Saturday, January 13, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 3: Sister or Sex Worker, Which Will You Follow? (Prov 7)

Address 3: Sister or Sex Worker, Which Will You Follow? (Proverbs 7)

Last week’s address was titled “In the House of the Father.” In ancient Israel very young boys and girls grew up in the shelter of their parents’ home and received their primary education there. In Proverbs, chapter 7, however, we are passing to a new situation. The son is about to go out into society, indeed it seems he may even leave his family home for the city.

From my own experience as a son and a father, I can testify that adolescence, as we in the West call this time of life, is a time of great emotional turmoil. The young person is excited to be “leaving the family nest,” and he is also anxious about what new people he will meet. The parents are relieved to have trained up their child to be healthy and a high achiever, but they now worry how he will do on his own. And they are especially worried that he will “fall in with the wrong crowd” of friends.

So we may imagine chapter 7 as a farewell speech of the father to his son as he heads off for Kampala. In the States, we have a moral tale about “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” The country boy goes off to the city and his parents warn him not to take even one glass of beer. However, he falls in with the wrong friends and, at the climax of the story, he lifts the fatal glass of beer to his lips and is for ever ruined. In the case of Proverbs, the father is warning his son of another lethal danger: the “loose woman,” a.k.a. the sex worker.

In the passage today, the father repeats his earlier exhortation to keep his commandments and law (verses 1-2 – Hebrew mitzvot and torah), to bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart (verse 3). Whenever the son is tempted to sin, he will have the protection of virtue which has been instilled in him from childhood.

Next he offers the young man a stark choice: which will it be, your sister or a sex worker, your cousin or a prostitute? Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your kinsman (verse 4). The son is going out as a representative of the family. If he acts wisely, he will bring honour to the family name. If he plays the fool and sins, he will shame his sister and his relatives, who will blush at the mention of his name. The father calls in every resource of family love to combat what he sees as the great danger of erotic love.

The ancient world was certainly aware of the power of eros, of sexuality. Indeed the myths of many cultures told of gods and goddesses cavorting with one another, and often these myths were accompanied by ritual acts of prostitution. Only biblical religion, according to one writer, “put the sexual genii into the marital bottle.” That is to say, the Bible makes it very clear, from Genesis to Revelation, that sexuality is intended by God to be expressed only within marriage, and hence fornication, adultery, prostitution, defilement and sexual deviancy are considered an abomination to God. This was a revolutionary teaching in the ancient world and it is still revolutionary.

In the modern West, the debate between the father and the loose woman is often internalized. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, claimed that every personality (or ego) has two internal voices: one called the id, or desire, and the other called the superego or conscience. The id is the voice of the adventuress with her smooth words (verse 5), calling the young person to throw off all that he has learned for the sake of pleasure. The superego is the voice of the father, the voice of traditional wisdom, which warns and instills guilt in the young man when he contemplates sin. While Freud saw the contest between desire and conscience as creating psychic stress, Scripture sees it as a moral contest leading either to mature life or to premature death.

The father describes vividly the temptation of a young man without sense (verse 7). The English word “simpleton” nowadays refers to someone is mentally slow. Here, however, the “simple” youth is a person without a moral compass. He leaves his fellows (in this case numbers offer protection), and he wanders into the “red-light district” of the city in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness (verse 9). Did he know what he was doing? Did he secretly desire to meet up with the loose woman? Or was he naïve? It really doesn’t matter: the result is the same.

Several years ago, there was a series of tragic cases of rape and murder at Makerere University and the students protested, demanding more police protection. Certainly Makerere students were right to do so, but it does not make sense for them to pretend that they have the right to wander risk-free from discos in Wandegaya to dorm rooms late at night in a drunken state. But the problem is not just at Makerere. I often wake up at 2 or 3am at night because of the music blaring from the disco in Mukono. Why do you think they play it so loud? It is the voice of the tempter saying: “Come on down, have a beer, meet a girl, enjoy yourself.”

What do you do when you hear these voices calling? One piece of biblical wisdom is: Turn and flee. Remember Joseph and Potiphar’s wife? She said, “Come lie with me.” He didn’t say, “Well, let’s sit down here on the bed and discuss this issue.” Rather he ran away, leaving his cloak in her hand. This advice sounds simple, but it takes great courage and wisdom when the temptation actually comes. It is especially hard if you have fallen in with a group of friends who are urging you on. Or if you are a woman who is accustomed to saying Yes to men. So be careful who you travel with.

When I left home for my bachelor’s degree, I was told that the university was serving in loco parentis, which is a Latin phrase meaning “in the place of the parent.” Most secular universities in the West – and Makerere here in Uganda – have now abandoned this role. They just say: “You are on your own. Good luck!” In Uganda, we have this practice called “detoothing,” which I gather is a kind of bursary scheme: the girl exchanges her body for school fees. My friends, that is a very bad deal. I hope Uganda Christian University can provide scholarship help for more and more students; and we have been working to provide more opportunities for social life on the weekends here. But even if you decide to head into Kampala on the weekend, let me urge you. Don’t buy into these immoral schemes. They will ruin your life.

Not that this contest of voices will be easily won. The father knows the craftiness of the Evil One. The Sex Worker knows her trade: she is wily of heart (verse 10). She knows how to appeal to the senses: she is dressed up like a harlot, no doubt with mascara, perfume and slitted skirt. She is cautious in stalking him, but at the right moment she pounces on her prey like a lioness, seizes him and kisses him (verse 13).

It is not enough, however, to overwhelm his senses. She must also overcome the wisdom he brings from his home. Her argument is fantastic, like a politician promising to fix all the roads and end poverty overnight. With shameless irreverence, she claims to have meat offerings left over from temple worship (verse 14). This is no mere invitation to a dirty brothel. This woman is a penthouse prostitute, as she coos: I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon (verses 16-17).

Her final appeal is to love, sexual love. Come, let us drink our fill of passion till morning; let us delight ourselves with love (verse 18). Biblical wisdom is not opposed to passionate love; indeed it has many beautiful things to say about it in the Song of Songs. But under the guidance of Lady Wisdom, sexual love is treated as a private matter, and a passion that grows slowly. “Do not stir up passion until it is ripe,” is Solomon’s word on the subject.

But the Sex Worker needs instant results. She not only entices him with the eagerness of lust but with the excitement of adultery. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey (verse 19). She is offering him more than a “one night stand”; instead, she is offering him nights and nights of revelry. And as often happens, he will lose track of the days and be surprised one night when the husband returns home suddenly from his trip.

The father’s little story about the Sex Worker ends tragically. The simple youth becomes a fool by casting aside conscience and wisdom and falling for her wiles and words (verse 21). He gives into the same kind of blind instinct that leads an animal into a trap: All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast (verse 22). And the end result of his fall is death (verse 23). Those who give themselves over to the Sex Worker will not only shame their family but soon their family will be planning their funeral, while everyone knows that they died of AIDS.

Not only will it lead to death but also to hell, because her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death (verse 27). The Hebrews did not have a fully developed notion of hell, such as we find in the New Testament, but they did see Sheol as a very dark and sad place of departed souls. Not only are all the pleasures of the body absent in Sheol, but the soul is cut off from the living God (Psalm 6:5). The final end of the fool who has given in to temptation is separation from God for ever. Is this a price you are prepared to pay?

Now let us sum up the message of this passage. Wisdom and love are sister concepts. We do not speak idly of the “love of learning.” The philosopher Plato taught that erotic love, the quest for pleasure, provides the wings whereby the mind flies up in search of truth. And indeed sexual desire does convey the illusion of experiencing some deep reality. Sexuality often gets confused with spirituality, as is apparent in the “fertility cults” of the ancient world, right down to some forms of Eastern mysticism today.

It is not just pagan cults, however, that search for meaning in sexuality. The entire Romantic movement in the West tried to substitute sex for religion. Freud called religion an illusion and sex the truth of the depth of the psyche. One only needs to pick up the newspaper or watch a Hollywood video to see how sex and is used as a kind of substitute faith.

Solomon teaches in Proverbs 7 that sexual desire, taken by itself, taken outside God’s purposes in marriage, is a painted lady, a lady of the night. C.S. Lewis, in his study of the different kinds of love says of this woman called Venus: “We must not be totally serious about Venus.” In its right place, Venus can be enjoyed. But when she is made an end in herself, she leads astray.

By contrast, Lewis calls family affection “the humblest form of love.” Family love, the love of a brother for his sister, the respect of the son for his father, cannot thrill the way erotic love can. It does not give the illusion of great insight. But it provides the platform for a true appreciation of the other kinds of love. Solomon instructs his son as he goes off to university: “Remember your first lessons in the home. Don’t take short cuts to the truth. Don’t quickly jump in bed with some new philosophy of ideology. Don’t be distracted by the glitz and glamour of city lights and the fashion sections of New Vision or Monitor.”

The contest between the traditional family and wily lover, between glitzy image and prosaic word, between the fantasies of youth and sobriety of truth – this contest is an uneven one, especially for children who have not had the benefit of a wise, loving father like Solomon. However, there is one final weapon in his quiver, which we shall learn about next week. That weapon – or maybe I should say, that Lady - involves falling in love with God.

Proverbs 7:1-27

1 My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, "You are my sister," and call insight your kinsman;
5 to preserve you from the loose woman,
from the adventuress with her smooth words.

6 For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice,
7 and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths,
a young man without sense,
8 passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house
9 in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.

10 And lo, a woman meets him, dressed as a harlot, wily of heart.
11 She is loud and wayward, her feet do not stay at home;
12 now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait.
13 She seizes him and kisses him, and with impudent face she says to him:

14 "I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows;
15 so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
16 I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen;
17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
18 Come, let us drink our fill of passion till morning; let us delight ourselves with love.
19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey;
20 he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home."

21 With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him.
22 All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast
23 till an arrow pierces its entrails; as a bird rushes into a snare;
he does not know that it will cost him his life.

24 And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
25 Let not your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths;
26 for many a victim has she laid low; yea, all her slain are a mighty host.
27 Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.

Revised October 2006

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