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:
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.