The Proverbs 31 Woman Is Real

More than a year ago I translated a portion of Proverbs 31 and wrote some notes on it for the lectionary. When I read that I started to get the idea that this passage had a somewhat different meaning than is often given it, that it is more in praise of real women than in challenge to new wives and mothers or in condemnation of the weak. Yet mother’s day after mother’s day we hear sermons taken from this passage, and usually it’s the women that get beaten up.

Well, I’m taking this Valentine’s Day to give another view.

Proverbs 31 is about the importance of women and what women can and should do. It’s about empowering women to carry out the duties that they are so capable of handling and it suggests that they should get the credit for it as well. It’s about celebrating everyone–each individual’s calling, talents, gifts, and actions.

When I got married to Jody, already in my 40s, we had my mother (who spoke also for my father who was unable to attend) and our children speak a blessing at the ceremony. I’m sure Jody started to cringe when my mother started to read from Proverbs 31. Surely her mother-in-law to be was not going to lay Proverbs 31 on her! But instead my mother pointed the passage at me. “There’s something behind this,” she said, “that’s often ignored. This is about the man, who should appreciate and be worthy of a Proverbs 31 woman!”

But over the years since–we celebrated our fifth anniversary last November–I have come to realize that my mother didn’t quite get it. It’s quite true, I believe, that a man needs to appreciate and celebrate the woman God has brought into his life. It’s true that one must earn a Proverbs 31 woman. But you see, I have come to realize that I did marry a Proverbs 31 woman, and that she is more than merely a virtuous, capable, diligent, loving, and selfless person. She is all that. But she is also a woman with a call.

I’m saying this in particular to my brethren (and I don’t mean “brothers and sisters”) who hold what’s called a complementarian theology about gender. Understand that I’m not trying to attack that theology, but in practice, too often men take a difference in the calling of women to mean an inferiority. This comes out when headship is discussed. Authority becomes a matter of male dominance rather than an involvement of men in spiritual life. I celebrate men being involved in spiritual life; we should have more men at prayer meetings, more men leading in teaching children and young people, more men around the church helping to keep things going. But involvement doesn’t mean dominance.

Many have taken the Proverbs 31 picture as complimentary. The man is sitting in the gate, speaking wisdom, while the wife is working away in the background making it possible. But I detect a subtle irony here. Why is it that the woman herself is not being praised in the gates? Why isn’t her calling and her activity recognized and appreciated?

A friend of mine who is a pastor talks about 2 by 4 ministries. These are the ministries that are very essential to the church, as 2x4s are to the structure of a house, and yet they are covered up by others. I agree with him and I really like that description. But I’m going to suggest that we have another brand of ministry in the church–ministries that are carried out in broad daylight but are ignored. Women carry out many of these ministries. It’s easy to excuse ourselves for not recognizing these efforts. After all, people shouldn’t be working in the church for recognition! They should be working for God! Notice, however, that this is usually said by people who are getting recognized and are appreciated.

But what about the call? What I mean by this is that women in the church can and do have calls that are independent of the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of men. I would argue that these things are at least as varied as those that men are called to, if not more so. Men can get in the way of these things, and very often do. We men get in the way when we try to put limitations on our wives or on the women of the church that come from our own egos and our own agendas rather than from God’s will. It’s very easy to place such limitations without even thinking of it.

My wife has a call to teach, to promote discipleship, and to encourage people. Her call to teaching is no less than my own. I have several options. I can fail to recognize this, and perhaps feel a little more important, a little more in control. I can recognize it and keep silent, thinking that she will get around to making things happen soon enough. “I’ll recognize it, but I don’t have to like it!” Or I can recognize it, celebrate it, and encourage her. Why is encouragement so important? Because especially in our churches women have been discouraged from full participation in ministry. I choose to empower my Proverbs 31 woman. I choose to help her find time to be out at the gate. And when I do that, I find out just how much effort goes into making that possible!

I’m including in this essay a copy of my notes on Proverbs 31 rather than just a link to the larger article of which it is part. I hope you will look at these notes, and try to hear the irony of this passage. Today I use it to celebrate my wife. She won’t let me by with calling her perfect. But I will say, for no better reason than because it’s true, that I see her in each passage.

Translation and Notes taken from 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 2003

TranslationNotes
(10) Who can find a woman of strong character?The Hebrew word chayil, used here, is used only four times in the Bible in speaking of women.  It suggests more than just being virtuous, but being forceful, capable, having initiative, and the capability to carry through on what she decides.  The NRSV uses “capable” which is good, though I prefer something indicated some forcefulness.
Her value is above that of rubies!The precise gem is doubtful, but it is clearly something of great value.
(11) Here husband puts complete trust in her,And he does not lack for wealth.This is not a matter of affection but rather an intellectual determination that she is trustworthy.  He might have feelings for her, but not trust her with his money!  But in this case we are told both that he puts his trust in her, and that his trust is justified by events.  That “wealth” here is the Hebrew word shalal may be a subtle hint of humor in this passage.  I see a certain feminine pride in the choice of words used.
(12) She produces for him good and not evil,all the days of her life. 
(13) She seeks wool and linen,and she works as she desires with her hands.Some translations have something like “works willingly.”  I suspect the intention is that she is making the choices and carrying them through.
(14) She is like trading ships,Bringing her provisions from afar.Not only does she deal with the financial and other resources, but she spreads a wide net.  This adds breadth to her knowledge of commerce and business.
(15) She rises while it is still night,so she can give food to her household,along with portions to her maidservants. 

(16) She evaluates and field and acquires it, From the fruit of her efforts she plants a vineyard.

food  is a bit weak as a translation here, but it seems the best that can be done in one word.  The word is teref meaning prey taken for food.  It is another of the “strong” words used of the woman of strength in this passage.
(17) She girds her loins with strength,She strengthens her arms.She’s a decision maker. The imagery her is warlike.
(18) She sees that her merchandise is good,her light is not extinguished at night.Some commentators suggest that this passage again refers to her industriousness, and it does, but I believe it does so obliquely.  The intent is planning, I believe, in that she doesn’t run out of needed things or plan poorly.  (Compare Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins.  The wise ones have made preparations to keep their lamps burning.)
(19) She reaches out her hands with the distaff,her hands grasp the spindle.Finally we get to ordinary “women’s” activities in Biblical times, but only for a moment.
(20) She has spread her palm out to the poor,and her hand she has spread out to the needy.Synonymously parallel lines.  The first uses the Hebrew word for the palm of the hand or bottom of the foot (so we use “hand”) while the second line uses the more generic word for hand.  I would note that generosity to the poor would normally be the function of the head of the household.
(21) She doesn’t fear for her house when it snows.Because all her household has double layer clothes. Either they all have double layer clothes, or they all have prepared double for all their needs.  The latter might be better, indicating preparation in terms of food until the storm is over.  (“Double,” rather than “scarlet” reflects only a change in the vowel pointing of the Hebrew text and agrees with the LXX (endidusko, “to put on another” [L&S Abridged])
(22) She makes coverings for herself,Fine linen and royal purple are her garments.(23) Her husband is known in the gates,when he sits down with the elders of the land.She takes care of herself as well!
Her husband gets to hang out in the gate, while she takes care of all the business. How unfair is that?  This is one of the reason many Christian women have felt threatened by this passage, but see note below on verse 31.
(24) She makes a linen garment and sells it,and she provides sashes to merchants.(25) Strength and honor are her garments,and she can laugh about the day that’s coming.Again, she is the economic manager of the household.
(26) She opens her mouth with wisdom,And gracious instruction is on her tongue.Considering the view of some that women shouldn’t speak in public meetings, this is an interesting point.  Wisdom, including wisdom teaching, is not just the province of men.
(27) She guards the approaches of her house,and she doesn’t eat the bread of laziness. 
(28) Her children rise up and bless her,Her husband praises her. 
(29) Many daughters have acted mightily,But you have risen above all of them.
One wonders by now if the praise is adequate for this apparent paragon of virtue!  mightily  reflects the same Hebrew word as in verse 10 where I translate it “strong character.” Some translations use “women” instead of “daughters” but the latter is the literal translation of the Hebrew text.  Is it possible that this passage was written by a father about his daughter?  Or maybe it was written by a mother about her daughter!
(30) Charm is a lie, and beauty is vain,but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.(31) Give her some of the fruit of her hands,and praise her deeds in the gates.This verse I think ties up the humor of the vocabulary used earlier.  She is carrying on all of these activities.  She’s the foundation of her household.  She is, perhaps, the reason her husband has a place at the gate, and certainly she makes sure he has time to sit there.  Perhaps we should her the text as “Give her some of the fruit of her hands, and praise her deeds in the gates.

Thank you, Proverbs 31 woman, my wife!