The Woman of Proverbs 31 and Why You Are Not Called to Be Her

9 Jul

 I may not qualify for the “blogger” status yet (as inconsistent as my posts can be), but I am definitely a blogging enthusiast.  I follow a lot of blogs and I read many more than I follow.  Given my passion for the large and controversial subject that is Biblical womanhood, I especially enjoy reading blogs about women, marriage, leadership, etc.  A couple days ago, two of my facebook friends shared a link to one such blog.  It was written by a lovely Christian woman who was sharing some wisdom on being a godly wife.  By the second paragraph I could tell I disagreed with her on some pretty important issues.  She’s clearly coming from a complementarian position, but I kept reading because she’s my sister in Christ and she shared a lot of wisdom which transcends the gender role debate.  And then she brought up Proverbs 31.  I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but seeing yet another admonishment to be like that iconic woman gave me the motivation I needed to get this post going.

 

The second half of Proverbs 31 is a passage that all women within the church are familiar with.  At least, we all are now that a purse manufacturer launched with that name.  This passage is one I’ve read a dozen times, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how flawed my understanding of it has been.  In the past I’d looked to it as a “to do” list of sorts.  My inner dialogue went something like this:

Me:  I want to be a godly woman.  [opens up Bible to Proverbs 31]

Prov. 31:10-12: “A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.   Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.  She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.”

Me:  That sounds pretty good.  Be valuable, worthy of my husband’s confidence, and spend my life doing good towards my partner.  That’s a noble goal to strive towards and seems consistent with a life of holiness.  Keep Reading….

Proverbs 31:13-28  I see this woman is very industrious.  She works with eager hands, brings food from afar, gets up so early in the morning it’s still dark, manages real estate and farms.  She works so hard that her arms are strong, and she’s up until very late in the night.  Considering she does all this and sews clothing for her family (and for sale to merchants), it’s a wonder she has time to sleep at all.  Despite all the work she’s doing, the Proverbs 31 woman is immensely generous and sees to the needs of the poor.  This woman is honorable.  In fact, she is valorous!  She’s so awesome she even makes her husband look good at the city gates. 

 Me:  Wow.  She’s totally out of my league.  I’m not industrious.  My food comes from a farmers’ market at best (and Kroger more often than not).  I consider myself accomplished to sew a straight line and by bedroom usually houses 3-7 piles of laundry.   I don’t come close to working the hours she did (and get grumpy when I try).  On top of all this, my arms are way more jiggly than I’d like to admit.   

 

Conclusion?  I am so far from this woman it’s not even funny.

 

The only thing this Proverb has ever done is make me feel woefully inadequate.   Is that the purpose of this proverb?  Was it written just so women like myself, 3000 years in the author’s future, can develop inferiority complexes about not being industrious, domestic, or sturdy, in addition to being noble and generous (which I believe are Christian virtues all believers should strive to cultivate)? 

I don’t think so. 

 

With all the hype and guilt-mongering that’s come from this passage, the most meaningful aspect of the proverb has been overlooked.  We’ve forgotten (or perhaps ignored) the fact that this passage was written about an actual woman by a proud husband or son.  Check out verse 29. “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”  Everywhere else in this passage, the Proverbs 31 woman is spoken of in the third person, but here the author uses the first person.  These 21 verses are about a real woman- a woman of great honor and valor.

 

It isn’t until the final verse of the Proverb that we’re given a direct command or admonishment.  The author says, “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”  This proverb was never meant to be a directive or “to-do” list.  It’s a tribute to an amazing woman.  If anything, the lasting principle of this passage is for husbands and sons to honor the women in their lives who display honorable qualities, such as those exhibited by the Proverbs 31 woman.  Believe it or not, that’s exactly how Orthodox Jews treat this passage.  Husbands will recite these words over their wives when they’ve displayed valorous qualities.  For them, it is always a commendation and never a reproach. 

 

Here’s the thing, God has fearfully and wonderfully made each and every one of us.  We are unique, quirky, and interesting in our own ways.  Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit has distributed gifts according to his own good judgment.  We don’t all have the same gifts.  Not every woman is an astute business person or a domestic goddess.  More importantly, not every woman is necessarily called to be.  If my house looked perfect every day, then  I probably wouldn’t be fulfilling the call to ministry God has given me.  I work for the good of my family, and bring in an income (as did the P31 woman!), but it doesn’t happen through industry, agriculture or manufacturing.  And that’s okay!

 

So instead of looking at the P31 woman as the standard for godly womanhood, maybe we should honor the command in verse 31.  Look for women who exhibit the valor in their lives, and praise them, the way the author of Proverbs praised this iconic woman.  And when it comes to figuring out what kind of woman (or man) we’re supposed to be, maybe we should reach for the standard Jesus sets in Matthew 5, 6 and 7.

 

What’s your experience with Proverbs 31?  How is your calling different (or similar) to hers?

 

By the way, if you’re looking for another egalitarian blog, check out the work of Rachel Held Evans.  She’s basically amazing and posts nearly every day.

http://www.rachelheldevans.com

 

11 Responses to “The Woman of Proverbs 31 and Why You Are Not Called to Be Her”

  1. Peg July 9, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    “A commendation and never a reproach” – spot on! Exactly! A woman who does *any* of these things is worthy of honor, and that is the whole point of the passage.

    BTW if you & your readers are interested in the male equivalent (the “man of valor”) check out Boaz in the book of Ruth. Any man who does the things Boaz does is likewise worthy of praise.

  2. Rachel Heston-Davis July 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Totally agree with you!

    Interestingly, I never saw Proverbs 31 as a to-do list (happily my church missed that lesson somehow). In fact,Proverbs 31 always brought me courage in my egalitarian walk, because it depicted and praised a woman who does more than work at home. Food for thought.

  3. Rachel Heston-Davis July 9, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Also, it’s a verse that speaks of women in an empowering way, assuming that they are strong individuals, while most Christian women’s Bible studies and conferences automatically assume that women feel bad and incompetent and have low self-esteem.

    • katemuhlbaier July 9, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

      It’s so great to hear that you weren’t raised in a culture that made the P31 woman the (nearly impossible) ideal for which all women had to strive! I agree that she is a powerful figure, especially given that she was engaged in such successful business practices. That could be a blog post in and of itself. Hopefully more women (and men) will be able to draw empowerment from it as you have.

  4. Linda Fox July 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    I love this Kate! I hope things are well in Southern Indiana! I miss you guys!

  5. Kim Martin July 10, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    I’ve never felt pressured by Pr 31, but I do believe that it can be taken out of context and used to manipulate rather than edify women. The description listed in Pr 31 is a composite of traits taken from virtuous women throughout the Bible.

    A wife of noble character who can find? (Pr 31:10a) Ruth was know as a woman of noble character (Ru 3:11). Like the Pr 31 woman, Lydia was a woman of noble character. The name “Lydia” means noble. She is clothed in fine linen and purple (Pr 31:22b). Lydia sold purple cloth (Ac 16:14). Both Lydia and the Pr 31 woman were merchants.

    She has been like a merchant’s ship that brings its merchandise from far away (Pr 31:14). The Queen of Sheba literally brought Solomon large quantities of spices from far away. (1 Ki 10:6-10). Reward her for her work— let her actions result in public praise (Pr 31:31). The Queen of Sheba’s quest for wisdom brought her public praise. Queen of Sheba is one of the few women Jesus celebrates from the OT(Ma 12:42). She came from afar to hear the wisdom of a mere man. She was amazed at what she saw and heard. However, when Jesus who was greater than Solomon came, many despised, rejected, slighted and slandered Him.

    Doesn’t let her lamp go out… (Pr 31:18b). The wise virgin didn’t allow her lamp to go out. She was prepared when Bridegroom came (Ma 25:1-12). Anna’s lamp didn’t go out at night because she worshiped God day and night by fasting and praying (Lu 2:36-38).

    Helps the poor (Pr 31:20). Dorcas helped the poor (Ac 9:36).

    … speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (Pr 31:26). The Wise Woman of Abel’s instruction saved her city (2 Sa 20:19-22). Pilate’s wife spoke with wisdom and faithful instruction (Ma 27:19). Huldah spoke with wisdom and sent the king a message from God (2 Ki 22:14-20). Deborah wisely instructed the people of Israel (Ju chapter 4). Esther spoke wisely to the king and helped save the Jews from annihilation (Esther). Priscilla helped her husband give Apollos wise and faithful instruction (Ac 18:26).

    She watches over the affairs of her household (Pr 31:27a).
    Rahab “watched over the affairs of her household.” She wisely and faithfully “instructed” the spies about how to hide and escape. She negotiated a plan that saved her life and the lives of those in her house (He 11:31).

    Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all (Pr 31:29). Like the Pr 31 woman, these women were also called blessed. Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents (Ju 5:24). Mary – Thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women (Lu 1:28).

    She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life (Pr 31:12). Because of Zipporah’s pro-activity, God’s anger against Moses was calmed and his life was spared (Ex 4:14-20).

    • katemuhlbaier July 10, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

      Kim, thank you for so beautifully sharing these wonderful examples of faithful and empowered women from Scripture!

  6. David July 10, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Since you mentioned here, here’s a fairly compelling review of Rachel Held Evans’ book, testifying to its (dare I say, deliberate) mis-representation of the complementarian view:

    http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/a-year-of-biblical-womanhood-a-review

    • katemuhlbaier July 10, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

      David, great of you to stop by and send some links that better describe the other side of this conversation. I cannot say I’ve read all of Rachel’s blogs (I’m actually quite new to her site), however I have read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, as well as the review you linked to. Here’s where I agree: Rachel Held Evans is not a Biblical Scholar. She does not always handle the text in the way I would prefer, but she certainly doesn’t put down Scripture or claim it is anything but the revelation of God. I suspect some of the issue the reviewer took with Rachel stems from diverging views on Scripture (inerrant vs. infallible). The point of the book (which would be abundantly clear if read) is to reveal that Christians do pick and choose the extent to which we take the Scriptures literally, otherwise women would wear head coverings and sleep in a tent at that time of the month. She’s merely exploring- from the perspective of one living as a woman in the American Christian sub-culture- how we choose what to take literally. And she is guided by the Scriptures as she does so.

      All that being said, I really like Rachel Held Evan’s work, however I would not recommend a Year of Biblical Womanhood to someone trying to navigate the divide of complementarian and egalitarian theology in a serious way. Craig Keener’s book, Paul Women and Wives, as well as the book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, by William Webb, provide a more scholarly treatment of the women texts.

      Thanks Brother!

  7. Marg July 25, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    Excellent post. “A commendation and never a reproach” that is so good. 🙂

    One thing that annoys me about the proliferation of articles on the Proverbs 31 woman by complementarians and patriarchalists is that they pretty much ignore the other Proverbs 31 woman – King Lemuel’s mother.

    King Lemuel’s mother taught her son, a grown man and a king. And her inspired words have been preserved in the Scripture, thus having the authority of scripture. Moreover, the words of this woman continue to teach grown men and kings and anyone else who reads them.

    King Lemuel’s mother is my favorite Proverbs 31 woman and she was real, unlike the idealized, fabricated woman in later verses. This is my experience with Proverbs 31.
    http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/the-other-woman-in-proverbs-31/

  8. fluffybabybunnyrabbit July 29, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    This scripture is actually not about a woman – it’s directed at everyone.

    If you go back to the beginning of Proverbs and read through it you find numerous mentions of certain women – but they aren’t REAL people – they are figurative language for certain qualities that the writer is urging ALL of us to have/desire or reject. This personification of qualities is typical of many writings of the time – a literary form that we don’t use as much nowadays.

    Beginning at chapter one we have our first ‘woman’ – wisdom. Does the fact that wisdom is portrayed as a woman mean males need not have or desire it? Of course not – so why assume that the ‘woman’ of Ch 31 is only about women?

    I’m sure that the writer of Ch 31 had an ideal woman in mind, or at least traits of many ideal women rolled into one – but this is secondary to the main purpose of the passage, which is about wisdom itself.

    Marg’s article explains further…..

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