Chapter 5: Beneath the Surface

5:3 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil;

      This verse has the first reference to honey (24:13; 25:16, 27; 27:7) and oil (21:17, 20; 27:16) in Proverbs. Both are also mentioned together among the seven foods of the Promised Land (Dt 8:3). Each was an appreciated and important commodity in ancient Israel.
      The Promised Land, Canaan, was also known as the land of milk and honey (see Ex 3:8, 17) – suggesting both cattle ("ranching") and agriculture ("farming") activities in the land. While we generally think of bee honey, scholars have suggested it might have been date honey. Dates were a prominent food in ancient Israel and were conspicuous in their absence from the seven foods of Deuteronomy 8. Either way, honey was a food staple in the Bible world.
      The oil would have been olive oil, the standard oil of the Holy Land throughout the Old and New Testaments – as opposed to whale oil (remember Moby Dick?) popular in the western world during the 18th century.
      While I think of olives for eating, it isn't clear at what time in antiquity people learned to "pickle" an olive to make it palatable. They are bitter when picked as ripe. But olive oil was important and widely used by the average Israelites for cooking, medicinal, hygienic and ceremonial (at home and in the Temple) purposes.

5:4 but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.

      This is the only reference to "gall" in Proverbs. It is best understood as a medicine and could have been made from either animal bile or of vegetable material. It was apparently bitter to taste. It was not designed as a poison kill people.
      The ancient Israelites would have known and used two different types of swords. The earliest was the curved sickle-sword which did not seem to have a pointed tip and was basically sharpened on the inside of the sickle blade. It was the sword probably most common at the time of the Conquest.
      The later sword apparently came to the region with the Philistines and other Sea Peoples. Sometimes longer, it had a straight blade with a point on the end and both edges sharpened. A two-edged sword would be a short thick blade that was sharp at the point and along both edges.
      In New Testament times, such a weapon was standard issue to Roman legionaries. A double-edged sword was a really powerful weapon that could hurt you coming or going – with a slash from either side or a straight-on jab (see Boyd Seevers 2013: 58; Warfare in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel)

5:15 Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.

      This is the only reference to "cistern" in Proverbs and first of 3 references to "well" in the book (23:27; 25:26). Cisterns were manmade reservoirs to store water. In Old Testament times they were usually cut into impermeable rock – the ancients were very knowledgeable about different rock strata. When the rock was non-permeable, they lined the cistern with lime plaster. Cisterns were generally hewn into the bedrock within the context of private homes.
      To date, we have identified a couple dozen cisterns cut into bedrock within domestic areas of my dig site in Israel. In one area, three cisterns connect at their base underground. Of course, someone has to get down into these cisterns to excavate them – but I have to admit I never felt led to be that guy! Too many creepy crawlers down there to suit me.
      Wells were also cut through solid rock and reached the water table. They were a source of running water as opposed to the stored water of a cistern. In Old Testament times they were generally part of large public water systems connected to springs.
      I have spent a few weeks in the Sinai Peninsula researching the Exodus route. There are very few paved roads crossing the Peninsula and we spend a good bit of time four-wheeling off road. In the middle of the desert, we found almost half a dozen still functioning wells, far away from everything and anybody. Of course, we don't know when they were created or by who, once a well is cut and working, it will be used for centuries – even millennia.
      But we would not have even seen them if we did not have a local guide to show us where they were. The wells were covered and the water was fresh. Some of our group drank the well water, but I passed on the opportunity! I am happy to report (and a bit surprised) that no one got sick.

5:16 Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?

      As part of the poetic parallelism of this verse, "your springs" and "streams of water" are in association, as well as "in the streets" and "in the public squares." The two water references, while good poetry, did not represent real situations within ancient cities. People did not have their own springs or streams of water inside the city. They probably did not even own either outside the city in their agricultural fields. These tended to be public water sources.
      The streets and public squares did describe ancient cities. The term translated "streets" is literally "outside." Ancient cities seemed to have very little open space, so outside your house was literally "in the streets."
      "Public squares" is literally the word for "open spaces." The Hebrew word is "rehoboth" like the name of the beach in Delaware. Often translated plazas, in antiquity, it appears these were the essential open areas just inside the city gates, which also served as markets and public forums.

5:18 May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

      A "fountain" was a living spring of flowing water, not just a cistern of stored water. This was water was fresh, clean and flowing not stagnant or polluted. It would be a reasonable metaphor to a young virgin girl. "The wife of your youth" presumably referred to the early age of marriages in the ancient world. Once a girl reached puberty in her early teens, she was married and began to have children.
      The verse suggests these two had been together for an extended period and had learned to know, trust and love each other. It would be a terribly bad decision to forsake this intimate relationship for a brief encounter with another.

5:19 A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.

      The translation we use throughout this study is the New International Version (NIV). The King James Version (KJV) used a number of precise terms with which many of us aren't familiar. From this verse, the "doe" ("hind" KJV) and "deer" ("roe" KJV) are both terms for different female animals.
      In the Bible and in the Holy Land still today these were wild animals that would have been frequently seen but hard to catch. They were apparently "clean" animals, thus appropriate for food.
      Just in case you wanted to know…in the KJV, "hind" (female) is contrasted with the "hart" (male). The "roe" (female) is contrasted with the "roebuck" (male). All are wild, not domesticated, animals. This interests me because I've read these terms for decades and never considered any distinction of meaning.
      A number of years ago, I was leading a group of diggers from my West Bank dig site (Joshua's city of Ai) across the hills of Benjamin to another ancient site (Abraham's city of Ai) – less than a mile, as the crow flies. As we were walking up one hill and through an orchard of olive trees, a herd of about a dozen deer ran right through our group. They came so fast and quiet, I never heard or saw them until they were right on us. In a flash they disappeared on the other side. It was like a blur and I have no idea if they were hind or hart, roe or roebuck. But it was impressive – just like "the wife of my youth" (:18).