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Three verses from Proverbs 30 run as follows:

[18] There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:

[19] (1) The way of an eagle in the air; (2) the way of a serpent upon a rock; (3) the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; (4) and the way of a man with a maid.

[20] Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness."

Is the adulterous woman of v. 20 a description of the maid in v. 19?

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I do not think that the maid of verse 19 refers to the adulterous woman of verse 20 for the reasons I state below.

First, assuming that the above translation is faithful to the Hebrew, it seems that punctuation - which was not in the original manuscripts - might makes a difference here.

The JPS Tankakh translation of these verses reads:

Proverbs 30:18–20 (Tanakh)

18 Three things are beyond me;
Four I cannot fathom:

19 How an eagle makes its way over the sky;
How a snake makes its way over a rock;
How a ship makes its way through the high seas;
How a man has his way with a maiden.

20 Such is the way of an adulteress:
She eats, wipes her mouth,
And says, “I have done no wrong.”

The Oxford Jewish Study Bible commenters claim that verse 20 is in contrast to verses 18-19, in that the movements of the first four (eagle, snake, ship, man with a maiden) are graceful, but that of the adulterous is crude and shocking:

The wonder of the “ways” or movement of the eagle, the snake, and the ship may lie in the fact that they do not leave traces or that they are smooth and graceful. As for the way of a man with a maiden, love is a mystery, but just how it is mysterious is left to the imagination.

[Verse 20] seems mechanically tacked on and inappropriate, but it might be intended as a shocking climax. The four “ways” are mysterious and graceful and leave no trace. The way— that is, behavior— of the adulteress too is especially amazing: She is unbelievably smug and thinks she can wipe her sin away as if wiping the crumbs off her face.

The Jewish Study Bible (2nd ed.) (Kindle Locations 91028-91030, 91032-91034). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Further, it seems quite possible that the original Hebrew doesn't even refer to any maiden in verse 19.

The Septuagint version (compiled in 2nd cent. BC) of verse 19 makes no reference to any woman, but rather refers to the road of a man in youth. Either the proto-Hebrew of the Septuagint text is much different than that consulted by the Masorete transliterators (compiled in the 8th cent. AD), or perhaps the Masoretes ended up vocalizing the Hebrew to produce a much different meaning. The Hebrew text that Jerome translated from (4th cent. AD) also seems to be different from the later text consulted by the Masoretes and agrees with the Septuagint (... viam viri in adolescentia).

  • Thank you NonTheologian. I'm a bit confused now. Based on both interpretations you provided- either the mystery of a man's love towards a maid or the road of a man in youth- are there actually "four" things that are too wonderful for Agur, and "five" things which he knows not? – anonymouswho Jul 21 '16 at 12:24
  • No, I don't think so. The four things listed in v.19 are subtle and mysterious, whereas the way of the adulterous woman (v.20) is vulgar and direct. I think the way the JPS punctuated the verses with colons is helpful (i.e. "Four I cannot fathom: .... [But] Such is the way of the adulterous: ..." ) – user15733 Jul 21 '16 at 12:33
  • Okay, so are you saying that Agur gives four examples (ending with the maid), but this fifth part is not part of his list? Because he doesn't do this for the next three lists. He gives us a number, and then gives examples according to the number he gave. If that word "But" was there I might agree, but it's not. Agur makes a wise suggestion in verse 5 and 6. But this is the word of Agur, so it's not that big of a deal I guess. – anonymouswho Jul 21 '16 at 14:36
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Yes, the adulterous woman of verse 20 is describing the maid of verse 19. Agur says there are four things which he doesn't know:

1) The way of an eagle in the air;

2) the way of a serpent upon a rock;

3) the way of a ship in the midst of the sea;

4) and the way of a man with a maid.

All of these things have something in common:

When an eagle flies through the air, it leaves no path to indicate that the eagle was there.

If a snake slithers across a rock, rather than over sand or grass, it leaves no path to indicate it was there.

If a ship is in the midst of a sea, it leaves no path to indicate it had ever moved.

A maid/young woman (Hebrew בעלמה: almah) that fornicates with a man is like an adulterous woman- she eats and wipes her mouth clean as though she did nothing wrong, leaving no path to indicate her wickedness.

The reason there are three things that are too wonderful for Agur, but four things that he "knows not" is because the first three things are extraordinary, but all four are things he cannot know. It is impossible for him to know if a maid has fornicated with a man, because she leaves no trace.

  • While Almah does not necessarily require her to be a virgin, it is certainly understood that she is young and at most, recently married and inexperienced. That seems to be in contrast to a brazen adulteress. Also, her virginity (or not), whether she has been with a man or not, most definitely does "leave a path" which can be examined. If she is an unmarried Almah, her wickedness would most definitely be uncovered. How do you account for these things in equating the maid with the adulteress? – Joshua Jul 22 '16 at 16:50
  • @Joshua I agree. If the young woman was a virgin, she most certainly would leave an immediate trace (though so does the ship). I doubt she's married though. She's probably young enough to be of age for marriage, but if she was married there would be no reason to wipe her mouth and say "I have done no wrong". I don't want to get too vulgar (though we both know the Scriptures can be), but I can see how "wiping her mouth" can be applied to her whether this is her first time or if she's done it before. I'm sure Agur didn't check the hyman of every young lady he encountered ; ) – anonymouswho Jul 22 '16 at 18:23
  • So you think the metaphor of eating and wiping applies very literally to fellatio? I've considered that meaning myself. That alone would be a (perhaps controversial and yet) very good question of its own. But perhaps you should indicate that on your answer as it certainly clarifies and legitimizes your position. I'm still not convinced, even if that is the meaning, that an "adulterous Ishshah" can ever be described as an Almah. – Joshua Jul 22 '16 at 18:31
  • Yes, or if she was previously a virgin, perhaps she wiped the blood away. Good idea, I'll add this to my answer. I just hope we don't offend anyone. Are there any rules concerning vulgarity if it is necessary to our answers? Thank you @Joshua. – anonymouswho Jul 22 '16 at 18:53

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