Given the current climate in the church, I suspect that most preachers will steer a wide berth around this (in)famous text. At the funeral of a great woman who embodied this text, I wondered aloud to the younger women in her life whether this might be a fitting text to be used as a reading. These were all women with impeccable conservative credentials, and they reacted with a vociferous, “NO, no way!” That highlighted for me how carefully we must treat this text.
That experience reminded me that we males often don’t get it. As a male writer who undoubtedly has implicit biases I’m not even aware of, I need to be specially carefully as I offer a few (hopefully) helpful comments on this text. Indeed, as I scanned the recent literature on this text, written mostly by women, I found myself saying over and over, “I never thought of that, but I can see it now.” But I do have some observations. So here goes.
The first thing I noticed about this description of “a wife of noble character” is that it came from a woman. Proverbs 31:1 says these are the oracles of King Lemuel that were taught to him by his mother. A Jewish comedienne could get away with saying, “Isn’t that like a Jewish mother, telling her son whom he should marry.” But, we don’t know if Lemuel was Jewish; he isn’t found in any list of Jewish kings. Maybe this is one of those pieces of wisdom borrowed from the surrounding culture. Scholars have identified numerous examples of ancient Near Eastern wisdom in Proverbs. Quite apart from that issue, however, it is interesting that this is not a piece of male wisdom.
Further, I noticed that this is the third reading out four in September that deals with women. On the first Sunday, we listened to a passionate young woman talk about romance and sex (Song of Songs 2). On the second, we heard the bold and confrontational Wisdom Woman call us forcefully to a life of wisdom (Proverbs 1). Next Sunday, the lesson is from the book of Esther where a beauty queen who became favorite wife of an oriental potentate wisely saves her people from genocide. Now, here a king’s mother advises her son about the ideal queen for him. Because of the selections of the Lectionary, we could designate September “the month of women” as diverse as they can be.
My final introductory comment is that I was a bit surprised by the character of this “good wife.” I know that many feminist readers dislike this text because this woman seems to be defined by her relation to her husband and her housework. But in a quick first read, she doesn’t seem like “the little woman” who is seen but not heard, who lives under her husband’s thumb, imprisoned at home, barefoot and pregnant, the model of a subservient second-class citizen. In fact, it seemed to me that such a reading of Proverbs 31 is a male chauvinistic abuse of the text.
So, let’s take a closer look. The older translation that says, “A good wife who can find,” misses the import of the word translated “noble character” in the NIV. That word in the Hebrew has about it the sense of dignity and strength. Indeed, it is often translated “valiant,” as in a “valiant warrior” filled with courage. As verse 30 will say later, this is a woman noted not for her charm and beauty, but for her dignity, her courage, her strength (even her physical strength, cf. verses 17 and 25). She is a brave warrior in many ways.
Let me count the ways. The writer took great pains to give a comprehensive description of this noble woman. Indeed, he/she uses the ABC’s of the Hebrew alphabet to shape this poem. It is, in other words, an acrostic poem, a literary device often used in Hebrew poetry to assure that we cover the whole subject under discussion (think of Psalm 119 and its treatment of the Torah). Here is everything we’d want to know about a wife of noble character, everything from A to Z.
Subject A is her relationship with her husband. Though one writer I consulted was confident that she is under the authority of her husband, that seems more of an importation of an idea from elsewhere in Scripture. There is not a word about authority here. Indeed, their relationship seems more like what Timothy Keller calls “managing partners.”
Rather than her being under his thumb, he has complete confidence in her ability to take care of business. In fact, rather than her being represented in society by him, she seems to be the source of much of his public respect. After listing all of her abilities and accomplishments, verse 23 says, “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders.” That doesn’t sound like “behind every good man there is a good woman.” It sounds more like she deserves a good deal of the credit for his place in society.
But that does bring us to Subject B, which is her domestic resume. In a society of stay-at-home dads and dual income/no kids couples and both parents working with the kids under the care of a nanny, this part of Proverbs 31 will go down a bit hard for many folks. There is no doubt that this woman is in charge of the house. She goes to the grocery store and she cooks and she sews and she decorates the home—all the things traditionally assigned to “housewives.” She does all this not with reluctance, but “with eager hands” or, as another translation puts it, “with the delight of her hands.” She sees all this housework not as drudgery, but as her delighted contribution to the welfare of her husband and children and even servants (verse 15c). She is at it from early morning until her candle burns down. This woman has stamina.
It is easy to see how this part of Proverbs has been misused by chauvinistic preachers and patriarchal husbands to turn women into domestic servants. So, it is important to remind your listeners of the context here. The book of Proverbs was written 3000 years ago not as a set of commands for all times, but as wise observations about how life worked best in that time, which was, clearly, patriarchal. In another time, domestic life might be shaped very differently. The over-riding point here is that a wife of noble character cares deeply about her husband and children and does everything she can to provide for them.
That doesn’t mean that her husband has no responsibility for his wife and children. They are “managing co-partners,” after all. But it does mean that she should not abandon her home and family for the public square and her career, any more than her husband should. Not all women will be wives and not all wives will be stay-at-home moms and not all couples will distribute domestic duties in the same way. But if someone chooses to be married, there is unavoidably a corporate responsibility for home and family. That’s the enduring message of Proverbs about domesticity.
But that is not the whole picture of a “wife of noble character.” We now come to Subject C. This strong warrior is not just a stay at home mom. She deals in real estate, from the surveying of prospects to the closing of the deal (verse 16). She earns money by manufacturing clothing and home décor (verse 24) and selling them to merchants. She uses her hard-earned profit to become a vintner, planting her own vineyard (verse 16). She gives some of her money to the poor (verse 20), joining the ranks of the philanthropists (a mark of wisdom in Proverbs). She is a wise counselor, imparting torat hesed (faithful teaching) not only to her children, but to family, friends, and the wider public (verse 26). She is, in other words, a formidable woman of great strength, capable of multi-tasking with the best of them.
I know that many women will read this as a classic description of a modern woman who wants to have it all and is wearing herself to a frazzle, while her husband goes to work and expects to come home to a pair of slippers, a cold martini, a home cooked meal, and a night of football on TV. But that’s not the picture we get here. This woman is not being taken advantage of. Nor is her husband a subtle abuser. She is strong, dignified, unafraid of old age (verse 25), fully in charge of her life, even as she is devoted to her family and her activities in the public domain. With good reason, her children and her husband love and respect her, proclaiming her “blessed” and “praising” (the Hebrew word hallah usually reserved for praising God) her.
All of which may well prompt this exasperated response. “She is too good to be true. She is so idealized that no real woman could possibly live up to all this.” This delightful picture of a noble wife is a recipe for frustration and defeat for women of the 21st century. There is a point in that exasperated response. So we have to think hard about how we can preach this text as Good News? Here are three suggestions.
First, we must point out that the most distinguishing feature of this woman is mentioned last in the text. This is a woman who fears the Lord. That’s the secret to her noble character. Her life is centered on Yahweh; that’s the real meaning of “fears the Lord.” Rather than finding her center in her husband or her family or her friends or her career, she finds it in the God who has covenanted with her. She knows that she walks through life with God, who has taken her by the hand and promised to be her God in all of life’s situations. He will bless her and make her great. Everything else is fleeting. Her relationship with God is eternal. That faith gives her a stability and fearlessness and dignity that will see her through everything. That is as true of men as it is of women.
Second, some scholars point out that the book of Proverbs begins with a woman inviting us to seek wisdom more than anything else. And it ends with a woman who personifies that wisdom perfectly. Everything the intervening chapters have said about living wisely is found in this woman. And that suggests that Proverbs 31 is not about a literal woman, but about Wisdom Woman (see my piece last week). In other words, it is not meant to teach women how to be good wives. It is meant to show both women and men how to live. Proverbs 1-9 urge the young man to pursue Lady Wisdom/Wisdom Woman. Now, here he has found her. As one author put it, this is not patriarchal; it is sapiential. It is not pre-marriage counselling for young men; it is life counselling for all people.
Third, in answer to the accusation that this is all too idealized to be helpful for real people, consider this comment by the ever- wise Timothy Keller. “Is this woman idealized, such that she doesn’t exist? Yes, but in the same way as the truly loving person (I Cor. 13:4-8a) and the godly person (Gal. 5:22-23a) don’t exist. Those who are saved by Christ love these texts as guides to pleasing and resembling the One who saved us. The Gospel produces people who are eager to obey those patterns and not be crushed by them.”
Donald Bloesch places Proverbs 31 in the wider framework of how various cultures have thought about women. “The model of women in tribal patriarchalism is the broodmare; in hedonistic naturalism, she is the bunny or the play thing; in feminist ideology, she is the self-sufficient career woman; in romanticism she is the fairy princess or the maiden waiting to be rescued; in biblical faith, she is the partner in ministry.”
A recent issue of Time magazine had a fascinating piece on Serena Williams. She is arguably the greatest tennis player of all time (male or female), a creator and displayer of fashion, a public figure and outspoken woman. And she has just become a wife and mother. Her description of her struggles to be perfect is moving. Across a picture of her on the front cover are the words, “Nothing about me right now is perfect. But I’m perfectly Serena.” In the article, she says, “I still have to learn the balance of being there for her, and being there for me. I’m working on it. I never understood women before, when they put themselves in second place or third place. And it’s so easy to do.” The stress of juggling family and career has brought out the same insecurities in Serena as other parents feel. “I don’t think I’m doing it right.” One wonders how Serena would react to Proverbs 31 and the comments above about “fearing the Lord” and about reading this description of a noble wife in the light of the Gospel.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 23, 2018
Proverbs 31:10-31 Commentary