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Beware the Wiles of the Wanton Woman, Magen Broshi, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul-Aug 1983.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
Nearly 35 years ago, Bedouin tribesmen searching for more scrolls near the original find on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea discovered the now-famous Qumran cave 4. Cave 4 proved to be the richest of all the Qumran caves, containing fragments of over 500 scrolls.

One of the scroll fragments from cave 4 is known as the “Wiles of the Wanton Woman”1 and reflects the Essene fear of, as well as contempt for, women. The text on this fragment is remarkably similar to certain passages from Proverbs; indeed, the Qumran fragment was apparently modeled after chapters 5 through 7 of Proverbs.

While we are comparing, we should also look at a passage from the Wisdom of Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Ben Sirach was roughly an elder contemporary of the Qumranites. His book is part of the canon in the Roman Catholic Bible. For Jews and Protestants, it is part of the Apocrypha.
The passage from the Qumran cave 4 fragment is a warning against falling into the traps of the seductive woman. It reads in part as follows-

… She lies in wait in secret places

At every corner she will sit.

In the city’s squares she displays herself,

And in the town gates she sets herself,

And there is none to stop her from [whoring].

Her eyes glance hither and thither,

And she wantonly raises her eyelids

To seek out a righteous man and lead him astray

And a perfect man to make him stumble …

Some scholars regard the poem as an allegory, but they do not agree on what or whom this woman personifies. Is she Rome? Or the adversaries of the Essene sect? Or perhaps Folly herself?
It seems far more plausible to conclude that what we have here is simply a strongly worded exhortation to beware of the seductive wanton woman.

The Dead Sea sect’s attitude toward women is described by some as misogynic—characterized by hatred of women. But it is also accurate to describe it as gynephobic—that is, characterized by fear of women. Gynephobia was, I believe, the source of the sect’s extreme purity, its harsh matrimonial laws and the monastic, celibate nature of the Qumran community where the most extreme adherents of the sect spent their lives.

A parallel passage from the book of Proverbs (chapters 5 through 7) shows a clear model for the Qumran poem. Like the Qumran text, it cautions against the dangers of getting involved with corrupt women, but the nature of the warning is quite different from that of the cave 4 fragment.2

In the dusk of evening,

In the dark hours of night,

A woman comes toward him

Dressed like a harlot with a set purpose.

She is bustling and restive;

She is never at home.

Now in the street, now in the square,

She lurks at every corner.

She lays hold of him and kisses him.

(Proverbs 7-9–13, New Jewish Publication Society [NJPS])

The author of Proverbs indeed regards the danger as a grave one, but the danger that confronts the seduced young man is mainly practical.

If he succumbs, “strangers [will] be filled with your wealth” (Proverbs 5-10); “he will meet with disease and disgrace” (Proverbs 6-33). And then of course there is the jealous husband who “will not show pity on his day of vengeance” (Proverbs 6-34). In short, the foolish young man may be harmed financially, socially and corporeally.

With all their seriousness, the exhortations in Proverbs also contain a touch of humor. The description of the adulterous woman in chapter 7 and, especially, her speech to her lover reveal some dry Biblical humor-

“I had to make a sacrifice of well-being;

Today I fulfilled my vows.

Therefore I have come out to you,

Seeking you, and have found you.

I have decked my couch with covers

Of dyed Egyptian linen;

I have sprinkled my bed

With myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.

Let us drink our fill of love till morning;

Let us delight in amorous embrace.

For the man of the house is away;

He is off on a distant journey.

He took his bag of money with him

And will return only at mid-month.”

She sways him with her eloquence,

Turns him aside with her smooth talk.

Thoughtlessly he follows her,

Like an ox going to the slaughter,

Like a fool to the stocks for punishment—

Until the arrow pierces his liver.

(Proverbs 7-14–23, NJPS)

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, as befits literature of fanatical extremists, there is not a hint of humor. The Qumran poem is deadly serious because it regards the tempting woman as a veritable satan.

The book of Proverbs is neither misogynistic nor gynephobic. After all, chapter 31 contains the famous panegyric to the virtuous woman which the traditional Jewish husband reads to his wife each Sabbath evening-

What a rare find is a capable wife!

Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.

Her husband puts his confidence in her,

And lacks no good thing.

She is good to him, never bad,

All the days of her life.

She is clothed with strength as splendor;

She looks to the future cheerfully.

Her mouth is full of wisdom,

Her tongue with kindly teaching.

Her children declare her happy;

Her husband praises her,

“Many women have done well,

But you surpass them all.”

Extol her for the fruit of her hand.

And let her works praise her in the gates.

(Proverbs 31-10–12, 25–26, 28–29, 31, NJPS)

Although in chapter 31, we are also told that “beauty is vain” (v. 30), elsewhere in Proverbs the husband is instructed to delight in the love and beauty of his wife-

Find joy in the wife of your youth—

A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat.

Let her breasts satisfy you at all times.

Be infatuated with love of her always.

(Proverbs 5-18–19, NJPS)

Somewhat before the Qumran poem was composed, in about 170 B.C., Joshua Ben Sirach wrote his Wisdom of Ben Sirach. Ben Sirach, a typical scion of the Jerusalem bourgeoisie, was plainly a male chauvinist-

From the garment issueth the moth;

and from a woman, a woman’s wickedness.

Better the wickedness of a man than the goodness of a woman.

(Ben Sirach 42-13–14—Masada version IV-24–25)

Ben Sirach also has a number of things to say about the wanton woman-

Keep watch over a roving eye,

And do not be surprised if it offends against you.

Like a thirsty traveler who opens his mouth

And drinks of any water that is near,

She will sit down before every tent peg,

And open her quiver to the arrow.

(Ben Sirach 26-11–12, Goodspeed)

Ben Sirach does have some kind things to say about the good wife, but some of his ideas about the good wife would hardly find favor with modern women—and rightly so. For example, he tells us that “A silent wife is a gift from the Lord” (26-14). But he also tells us- “A wife’s charm is the delight of her husband; and her womanly skill puts flesh on his bones.” (Ben Sirach 26-13, New English Bible [NEB])

Ben Sirach also appreciates the beauty of women- A good wife’s “attractions are worth more than gold” (7-19). And again-

“As beautiful as the sunrise in the Lord’s heavens is a good wife in a well-ordered home.
As bright as the light on the sacred lampstand is a beautiful face in the settled prime of life.
Like a golden pillar on a silver base is a shapely leg with a firm foot.

(Ben Sirach 26-16–18, NEB)

By contrast, the Dead Sea sect had nothing good to say in praise of women. They had only a rather poor opinion of the opposite sex. Josephus gives this view of the Essenes’ attitude toward marriage. (And remember, the celibate Dead Sea community that lived in Qumran was the extreme faction of the Essenes; there were Essenes who lived in other parts of the country and married.)
Not that they wish to do away with marriage as a means of continuing the race, but they are afraid of the promiscuity of women and convinced that none of the sex remains faithful to one man.

(The Jewish War II, 120–121)

This is a typical misogynic attitude, but equally important was their gynephobia. To the Essene sect the term “flesh” denoted human nature at its basest, whatever was contemptible in man. And female flesh was more so. Certain metaphors recur frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating Essene abhorrence of sexuality. Sometimes the full impact is lost in translation. For example, in one translation of the Thanksgiving Scroll man is described as “a creature of clay, kneaded in water, a fundament of shame and a source of pollution” (1-21–22). Actually, the word ervah, translated as “shame,” is really “pudenda,” and nidah, translated as “pollution,” is really “menstruation.” These terms occur dozens of times in the scrolls.

Some scholars believe that certain verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans reflect a distinction between spirit and flesh in which Paul scorns the flesh. Others find in his first letter to the Corinthians an uncomplimentary attitude toward women and marriage. The source of these attitudes may perhaps be found in a stream of thought of which our Essene fragment is a tributary. This, however, is a subject for another article.

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