Read: Proverbs 31
A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).
What is there about Proverbs 31 that brings out the weirdness in people? Whole ministries are founded on what people perceive to be its vision of “biblical womanhood.” It has even inspired its own line of merchandise featuring everything from t-shirts to tote bags. One wonders what King Lemuel and his mother would have made of it all (see v. 1).
To be honest, I can’t afford to be too critical. I have vivid memories of gathering around an open Bible with the other girls in my seventh grade Sunday school class. The Bible was open to Proverbs 31 which, because it has 31 verses, made the perfect playground for our romantic fantasies. (Cue much giggling.) To play the “Proverbs 31 Game,” each of us read the verse that corresponded with our birthday. The result was used to predict something about our future married life. This often produced a mixture of delight and consternation. What, for instance, was the girl born on the second day of the month supposed to make of “No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows!” The girl born on the 28th, on the other hand, waved her verse around like a banner, celebrating the certainty that “her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her.”
Looking back, I find our game cringe-worthy for any number of reasons. For instance, I no longer recommend using the Bible as a Ouija board. (Though, to be fair, seventh grade girls could get up to worse things.) The assumption that marriage is the goal of every little girl also makes me wince. But I think what I object to the most is the popular assumption that Proverbs 31 offers us a picture of the “ideal wife,” at least in any conventional sense.
Professor Ellen Davis has been instrumental in helping me to reimagine the “valorous woman” who is praised in this poem. Far from being the epitome of a conservative male fantasy (June Cleaver on steroids), this is a woman to be reckoned with. As usual, translation makes a difference. “Capable” in verse 10 is a feeble choice for a Hebrew word that is more often used to convey physical strength and valor. (Yes, it’s used in military contexts!) More broadly, however, Davis points out that significant cultural differences make it dangerous to assume that the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is the patron saint of June Cleaver.
According to Davis, we need to remember that when Proverbs 31 was written, the economy was based in the household. In other words, “the household was the primary economic unit, where most real goods were produced. Within this economic system, not only was the labor of women essential, but also their social, managerial, and even diplomatic skills, as the story of Abigail (1 Samuel 25) exemplifies.” What’s more, the home was the “central social and religious institution, the place where Israelite identity was established.”*
All of this is to say, the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31 is a picture of someone who is strong, enterprising, courageous, kind, intelligent, generous, godly, and wise. Yes, she is a mother and a wife, but she is also a mover and shaker in her community. Oh, and did I mention that the chapter that describes her is “the most unambiguously flattering portrait of any individual, man or woman” in all of Hebrew scripture?*
I’m not sure all of that is going to fit on a t-shirt.
Ponder: Do you have any memories or experiences of this chapter? How have your views evolved?
Pray: Shape our ideas, our values, and our lives so that they reflect what is truly worthy.
*Quotes are from Ellen Davis’s commentary on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) pp. 150-155.