“Do Not Desire Her Beauty”: Desire Regulation in the “Strange Woman” Poems of Proverbs 1–9

The prohibition of Proverbs 6:25a—אַל־תַּחְמֹד יָפְיָהּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ—is one of the most puzzling and remarkable admonitions in the book of Proverbs—and one curiously overlooked by many recent commentators. Is the prohibition, for instance, primarily behavioral or affective in nature? If the latter, can one realistically prohibit desire—not least sexual desire? And if so, how exactly can audiences obey such a prohibition? Contrary to the claims of Albrecht Alt, Anthony Phillips, and others who interpret חמד in strictly fientive or behavioral terms, this paper will first argue that the term is more likely stative or affective in nature. Second, it will draw upon recent psychological research and biblical scholarship on affect to contend that desire, including sexual desire, can indeed be regulated and therefore realistically prohibited. And third, it will suggest that recent research in desire regulation can help interpreters better understand how conformity to such an admonition is possible. In brief, the thesis of this interdisciplinary paper is that Proverbs 6:25 indeed prohibits illicit sexual desire and that audiences can submit to its prohibition in two main ways: (1) by down-regulating desire (e.g., reappraising and suppressing tempting stimuli) and especially (2) by constraining the emergence of desire (e.g., distracting oneself when tempted and controlling one’s situation and stimuli). The paper’s main contribution to the field is its application of such psychological insight to the interpretation and appropriation of the “Strange Woman” Poems of Proverbs 1–9 (i.e., Prov. 5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:1–27; cf. 2:16–19).

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