Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2

Now that I've provided what I think is a suitable background to the Proverbs 31 woman, considering historical and cultural issues, as well as matters of import within the book of Proverbs, its time to turn from background to interpretation and application.

I revealed at the end of the first post that I do not think this text was originally intended as a "job description" for housewives, as it tends to be used today. Instead, I think it is a picture of wisdom in the domestic sphere (although the use of the phrase "domestic sphere" is anachronistic here). In this way, the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is an equally appropriate heroine for women as for men, who are seeking to live in the fear of the Lord.

With that said, I do not think it is wrong to apply Proverbs 31 in ways that speak to the lives and choices of Christian women today. Just because I've chosen to given prime place to cultural context, I am not thereby ruling out the passage's applicability to today's women. (Some of my more conservative friends will tend to assume that because I emphasize the culturally embedded nature of the biblical texts that I am going to rule out the application of the text to today's context. But, as a Christian, I accept the biblical canon as God's word for us today, with implications and applications for every generation. Just because I come to conclude different interpretations and applications of biblical texts than my conservative friends, that does not mean I'm not taking Scripture seriously.) Indeed, my hope is that the cultural context will provide needed guidance for the most appropriate ways (one might even say wise ways) to apply Proverbs 31.

The first step, I think, on the road to applying Proverbs 31 is to consider how this passage is situated within the entire biblical canon. That is to say, we should read Scripture in light of Scripture. I can't survey all the possible texts related to the issues raised in Proverbs 31, so I will point out two that I think are often overlooked in discussions, sermons, and lessons taught on this passage.

(The most often referenced passages in connection with Proverbs 31 include Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25; and Titus 2:3-5. All of these passage include instruction to wives regarding how to live as Christians within the households of the first century and because of their language of submission, male headship, and working at home, can lend themselves to complementarian interpretations of gender roles. I'm not leaving these out because they aren't relevant. They are. But, I feel these have been treated over and over again. I would like to add a new dimension to the discussion. Both complementarian and egalitarian interpretations [and everything in-between] of these passages can be found easily on the Internet and elsewhere.)

The first relevant passage in reference to Proverbs 31 is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, verses 27-28. (I've written an extended post about this passage here.) In this vignette from the ministry of Jesus, following the healing of a demon-possessed man, a woman cries out from the crowd: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!" Or, to put it another way, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!" The reference to the womb and the breasts form a figure of speech called metonymy. In this case, the parts are used to represent the whole (i.e., when someone calls a businessman a "suit," or the Executive branch, "the White House"). Therefore, the meaning of the woman's exclamation is: “Blessed is your mother!”

As many know already, in the Judaism of Jesus' day, the value and honor of a woman were almost entirely wrapped up in childbearing and the accomplishments of her children in adulthood (see also Prov 10:1; 23:25; 29:15). If her children grew up to be lazy slobs, she would be shamed. But, if her children grew up to be successful and righteous, she would be honored. So, the woman in the crowd is pronouncing a blessing upon Mary, for producing a son as wise and powerful as Jesus. (Indirectly, of course, this is also a compliment to Jesus himself.)

Despite the fact that this blessing was culturally acceptable, Jesus corrects the woman's exclamation and offers a blessing of his own. He says in reply, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" If one surveys the Gospels, one realizes that this response is not an isolated occurrence, for Jesus very often trumps the cultural norms of family in favor of the new "norms" of the Kingdom of God. In effect, he relativizes traditional notions of family in light of discipleship to him. So, Jesus' response to the woman is in the same vein. While the tradition of Judaism for thousands of years had been that motherhood was the highest calling of woman, Jesus subverts this mindset and offers something different: Faithful discipleship, not biological motherhood, is the highest calling of women. And, in the Kingdom of God, the discipleship community of Jesus constitutes a new family, one in which there is only One Father.

I think this passage is particularly helpful in interpreting and applying Proverbs 31, especially the last few verses, which say: "Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her: 'Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.' Charm is deceitful and beauty is in vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her work praise her in the city gates." Very often, I hear these verses used in a prescriptive way. Because the woman of Proverbs 31 is said to surpass all other women in her excellence, the reasoning goes, then all woman should aspire to her model of life. The thought is that the most excellent thing a woman can do is to bear and raise children, keep her home, and manage her husband's affairs.

While I most certainly do not deny that these things are good and praiseworthy (I'm doing them myself!), I think Luke 11:27-28, puts Proverbs 31 in its proper perspective. Yes, the life of God-fearing motherhood and homemaking is blessed. But, a woman's primary calling is to faithful Kingdom citizenship. Whether married or unmarried, mothering or childless, a woman can be a woman of excellence, virtue, and nobility. In ancient Israel, the way wise woman revealed her wisdom primarily through the life of motherhood and house-management as described in Proverbs 31 (that was essentially her only honorable choice). Today's wise woman has more options. No matter the life chosen by the wise woman, she is blessed if she is a disciple of Christ and citizen of God's Kingdom.

Another helpful text for "balancing" our application of Proverbs 31 is found in 1 Corinthians 7. This chapter contains some very pragmatic instruction from the Apostle Paul regarding marriage--so pragmatic, in fact, that I have never heard a sermon or Bible study lesson preached on it. Why? Because Paul speaks in terms that are not too friendly toward marriage and family. Indeed, his instruction is so surprisingly frank, I think its worth quoting at length.

First he says, "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am" (v. 8). He goes on to say that those who choose to marry certainly do not sin, but "those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that... I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband."

How interesting to read this instruction alongside of Proverbs 31! Certainly, Paul does not denigrate the duties of wife and mother. Elsewhere, he provides teaching on how Christian women may live within these stations in a God-honoring way. But, when given the choice between singleness and married life, Paul says he'd prefer that women remain unmarried so that they can be solely devoted to the Kingdom of God. He calls the affairs of family life "anxious," "world[ly]," and "distress[ing]." And, anyone with children and a household to manage can agree with these descriptors! This is why I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good counterpoint to Proverbs 31. Read together they provide a balanced picture of the roles of wife and mother for the Christian woman. Moreover, they continue the theme begun in the teaching of Jesus mentioned above, that the calling of wife and motherhood is not the highest calling of woman, but that of being a disciple of Christ.

I think the above-mentioned Scripture passages provide a helpful complement to the picture of woman wisdom found Proverbs 31. They do not trivialize or rule out application of Proverbs 31 to Christian women today. That is not my intention at all. Instead, I think they provide a fuller, more complete picture of what Christian womanhood can be. If anything, it rules out the use of Proverbs 31 as "job description" of sorts for Christian women, the way I think many traditional interpreters tend to do.

So, what further applications would I make from Proverbs 31 to the Christian woman today? First of all, I think its important to hear from the text the simple principle that there are wise and unwise ways to manage your household. If, indeed, you do have a husband and children, then there are ways to approach your daily life that are wise and ways that are unwise. (Actually, this is true for all people in all stations of life. There are wise and unwise ways to live. Period.) It behooves Christian women (alongside of Christian men) to seek out the best way to carry out the tasks of family life. Moreover, it is essential that Christian women (married or unmarried) seek to cultivate the good character that gives rise to wise ways of living. Character traits of the Proverbs 31 woman include wisdom, industriousness, faith, generosity, hope, self-control (particularly of the tongue [v. 26]), and kindness. Women cannot choose to believe against all odds, work when sleep and rest are fleeting, or choose kind words in heated moments, if they have not been practicing these things and allowing God's grace to form them into these kinds of people.

Second, I think today's Christian women can draw from Proverbs 31 the truth that they can be a blessing or a curse to their husband and children. This sounds very traditional, I know. I tread lightly here. But, I think it is a truth for human beings, in general, not to mention women with husbands and children, that our words, manner, and choices can be a blessing or a curse to those around us (particularly those dependent upon us). In this way, Christian women, whether of complementarian or egalitarian persuasions, should learn to live wisely in light of the great impact they will have on their immediate family. This is a big part of the Christian life in the New Testament. As Paul says, "Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:15-16). Among other things, I think this means living with intentionality, especially intentionally living in such a way to lead our children into the Kingdom of God.

Third, I think the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 teaches today's Christian women (not to mention men!) that what is traditionally called "women's work" is valuable and significant. Think about it. God chose the ancient Israelite version of the "housewife" to serve as the ultimate illustration of wise living at the conclusion of the book of Proverbs. As this book was used to train and instruct young men in the wisdom of Israel, the picture of wise living was a housewife. If one thinks of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9, where the wisdom of God is depicted in feminine terms, then Proverbs 31 further shows that the "domestic" life of home and hearth is suitable for depicting the things of God, as well. The Wisdom (or Word) of God is found in the cosmic realm (Prov 8-9) and in the earthly, domestic realm (Prov 31). The very earthy, messy drudgery of family life is a fitting place to find the wisdom of God.

With these three "lessons" from Proverbs 31 in mind, I'd like to offer a couple warnings about applying the "woman of valor" today. It should clear by now that I am unwilling to take Provers 31 as a prescription for all Christian women to be stay-at-home moms. Certainly, for those with that vocation, this passage praises their work and honors the many things they do for house and home. Still, the tasks described in Proverbs 31 must not be taken as prescriptive for all women at all times. The New Testament scriptures referenced above (among other things), preclude such an interpretation. Moreover, Proverbs 31 simply does not support that premise. It is a description (in idealized terms from an ancient culture and the life of a wealthy woman) of the tasks associated with wise domestic living. Inasmuch as women have families, they will find the description rings true in a general way: life revolves around the home, where children play and the necessary tasks of cooking, cleaning, and laundry take place. But, to belabor the point, there is no prescription here for housewifry as the only God-fearing option for wise women.

Also, for my complementarian brothers and sisters who want to argue for the universal calling of all women to motherhood and the housewife vocation, I would like to caution against using Proverbs 31 as a literally interpreted standard for life. Doing so, I fear, turns this passage into an unattainable ideal, a grace-less standard against which all women will ultimately fail. For example, just thinking practically, a wife and mother rising "while it is still night" (v. 15) and then staying up so late to continue working that "her lamp doesn't go out" (v. 18), is headed for a breakdown. Particularly in the stage of life with young children, sleep is important. And sometimes, simply getting through the day with the children clothed and fed and free of injury is a victory. (Can I get a witness?!) It is significant, in my mind, that the Proverbs 31 woman had servant-girls. This is not the middle class American woman of today, who labors alone at home from dawn until dusk, with only her small children and their pets as company.

(And, don't even try to tell me that dishwashers, stoves, ovens, toasters, washing machines, dryers, irons, and other "labor saving devices" make things easier for women in the home. That's a load of poppycock. The onset of labor saving devices in the modern age has merely shifted the majority of the work needed to keep the homestead running onto the woman, whereas pre-industrial periods would have seen housework more evenly divided between the spouses. You can research and read more about this on your own. My thanks to my friend, Aimee Miller, for pointing this out to me.)

Finally, I could not complete a blog post on this topic without taking a friendly jab at a certain (in)famous hypermasculine evangelical preacher who makes much of women's responsibility to remain physically alluring and sexually "available" to their husbands (while also doing all of the household tasks and raising godly children to boot). If we were to choose to take Proverbs 31 literally, and if we were to understand it as a prescriptive text for today's stay-at-home mom, then we should also heed the words of verse 30: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Another translation of this verse says that "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting."

As any woman knows, beauty (particularly as defined by modern standards on TV and in magazines) is most certainly fleeting. The passing of youthfulness takes with it the elasticity of our skin, the color of our cheeks, and the firmness of our [fill in the blank with your "problem" body part of choice]. (Do I even have to talk about the changes our bodies go through due to childbearing and childbirth?) If nothing else, Proverbs 31 tells us that physical beauty pales in importance to being a person of wisdom and virtue. It is far more important to be a thoughtful and kind teacher of wisdom to your children than it is to have... a sculpted rear end. If you are blessed to have the time to work on your physical features in such a way that "sculpted" is an adjective even remotely possible to describe your body, then praise God and good for you, my friend. But, if not, tell that macho preacher to buzz off and accept the blessing and security of knowing that your character is far more important than your dress size.


Gary Snowden said...

Great words and thoughts and as always a very thorough and balanced analysis of the biblical text. You are a gifted teacher, Emily. Don't let anyone take that from you. Blessings!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thanks a lot, Gary. I appreciate your encouragement!

annaeriikka said...

Hi from Finland!
I was trying to keep myself awake while sitting in quite boring class of research methods, and i found your blog. Thanks alot for writing it, it's really fascinating!!

Anonymous said...

What I wonder is this: if the cultural context is of primary importance, then what happens if we say that the assertion (found in Scripture) that the bible should be authoritative in our lives is itself a culturally-limited assertion and that really we should interpret such passages as no longer literally applicable--with the result that the bible really isn't as relevant to our lives as a straightforward reading would indicate? In other words, resorting to the category of culturally-conditioned passage is helpful to get us out of some hermeneutic difficulties, but it does at times look like a poison pill. --This Meridian Heat at blogspot.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I understand the point you're making. But I have two things to say in response.

First, I don't know what other option there is. To respect the biblical text as inspired scripture, I think, entails respecting the cultural and historical context in which it was written. The only other option is naked literalism, which is an approach to scripture that arises from post-Enlightenment pragmatism--not something the Scripture itself demands. Sure, discussing cultural context can lead some to become dismissive to almost everything in the Bible. But, that is not a foregone conclusion. Moreover, Christian interpreters of the Bible have been giving attention to the cultural context of the texts from very early on. This is not a new phenomenon and that suggests it is not threatening to biblical authority.

Second, I think the scenario you describe is really only a problem if the only reason we have for trusting the Bible as authoritative comes from the Bible. (Which is a circular argument anyway and, in terms of logic, isn't the most sound way to argue the point.) The truth is, we have the testimony of the Tradition, going back to the earliest disciples, that the OT and NT are Spirit-breathed and life-giving. Not to mention the councils of the ecumenical church and the testimony of every Christian tradition ever since. There are many more reasons to trust the words of Scripture as immediately applicable to life than just that the Bible says so (though that's a good reason too!).

Thanks for your comment,

Rachel Naffziger said...

I found this after trying desperately to voice in the midst of a conversation, what seemed off to me about Christian women as a sort of Proverbs 31-like "prize" to their husbands... which implies that husbands deserve to have this type of a woman, something that quickly can become twisted into abuse... and I'm truly grateful that you wrote this, even if it was three years ago :).
In response to your comment to anonymous about circular reasoning and how the Bible cannot be our only reason for trust, have you ever heard the song "Cannot Keep You" -Gungor? This is one of those songs that is both challenging to assumptions but still in awe of who God is, if that makes sense. These are some of the lyrics:
they could not keep You in a tent
they could not keep You in a temple
or any of their idols, to see and understand

we cannot keep You in a church
we cannot keep You in a Bible
or it’s just another idol to box you in

Anyway, I find that fascinating. Easily misquoted, but comforting while I read through Leviticus and Numbers and consistently feel the ache that there simply has to be more to God than those little and often strange or ugly reflections can show.