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Monday, November 09, 2015

Rehabilitating the Proverbs 31 Wife

Poor, much-maligned wife of the last chapter of Proverbs! Google her and see. After you get through the usual commentary citations, much of what you find is Christians complaining:
Hmm, that last one may have a grain of truth to it ...

Not a Checklist for Wives

Proverbs 31 is not actually a checklist for wives to use in self evaluations or for church ladies to decide if their peers measure up. Not really. It is written to the king by his mother, and like much maternal advice, starts personally and practically (Watch out for the sort of woman who will drain and destroy you, steer clear of the booze, speak up for those who don’t have a voice and make sure you judge righteously).

If the latter part of the chapter is a checklist at all, then one might argue it is a checklist written by one good woman to help a man she loves land another good woman. After all, good wives are hard to find and “precious”. This particular mother knows women, and has no desire to see her son waste his life on any of the many out there that are less than top notch in character. Ideally, you only get one shot at it. Better make your choice count.

As a mother, wouldn’t you want the same for your son?

Now indirectly, I suppose, any young woman who wants a good husband might find some of the points laid down by King Lemuel’s mother to be of interest. After all, it might give her some idea of the sort of woman a good man who has been given sound advice will be looking for.

Still, the list is not a convenient cudgel for some Christian women to beat other Christian women with. Fair enough?

Not an Anachronism

Further, the chapter is not anachronistic. Sure, the mom in question describes the ideal wife for her son in ways consistent with her culture and her time, which means stuff like “she puts her hands to the distaff” and “her husband is known in the gates”; things that may not have a precise equivalency in our culture.

That does not mean the chapter is obsolete. It simply means that, like we do with other Old Testament lessons, we observe the character qualities in the excellent wife that give rise to her actions, rather than becoming caught up in how those actions are “not relevant” to our times.

If the excellent wife “rises while it is yet night”, it is because she is conscientious and responsible. If “her lamp does not go out at night”, it is because she is industrious. If she “makes linen garments and sells them”, it is because she is, as we used to say in job interviews, a “self-starter”.

It is the character quality this excellent wife displays, not the specific activity she undertakes to show it, that is the important takeaway here.

The Stuff That Is Applicable

But such cultural quibbles should be few and far between for anyone genuinely interested in learning from the passage rather than simply trashing it. How hard is it to apply statements like “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life”? It simply means that this wife is not a headache for her husband. He does not find himself obligated to spend his life putting out the fires she has started. Applied practically, such a woman is characteristically risk-averse, careful with money, not a gossip, and disinclined to pick fights with other women. In short, she is not high maintenance.

Or how hard is it to apply “She makes bed coverings for herself”? It tells us that an excellent wife takes care of the family responsibilities allotted to her without becoming a burden to others. Whether the “bed coverings” are hand-knit or ordered from Bed Bath & Beyond on sale is not really the issue. The point is that she takes care of what is needed without fuss and bother. When the husband comes home, he finds the family home in order. Husband and wife are free to get on to more important things.

There is little about the qualities of King Lemuel’s ideal wife described here that is hard to understand or apply to modern life. Unless you want it to be.

Lest We Leave Anyone Out

Rachel Held Evans makes the point that Ruth, who was widowed, is described as possessing the same quality of being an eshet chayil or a woman of valor” as is the wife of Proverbs 31. It is good to be reminded that all women can benefit from possessing these qualities, even if, as Evans says:
“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.”
It may be pointed out that Ruth was a wife both before and after she was a widow and arguably spent more time at it, but that is neither here nor there.

In any case, the life of the believing single woman is not the subject of Proverbs 31. No one ought to feel insulted by that. Likewise, those who seek to apply the qualities and duties of the virtuous wife to men are equally at sea about the passage. There are plenty of passages in scripture that describe how Christian widows and Christian men are to conduct themselves. Trying to read them into this passage is simply a distraction and causes us to risk missing the actual point of Proverbs 31.

Show me a person who keeps introducing the value of modern, single career women into a passage about a wife’s biblical role in her home and I’ll show you a person with an agenda who just can’t stay on topic. Show me a woman who can’t stop talking about the responsibilities of men while reading Proverbs 31 and I’ll show you someone with no interest in learning.

What If You Don’t Want to be a Proverbs 31 Wife?

In short, there is much that is useful and relevant in this chapter. What is NOT useful is the sort of thing Lauren Oquist has to say about it:
“Maybe you, like me, read this passage 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?”
As pointed out by everyone including Rachel Held Evans, Proverbs 31 is about CHARACTER, not about specific ancient household habits. Because “every woman is different”, the Proverbs 31 woman admits all sorts of female personalities: the energetic, the outgoing, the melancholic, the artistic. There is room for great variety.

But there isn’t room in Proverbs 31 for the sort of woman whose behavior might be characterized by a reasonable third party as uncharitable, moody, gossipy, indolent, shrewish, hectoring, selfish, uncaring, insubstantial or occupied with trivia. The Proverbs 31 gal may be fun-loving or a little uptight, excitable or calm, but she will inevitably display a large number of character qualities common to all godly Christian women. That’s just how it is.

The Bottom Line

Ladies, if you don’t want to be a Proverbs 31 woman, nobody is going to make you into one, I can assure you. If you’re pretty enough and available enough, some halfway decent Christian guy with his priorities temporarily out of whack will almost surely marry you anyway. The good news for those of us who don’t particularly want to develop character is that there are frequently people who will love us despite its near-total absence, especially in Christian circles. Some of them will even put up with us for a lifetime.

And young men who are currently dating or engaged, if your intended is not a Proverbs 31 woman and shows no interest in becoming one, take Lemuel’s mom’s advice: Run.

1 comment :

  1. Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, "What is wrong?"

    Adam said, "Lord, I have no one to talk with."

    God said, "Then I will give you a companion, and she will be called a 'woman'.

    This person will cook for you and wash your clothes, she will always agree with every decision you make.

    She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them.

    She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you've had a disagreement.

    She will never have a headache, and will freely give 'love' and compassion whenever needed.

    She will never question your behaviour or the company you keep.

    She will support you and understand that you have important decisions to make throughout your life and don't have time for nonsense..."

    Adam was thrilled. He said to God "This companion sounds amazing...but what will this woman cost?"

    At this, God said gravely..."arm and a leg..."

    Adam thought for a long while before finally asking....

    "What can I get for a rib?"

    ReplyDelete