My Problem with the “Proverbs 31 Woman” by Elise M. Edwards


elise-edwardsIn my home, in my journals and notebooks, and in my office, I display proverbs and quotes of all kinds around me to inspire me to live meaningfully. Proverbs and fables from around the world are stacked on my bookshelves and bedside tables. I love reading what is called “wisdom literature” in the Christian Scriptures. But when I get to those final lines of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, Proverbs 31 sets me on edge.

Proverbs 31 is a poem that begins with sayings of King Lemuel described as “an inspired utterance his mother taught him.” Lemuel’s mother instructs him to not spend his strength on women, to refrain from drinking and to defend the rights of the poor and needy. Verses 10-31, the ones I’ve heard most often read in church settings, follow that advice. They are an acrostic poem of verses that begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet to describe a noble wife. Instead of reciting the entire A-Z list (A is for adoring, B is for busy, C is for caring, D is for dutiful…), Christians will frequently read aloud only the verses selected below.

Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character

10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

I’ll admit it–the woman described here does sound honorable and praiseworthy.   My problem with this poem has more to do with the way I’ve heard it used than its content. In all but one setting, I’ve heard these verses proclaimed as a model for the ideal woman or as a guide to virtuous living for young women.

My first concern about that is a common feminist criticism: Not all women aspire to be wives and mothers. Some of the poem’s statements could apply to all women, like verse 21: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” But others are specific to marital domestic life, like verse 28 (above) and verse 15: “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family.” Women without husbands and children cannot meet all Proverbs 31’s standards. And while family is of primary importance to many women, it is not the only area of a woman’s life that can provide her value and meaning.

I am also concerned that defining Proverbs 31 as a standard of womanhood communicates the idea that it is about women only. While there are references to tasks that have been traditionally gendered (women cook and sew, men take leadership roles outside the home), many of the qualities extolled here are commendable for adults of all genders. Strength, dignity, wisdom, and care are not gender-specific virtues. So why haven’t I heard this proverb set as an example for men, too?

My third concern about making this a guide to womanhood is that it seems to reinforce a standard of perfection. The Proverbs 31 woman is certainly industrious—no one can call her idle! But she also sounds exhausted. By my count, this woman does 23 things surpassingly, including buying fields, planting vineyards, making clothes and selling them. I’m concerned that when emphasizing the Proverbs 31 woman tells Christian women that they are not good, are not lovable, or are not enough until they meet this standard. For me, the message of the Christian gospel is about God’s radical, all-encompassing love for humanity in the face of our imperfection. While I do know some women with a healthy self-image, many are painfully aware that they do not meet some standard set for them. They could stand to be told more often that they are loved simply because they exist, not for what they do.

When I heard Proverbs 31 read at my Aunt Ruby’s funeral , I began to see something more meaningful in these words than an impossible standard for women to attain. The preacher quoted “She is worth far more than rubies” noting my beloved aunt’s name and her character. However, the message he preached that day wasn’t to set a standard of a good wife. It was to honor a woman who had lived a noble life. She was strong, dignified and wise. Her family knew she was blessed and that they were blessed by having her in their lives. She worshiped God and communicated her love of the Lord to successive generations.

When I heard Proverbs 31 spoken about my aunt, I began to find resolution to my concerns. In that setting, the poem was an affirmation of a life lived well, not an exhortation to perfection. Honoring someone is primarily about demonstrating love or respect to that person, not a list of qualities or accomplishments. Certainly, the person we admire may have qualities we seek to adopt to our own lives, but following their model involves more creativity and agency than reducing a poem like Proverbs 31 into a list of standards allows. Integrating those qualities into our own lives requires adapting their traits to our own circumstances and even rejecting some of our model’s qualities that don’t fit the unique vision of our lives that we (or God) have. While I admire the Proverbs 31 woman’s work ethic, I strive for a life with regular periods of rest and renewal.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Bible, Children, Christianity, Ethics, Family, Feminism, General, God, Love, Poetry, Scripture, Women and Work, Women's Agency

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21 replies

  1. Thanks Elise. I firmly agree that our lives regularly require that essential hiatus of rest and renewal you mention. However, there are forms of activity which can sometimes supply rest too, for instance, laughter and love making.

    Regards quotes, which can open a whole new vista for us, brighten our day, turn our path around, my most favorite insight, with that sort of power, is from Shakespeare, where he says — “One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.”

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  2. This was the reading for our wedding. Our officiants, who happen to be my brother-in-law and sister, talked about this passage as wisdom personified.

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    • Yes, as this was shared on Facebook, I saw a comment that mentioned the personification of wisdom. It’s an interpretation I wish I’d hear more about. I think the passage could be quite meaningful, and it seemed as if it was used that way in your wedding. It’s the specific way I’ve seen it used towards young women that I challenge. I think it could be useful if we make it a more general message about partnership. If we read it and apply it as an A-Z list of wifely duties, we’re reinforcing a patriarchial message about women being the dutiful servers/doers for everyone else in the family.

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  3. I hit send early, sorry! Just wanted to add that I appreciate your critique and agree that these are values for all of us, not just women.

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  4. I dislike the way some churches use the Proverbs 31 woman to turn wives into submissive ninnies. But the verses you left out (and the ones those churches ignore) are key. This was no submissive, stay-in-her-husband’s-shadow woman. She was industrious and entrepreneurial, a businesswoman known in her community. She could drive a hard bargain and ensure that her family and servants were well-cared for and she could help those less fortunate. Those are the qualities that made her a valuable marital partner. Any woman, married or not, mother or not, could strive to be as capable and generous. These are the missing verses:

    13 She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
    14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
    she brings her food from far away.
    15 She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls.
    16 She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
    17 She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
    18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
    19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
    20 She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
    21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
    for all her household are clothed in crimson.
    22 She makes herself coverings;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
    23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.
    24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes.

    Amy G.

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    • Thank you for including these verses! Mindful that my post was getting a little long, I decided to leave them out, but include the link to the entire passage.

      Yes, she does some things that are surprising if we are expecting to find a woman who stays in the house- particularly

      16 She considers a field and buys it;
      out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

      18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
      and her lamp does not go out at night.

      24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
      and supplies the merchants with sashes.

      She’s business savvy! I love it. But for me, the overall effect of verse after verse of physical and mental labor is what Nancy Vedder-Shults below refers to as “a patriarchal glorification of the subservient role of women.” This woman serves others and does so generously. She earns the appreciation of those around her. But she has to work SO HARD and SO MUCH to surpass the other women. There’s a competitive note in the advice-giver’s voice that also seems troublesome. It is about finding the best wife, I suppose, but this woman who is worth far more than rubies is described in contrast to her peers and its her excessive service that sets her above them.

      There’s also the note at the end of how “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting,” setting this type of woman against other women (who get ugly as they age?). Just today, I saw a meme on Facebook trashing one woman who is frequently cited in the media as an incredibly beautiful woman. She has a complicated and difficult relationship/marital history that’s been lived in the public eye. Her image was held against another woman who has had a stable marriage for many years with a reality show about it. But the second woman is overweight and doesn’t meet typical beauty standards. The caption around the images said something about how size doesn’t keep a man, “Love and Character” do. The image made me so angry! It’s problematic for many reasons that also appear in this verse, especially defining a woman by her marital status and children and pitting these women against each other, when they haven’t publicly said anything against the other. And it’s holding each to an external standard that is difficult to reach and finding them deficient because of it.

      Again, I have no problem with honoring women who do surpassingly excellent things. If that’s how this passage is used, hurrah! But when we use it as a standard to point out to other women how they are lacking in virtue or character or anything else, we’re just repeating the kind of harmful narratives that are already too pervasive.

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      • I think we have to read it in context of the culture in which it was written. That’s not to say everyone uses it that way. Like many parts of the Jewish and Christian texts we can glean useful information for today, but we need to jettison what is no longer of value.

        As an educator I work with young students (18,19) and non-traditional older students. The women in my classes are pre-occupied with looks, weight, clothes, makeup, hair, sex, celebrity gossip, and reality TV. When I read comments on posts like you mention, I note that many of the ugliest jabs are written by other women. Oh how I wish my students would spend as much time on their studies and learning to be capable and productive as they do on the shallow vagaries of pop culture.

        I don’t think there is anything wrong with competition or striving to excel beyond where others excel. Men and women who do that bring us awesome things like the Internet and blogging platforms :-) Comparing ourselves to others can become an exercise in self-abjection, but it can also spur us on to new personal accomplishments.

        It’s unfortunate (and maddening) that some wield religious texts as clubs to knock others down. But we don’t have to accept their telling of the story — we can develop our own accounts. Another commenter talked about this passage as Wisdom personified. That could be a useful account. I like to tell it as the story of a strong capable woman. That can also be a useful account.

        Thanks for your reply!

        Amy G.

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    • And thank you for commenting. I love your phrase “submissive ninnies.” Yes, I’ve heard Proverbs 31 in support of that agenda.

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      • I think there IS something wrong with competitiveness with others. Comparing ourselves to others almost always “becomes an exercise in self-abjection,” because there are always people who are better than ourselves at whatever task, and certainly when you tally all the tasks at which the Proverbs 31 woman excels. I really need to write a blog post about feminism and our individualistic ethos and its corollary — competitiveness. It’s what keeps us separated from each other as women and, therefore, less powerful in our demands for a better world. Now…competing with oneself to do one’s best, that might work (although it doesn’t for me).

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      • Do you believe competition is always bad? I’m not a particularly competitive person, although I’m quite driven when it comes to my roles as educator and artist. In the classroom a bit of competition always produces good results in getting students engaged with the material.

        And I’m quite individualistic. I don’t have children, live alone, and unless I’m in a meeting, teaching class, or at a show with my art, I work alone, I like it that way. It’s my personality. Been this way since I was a little kid. I struggle with the concept that women, just by virtue of sporting an XX chromosome structure, are somehow not supposed to be competitive or individualistic. It’s just not true. Some women are. Some men are. And some women and some men are not. That struggle caused me much grief as a girl trying to find her way. I’m thankful that today I can be exactly who I am without worrying about how women are “supposed” to be: all mother hen-ish and worrying about everybody’s feelings. It’s just not me.

        I would say that my conservative, evangelical upbringing made me uncomfortable with the Proverbs 31 passage when I was a young woman. But I’m no longer young, and I can see the benefit and the power in being industrious and self-sufficient. No man needed.

        Amy G.

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      • Hi Amy —

        I believe that competitiveness is a part of the dominator ethos of our culture (including the type of conflict that we experience in competition when it’s an individualistic “me” against an individualistic “you”).* During the baby boomer generation we ALL learned to be competitive (not just boys), but girls were supposed to be cooperative and subordinate and kind and loving, too. I believe that this dual socialization was part of the reason that the second wave of feminism came into being. There was an internal conflict in the ethos that resulted in an internalized conflict for many women. One of the first ways that feminists dealt with this psychological problem was to institute`assertiveness training workshops. This made a lot of sense. If you want women to compete successfully in a male-dominated workplace, you have to teach them what is expected there, and, of course, given our cultural imperatives (and continuing patriarchy which reinforced them) that meant competitiveness.

        You’re probably right that there is a genetic component to individualism and competitiveness (for e.g. you find artists in all cultures, and they have to be somewhat individualistic to do their work). But I believe that the social structures of a culture outweigh these genetic predispositions. What changed for me (I know in retrospect that I was very competitive) was the women’s movement, where for the first time in my life I identified with a group. This understanding of group identity has grown over the years until I now identify with the web of life itself, not just women, not just humans, but with all of life. This is the ethos of the Goddess religions, and I believe of many of the other feminists on this site. I think all of us here are happy to “be exactly who [we are] without worrying about how women are “supposed” to be.”

        * Competitive individualism has increased in the United States over the last half century. A few years ago it showed its ugly underside when high school students wrote negative letters to universities and colleges about fellow students who they knew would be competing with them for acceptance. This example blew me away!

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      • competition is ok so long as you its done in the light of comparing how far you have come in terms of personal growth and attainment. Your pass and present, that is health and enlightening. The competition is with yourself ( old self and new or now self) no one else. The command was and still is be ye therefore perfect as your father which is in heaven, not your neighbor, sister, etc.. then Christ later ” ..as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us… I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one;” The Father ( Light of Truth) is in us therefore we need to look wihtin and evaluate ourselves to see if we one with the Light of Truth, which leadeth man or woman to the fountain of life.

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  5. Thanks, Elise, for your critique of this problematic passage.Your three points resonate with me. I believe this poem is a patriarchal glorification of the subservient role of women.

    Looking back at the time when this paean to a wife was written, it is clear that the passage describes a household in which the master delegates most of the work to his wife while he “sits with the elders of the land.” That’s a bad division of labor from my perspective. It reminds me of my sister and brother-in-law’s description of a subsistence farming society in the Congo where they were peace corps volunteers. Walking down the road in the 1970s, they would see a man with perhaps an umbrella under his arm next to his wife, who was carrying food in a large basket on her head plus many other objects in her arms. My brother-in-law described seeing one of these hard-pressed women drop something. He expected the husband to pick it up, but no, the woman had to find a way to juggle everything she was carrying and pick up the dropped object. I suppose a woman like this could be honored “for all that her hands have done.” But as far as I can see, she was essentially a beast of burden. If women are praised alone for what we produce in today’s U.S.A. (“what he hands have done”), this reinforces the idea that women should be working the second shift in the house while men get that time off. We need different praise poems about women.

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    • I agree. The truly astounding thing is that the Proverbs 31 woman is both domestic goddess and entrepreneur outside the home. If this is the woman who gets praise, woe to the rest of us who struggle to make it all work.

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  6. As soon as I finished this comment (above), I went to my emails and found this picture, which demonstrates well what I was talking about https://www.facebook.com/DavidAvocadoWolfe/photos/a.10150364951666512.342374.102515706511/10152688006636512/?type=1&theater.

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  7. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.

    And no matter what she does, she lives in a patriarchal society where all t counhat she does cannot earn her a “seat” in the city council–decisions will be made for her, not by her.

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  8. I note that this is not only a Christian image; transliterated eishet chayil or eyshet hayil, it is said every week by traditional Jewish men to their wives on Friday night as part of the home ritual for welcoming the Sabbath. Marcia Falk, a Jewish poet and ritualist, points out that it was originally introduced on Sabbath eve around the 12th century by the kabbalists, who recited it as a wedding song to the Shekhinah, (the manifestation of the Sabbath as a Queen and a Bride). She continues that while the intent behind this recitation may be loving, many Jewish women today find it patronizing; not only does it present an idealized portrait of womanhood that no real woman could possibly live up to, it suggests that a woman’s worth lies essentially in her value to others. She finds the underlying idea of honoring one’s partner worth preserving and so replaces it with a short Blessing the Beloved, from the Song of Songs, in three (Hebrew) versions: female-male, female-female, and male-male that starts (in English) “How fine you are my love”.

    While I agree with many of the comments above, I note (as did Amy Jo) that the woman portrayed is no stay-at-home wallflower, she is an integral part of life outside the home, particularly in the market (bringing in food from afar, buying and selling, selling linen garments, delivering sashes) and the vineyard (planting).

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  9. Elise said, “… many of the qualities extolled here are commendable for adults of all genders. Strength, dignity, wisdom, and care are not gender-specific virtues. So why haven’t I heard this proverb set as an example for men, too?”

    I’ve asked myself that same question. That question caused me to search the scriptures to determine what the Bible teaches concerning the unisex virtues and duties listed in Proverbs 31. Here’s what I found:

    Unisex Traits/Duties Listed in Pr 31:
    A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies (v.10).
    The phrase translated as “virtuous woman” or “woman of noble character” means Eshet CHAYIL in Hebrew. CHAYIL (Strong’s 2428) means strength, the strength of a warrior. The word CHAYIL is also used to describe mighty men of valor in the Bible: Josh 1:14, 6:2; Judg 6:12; 2 Kgs 15:20. Therefore, the Hebrew word (CHAYIL) translated noble and/or virtuous in Pr 31:10 is not a distinctly feminine description. Men can and be noble and virtuous (CHAYIL) too.

    Do Good
    She will do him good … (v.12). As believers, men and women are admonished to “do good” to our enemies (Lu 6:27, 35). Christian men and women are admonished to “do good” and to share with others (He 13:16).

    Do No Harm
    She brings him good, not harm … (v.12). Husbands are instructed to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). Romans 13:10 tells us that “love does no harm.” Therefore, if a husband loves his wife, he will not harm her.

    Work With Your Hands
    She … works with eager hands (v.13). Christian men and women are called to live a quiet lives, mind our business and “work with our hands” … (1 Th 4:11).

    Don’t Be Idle
    She … does not eat the bread of idleness (v.27). Paul proclaimed the value of hard work and sternly warned men and women not to be idle (2 Th 3:6-12). “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” ( 1 Th 5:14).

    Speak With Wisdom
    She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (v.26). “The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just” (Ps 37:30).

    Care for the Poor
    She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy (v.20). Christian men and women are admonished to care for the poor and needy (Ma 25:34-40).

    Fear the Lord
    … a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (v. 30). “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!” (Ps 112:1)

    Many of the core traits and duties listed in Pr 31 are unisex and congregational rather than distinctly feminine: being virtuous and noble (CHAYIL), doing their spouses good and not harm, working with their hands, not being idle, speaking wisdom, caring for the poor and fearing the Lord.

    An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels (v. ‭10). ‬Excellent, noble, virtuous wives are hard to find. Likewise, faithful, trustworthy men are also hard to find. Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?(Pr 20:

    It’s easier to control, dominate and manipulate women when this passage along with the unisex virtues and duties contained within it are taught as distinctly feminine. If the church begins to encourage men and husbands to walk in the unisex virtues and fulfill the unisex duties listed in Pr 31, it becomes less about men “ruling over” women and more about male (and female) responsibility within marriage and family. I think we both know that’s not the ultimate goal for the church as an institution led primarily by men.

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