The Proverbs 31 Woman: Have we made her something she was never meant to be?

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” (Prov. 31:10 KJV) J1746

Is it ever safe – or sane? – for a man to meddle in a passage beloved by Christian women? Am I grabbing hold of a live wire? For I hear a lot of sisters referring to Proverbs 31:10-31 as the pattern they want to follow. Google “Proverbs 31 woman” and there will be a landslide of hits, book ads, even “Proverbs 31 Ministries.” People seem completely intimidated by “Miss/Mrs./Ms. Perfect” in Proverbs 31, for example: “She was someone who had it all together. She actually enjoyed cooking and cleaning. She raised flawless children who never had outbursts. She never had issues with her friends. She stayed balanced with her finances. And she never had hormonal responses with her husband.” [1] Others reported that it took them a long time to get up the nerve even to open and read Proverbs 31!

The poem “Who can find a virtuous woman?” has a long history: it stands out at the end of Proverbs – for a specific reason, as we shall see – and in traditional Jewish homes the man recites the Eshet Chayil (אשת חיל is “Virtuous Woman” in Hebrew; it is pronounced ESH-eth CA-yeel) passage during the Sabbath meal. [2]

And among evangelicals too, there is a tendency today to view the Proverbs 31 woman as The One, Essential Pattern or Template for Godly Feminine Behavior. Some report that they have had their lives revolutionized by reading Prov. 31; others have had their previous view of biblical womanhood confirmed.

Speaking of worldviews, evangelicals are divided in two broad camps when it comes to the role of a godly woman.
The Complementarian view emphasizes that women are to submit to their husbands and arrange their agenda around his: “the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man.” [3] Then there is the Egalitarian view, which says in part that “in the Christian home, husband and wife are to defer to each other in seeking to fulfill each other’s preferences, desires and aspirations. Neither spouse is to seek to dominate the other but each is to act as servant of the other, in humility considering the other as better than oneself.” [4]. There are other viewpoints, which we will not here explore. Disclosure: I lean somewhat more toward the Egalitarian view, not because I feel any pressure from feminists, but because under the New Covenant, we are all directed to honor the gifts of the Spirit in all people.

But what happens when people read the passage?

Here is someone who “discovered” that, in fact, it describes an “egalitarian” marriage:

What we find is a strong, dignified, multitalented, caring woman who is an individual in her own right. This woman has money to invest, servants to look after and real estate to manage. She is her husband’s partner, and she is completely trusted with the responsibility for their lands, property and goods, etc…[she is] a role model for Christian women today. [5]

But another person read the very same text and found out that the Proverbs 31 woman was in reality a “complementarian”:

[she] is a helpmeet…[she] serves her husband, her family…A Virtuous Woman seeks her husband’s approval before making purchases…A Virtuous Woman is a homemaker. [Also, if we believe the Bible is relevant, then] as Christian women today, we can all be Proverbs 31 Women. [6]

So, the Virtuous Woman is the equal to her husband; or wait – maybe she is his helpmeet. She carries on a domestic “factory”; or maybe she is a homemaker in the style of today. She takes the initiative to buy some property; or she defers to her husband. To use an older metaphor, Are we looking down a well and seeing the real Virtuous Woman of long ago, or are we really just seeing our own faces, reflected in the water? [7].

Let’s explore the passage briefly from three directions. First, how does the Virtuous Woman fit into the book of Proverbs? Second, how does she fit into her historical background? Third, what is her message for today?

First, how does she fit into the book of Proverbs? She stands at the very end, and this was on purpose – she closes the book, just as Wisdom opened it in 3:13-18:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.

Notice especially that she, Wisdom, is more precious than jewels and precious metals, like the Proverbs 31 woman, and that people respect her. The wise or virtuous woman stands in contrast to the “foolish woman” of Prov. 2:16-19 –

So you will be delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God; for her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed; none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.

So this woman is figurative, she stands for Foolishness and is the foil to Wisdom; she is also literal, the kind of woman who will bring a man to ruin. She is unfaithful to him, and her home falls apart. So, the Virtuous Woman is not just a man’s wife; the man is to be devoted to the woman/Wisdom as the way to honor God.

Second: How does she fit in to her historical background? All Scripture was written within a historical context; and we all read Scripture too by the light of our own context. In the case of Prov. 31, she has clothes of linen or wool, not cotton-polyester blends. She plants grapes, rather than tomatoes. She does her own weaving; she even dyes her own cloth. She prepares her own food.

While this passage could be used – and has been, in Judaism and in Christianity – to teach women, in its context it is directed to a man who is looking for a wife. These words were taught to Lemuel by his mother (31:1), to aid him in his quest; she had already told him to stay away from evil women and from too much wine (31:3-7).

Her most notable trait is that she is industrious; busy; efficient – most verses are on that theme. She buys property (16); she brings exotic “food from afar” (14). She produces textiles that an agent sells for her (18, 19, 24, 31) – in the Middle East, fabrics were one of the trades that women were allowed to engage in. She herself works within the home factory (13, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24), laboring long hours (15, 18b, 27). [8] The virtuous woman and her husband were also well-off. She runs a family with servants (15; a couple of bloggers raised the inevitable question that, If they are to live up to the Virtuous Woman, then shouldn’t they have household help?). Her husband is a city leader (23). That is, she is not exactly a “home-maker” in the sense of the word in 20th or 21st century North America. Although the Proverbs 31 woman was not, as we would say today, “part of the 1%”; still she was probably of the 5%. This fits well with the origin of the poem, directed to Lemuel, who either was already a king or was going to be one.

Why is she praiseworthy? Although Lemuel’s mother appreciates a woman who fears Jehovah (30b), and who is wise, kind, and generous (20, 26), the bulk of this poem keeps returning to this as its theme: Lemuel, don’t just look for a cute face. Choose an industrious woman, one with a strong arm, one who can manage your household well. And, oh yes, she should be godly.

Third: What is her message for today, and specifically for Christian women? I am not at all questioning whether the Proverbs 31 woman is a worthy role model for today in certain aspects of life. What I do wonder is, Have we turned her into something she was never meant to be: a full-fledged, integrated pattern of what a Christian woman is to do and be? And if her most notable trait is that she is busy-busy, and by the way, also godly? That’s good, but it isn’t the best.

And with respect to women today, she is the minority and not the norm. Many women are single, many do not have children, most are not wealthy, most do not have household help. Of course we can expand the lesson to other women, as does this blog:

The Proverbs 31 Woman is the ideal example of a godly woman, not because she’s perfect, but because all that she does is a result of her relationship with her Saviour. She’s an example to every woman who wishes to please the Lord because she fears Him first and foremost, and every other area of her life flourishes because of it. That is something that doesn’t just apply to married women, but to every woman.[9]

That’s an excellent take on her – but clearly it’s not what the passage emphasizes. And I sense that other bloggers are having a hard job of it, trying to make Prov. 31 the answer to every question about womanly godliness. One person wrote that the virtuous woman respects her husband, cares for her body, prepares healthy food, seeks her husbands approval before making purchases, is hospitable. Wonderful things – but they are nowhere to be found in Prov. 31: you have to import them from elsewhere. Another blogger wrote that “If anything, the Proverbs 31 Woman should be an encouragement to women to pursue a closer, more intimate relationship with Jesus – not pressure us to be ‘perfect’”. That’s excellent, but again, not what one gets from reading the passage. When does this woman find time to pray? Or to be with he husband? (In speaking of Mr. Proverbs 31, commentators have remarked that the wife is active and predominant, while the husband is strangely passive and absent; not exactly a role model for the men).

Here is a way forward: a couple of years ago I wrote a blog for fathers. [10] In it I suggested:

We cannot figure out what a Christian father should be, simply by examining a tiny set of verses that have the word ‘father’ in them. Rather, we find our job description scattered throughout the 30 thousand verses that lie between Genesis and Revelation. And what we discover is that, what a Christian father does is first, second and third, that which any and every Christian is supposed to do.

Nor should a woman get a concordance to find “woman, wife, mother” and look up those verses to get a complete job description – this is a “hermeneutical” error, a misdirection in interpreting the Bible. She should look up every verse that has to do with following the Lord, whether they are addressed specifically to women or not. Women – and men! – should learn from the whole Bible, and find patterns to follow in Mary, Martha, Peter, John, Aquila and Priscilla, and in Lemuel and his ideal future wife.

The Proverbs 31 woman is a wonderful example, of course. But she yields only a limited picture of what a Christian woman should be. Nor does the Bible give any indication that that is what God intended when he gave the specific passage to us.

What is the greatest priority of the Christian woman? Not to get married, not to run a successful household or industry, whether large or small, not to have kids, not to be clever or creative, not to “have it all together” or “measure up” to what some perfect woman is doing. Not to measure up to the mother-in-law’s ideal (remember Lemuel’s mom!). No, the first commandment is to love the Lord her God with all her being. It’s the first commandment for women because it’s the top one for every believer. Love your neighbor as yourself is second. Follow Jesus, even if you do it in place of seeking marriage, having kids, and owning a home.

May I offer this: the Proverbs 31 woman – while a significant, inspired help to women, to men seeking a wife, and in fact to all believers – is but one truth set found among thousands in God’s Word.

NOTES:

[1] See http://proverbs31.org/a-letter-from-lysa/

[2] See http://judaism.about.com/od/shabbatprayersblessings/f/eshetchayil.htm

[3] From the group, Christians on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/summaries-of-the-egalitarian-and-complementarian-positions/

[4] From Christians for Biblical Equality, http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/men-women-and-biblical-equality

[5] See http://www.gci.org/bible/poetry/prov31

[6] From http://avirtuouswoman.org/10-virtues-of-the-proverbs-31-woman/. From a somewhat edgier website is an interpretation that I would label “patriarchal” rather than “complementarian”: “No wife has an excuse not to be a great cook” and “She knows how to seduce her own husband. She is an expert at love-making. Many wives fail in this area, not romantically satisfying their husband’s needs.” http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Womens%20Page/prov_31.htm

[7] This adapted from Albert Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906.

[8] This doesn’t mean that every woman must stay at home; this passage, like 1 Tim. 5:13-14, is set in a context where women basically had two options: the sinful, gadding about town; the righteousness, working – which happened to be at home. Other women, especially Lydia (Acts 16:14 – Lydia too dealt in “purple” dye, see Prov. 31:22; she was probably wealthy) and probably Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), were businesswomen who traveled, traded and did business as their work.

[9] From http://www.thefulltimegirl.com/2013/05/01/the-not-so-perfect-proverbs-31-woman/

[10] See https://openoureyeslord.com/2012/06/15/im-a-dad-what-does-god-want-me-to-do

“The Proverbs 31 Woman: Have we made her something she was never meant to be?” By Gary S. Shogren, Ph.D in New Testament Exegesis, professor and academic dean at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The Proverbs 31 Woman: Have we made her something she was never meant to be? […]

  2. I fall in the complementarian plus the egalitarian camps simultaneously. Because men are to be both as well. To care for our wives yet also be strong and independent. We are to submit to one another (meaning make the needs of others higher than our own), including our wives. I could go on …

    By the way, I also fall in the camp that believes Lemuel is Solomon and that Lemuel was a nickname Bathsheba gave him. One commentary I read equated it to the name “Angel Face.” One reason i believe this is true is that it would be consistent with God’s character to make the author of the “godly woman” passage to be one the most notorious women in the OT instructing a son who had 1,000 wives.

    • Hi, thanks for the note. I hadn’t seen this interpretation about Lemuel. It is an old Jewish tradition, but with little evidence. That’s why I wouldn’t put too much weight on it for exegesis of the passage.

      Blessings!

  3. The woman written about in the writting of Proverbs is the bride of Christ.

    • Hi Kat!

      How do you mean, exactly?

      Blessings, Gary

  4. She reminds me of Martha.


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