A money lender and his wife, by Quentin Metsys
In an article at Relevant magazine, a competent and articulate writer named Lauren Oquist challenges readers of her article to stop obsessing over the Proverbs 31 woman. The point of this post is not to be critical of the author of the post quoted (though I will be critical of her post), the point is to demonstrate how a fuller reading of a Biblical book might help it yield its treasures.
Brief Personal Interlude: I don’t like the phrase “Proverbs 31 woman.”
Over all, the title of the article is good advice. I think that people, in general, should avoid obsessions. On top of that, I find the theme of her article very helpful. She essentially says that no particular Biblical type should become the primary focus of our lives, except for the imitation of Jesus Christ. Such types were never meant to be the primary metaphors we use to govern our lives. I quote her article because it brought up a conversation my wife and I had several months ago that came up again this morning, so even where I disagree with this or that point she makes, her article inspired my blog post and ultimately concludes the same way.
Exercise in Thoughtful Reading: Go read Proverbs 31:1-31.
Asking the Right Questions
In good rhetorical fashion (like I said, competent writer), Oquist simultaneously relates to her readership as well as establishes the need for the problem she attempts to solve:
Maybe you, like me, read this passage [Proverbs 31:10-31 ] and think to yourself well sheesh. Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? And how would that be possible if every woman is different? What if she can’t sew or cook or hires a nanny for her kids during the week? What if she never even gets married? Does that mean she’s not living up to her God-given potential as a female? Does that mean she’s living in sin?
And what if you don’t want to be a Proverbs 31 woman?
When she admits that the passage is difficult to put into practice she also grasps the interpretive crux of the issue when she asks, “is every woman supposed to try to fit this mold?” In general, Christians should ask questions like this of many of our favorite Bible passages. If we thought of the immediate context of a Biblical book, its genre, and where that book fits in the timeline of Scripture before we tried to emulate a character or obey a saying, then Christians would make more sense. Examples:
- Should I try to be like King David?
- Should I take up my cross and follow Jesus?
- Should I put the Sermon on the Mount into practice?
These questions have answers that can be found by examining the books of the Bible containing these people and precepts as well as by examining the whole canon of Scripture.
Oquist asks the right question for spiritual growth and personal assessment and the wrong question for Biblical interpretation: “what if you don’t want to be a [fill in the blank]?” Asking this question to help me understand the Bible opens up circumstances like this:
I read the Sermon on the Mount and ask, “Do I even want to love my enemies?”
That is a good question for assessing the state of my soul, but it is a poor question for assessing whether the gospel authors are prescribing Jesus’ teachings to their readers. For instance, if I don’t want to obey Jesus, I cannot then infer that Matthew wrote his gospel without meaning for people to obey Jesus.
The same goes for Proverbs 31:10-31. It is a tall order, but simply because it is idealistic does not mean that it is not prescriptive. The first question must be answered, “Is this passage for personal application?” Before we move on, it is important to note that the article I am quoting does not claim to answer the question about whether the passage should be obeyed by using the question about “wanting to,” though it may imply as much.
Who is the “Good Wife” of Proverbs 31? A Heuristic for An Ancient Near-Eastern King
The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly not a particular woman because the author sets her up as a type, in fact precisely as an ideal to appreciate specific instances of (and, we’ll see later to emulate):
Proverbs 31:10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
This is advice to a King from his mother, who apparently played the role of a prophet to the royal court. King Lemuel’s mother gave him the following paradigm for being a good king. The advice ranges from the need to be chaste to the need to heed the rights of the poor. Recall from your earlier reading that Proverbs 31 starts like this:
Proverbs 31:1-9 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him: (2) What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing, son of my vows? (3) Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. (4) It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, (5) lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. (6) Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; (7) let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. (8) Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. (9) Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
The Proverbs 31 woman appears to be an expression of the type of woman whose activity King Lemuel is to laud as worthy of public praise for the good of society (see the counter point of Lady Folly in Proverbs 5-9). He is to do this so that that these traits will be sought as virtuous and those who have them will be seen as venerable. The result is a sort of ethic of the city-state that we see in Aristotle. Certain behaviors, if lauded by respected/respectable people, will be valued by those who respect them. The same principle is in play when young people dress like and parrot the values of favorite band members, local politicians, or movie stars.
Essentially then, the king’s mother says that being a good king necessitates recognizing the moral agency of women and praising the upright women in the land. See the end:
Proverbs 31:30-31 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (31) Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
Thus, all of the traits are to be praised as explicitly virtuous in any particular woman. The passage is not addressed to men or women per se, but to kings or people of influence. On the other hand, even though the passage is not about particular women, it is explicitly about the virtues of women who are in the attendant circumstances in which those virtues or behaviors make sense.
A Paradigm for Praiseworthy Living
Which brings me to my own final point. The book of Proverbs itself is largely instruction to men about how to grow up wisely, “Proverbs 1:8a Hear my son…” But it would be weird to think that it cannot apply to women or that since it would be hard for one man to have all of those traits the book shouldn’t be seen as applicable to men. In fact, one of the most frequent observations concerning Proverbs is its almost universal applicability in the lives of those who read it daily. If we return to the early chapters of Proverbs we can see a figure commonly referred to as Lady Wisdom. She is put before the readers to represent several realities:
- She is a prophet who represents God (Proverbs 1:20)
- She is like your mother, whose sound words can save you (Proverbs 1:8)
- She is like a woman to court over against lady folly (Proverbs 8:17)
- She is representative of God’s mind as he upholds the cosmos (Proverbs 8:22-30)
- As such, her ways are to be emulated (Proverbs 8:32)
Therefore, by virtue of the analogy between the type of woman that King Lemuel is supposed to praise in the gates and Lady Wisdom, the male or female reader of Proverbs should find concrete examples of wise and virtuous behavior to put into practice when they read about the good wife of Proverbs 31 just as much as they would find as they read the rest of Proverbs. For example, Jesus would wake up before sun rise to pray as a matter of custom (Mark 1:35, cf. Proverbs 31:15) just as the woman of Proverbs 31 does.
A hermeneutic that dismisses Scripture before it is determined to be applicable is not a best practice. In this case, the wife figure of Proverbs 31 is most likely a paradigmatic expression of virtues in many circumstances, particularly of praiseworthy women, rather than a purely impossible or offensive ideal which is best left ignored or dismissed.