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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?

10 Answers 10

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Proverbs 30:18 There are three things too wonderful for me, four that I cannot understand:
19the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship at sea,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
20This is the way of an adulteress:
She eats and wipes her mouth
and says, ‘I have done nothing wrong.’

The three-and-four expression is idiomatic not arithmetic. A similar expression is in Amos 1:3

This is what the LORD says: "For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not relent.

Examine the following pattern:

the way of an   eagle   in the   sky,
the way of a    snake   on a     rock,
the way of a    ship    at       sea,
the way of a    man     with a   maiden.

The actors and movers are eagle, snake, ship, and man.

The sky, rock, sea, and maiden are passive backgrounds.

The adulteress eats and wipes. She is an actor like the eagle, snake, ship, and man.

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

No.

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  • Very good answer. +1
    – Dottard
    Dec 19 '20 at 22:47
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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).

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  • 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?
    – Cannabijoy
    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.
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 21 '16 at 14:36
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I would suggest that the way a man loves a woman is to be seen in the epistle to the Ephesians :

As the scriptures say, "A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are United into one." This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.

[Ephesians 5:31, 32]

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  • Eph. 5:31-42 does not relate to the text and question.
    – Sam
    Jun 13 '20 at 16:27
  • Welcome to BH. I have edited to demonstrate how quotations may be highlighted (except I cannot properly complete this as I do not know which version you are quoting from - please add the reference). I have also edited out your question as this is the place for answers. And I have made it a statement, not a question. Please feel free to roll nack all of this if you wish to return to your own text. Please see the Tour and the Help.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 17 '20 at 22:21
  • @Sam I think new users need more assistance than you have, here, given. I disagree - I think the user has expressed a very relevant fact and quotation. Shame more men do not abide by it. (Up-voted +1) And I think, myself, that the 'maid' is the Church in the same way as the 'bride' in the Song of Solomon is the Church, for all scripture is given to us for our learning in these last days, and all of the Law may be interpreted to be relevant in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 17 '20 at 22:22
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Could it be the four items listed stand alone rather than in contrast to an adulterous woman. Viewing these four “too wonderfuls” independently, I too delight in their majesty:

The sky, in its endless range of perspective, appears to offer the eagle no support...yet it glides across it’s heavenly expanse as in a joyful dance.

The legless serpent, moves across the immovability and hardness of the rock...with an almost effortless, magical beauty.

The ship, a man-made vehicle of weighty transport, is carried over an immense body of liquid to achieve it’s solid destination.

And a man, in youthful power and bravado, is transported by the magnetic love of a woman into uncommon emotion and tenderness.

In my very humble and limited perspective, all wonders seem to be the focal point of unfathomable power and strength being the vehicle whereby the weak fly; an immovable, hardness becomes a road for the legless lowly; fathomless liquid becomes a foundation for carriage of substance to foreign domains; and raw humanity melts into life-giving tenderness to make multiplication simple.

Indeed, ALL too wonderful for my small mind, but all beautiful pictures of how God chooses the “weak things of this world to confound the wise”. 1 Cor 1:27

Thank you for the forum for my simplistic thoughts before those of the more learned.

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Who is the maid in Proverbs 30:19?

[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.

The adulterous woman in verse 20, does not refer to the maid (virgin) in verse 19

Whilst I agree with the first three "wonderful things" explanations given by Cannabijoy I disagree with the fourth

(1) The way of an eagle in the air; An eagle leaves no trail in the air

(2) the way of a serpent upon a rock; A serpent leaves no trail on the rock.

(3) the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; A ship leaves no trail in the mist of the sea.

(4) And the way of a man with a maid.

Maid in the scriptures means "virgin!

A young man may employ guile, smoothness, and cunning ways to slide into the affections of an innocent virgin. Many young women have lost their virtue to wily seducers. It is hard to trace the path of such slippery men, yet they have a goal, as does an eagle in flight, a gliding serpent, or a ship at sea. With seducers, the objective is sexual exploitation.

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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.

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  • 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 ; )
    – Cannabijoy
    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.
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 22 '16 at 18:53
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A man hides his fornication with the maid, just as the adulterous ("such" = also) woman's evil deed is hidden by its nature (like the four things). Just as someone who has stuffed their face gluttonously leaves the table after having wiped their mouth, no trace is left of their sin. Similarly, the whore whores herself, puts back on her clothes, and acts as if nothing happened. This sin is by nature hidden. This is the purpose of giving four examples: to magnify the common trait of being by nature hidden. The Hebrew כן (ken) usually means "so" or "In this way," and thus in this context seems to be a conclusion of the four examples: leaving no trace is the common theme, and the whore is the subject of the four examples - the end for which they were given.

The adulterous is not the almah of verse 19, because almah is not a word one would ever use of a whore, since it means "maiden" (or any virgin girl of marriable age, or at most recently married and not yet involved enough in the marriage to justified the use of another more suitable word than "maiden"), whereas a whore or adulterous is, well, an adulterous woman or whore.

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No, I don't think the adulterous woman of v. 20 is a description of the maid in v. 19.

The four things refereed to are wonderful and mysterious (or wonderful because they are mysterious? - "wonderful for me [..] I cannot understand") and each of those represent 4 elements:

eagle in the sky - air; snake on a rock - earth; ship at sea - water; the way of a man with a maiden (desire and love between a man and a woman) - fire.

The adulteress is here shown as a contrast to all these wonderful, incomprehensible mysteries. She destroys the beauty and holiness of love by sinning and then denying the sin.

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  • Here is also something about trust - the eagle "trusts" the air to carry it. I am not sure how snake "trusts" the rock though. The ship "trusts" the sea to carry it. And the man and the woman who love each other trust each other. Trust is essential here. The adulteress destroys trust. She is shown here as a contrast to the beauty and holiness that can be established by mutual trust.
    – Sati
    Apr 10 at 19:30
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The adulteress is not the same woman here.

The three first examples may be presented to help us understand the interplay of genders in a relationship, which is then named in the fourth example. It shows that each gender has their own type of power.

Man is like the eagle. It draws our attention instantly with its glorious flight and it feels at first that it is solely the eagle's own power that makes him able to fly. But the eagle actually needs the air to carry it. And the air here is like the feminine energy - it is less visible, but has vast power and is absolutely necessary to carry the eagle.

Snake does not fit so well in this analogy as usually snake is a feminine symbol. But still, we could imagine snake as the actor or the male energy and the rock as the passive/female surface. Snake does not have legs, but still can move across the rock, because the rock's surface enables it to do so. (?)

In the third example the ship is the active male agency, and the female is the "undercover"/"grey cardinal" water that carries the ship. So, both have certain kind of power the interplay of which enables smooth sailing in life.

So these three first examples help us understand the interplay of genders in a successful relationship, which is then named in the fourth example.

The adulteress is not the same woman here. She is presented as a negative contrasting example because she breaks this "flow" / this interplay / this trust, by betraying her husband.

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    – agarza
    Apr 12 at 3:40
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The eagle in the sky = the eagle is the agent and the sky is the continent on which the life of the eagle takes its course.

The serpent on the rock = the serpent is the agent and the rock is the continent on which the serpent's life takes its course.

the man in the virgin / girl / youth = man is the agent and the virgin / girl / youth is the continent on which man's life runs its course.

There are 2 possibilities in this last analogy:

  1. the life of the man continues as a process through it's youth (which, like the sky and the sea are a symbol of spaciousness, freedom) or

  2. the life of man (spermatozoon) navigates through the woman (her uterus) ) following the mysterious and strange course of life

Thus, the mystery that intrigues the writer is the course of life in a dangerous environment such as the sky, the sea, the rock and the womb.

Another possible interpretation concerns the smoothness, lightness, delicacy and sinuosity of the route. Neither the eagle, nor the ship, nor the serpent hurt or mark the surface on which they move.

Thus, what is the object of the writer's admiration and astonishment cannot be something common and frequent, the rule, but the exception: a holy and respectful man who is able to lead a girl without hurting or marking her. A man who respects her and does not violate her, because she is not his wife. What the writer is admiring is an honorable holy man.

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    – agarza
    Apr 13 at 2:22

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