Saturday, July 27, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (69)

Quick quiz: whose oracle is this? Why, it’s King Lemuel’s, as taught to him by his mother. This fact is unequivocally established in the very first verse. The words express her beliefs; the good king simply put them on paper for the rest of us.

This fact is central to any un-triggered reading of the passage: a woman taught her son which character qualities and habits define an excellent wife and make for a happy home. Lemuel’s mother does not insist he exclude women from consideration who do not measure up to her lofty standards. She doesn’t have to. Her preference is very evident.

In short, these verses cannot easily be dismissed as the misogynist rantings of the evil patriarchy; at least not if we believe in the inspiration of scripture.

Some women really hate that.

The Oracle of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:10-31)

Before we look at the passage in detail, a few general comments.

My Take on the Infamous Evans Take

The late Rachel Held Evans said she once thought of this passage as “just another impossible standard by which to mark my shortcomings as a woman.” She went on to say:
“As a poem, Proverbs 31 should not be interpreted prescriptively as a job description for all women. Its purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up the loom.”
There is some truth there, but parsing it requires a few careful caveats:
  1. The passage is indeed an acrostic poem, but we would be quite mistaken to conclude that this or other poetic scriptures are in any way less morally authoritative or practically useful just because they do not take the form of commands. Ask the various psalmists if they intended their verses to be free of overt or implicit moral direction; they would look at you like you had three heads.
  2. Any suggested allegorical reading of scripture in no way diminishes the importance of the literal level of interpretation: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
  3. Even if we accept that the oracle’s purpose is indeed “to celebrate wisdom-in-action”, as Evans claims, it is a very feminine wisdom applied in the woman’s sphere of earthly responsibility. It shows us a wiser Eve who works hard at reversing the error of the Garden, being an appropriate help to her husband rather than subverting his authority or exalting herself. It does not show us an idealized Adam. That is not the sort of wisdom in view.
What Evans gets right is that the passage should not be interpreted as a job description for all women. Not all women get married, and not all women should. Some have no interest in marriage. Some, sadly, are never offered a reasonable and biblical choice of husband, and they are wise to refrain from accepting the substandard offers that may be made to them. That does not mean single women can gain nothing from Proverbs 31, but it should be evident to us and them that they are reading someone else’s mail, not their own.

On the Matter of Instructive Language

Evans is not done here, and several of her claims bear consideration:
“As I did more research, I learned that indeed 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 passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women …”
Again, this is technically correct, but requires another caveat. Evans is quite right that the poem is primarily intended for men, not women. It is not a series of commands to wives or would-be-wives. To the extent that it has been taught that way in evangelical circles, its impact has been regrettably diminished.

But Evans seems to be conflating prescription, which is a specific way of giving directions, with instruction, a much more general term. “Praise her” may indeed be the only explicit command to the poem’s primary audience — the only “prescriptive language” — but the entire passage is instruction for men. Lemuel’s mother is telling her son, “This is what to look for in a wife. This is the gold standard.” By implication, she is also telling him, “Don’t settle for less.” And in preserving her words for posterity, Lemuel recognizes they provide useful instruction for the rest of us.

Why a Poem?

There are several possible reasons Lemuel’s mother may have elected to teach him passively rather than simply barking out the orders.

One was his age. If he was already involved with women, as is suggested in verse 3, he was past the point of being lectured like a child. In contrast to what we sometimes observe among adherents to Islam, there is no evidence Israelite mothers were expected to defer to their adult sons or to take orders from men generally. All the same, wise mothers have always recognized that issuing direct orders to their sons past a certain age is counterproductive.

Another was his station. The man was king, or shortly to become king. A lecture from a woman might not have been appropriate even at a relatively early age.

A third was that Lemuel’s mother was a woman of good character. Further, she was just plain smart. She knew how to communicate truth to a man without becoming pedantic or obnoxious, without usurping authority, and without getting his back up. She recognized that a gentle appeal to common sense can be far more compelling than the high-decibel invective of a budding drill sergeant. She delivered her message with tact and grace.

That said, if the indirect method Lemuel’s mother used to communicate truth leads us to erroneously conclude that finding an excellent wife is, comparatively speaking, a matter of indifference, the loss is very much ours.

Be Curious, Not Insulted

Here’s another more general disagreement I have with Evans. I am all for identifying the primary intended audience of the passage correctly and accurately spelling out its original purpose, and I think we have done that. However, if we conclude that because Proverbs 31 does not directly address prospective wives in prescriptive language, the passage has nothing important or useful to say to them, we are cutting ourselves off from a tremendous source of practical instruction. More importantly, we are robbing prospective wives of the very teaching they need to land a high-quality, well-trained husband from a good family.

Imagine for a second the scenario were reversed. A godly king is writing to his eligible daughter about the qualities she ought to look for in a prospective husband. As a young man whose best-case-scenario in life is to marry one of the kingdom’s finest, do you not want to get your hands on a copy of that letter? Of course you do. You want to know what sort of conduct will get you on the king’s “approved” list of suitors. Objections that the letter is not addressed to you or that it appears more suggestive than commanding are very much beside the point. If these are the qualities the king is looking for, and the qualities the finest young women in the land prize and seek out, then the method by which I find that out is far less important than whether I am going to try to cultivate those qualities in myself so that I can get myself on that elite list. That is really the only thing that matters.

Likewise, while many young women throughout history have read this passage as “just another impossible standard by which to mark [their] shortcomings as women,” the wiser ones were more curious than insulted. They began to take notes.

The wisest ones were already putting these principles into practice anyway.

An Ode to Women

One final caveat … rather, a correction. In coming to any passage that lists qualities to which we are told we should aspire, we have a tendency to water down the word of God to approximate the way we actually behave rather than recognizing in it an ideal toward which the godly ought always to continue to strive. One error we can make with Proverbs 31 is to claim no wife can meet its standard. The equal and opposite error is to assume every wife already does.

Perhaps it is in this egalitarian spirit that Evans refers to Proverbs 31 as an “ode to women”. It is not. It is an ode to a very specific sort of wife, one who is exceedingly rare. It is not some sort of boilerplate Churchian Mother’s Day-style ego massage to be trotted out in order to virtue-signal our uncritical appreciation of all things feminine. If we look at it honestly and objectively, we would have to conclude that the vast majority of modern women — even Christian women — simply do not rise to its standards. If you do not think so now, wait until we look at the specifics.

This does not mean Christian women of inferior character are doomed to never find husbands. The most casual observation tells us that is not the case. Even with our society’s diminishing interest in life-long commitment, the market for a marriage partner is large and enthusiastic enough to admit many it probably shouldn’t, both male and female. Further, the fact that a wife who possesses every one of these qualities is exceedingly rare and precious does not mean a woman who comes to this passage for the first time and is overwhelmed by how far short of the standard she falls ought to simply give up and concede she simply is “not a Proverbs 31 woman”.

What it means is that to the extent that any Christian woman is willing to try to apply any of these principles in her life, she will make herself correspondingly more attractive to the right sort of man, not to mention gaining the respect of godly older women who know just how tough it is to live differently from the masses. So one more of these qualities is better than none. Five are better than three. Any improvement in any area of character is not to be sniffed at. Every effort to please God is surely meaningful to him.

When the possibility of self-improvement no longer interests us at all, we have gotten to a very sad place indeed.

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