I recently told my husband that Proverbs 31 was like Cosmo for Christian women; it presents a completely unrealistic image of what a woman should be. Some women get together with their girlfriends to study it earnestly and try to follow its tips and guides to be more like what is presented. Some women look at it and just feel awful about themselves because they know they can never live up to the perfection they see in it. And then there are women who grab a pint of hagen daz to eat while looking for all the tell-tale signs of the copious amounts of airbrushing it takes to make a woman look like that. I mean, the Proverbs 31 woman gets the flax, spins it into yarns, weaves the fabric, sews the garments and keeps them sparkling clean at all times? Not to mention running a vineyard, playing the real estate market, making meals, blah, blah blah. What about the servants? When do they get time to weave their own fabric? What about the nanny who can’t keep her clothes clean because the kids keep wiping hummus on it? Does she lose her virtuous woman status? (Obviously I fall into the “looking for signs of airbrushing while eating ice cream” camp of women 🙂 )
However, the fact of the matter is that this is in the bible, so it must be there for a reason, so simply writing it off as unrealistic and ignoring it isn’t really a good option for us. Yet it’s a totally impossible vision of womanhood. So what are we to make of it? As I mentioned yesterday, one of my rules for studying scripture is that when the bible appears to be contradicting itself or real life, that is usually a “red marker” which indicates a place where we need to dig deeper. Usually there’s more going on in these spots than we realize. The Proverbs 31 woman seemed like a perfect example of scriptures being in conflict with real life, so I decided to dig a little deeper. I came across these text notes at Next Bible on Proverbs 31:
The book of Proverbs comes to a close with this poem about the noble wife. A careful reading of the poem will show that it is extolling godly wisdom that is beneficial to the family and the society. Traditionally it has been interpreted as a paradigm for godly women. And while that is valid in part, there is much more here. The poem captures all the themes of wisdom that have been presented in the book and arranges them in this portrait of the ideal woman (Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, 92-93). Any careful reading of the passage would have to conclude that if it were merely a paradigm for women what it portrays may well be out of reach – she is a wealthy aristocrat who runs an estate with servants and conducts business affairs of real estate, vineyards, and merchandising, and also takes care of domestic matters and is involved with charity. Moreover, it says nothing about the woman’s personal relationship with her husband, her intellectual and emotional strengths, or her religious activities (E. Jacob, “Sagesse et Alphabet: Pr. 31:10-31,” Hommages à A. Dont-Sommer, 287-95). In general, it appears that the “woman” of Proverbs 31 is a symbol of all that wisdom represents. The poem, then, plays an important part in the personification of wisdom so common in the ancient Near East. But rather than deify Wisdom as the other ANE cultures did, Proverbs simply describes wisdom as a woman. Several features will stand out in the study of this passage. First, it is an alphabetic arrangement of the virtues of wisdom (an acrostic poem). Such an acrostic was a way of organizing the thoughts and making them more memorable (M. H. Lichtenstein, “Chiasm and Symmetry in Proverbs 31,” CBQ 44 : 202-11). Second, the passage is similar to hymns, but this one extols wisdom. A comparison with Psalm 111 will illustrate the similarities. Third, the passage has similarities with heroic literature. The vocabulary and the expressions often sound more like an ode to a champion than to a domestic scene. Putting these features together, one would conclude that Proverbs 31:10-31 is a hymn to Lady Wisdom, written in the heroic mode. Using this arrangement allows the sage to make all the lessons of wisdom in the book concrete and practical, it provides a polemic against the culture that saw women as merely decorative, and it depicts the greater heroism as moral and domestic rather than only exploits on the battlefield. The poem certainly presents a pattern for women to follow. But it also presents a pattern for men to follow as well, for this is the message of the book of Proverbs in summary. (Emphasis mine)
To add to and support this idea of the last chapter of the book of Proverbs being a summary of the wisdom contained through out the book with the virtuous wife as a personification of wisdom, rather than an actual model for what to expect from women in general, I would also add the following points:
- We see wisdom personified as a woman in other parts of Proverbs: Proverbs 1:20, Proverbs 4:6, Proverbs 9:1, Proverbs 14:33 are all examples of this. In this case, the wife is not specifically called Wisdom, but the pattern has already been set and the parallels between each of the wife’s activities and the prior instructions regarding wisdom are evident when the book is taken as a whole.
- The start of this chapter addresses “King Lemuel”. There is no King Lemuel and the name is not a Hebrew name used for any other person we are aware of in ancient times. The name Lemuel has its root in the Hebrew words Lemo which means in, to, for, and El which is the Hebrew word for God. In this case, we can understand the King to represent one who is in, to or for God. The poem as a whole can be understood to say that one who is “Lemuel” ought to seek to be bound to (ie married to) wisdom. This is quite consistent with the entire purpose of the book of Proverbs.
- Memorizing the book of Proverbs was a common part of a boy’s education in ancient Israel. In fact, the book of Proverbs appears to have been written for this purpose. If you look at the typical proverb, you will find that it is broken into two, two part ideas. For example: Proverbs 10:43: Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool, and so is wisdom to a man of understanding. We can easily see that the proverb is broken into two parts at the comma. Each part can be further broken into two parts through grammar (“Doing wickedness” and “Is like sport to a fool”.) This is important because by constructing the proverbs in this way it is much easier to commit to memory. Teachers would provide the student with one part of the proverb and the student would complete it from memory. We can see that this acrostic poem which ends the Book of Proverbs is consistent with this emphasis on making the material easily memorized. In this case, we have a poem which provides a summary of all the themes found in the entire book.
It is also good to remember that women in ancient Israel were not taught scripture. They could listen in the temples, but they did not memorize it the way boys did. Their education was focused on domestic concerns. So, although it is likely that at some point a woman in ancient Israel would have heard this chapter of scriptures, she would never have been expected to memorize it (and it is clearly intended to be memorized). Certainly, the values and virtues of wisdom would have been part of the culture women lived in and a virtuous woman would certainly have lived according to these values. However, it is extremely unlikely that this chapter was written as some sort of blue print for a woman to aspire to.
In the end, we are probably best off understanding this chapter of scriptures for precisely what it was in ancient times: a study guide for boys learning Proverbs which summarizes the lessons of the Book of Proverbs in a way which was easy to memorize. It is really a guide to us all on how to conduct ourselves in the various duties and activities of life. It is really quite unfortunate that we lost our understanding of its original purpose and application and that so many women have experienced this verse as a set of unreasonable expectations to live up to. There is, of course, an enormous amount of wisdom in these verses which all of us, men and women, would do well to study. However, the model of the Proverbs 31 woman is a model of wisdom in action which, while being something we should all strive for, is something different than a model of womanhood in action.