Monday, June 24, 2013

No Such Thing as a "Proverbs 31 Woman"

This post was first published at HearTheVoice.com.

I first heard the phrase "Proverbs 31 woman" when I was in high school. I had a male friend who liked to call me that. He intended the moniker to compliment the evidence of my faith, the products of my kitchen (he loved my Magic Cookie Bars), and the way I cared for others. Five years later, after we'd both graduated from religious universities and more thoroughly studied the Old Testament, he confessed that in high school he had no idea of the context of Proverbs 31, and that I was not in fact like the woman described in that chapter. It wasn't an insult--I agreed with him completely. I am not, and will never be, a "Proverbs 31 woman."

Today Proverbs 31 is trending in popular Christianity. There's a company by that name, there's a women's ministry that claims it, and I hear my own girlfriends quoting vv. 10-31 as some lofty goal they have for their lives:

Who can find a truly excellent woman? One who is superior in all that she is and all that she does?
    Her worth far exceeds that of rubies and expensive jewelry.
 She inspires trust, and her husband’s heart is safe with her,
    and because of her, he has every good thing.
 Every day of her life she does what is best for him,
    never anything harmful or hurtful.
 Delight attends her work and guides her fingers
    as she selects the finest wool and flax for spinning.
 She moves through the market like merchant ships
    that dock here and there in distant ports,
    finally arriving home with food she’s carried from afar.
 She rises from bed early, in the still of night,
    carefully preparing food for her family
    and providing a portion to her servants.

She has a plan. She considers some land and buys it;

    then with her earnings, she plants a vineyard.She wraps herself in strength, carries herself with confidence,
    and works hard, strengthening her arms for the task at hand.She tastes success and knows it is good,
    and under lamplight she works deep into the night.

Her hands skillfully place the unspun flax and wool on the distaff,

    and her fingers twist the spindle until thread forms.
 She reaches out to the poor
    and extends mercy to those in need.
 She is not worried about the cold or snow for her family,
    for she has clothed them all in warm, crimson coats.
 She makes her own bed linens
    and clothes herself in purple and fine cloth.
 Everyone recognizes her husband in the public square,
    and no one fails to respect him as he takes his place of leadership in the community.
 She makes linen garments and sells them in the market,
    and she supplies belts for tradesmen to carry across the sea.
 Clothed in strength and dignity, with nothing to fear,
    she smiles when she thinks about the future.
 She conducts her conversations with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is ever her concern.
 She directs the activities of her household,
    and never does she indulge in laziness.
 Her children rise up and bless her.
    Her husband, too, joins in the praise, saying:
 “There are someindeed many—women who do well in every way,
    but of all of them only you are truly excellent.”
 Charm can be deceptive and physical beauty will not last,
    but a woman who reveres the Eternal should be praised above all others.
 Celebrate all she has achieved.
    Let all her accomplishments publicly praise her 
(The Voice).
I share these goals with my girlfriends. I want to be a woman my husband honors, a woman who is good at everything she does, and a woman who is godly. (Who doesn't?) But God did not include this passage in the canon to command that of me, as current popular Christianity may indicate; the Teacher of Proverbs didn't slip this poem into the book to give me a checklist of everything I'm required to do as a woman. However, I fear most Christian women interpret the passage as such a checklist today.

Whenever we read a portion of the Bible, we should consider the context of the passage.

Proverbs is a book written for young men by the "Teacher," an unidentified older scribe. The purpose is to encourage students to seek God throughout their lives, and much of the book is concerned with the dichotomy between Wisdom and Folly. These traits are personified in Proverbs, rendered in The Voice translation as "Lady Wisdom" and "Lady Folly." Men are encouraged throughout Proverbs to follow the path of Wisdom, which leads to God. Lady Wisdom is depicted as an unmarried woman reaching out to young suitors. She is challenged by Lady Folly, who reaches out to the same men in insidious ways. The virtues of the former and vices of the latter are emphasized in Proverbs.

The conclusion of Proverbs--this very passage my friends (and I!) claim as personal goals--is actually the conclusion to the struggle between Wisdom and Folly for the hearts of men. Here, Wisdom is pictured as a married woman; she is the winner of the struggle with Folly. The Teacher is emphasizing to his students the perks of following Wisdom: safety, success, wealth, progeny. Wisdom leads to happiness.

Ladies, Proverbs 31 is not a checklist of what we should do as married women. It is a depiction of the benefits that can come from choosing Wisdom over Folly. When you read this passage, please don't interpret it as an unattainable goal for your life. Understand it as a vision for the life you could have when you choose Wisdom over Folly.

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