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The first phrase of Proverbs 6:26 is translated in several different ways by major translations:

for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread [ESV]

For on account of a harlot one is reduced to a loaf of bread [NASB]

for a prostitute leaves a man with nothing but a loaf of bread [ESV note; cf. NLT]

It thus appears that the passage could be talking about three different things:

  1. The cost of a prostitute is merely a loaf of bread (NIV, ESV, RSV, NABRE)
  2. The value of the man who hires a prostitute is that of a loaf of bread (KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET)
  3. Hiring prostitutes will leave a man destitute (ESV note, NLT, TLB)

What is the cause of this discrepancy? I can think of a few reasons:

  • The meaning of the Hebrew text is uncertain, and these are three attempts to express it
  • The meaning of the Hebrew text encompasses more than one of these meanings, but translators must pick one
  • Textual variations lead to disagreement over which rendering is best
    • The ESV's footnote suggests that the Septuagint, Syriac, and Vulgate may lend themselves to interpretation #3

Are all three of my interpretations valid understandings of this text? What is the basis for viewing one or two of them as preferable over the other(s)?

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The wording of some of these translations is understandably confusing. Of the interpretations you identify, I think the second and third options are most defensible since either meaning fits the context, so I'll focus on them.

The second option speaks to the character of the man. Such that, being reduced to a loaf of bread or being brought to a loaf of bread, you are effectively a meal ticket (as in, you are merely sustaining the life of the prostitute with your payment, which will be used to buy food - like bread).

The third option speaks to the ensuing financial ruin. If you continue visiting prostitutes, you will find yourself destitute (as in, you are left with only a loaf of bread).

In this case, I feel the NET Bible does a good job of expounding on this idea in its notes. By identifying the whole verse as an example of synthetic parallelism, the statement reads "this thing A is bad, and even worse is this other thing B." The first line you are asking about is A, and the following line is B.

A more dynamic interpretation could then read something like this, "sleeping with a prostitute will leave you morally and/or financially bankrupt, but sleeping with another man's wife will ruin your life." The implication being that the man whose wife you are sleeping with may literally kill you. Even if he doesn't, you are egregiously breaking the social contract of your community. At best, you and the adulteress are now pariahs; at worst, you may be stoned to death.


Since the first option is used in some translations, I think it is important to point out why it is a weak translation. As the NIV has it, the verse could be erroneously understood to indicate that you should choose to sleep with prostitutes instead of the wives of other men. The prostitute only costs a loaf of bread, which is much less costly than losing your life. Therefore, I think it is a weak translation since it is more likely for verse to be painting both actions in a bad light.

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This seems to have been a particularly difficult passage to translate, or at least one that challenges understanding of ancient Jewish morals. It seems that every Bible has a different translation - in some cases very different from any other - but I notice that several translations are more or less in agreement with the New International Version, which also lends itself to a straightforward interpretation:

Proverbs 6:26 (NIV):For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man's wife preys on your very life.

Proverbs 6:24-35 consists of a warning against adultery with another man's wife. Verse 26 says this can cost you your life, but sex can be had with a prostitute for a little money - the price of a loaf of bread. The comparison appears to recommend staying away from the wives of other men and if you need sex then pay a prostitute. I can understand the difficulty some translators might have had in accepting that the Jewish proverb was so accepting of prostitution.

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    +1, but "The comparison appears to recommend staying away from the wives of other men and if you need sex then pay a prostitute." is not a necessary conclusion (or in my view a correct conclusion). The fact that adultery is vastly more costly, does not endorse the other: indeed there is a cost either way and no indication of endorsement for visiting a prostitute if 'you need sex'. "He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth." May 14 '16 at 19:56
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    @JackDouglas: +1, to your comment, for pointing this out as a contrast; that, 'if the first weren’t bad enough, this second thing is worse yet.' This could be said of a man, who values his personal integrity; so that, if he added an hour to his timecard, that he did not work; , then he sold his integrity, for an hour's wage. All three could import this meaning. In this sense, it makes the argument from the lesser to the greater, and both in terms of purity. Dec 28 '16 at 3:55

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