Monday, August 1, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1

A friend of mine has requested that I write something about the so-called Proverbs 31 woman, found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 31, verses 10-31. She didn't quite say it this way, but I think my friend's basic question about the "woman of valor" is this: What am I supposed to do with her?

As someone who has known American evangelicalism as her cultural "home" for some time, it seems to me, there are (generally speaking) two types of women in evangelical churches today. There are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an inspiring example of industrious, virtuous womanhood that they admire and seek to emulate daily. And, there are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an overwhelmingly idealistic and romantic picture of domestic life so far removed from their reality that they cringe every time they hear her invoked. Ok, maybe this dichotomy is a little exaggerated! But, I think it speaks to the "mixed bag" that is the Proverbs 31 woman and the way she is used in evangelical churches today. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the woman of Proverbs 31, let me try to briefly explain the issue at hand, as I understand it.

Most evangelical churches give prime place to the Proverbs 31 woman in their teachings about "biblical womanhood" (or, "true womanhood" or what have you). There are Bible studies, countless books and pamphlets, not to mention plaques, paintings, carvings, embroidered pillows, and even T-shirts with Proverbs 31 as the focus. In the evangelical context, more often than not, the Proverbs 31 woman is used to reinforce a very specific view of gender roles, usually called complementarianism, but also aptly labeled traditional or patriarchal. In this model, male headship in the family is held up as a universal principle, which entails (among other things) that men are designed by God to work in the "public" realm, while women raise children and keep house in the "private" realm. Thus, women like my friend who find Proverbs 31 troubling, are usually having an issue with the way the scripture is being used--the model of gender roles that the passage is used to reinforce.

Since gender roles and biblical studies are common topics on this blog, it seems its long overdue that we talk about this passage. So, I'm going to do my best. I will divide this blog into two posts. In the first half, I'll address issues of historical and biblical context and in the second half, I'll address how I feel it is best to approach the passage as a source for instruction of today's Christian women.

I'd like to begin my little exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman with the reminder that the text is in need of contextualization. That is to say, we need to remember that this is a very old text from another time and culture. Besides the obvious fact that it is in the Hebrew Bible, what are the other indications that context is needed? Well, the text describes the "capable wife" or "woman of valor" as assigning tasks "for her servant-girls" and planting a "vineyard" (vv. 10, 15-16). She uses a "spindle" to make clothes for herself and her family and uses a "lamp" to work at night (vv. 18-19). Her husband is said to be known "in the city gates," taking his seat among "the elders of the land" (v. 23). All of these details indicate that this picture of the virtuous woman is drawn from a different time and place. Last time I checked, cities in the US did not have elders gathering at their fortified gates, nor do most women plant vineyards by hand or keep a staff of servant-girls!

What, then, is important to know about the context of the book of Proverbs? First of all, we should keep in mind that the gender roles of the Israelite people during the time period of the book's composition were different from the way complementarians like to depict them. In a pre-industrial, primarily agrarian culture, where the home (rather than the city or office) was the center of economic life, both men and women worked in the home. To put it another way, ancient Israel did not have the public/private distinction between men's and women's roles that patriarchy today (post-industrial revolution) has imagined. Thus, both the women and men of ancient Israel worked in and around the home, accompanied by their children and servants (or even slaves). Granted, men did more public tasks than the women, but women were by no means relegated to the home by an imagined divine design.

This is the major reason why the work being done by the "woman of valor" is so alien to today's woman and why the Proverbs 31 woman seems more appropriately identified as a household manager rather than simply a "homemaker" (although both terms are appropriate in their way).

Furthermore, it is also important to realize that the description of the Proverbs 31 woman includes elements that strongly suggest she is a woman of wealth and prosperity. That is to say, the "virtuous woman" is depicted in terms that reveal she is not the wife of a simple tanner, carpenter, or subsistence farmer. She is a woman of means. This is why she can dress her household in crimson and herself in fine linen and purple (vv. 21-22). This is why her husband has a prominent place among the city's elders and she is depicted as charitable to the poor and needy (vv. 20, 23)--she is not among their number. This is in keeping with the tendency of the Old Testament to associate wisdom with wealth. The Deuteronomic view of providence was such that those who are wise were thought to be rewarded with wealth and those who are fools were thought to have it taken from them. So, it is appropriate in terms of Israelite culture and the themes of the OT Scripture that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 would be a woman of wealth. Indeed, Proverbs 8:18 portrays Woman Wisdom (to be discussed in more detail below) as saying, "Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity."

Also, it is important to understand that within the book of Proverbs, the woman of chapter 31 is the second symbolic female figure depicting wisdom. The first feminine image for wisdom appears in chapters 8-9, where wisdom is depicted as a woman of cosmic proportions. Woman Wisdom is said to have been created by God "at the beginning of all His work" and she was present "when he established the heavens" (vv. 22, 27). This feminine image of Wisdom is said to have children who are invited to join her in her home, where they can find insight and instruction in righteousness (8:32; 9:1-9). Woman Wisdom is contrasted with the "foolish woman" who is enticing passers-by to turn-in and enjoy stolen goods with her in "Sheol" (9:13-18). In this way, the book of Proverbs uses women as metaphors for wisdom and foolishness (much as the rest of the OT uses women to depict the people of God and other groups in a metaphorical way).

Why does the book of Proverbs do this? Why are women used to portray wisdom and folly? There are many layers to an answer to this question, but I think the simplest explanation comes from what we know about the original composition and use for the book of Proverbs. Most scholars agree that the teachers of Israel finished compiling and editing the book of Proverbs in its present form during the Persian period of Israelite history. In this period of colonization by a pagan nation, the preservation of Israelite culture and religion was vitally important. As a result, the book of Proverbs was used as the primary way to instruct young men in the ways of Israelite wisdom. Indeed, just a cursory read of the book reveals that the original intended audience is definitely young men, referred to as "sons" of the fathers imparting wise instruction. So, if young men are the first audience for the book of Proverbs, then it makes sense culturally to portray wisdom and folly metaphorically as female figures. These young men would be as yet unmarried and the pursuit of a spouse would be of major interest to them. To think of wisdom as a woman to pursue, dine with, and learn from is a very vivid picture for young unmarried men.

So, we have established that women in the book of Proverbs are used to depict wisdom and folly, respectively. And, we have established that the book was originally intended for the instruction of young men. All this leads me to say that within the context of the book of Proverbs, the Proverbs 31 woman is not only a model for women and wives. Indeed, if Woman Wisdom in chapters 8 and 9 is a depiction of wisdom on a cosmic scale, then the virtuous woman of chapter 31 is a depiction of wisdom on a domestic scale. If Proverbs 8-9 is wisdom writ large, then Proverbs 31 is wisdom writ small (so to speak). This means that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 is an example intended for women and men of a God-fearing, industrious, and wise life. Despite the way she is used in evangelical churches today, the woman of valor was not intended to be a "job description" for the aspiring godly homemaker, but a compelling picture of wise living in the domestic sphere. This a is an important distinction, I think.

Moreover, thinking contextually (in light of what I've described above), if the Proverbs 31 woman was intended to be used as a "job description" at all, it was for young men to use in order to know what kind of wise woman they should take as a wife. That is, it was a lens by which to judge the women of their day. This is even more obvious when read in light of the whole chapter, which is said to be from "King Lemuel" and "an oracle that his mother taught him." Along with instruction about avoiding the perils of too much wine (v. 4) and (presumably) loose women (v. 3), King Lemuel's mother exhorted him to speak for the underprivileged and destitute, to judge righteously and defend the poor and needy (vv. 8-9). In light of these exhortations regarding wise ruling, the words regarding wise living in the home make good sense. In order to rule wisely, surely King Lemuel would want a wise women by his side, as well--as would any other young Israelite man receiving instruction from the book of Proverbs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next few days...


Anonymous said...

What a thorough analysis of Proverbs 31's context! In your fifth paragraph about the vineyards, slave-girls, spindles, and city gates, you swiftly and effectively showed the need to read these verses in historical context. This perspective could be used to illustrate the need for context to any person who insists on only a literal interpretation of scripture from a single translation.

I was unfamiliar with the roles of men and women in the agrarian economy, so thank you for highlighting those; I also appreciated the description of women as a metaphor for wisdom and folly. Looking forward to reading Part 2 of your analysis!

Sean said...

Is there a book or books you could recommend to help understand the culture of the Hebrew world during the time(s) that the OT was written, especially the wisdom books? I would like to better read "behind the text" because I feel like I'm missing out on the context of much of the OT - an issue you addressed very well in your post!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Sean, that's a great question. Sadly, I don't know that there's one book that can provide all of that for the OT. Most OT surveys should do some of what you're asking for. I used Understanding the Old Testament, Fifth Edition, by Bernhard Anderson in seminary and continue to reference it today. Also, for Wisdom literature, recently I've read Israel's Wisdom Literature by Diane Bergant.

What you'll see in a lot of scholarly literature on the OT is that books will be written on social, cultural, and historical background for particular books or groups of books. Like there's a very helpful social analysis of the 8th century prophets (Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Amos) by D.N. Premnath. And, you'll find similar works on other books like the Pentateuch and the Psalms.

As far as reading the OT narratives, the best book I can recommend to anyone is Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative. It can be tough sledding, but it is great for opening up the biblical stories in new ways.

I don't know if any of that is helpful, but that's all I've got for now. Sorry I can't provide more.

Heather B said...

I think there’s more to the Proverbs 31 woman than people initially realize when just reading the passage. I’ve incidentally been reading a new book by Dr. Tony Evans and his daughter, Chrystal Evans Hurst, called “Kingdom Woman” that has really been resonating with me and giving me new insights. Right off the bat they talk about the Proverbs 31 woman being the hallmark of kingdom women, “But the Proverbs 31 woman is not the model of a perfect woman. Neither is a kingdom woman called to perfection. Women, you can be a Proverbs 31 woman and more – but that doesn’t mean you do it all at the same time.” They talk about life flowing through seasons and about getting help, not trying to do it all. It’s really eye-opening. If you’re interested in Dr. Evan’s book, they have information and free devotional downloads at

Anonymous said...

Great read! I would like to see a book from you