Personal blog of Alicia Fowler, aka @aliciaef, senior strategist at FutureBrand. Topics covered include brands, branding, technology, and space, and more!

That time I discovered a heterosexual trap in the Bible


It’s a trap!


Let it be known, I'm not a Star Wars fiend. But my ex, who was, liked to shout Admiral Ackbar's “it's a trap!” in one of those weird voices you expected of the creatures in the Star Wars Canteen. Like if Chewy and that super slimy big slug, Jabba the Hut, merged voices. So, this phrase entered my vernacular as a meme of epic proportions.


Then I learned.


That fish bastard stole the line from Princess Leia.


In Star Wars Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia discerns they’ve just been sold out by this fool Lando and she shouts to Luke, “Luke! Don’t! It’s a trap!!!!" as storm troopers drag her away kicking and screaming. It’s three years and one movie later, when Admiral Ackbar rather boringly mutters, “It’s a trap,” mid-battle and yet he gets remembered for it. 



But back to Leia. 


Tough, smart, with weird hairdo? Now that's a Lilith (fair) girl if ever there was one.

Shrewd, self-sufficient, and rich? (And a little sexy?) Now that's a Proverbs woman if ever I met one.

Oh, and her words were both given to save a helpless young lad and later appropriated by a different male to his glory? Now that sounds like Biblical language.


See, as much as I really, really, want to write the scene where Lilith runs up to Eve in the Garden screaming "Eve! Don't! It's a trap!" as she smacks the fruit from Eve's hand, and before sitting down to explain both Eden’s compulsive heterosexuality and the snake’s nefarious plan, I’d actually like to take you down a different path. (Though, really, Enid Dame ball’s in your court.) Because this whole business of Princess Leia and Proverbs has got me thinking about language: its context, its content, and more importantly for us here, its contours. (Yes, those contours.)


For the purposes of illustration, I'm going to focus my investigation to Proverbs 1:1-9, where we can see how the very language of this text—from the grammar, to the structure, to the content itself—underwrites the compulsive heterosexual contract that Wittig and Stone discussed, and in the process usurps feminine power for patriarchal ends.[1]Note, I’m using the JPS translation from 2000.

Proverbs 1:1-9


1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 

2 For learning wisdom and discipline; 
For understanding words of discernment; 

3 For acquiring the discipline for success, 
Righteousness, justice, and equity; 

4 For endowing the simple with shrewdness, 
The young with knowledge and foresight. 

5—The wise man, hearing them, will gain more wisdom;
The discerning man will learn to be adroit; 

6 For understanding proverb and epigram, 
The words of the wise and their riddles. 

7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
Fools despise wisdom and discipline. 

8 My son, heed the discipline of your father, 
And do not forsake the instruction of your mother; 

9 For they are a graceful wreath upon your head, 
A necklace about your throat.

מִ֭שְׁלֵי שְׁלֹמֹ֣ה בֶן־דָּוִ֑ד מֶ֝֗לֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃   א  

לָדַ֣עַת חָכְמָ֣ה וּמוּסָ֑ר לְ֝הָבִ֗ין אִמְרֵ֥י בִינָֽה׃   ב  

לָ֭קַחַת מוּסַ֣ר הַשְׂכֵּ֑ל צֶ֥דֶק וּ֝מִשְׁפָּ֗ט וּמֵישָׁרִֽים׃   ג

לָתֵ֣ת לִפְתָאיִ֣ם עָרְמָ֑ה לְ֝נַ֗עַר דַּ֣עַת וּמְזִמָּֽה׃   ד

יִשְׁמַ֣ע חָ֭כָם וְי֣וֹסֶף לֶ֑קַח וְ֝נָב֗וֹן תַּחְבֻּל֥וֹת יִקְנֶֽה׃   ה

  ו לְהָבִ֣ין מָ֭שָׁל וּמְלִיצָ֑ה דִּבְרֵ֥י חֲ֝כָמִ֗ים וְחִידֹתָֽם׃ 

ז  יִרְאַ֣ת יְ֭הוָה רֵאשִׁ֣ית דָּ֑עַת חָכְמָ֥ה וּ֝מוּסָ֗ר אֱוִילִ֥ים בָּֽזוּ׃ (פ) 

  ח שְׁמַ֣ע בְּ֭נִי מוּסַ֣ר אָבִ֑יךָ וְאַל־תִּ֝טֹּ֗שׁ תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ׃ 

 ט  כִּ֤י ׀ לִוְיַ֤ת חֵ֓ן הֵ֬ם לְרֹאשֶׁ֑ךָ וַ֝עֲנָקִ֗ים לְגַרְגְּרֹתֶֽיךָ׃ 


Let’s start with grammar and structure. As Brettler briefly discussed, Hebrew is a gendered language--and a binary gendered language at that--meaning even abstract nouns carry gender markers.[2]So, a word like wisdom(חָכְמָ֣ה- ḥāḵmāh) is assigned feminine at conception, whereas a word like knowledge(דַּ֣עַת- da‘aṯ) is assigned masculine at conception. (If it sounds ridiculous for words to be assigned gender at conception maybe we should reconsider assigning babies gender based on genitalia at birth?)


Here’s what got me. Feminine words are often paired with masculine words, in a variety of ways. Sometimes these pairings go in a simple phrase, as seen in Proverbs 1:6: 

“For understanding proverb (מָ֭שָׁל- māšāl, masculine) and epigram, (וּמְלִיצָ֑ה-  ūməlîṣāh,feminine).” 

Sometimes these pairings work as couplets across clauses as in Proverbs 1:8: 

“My son, heed the discipline (מוּסַ֣ר- mūsar, masculine) of your father (אָבִ֑יךָ- ’āḇîḵā, masculine), 
And do not forsake the instruction(תּוֹרַ֥ת- tōwraṯ, feminine) of your mother (אִמֶּֽךָ- ’im·me·ḵāfeminine).” 

But, this pattern of paired feminine and masculine words occurs at least eleven times by my count--in just nine verses.


1:2 “wisdom (f) and discipline (m)”

1:2 “words (m) of discernment (f)”

1:4 “the simple (m) with shrewdness (f)”

1:4 “knowledge (m) and foresight (f)”

1:6 “proverb (m) and epigram (f)”

1:6 “words (m) of the wise (m) and their riddles (f)”

1:7 “fear (f) of the Lord (m)”

1:7 “wisdom (f) and discipline (m)”

1:8 “discipline (m) of your father (m)…instruction (f) of your mother (f)”

1:9 “wreath (f) upon your head (m)”

1:9 “necklace (m) about your throat (f)”


As we've discussed in class and as we saw in Trible's work[3], ring composition and parallelism feature strongly in Biblical poetry. However, it's striking--to me at least!--to see the joining of masculine and feminine words so strongly in just a few verses! It's almost as if the authors are not-so-subtly suggesting that masculine and feminine…must go together?


Or are they suggesting something even more nefarious?


To answer this, let's turn to the grammar, structure, and content of four lines and ask ourselves if there's not something afoot here—something that might be a little bit akin to appropriating feminine wisdom.


“4For endowing the simple with shrewdness, (עָרְמָ֑ה- ‘ārəmāh, feminine)

The young with knowledge and foresight. (וּמְזִמָּֽה  -  uməzimmāh, feminine)

5—The wise man, hearing them, will gain more wisdom;

The discerning man will learn to be adroit;

6For understanding proverb and epigram, (וּמְלִיצָ֑ה-  ūməlîṣāh, feminine)

The words of the wise and their riddles.” (וְחִידֹתָֽם-  wəḥîḏōṯām, feminine)


Now, it's lucky happenstance, I think, that the JPS translation ends each line with a feminine word connoting a kind of discernment as it'll make our point easier to see. As we've been discussing thus far in class, some of our Biblical authors seem quite concerned to ensure the young men increase in discernment, and the father in Proverbs is no exception. But, there a couple of curious things happening in these lines.


First, in verse 4, a particular kind of wisdom is given to these simple young boys: shrewdness, (עָרְמָ֑ה- ‘ārəmāh, f) and foresight. (וּמְזִמָּֽה- uməzimmāh, f). Observe: these words are gendered feminine in Hebrew. Further, these have a slightly wily quality to them giving these two words a whiff of suspicion, much like they might have in English too. While the cunning quality of ārəmāhmight be easily seen in “shrewdness”, “foresight” doesn't quite capture the scheming quality of uməzimmāhwhich can also mean a purpose or evil device -- a little, witchy, we might say.[4]Conversely, the simple (לִפְתָאיִ֣ם- lip̄ṯāyim, m) and young (לְ֝נַ֗עַר- ləna‘ar,m) to whom these words are given, are, well, just that. Simple.[5]Young.[6]The words remain unidimensional in their meaning.


Second, in verse 5 we move from boys to men, and with all their getting of wisdom, these men can now understand epigram (וּמְלִיצָ֑ה- ūməlîṣāh, f) and riddles (וְחִידֹתָֽם- wəḥîḏōṯām, f) of verse 6. As with verse 4, these words are gendered feminine, a contrast, again, to their masculine gendered other-halves, proverb (מָ֭שָׁל- māšāl, m) and words of the wise (חֲ֝כָמִ֗יםדִּבְרֵ֥יdiḇ·rê ḥăḵāmîm, m). But if ‘ārəmāhand uməzimmāhhave a wily spirit to them, ūməlîṣāh[7]and wəḥîḏōṯām[8]might be said to have a completely enigmatic quality, that almost taunts and haunts the one who tries to understand them. By contrast, again, their masculine other-halves do not have such multidimensional meanings, or at least, they do not carry a whiff of suspicion.


What to make of this? Using a Trible analysis, we might suggest observing the increased complexity of wisdom that is implied in the move from verse four to six, and observe how interesting it is that the more complexed and nuanced wisdom is in some way tied to feminine gendered words. Of course, does that imply feminine wisdom, first of all, and complexity of feminine wisdom, second of all? I won't venture to say on that front, though it is curious to note cultural stereotypes of the wilily woman still resound today. Instead, here’s what I make of it. “Her” multidimensional words--if we can call femininely gendered words, “hers”--are taken and used by men to advance simple boys. Princess Leia, meet Admiral Ackbar. (And Luke.)


Thus, bringing grammar, structure, and content together the contours of this language suggest to me compulsive heterosexuality and patriarchy embedded so deep within the language we might find ourselves or the feminine words shouting, like Princess Leia, “Reader! Don’t! It’s a trap!”

[1]Ken Stone, The Garden of Eden and the Heterosexual Contract.

[2]Marc Zvi Brettler, The Gender of God. 3.

[3]Phyllis Trible. Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread. 252.






Alicia FowlerComment