to the Yahwist, is obeying Yahweh. It is possible that Exodus 9:20-21 explains this deeper with a contrast with non-Israelite individuals (i.e., Egyptians) who both “fear the word of the LORD” and pulled in their livestock from the fields and then those “who did not take the word of the Lord seriously,” and did not obey. Thus, we find a correlation with Deuteronomy 10:12-13, which reads: “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you except to [fear] him, to obey all his commandments, to love him, to serve him with all your mind and being, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and statutes that I am giving you today for your own good?”
This stirs an important implication concerning her antithesis, namely, if Lady Wisdom stands for all that is good within Yahwism (pure/ideological/biblical Yahwism), then, necessarily, Dame Folly must stand as the antithesis to pure Yahwism.
None of the major goddesses—Asherah, Anat, Astarte, or even Qedeshet (if she even is a named goddess)—seem to fit the character of Dame Folly, a woman who desires to pull men away from their God. On the other hand, if she is understood not as a goddess but as an antithesis to Wisdom, perhaps a goddess is not in view.
If any one deity stands as an antithesis to Yahwism in the eyes of the pure Yahwist, it would be Ba’al. Ba’al is cited throughout the Hebrew text as a false god, and archaeologically we find what should be Yahwistic shrines in the Northern Kingdom with Ba’alistic features, including the altar at Dan and other sites across Israel. In fact, the Israelites are so thoroughly Ba’alistic, that some wonder if Yahwism was truly the religion of the people. Combine these Ba’alistic features with textual allusions to Yahweh and his Asherah, as well as Biblical allusions to the worship of Ba’al, and one will find a true antithesis to Biblical/ideological Yahwism, even though materially it could be better understood as a syncretistic phenomenon.
Perhaps the perfect example of the battle between Ba’al and Yahweh can be seen in the Hebrew Bible in the event of the Mount Carmel epic, where the prophets of Ba’al mimic episodes of the Ba’al cycle in order to awake the god from a slumber, while Elijah simply speaks. Though the outcome of that event did not lead to pure Yahwism as seen through the eyes of the Deuteronomistic historian, this event did trigger the end of the Ahabite parenthesis in the theology of the Northern Kingdom—a time when Phoenician Ba’alism almost overtook Yahwism in the land.
Even with this rivalry of the gods, though, perhaps it is still a bit too much to equate Dame Folly with Ba’al. It is quite evident that Lady Wisdom stood as a counteradvertisement to something, specifically Dame Folly, but the true significance of Dame Folly may not necessarily be an external deity. While there is undoubtedly a religious flavor to both Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly (as noted above), it may simply be a Yahwism vs. non-Yahwism flavor rather than looking for any one counter theology.
Concerning syncretism within Israelite society, Smith uses three examples from within material culture: “Some Israelites believed that Yahwism was compatible with devotion to Baal. Other Yahwists held a more restricted view that Yahweh was the only god and Asherah was his consort. Finally, the Deuteronomistic Historian’s view of matters was even more restricted, not allowing even for a devotion to Asherah or to her symbol, the asherah.” These three can be explained again as 1) allowing for Yahweh and Ba’al to exist as the same entity (a syncretism), 2) allowing for one God named Yahweh who also has a consort (a lesser mixture of pure Yahwism with Ba’alism), or 3) pure, biblical Yahwism.
Because of these three typical beliefs throughout the land, this author tends to argue more for a counteradvertisement to non-Yahwism rather than to a specific cult. Granted, these two syncretistic-Yahwistic forms developed more fully at a later date, but the ideas of mixing religious thought have always been (even today) a serious problem. As a matter of fact, as Kings explains the history of Israel, the Israelites did not keep the Law or seek Wisdom, and therefore it can properly be said that the result of such adherence to Dame Folly within Israelite society was the establishing of these two alternative Yahwistic cults.
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