Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Proverbs 31: 10-31
“A capable wife, who can find?” When I open the pew Bible (NRSV) and read the start of today’s text, I grimace. A good portion of Proverbs 31 talks about women and what is sometimes translated as the “ideal wife.” As you may imagine, this passage has been used to advocate for specific gender roles and a narrow ideal of what godly women should be. People who advocate for this reading say that godly women should primarily be married, be homemakers, in the house, and working only for the family. Let me say quite clearly, that is not the point of this passage.
At the same time, I should add a few introductory remarks. First, if someone wants to be a stay-at-home parent, I think that’s great (whatever gender). We need to value unpaid work and caregiving much more than society presently does. Second, I think we all (traditional family folks and non-traditional family folks) bring our own biases and lens into reading the text—so we all need to be aware of what we might be reading into scripture.
Third, all scriptural texts have contexts: literary and cultural/historical. Knowing these helps us learn more about what a text is actually saying. Are these commandments or is it poetry? How does Proverbs 31 relate to the last 30 chapters? How does it relate to the other biblical books adjacent to it? These are all important exegetical questions (exegesis is a fancy term for interpreting the Bible).
Finally, 4) scripture should be in conversation with other scripture to verify its meaning—doing Biblical theology is hard work, but it helps reduce the errors we might read into a text, and it gives us a broader understanding of God’s message and teaching for our lives.
OKAY. Back to Proverbs 31. Proverbs can feel kind of dusty; we don’t practice reading it together much. It’s mostly full of wise sayings, compiled in a way that can feel quite disjointed.
I think Proverbs 31 is actually a profound and even a feminist text, especially for its time. I don’t think I need to define how I’m using feminist here, but I will, especially for our website audience. To me, being a feminist means lifting up the dignity and equality of women, conscious of power and status in the political, social, economic, and religious spheres.
There’s lots to learn here in Proverbs 31. I want to talk about a few things: 1) the fact this is a poem, not a commandment; 2) wisdom as a woman; 3) the passage’s upside-down teaching; and 4) the notion of a “woman of valor.”
FIRST – A POEM, not a commandment
One very important piece in understanding Proverbs 31 is that this is poem! It is not prescriptive teaching. This passage is not saying, “You – go and get some flax. Sew purple garments.” There is a difference between Exodus or Deuteronomy (books with commandments!) and Proverbs. Commandments are somewhat clear, exhortative teaching. Poetry paints pictures, it illustrates lessons and truths. This is poetry.
Notably, this is not just any poem, it’s an aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) acrostic. Rachel Held Evans described it this way,
“Packed with hyperbolic, militaristic imagery, the poem is an acrostic, so the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. This communicates a sense of totality as the poet praises the everyday achievements of an upper-class Jewish wife, a woman who keeps her household functioning day and night by buying, trading, investing, planting, sewing, spindling, managing servants, extending charity, providing food for the family, and preparing for each season. Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday.”
Many times, within the Hebrew Bible—similar to Jesus’ parables—there is an image or a story, from which you are to glean a truth. The scripture may not say that truth as explicitly as, “do x, or do y.” Proverbs 31 paints a picture to help its audience see what wisdom can look like in the everyday. This is just one example; it was likely different for different folks depending on their contexts or circumstances, just as it is today. The Wisdom of God is expressed and lived differently in each of our lives, due to our unique gifts and circumstances. Proverbs 31 is a poem that celebrates wisdom as lived in the everyday, and it uses the example of a woman.
SECOND – Wisdom as a Woman
The second thing I want to highlight is that Wisdom in Proverbs is frequently personified as a woman. Theologian and writer Rachel Held Evans wrote, “The astute reader [of the whole book of Proverbs] will immediately make a connection between the Proverbs 31 Woman and “Woman Wisdom,” found in earlier chapters of Proverbs.” When we read just one chapter disconnected from the context of the whole book, we miss things like this.
Woman wisdom – let’s talk about that for a minute. Personifying wisdom as a woman is a profound statement about the personhood and worth of women, particularly in a deeply patriarchal Ancient Near Eastern society, with a low view of women’s legal testimony (not reliable witnesses) and very little ability to speak publicly or lead (generally speaking about the cultures of that day).
Through history, the church has often bypassed or overlooked women figures in the Bible or imagery that taps into women. I think we need to preach passages like this, in order to rectify the malnourished teaching that we might have previously received—a teaching that starves us of much needed women figures and imagery to go along with the men we see in Scripture. The fact that wisdom is depicted as a woman throughout Proverbs is something I find very healing and life-giving. I add it to my reservoir how I understand my God-given dignity.
Sometimes, due to societal expectations about hair and gender norms, my child has been mistaken as a girl. People always apologize. My kid doesn’t flinch or even care, but I try to respond to someone’s apologies with, “It’s okay—girls are awesome!” Perhaps you haven’t heard this from a church much, but y’all, girls are awesome. Boys are awesome. (We’re all awesome) (and intersex or nonbinary folks too, but that’s another conversation!) As a church, we need to make sure this is a message we teach, because it is Biblical.
THIRD – Upside-down Teaching
We see Proverbs 31 valuing women, and, in a way, turning the historical view of women upside down. In Ancient Near Eastern culture, the status of women was low. To have a book of wisdom and to paint a picture of a woman as the wise ideal is pretty remarkable.
To me, it brought to mind Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone is asking Jesus, “Who really is my ‘neighbor’ that you want me to love?” Jesus tells a story and the hero who loves his neighbor is a person, a Samaritan, despised by his audience. It’s a little bit like a sucker punch to have the outsider save the day and fulfill God’s commandments (a nonviolent sucker punch, that is!).
Is that what could be happening here? Is the writer of Proverbs 31 is saying, ‘Y’all want to talk about wisdom? Well. We know who you appoint as elders, whose testimony in court is considered ‘worthy,’ who gets to be a priest, a leader, etc., etc. So. You want wisdom? Here’s an example: a woman of valor. Perhaps you see her a lot, but you don’t really see her?”
Rachel Held Evans goes so far to say that “the ‘Target Audience’ of Proverbs 31 is Men.” She wrote about how the only prescriptive statement in this text is seemingly aimed toward men: “the only instructive language in the poem is directed at the poem’s intended male audience: ‘Praise her for all her hands have done.’ And yet many Christians interpret this whole passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavors of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith.”
Interestingly, within at least some aspects of Jewish tradition, it’s not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Rachel Held Evans described how her Jewish friend Ahava explained, “[men in her community] memorize it… to sing it as a song of praise to the women in their lives—their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends. Ahava’s husband sings Proverbs 31 to her at every Sabbath meal.”
Proverbs 31 gives an example of what wisdom looks like lived out (planning, prudence, mercy, kindness, and more!). I think that Proverbs 31 tries to turn the patriarchy upside down a little, portraying a woman as an example of how to be wise.
FOURTH – A Woman of Valor
You may have noticed that the translation I used was the Complete Jewish Bible, not the NRSV. You may be familiar with this text in the NRSV or the NIV. The NRSV translates verse 10, “A capable wife who can find?” Pretty much all of the Christian versions fail to grasp what Jewish tradition has understood and continues to maintain: the words that the NRSV translates “capable wife” is actually best translated as “woman of valor,” which in Hebrew is eshet chayil.
In Hebrew, the word eshet is “woman”. Woman and wife are the same word, but most women in that era were married. Most commonly, the word should be translated as woman, not wife specifically (even if the woman is married). Jewish tradition and Hebrew scholarship convince me that the emphasis most Christian translations put on the “wife-ness” of this person is pretty weird and likely stemming from sexism.
Additionally, I think that the way translations switch out “valor” with “capable” is sexist. Rachel Held Evans wrote, “the male equivalent is gibor chayil, ‘man of valor.’” Gibor is the Hebrew word for warrior. Victorious warrior. Do you think the Christian translations typically switch that out for capable husband? Doting husband? NOPE. Eshet Chayil – is not “capable wife.” It is a woman who is powerful, strong, courageous, and wise. A woman of integrity. A woman of valor.
In undergrad, I studied Hebrew and learned that the arrangement of the books of the bible in Hebrew is a somewhat different order than what we have in our English Christian Bible. Interestingly, in the present Hebrew canon, Proverbs is right next to Ruth, which means that Proverbs 31 almost serves as transitional material to the book of Ruth. Ruth is the embodiment of the Proverbs 31 example of wisdom, eshet chayil.
Rachel Held Evans also wrote about how Ruth is a woman of valor—and notably, not a modern middleclass housewife. She said,
“Ruth was a destitute foreigner whose daily work involved gathering, threshing, and winnowing wheat. For most of her story, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Circumstantially, her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31. Ruth didn’t spend her days making clothes for her husband. She had no husband; she was widowed. Ruth’s children didn’t rise up and call her blessed. She was childless. Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with the merchants and keeping an immaculate home. She worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel. And yet, guess what Boaz says of Ruth before she gets married, before she has a child, before she becomes a wealthy and influential woman: ‘All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character’ (Ruth 3:11).”
What Hebrew words are used here in Ruth and translated as “a woman of noble character”? Eshet Chayil, the same as Proverbs 31. Ruth—a woman, a vulnerable widow and immigrant farmworker—shows courage, faithfulness, determination, honesty, and honor. She is a woman of valor, eshet chayil. Ruth is living out the wisdom of God.
In Scripture, wisdom is the lived ethic of following Yahweh. Wisdom is the love of God and others, it is delighting in doing what is good for others, good for self, good for the earth and well-being of all.
I have some closing questions to chew on before I open up for discussion and reflections:
- Who do you think of when you think of personify wisdom in your head? A Gandalf-like person? Or a woman of childbearing age like proverbs 31? Do you think of an immigrant woman farmworker like Ruth?
- I think we should all ask ourselves, What biases and baggage do you bring to your reading of scripture? What teachings did you grow up with, perhaps are uncomfortable with, but haven’t been able to dig into the Bible to understand an alternative reading? What do you want to read together?
- Finally, what does it look like to live out a life of God’s wisdom in your context? What are some of the characteristics or actions that stood out to you in the text, that you want to or wish to emulate in a 21st century context?
May we seek to be people who live out the wisdom of God in our lives, just like the woman of valor, just like Ruth. AMEN.
Held Evans, Rachel. (2014, May 12). Three things you might not know about Proverbs 31. Retrieved from https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31
*Note – I’d highly recommend checking out Rachel’s books, like Inspired, Searching for Sunday, or A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I am grateful for her brief time writing for the good of the church.