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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)?

5 Answers 5

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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, 2016 at 19:56
  • 1
    @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, 2016 at 3:55
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    + 1 As @Dick Harfield mentions, the context clarifies this. Adultery with another man's wife is indeed more destructive to society than sex with a prostitute. Moreover, in OT times adultery was thought to involve a capital crime against the cuckolded husband. The downplaying of seriousness of the sin with a prostitute needs to be understood in this context, not as condoning it. Dec 7, 2022 at 16:10
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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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The entry in HALOT interprets the use of בעד in this verse as "price". That supports the first of the list of possible translations (i.e., "the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread" as the ESV translates it). Along these lines, the translation notes of the NET Bible on this verse indicate that translating בעד as "on account of" instead of "the price of" (while more popular) would be an otherwise unattested use of that preposition.

You ask:

What is the cause of this discrepancy?

I suspect the discrepancy is caused by translators understandably feeling uncomfortable with the verse speaking in some manner favorable about prostitution.

From the larger context of the passage, it may be helpful to understand this verse in a similar way that adultery is compared with theft four verses later:

30  People do not despise a thief if he steals
        to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
31  but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
        he will give all the goods of his house.
32  He who commits adultery lacks sense;
        he who does it destroys himself.

The author here compares theft "favorably" against adultery. But no one interprets this to mean that theft is being advocated as a valid lifestyle choice. The passage only indicates that people can have a level of sympathy for a hungry person giving in to his hunger and stealing. While it's a wrong choice and comes with consequences (he'll have to pay back sevenfold, which may cost him his whole house!), at least people can see some of the reason for the temptation. Adultery, on the other hand, "lacks sense" because the consequences make it absolutely unreasonable (your very life is destroyed).

Correspondingly, verse 26 applies similar logic and compares prostitution against adultery. You can pay for a prostitute with a price ("a loaf of bread"), but an adulteress costs you your life. Again, people can find at least some perverted reason for the one behavior, foolish and sinful though it is.* Yet adultery is completely abhorrent: you can expect no sympathy from those around you as they watch your life be destroyed from your act of shameful wickedness.


*In case it's not obvious to some reader tempted along these lines, please avoid prostitution. See Jack Douglas's reference of Proverbs 29:3 and the Apostle Paul's very important and helpful treatment of prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12ff: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!" (1 Corinthians 6:15, ESV.)

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Consider the Jewish Publication Society's translation of Proverbs 6:

20 My son, keep your father’s commandment;
    Do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
21 Tie them over your heart always;
    Bind them around your throat.
22 When you walk it will lead you;
    When you lie down it will watch over you;
    And when you are awake it will talk with you.
23 For the commandment is a lamp,
    The teaching is a light,
    And the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.
24 It will keep you from an evil woman,
    From the smooth tongue of a forbidden woman.
25 Do not lust for her beauty
    Or let her captivate you with her eyes.
26 The last loaf of bread will go for a harlot;
    A married woman will snare a person of honor.
27 Can a man rake embers into his bosom
    Without burning his clothes?

28 Can a man walk on live coals
    Without scorching his feet?
29 It is the same with one who sleeps with his fellow’s wife;
    None who touches her will go unpunished.
30 A thief is not held in contempt
    For stealing to appease his hunger;
31 Yet if caught he must pay sevenfold;
    He must give up all he owns.
32 He who commits adultery is devoid of sense;
    Only one who would destroy himself does such a thing.
33 He will meet with disease and disgrace;
    His reproach will never be expunged.
34 The fury of the husband will be passionate;
    He will show no pity on his day of vengeance.
35 He will not have regard for any ransom;
    He will refuse your bribe, however great.
— Proverbs 6:20–35

Given the context of the surrounding verses, the meaning of verse 26 is quite obvious: if you visit prostitutes you'll lose your wealth, and even worse, if you visit married women you'll lose your honour; but following God's commandments will protect you from this.

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It's really not that hard of an interpretation. In those days and as and is biblical law it is telling us that if you catch the adulterers you have the right to kill. The Lord has already judged. So as the saying goes you get what you get. And equally so your soul; as valuable as it; is, if caught can be forfeit. And at the same time is reduced to the price of bread when you lower your self to be with the prostitute. In my opinion - that's some expensive bread.

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