Who's Afraid of Proverbs 31?

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Any woman who has been part of organized women’s ministry knows that sooner or later you’re going to encounter Proverbs 31. This passage is a mainstay for discussions about Christian womanhood; and in our consumer-driven culture, it graces everything from Bible covers to handbags to refrigerator magnets.

But recently, several women have been challenging a typical approach to this text. At the recent Q event, Women and Calling, progressive blogger and author Rachel Held Evans reiterated her long-standing concern that we tend to misuse this passage, making it more of a “Pintrest page come to life” than the poem it is. Sarah Bessey makes the same point in the recently released Jesus Feminist. She writes:

Some evangelicals have turned Proverbs 31 into a woman’s job description instead of what it actually is: the blessing and affirmation of valor for the lives of women… It is meant as a celebration for the everyday moments of valor for everyday women, not as an impossible exhausting standard.

These women have a legitimate concern. How many Mother’s Day sermons or Bible studies have turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist? How many times have teachers used it to reinforce their private applications of gender? How many times have you felt defeated from just listening to such sermons? So let me go on record as saying that I agree with Evans and Bessey. With one caveat.

 

Proverbs 31 is intended as a blessing and affirmation, not of all women, but of a certain kind of woman: a wise one.

 

Because while Proverbs 31 isn’t prescriptive, it is descriptive. It is designed to tell us the kind of woman who deserves honor and praise. In this sense, the poem is the culmination of an entire book whose main goal is to teach the difference between wisdom and foolishness. But as the beginning (Prov. 1:7) and end (Prov. 31:30) of Proverbs point out, you don’t become wise via a checklist; you become wise by fearing the Lord.

 

To be fair, it’s easy to confuse prescriptive and descriptive passages. Obviously it happens in Proverbs 31, but it happens just as often in less controversial texts. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) or the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) can quickly become metaphysical checklists if we divorce them from their Source and view them as goals to meet in our own strength.

 

Just be peaceful. Check.

 

Just be kind. Check.

 

Just be humble. Check.

 

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

 

But while these passages are not intended as “To Do” lists, they are a kind of “field guide” given to describe what we will look like if our hearts are being changed by God. They describe the fruit and bark and leaves of the tree so you can know what kind of tree you’re looking at. In the case of Proverbs 31, the poem shows how wisdom embodies itself in feminine form; so that in a beauty only God Himself could conceive, a book written primarily to young men doesn’t climax with a description of a mature man but with a description of a mature woman.

 

Evans rightly pointed this out during the Q event. She noted that the original audience of Proverbs 31 was men, and joked, “Can you imagine a men’s conference where that was the central text?” (It was a pretty funny thought.) But even this isn’t the whole picture. The main audience of Proverbs 31 is men—true—but it’s given to men in order to teach them the kind of women they should celebrate. One of the assumed purposes is to distinguish wise women from foolish ones in order to help men “find” (Prov. 31:10) a good wife.

 

Talk about sexist.

 

Or maybe not. Maybe this actually affirms a woman’s imago dei. To understand what I mean, consider Proverbs as a whole. Throughout it, you’ll find this recurring theme: weak men can be ruined by strong men but strong men can be ruined by foolish…women. Yes, women.

 

And here’s why: women are men’s spiritual equals.

 

Think about it. If a woman were not equal to a man, then her spiritual life would be of little consequence to him. She simply wouldn’t be able to influence him for either good or bad. But if, as we are, equal image bearers, reigning as queens alongside earthly kings, then the kind of women we become is of supreme significance. We have intrinsic power that we can use for either great benefit or great destruction.

 

Because of this, Proverbs is intent on teaching young men to flee from foolish women in order to embrace and affirm wise women. This is why they are to avoid the adulteress (Prov. 7) but to delight in the wife of their youth (Prov. 5:18). They are to avoid women who are quarrelsome (Prov. 17:15) but to celebrate those who speak with kindness (Prov. 31:26). They are to avoid women who tear down their homes and to run to those who build them up (Prov. 14:1).

 

In other words, a wise woman can make a man; and a foolish one can break him.

 

This assumption of a woman’s power is implicit in the description of the Proverbs 31 woman who wields influence over both her home and society. Because of her wisdom, her husband sits in the gates. Because of her wisdom, her household doesn’t fear the coming winter. Because of her wisdom, her children rise up and call her blessed.

 

In this sense, Proverbs 31 is both a song of affirmation AND a standard of what maturity looks like. We must not shy away from the descriptive principles simply because they have been misused. Apart from them—apart from knowing that a wise women “stretches out her hand to the needy”—we wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from a foolish one and we’d end up assuming that ALL women deserve praise when in reality, not all of us do.

 

To quote The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

 

Not all women are sacrificial.
Not all women work hard.
Not all women are kind.
Not all women are generous
Not all women are joyful.

 

Some women are selfish.
Some women are lazy.
Some women are mean.
Some women are stingy.
Some women are bitter.

 

But a woman who is wise, a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. She is such a rare find, so exceptionally valuable that Proverbs 31 describes her as more precious than a jewel. A beautiful, expensive, glittering jewel. So that just like light reflects and radiates through a diamond, the light of God’s nature reflects and radiates through her, bursting forth in resplendent glory.

 

And for this kind of wise woman, wise men get up on their feet and cheer.

 

So, yes, please don’t reduce Proverbs 31 to a checklist or a Pintrest page come to life. But let’s also remember a harder truth. Wisdom doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Our only hope of being this kind of noble woman comes by looking into the face of the One who is Wisdom Himself and allowing Him to conform us to His own likeness. And when we do, He will make us the fully formed image bearers we are destined to be. He will make us women of kindness and grace and sacrifice and love and joy. He will make us like Himself.

 


 

Hannah R. Anderson lives in Roanoke, VA where she spends her days mothering three small children, loving her husband, and scratching out odd moments to write. She blogs at Sometimes a Light.

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There are 7 Comments

Don Johnson's picture

FWIW, here is something I wrote on the subject. I think Pr 31 is written to man (generically) not women as women in distinction to men. And I have preached this to a room full of men. Don't recall any ladies present that day.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I think we pigeon-hole too much of scripture. I have take a similar approach to what Don describes in preaching through the pastoral epistles, and particularly the sections addressed to pastors and deacons. There is no reason why these expectations should not be considered Christian directives as much as possible instead of limiting them to small subgroups of the church.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jim's picture

Proverbs 32:10-12, “Who can find a virtuous husband? For his worth is far above rubies. The heart of his wife safely trusts him; So she will have no lack of gain. He does her good and not evil All the days of his life.”

Rumor has it that Proverbs 32 has been lost to history because men who were responsible for textual transmission, were concerned they could not live up to an impossilbe standard!

Kevin Subra's picture

I am sorry, but I'm not getting this on several counts. Proverbs 31:10-31 is indeed written to men as a "what to look for" in a woman (a god-fearing woman). However, that makes it a list. There is nothing on the list that should be interpreted to be an "impossible exhausting standard," as your cited author puts it. It is not fiction or hyperbole. It is a snapshot of a woman who fears the Lord (v. 31). This passage might run against the grain of women who do not fear the Lord. Their lifestyles, goals, perceptions, and pursuits may be so foreign to a woman who lives to help her husband so that he can influence and lead. (Incidently, she is not a queen who rules alongside him - "he is known in the gates, and he sits among the elders" v. 23.) Enabling her husband to accomplish his mission is her mission, and implicitly allows him to complete his mission. Both are equal in value, but different in roles and functions. If the woman fails in her God-designed endeavors, so does the man.

Since it is a list for men that allows them to evaluate a woman's heart (by her hands and arms, interestingly enough), it is equally valid that it is an encouragement for women to pursue such qualities in their own lives. There's no oppressive requirement - it is prescriptive description, and some of it is nervously specific.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

"I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain," (Gal 2:21).

I want to caution about the danger of viewing Proverbs 31 as a "checklist" for a "good wife." It can quickly lead to feelings in inadequecy and failure, because we are sinful people. We have been set free from the bonds of the law by union with Christ. Producing a checklist from this passage can, essentially, place many Christian ladies directly under the bonds of the law once again and effectively negate the whole point of our union with Christ. We have something so much better now in Christ; we don't maintain fellowship with Him by keeping the law anymore. We can draw so much application from Proverbs 31, it is true, but in this dispensation we must never neglect the context of His grace in salvation. 

I am quite certain that many ladies, reading Proverbs 31, can relate quite well to Paul's lament from Romans 7 about the impossible demands of the law. Praise God we have something better now. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Kevin Subra's picture

I understand that some can make this into "law" inappropriately.

I would suggest, though, that it is a list (a "checklist" of sorts) expressly to help a man look for a good wife (a "wise woman" as Hannah suggests). How it is taught and applied is the key, it seems. We do not want to ignore the very nature and essence of the text to avoid what it clearly says.

It does not appear that this passage was intended to do be a "law," but it does give a man things to look for, and implicitly attitudes for women to work towards. Such is not out of sorts with truth.

Either it has value as is, or we should leave the OT alone, it seems to me. Do you say the same for NT epistle passages? (e.g. Titus 2:3-5) as they can be equally abused, but they also are lists - and lists for us today.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

The OT certainly shouldn't be left alone (1 Cor 10:6, 11)! I just think we must always balance "checklists" with the context of grace in Jesus Christ. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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