Saturday, August 24, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (73)

On my way home from work I try to keep an eye out for people begging in the street. I don’t mean on the sidewalk, but literally in the lanes of traffic at almost every red light, on foot and in wheelchairs, sometimes panhandling so aggressively that you could easily run them over if you weren’t paying attention.

As it turns out, coming right up to within inches of a seated driver locked in traffic and staring down at him is a considerably more effective motivation for charity than holding out a plaintive hand to passers-by on the sidewalk, who can easily escape by foot. Women driving alone are especially intimidated by grimy, glowering teens wielding squeegees, and quickly (and unwisely) reach for their purses, probably hoping to save their vehicles from a kick, a scratch or a flying blob of spit.

That’s a long way of saying not all giving is inspired by generosity.

The Oracle of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:20-23)

An Excellent Wife is Deliberate in Her Generosity

“She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.”

The ESV is probably not the clearest translation here, as the first line comes off just a little passive. To merely open one’s hands to the poor might imply that they are doing the ancient Hebrew equivalent of clamoring at your car door for help, and you are clean out of other options. But the original here is quite active. The “opening” in view is not merely the unclenching of a closed fist. The picture here is more like wrapping your arms around someone. It is a welcoming gesture, not an effort to hurry them on their way. The second verb, translated “reaches out” here, is even more active. It restates and strengthens the first line.

What is being taught here, I think, is that an excellent wife does more than simply respond emotionally to needs that may appear on her doorstep. Rather, she keeps resources on hand for people in need and goes looking for ways to help. She is conscious and deliberate about being generous. Paul suggests a similar strategy for Christians of regularly putting something aside to meet specific needs.

An Excellent Wife is Proactive

“She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.”

Translators are about evenly divided on the meaning of the last word in this second line. The Hebrew shaniy means “scarlet”, but it is admittedly a little difficult to imagine how red clothing could provide a more effective defense against cold weather. Accordingly, some go with “doubly clothed”, “warmly clothed” or a “double layer”, all of which seem more prudent choices than a word that signifies red dye. Interestingly, the word “double” in Hebrew is shĕniy, which looks like this [שֵׁנִי] as opposed to this [שָׁנִי] for “scarlet”. It’s fairly easy to see how one might inadvertently get substituted for the other at some point in the transmission of the text.

At any rate, the important point seems to be that an excellent wife anticipates that bad times will come around regularly, as they tend to do, and she makes plans to deal with these eventualities in advance. She is proactive. She does not get caught by surprise and have to rush to the market only to find all the heavy winter coats have been sold.

An Excellent Wife is Skilled

“She makes bed coverings for herself;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.”

My ESV is having an uncharacteristically rough day here. “Bed coverings” is an English attempt to translate yet another rather ambiguous Hebrew word, one that only occurs twice in the entire Old Testament. It may mean “tapestries”, “carpets” or even “clothing”. Let’s just say it is not entirely clear what it is the excellent wife is hard at work making, but what we can say with confidence is that: (1) the root word for what she is making means “abundance”; (2) she is making it for her household, and (3) it requires a certain level of skill to produce. Add to that the second line about fine clothing, and the impression I’m getting is that neither this woman nor her family dress like they’ve just wandered in from the trailer park.

I will readily admit I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. Maybe you can tell me.

An Excellent Wife Enhances the Reputation of Her Husband

Her husband is known in the gates
when he sits among the elders of the land.”

In the ancient East, men of standing in the community literally sat at the city gates. That was where civic affairs were discussed and where major decisions were made. It was where you could find plenty of respectable witnesses to validate any business agreement. Lot sat in the gate of Sodom, so the tradition goes back a long way. Abraham and Ephron the Hittite negotiated the price of a piece of property in the city gates. Hamor and Shechem went to their own city gates to discuss with their fellow men of influence a potential merger with Jacob’s clan. You get the idea.

If your husband was “known in the gates”, your family was among the elite, and as a wife, you bore some responsibility for that. He looked presentable. He behaved as if his personal business was in order. There were no rumors flying around town about what his wife was up to behind his back; in fact, her good works were remarked on. His children were not running wild in the streets, and his financial affairs were impeccable. All of that reflected not merely on the man himself but on his wife, and provided yet another reason to pronounce her “excellent” in character.

Today there are no city gates for a man to sit in, but a wife still has options available to her: to enhance her husband’s reputation, to absolutely trash it, or to ignore her husband and pursue her own interests. I’ve seen all three.

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