You find yourself standing in front of yet another sinkful of dirty dishes. Your faded yoga pants and stretched out t-shirt remind you of your sore need for a wardrobe makeover. The reflection in the microwave door shows your hair slightly askew and your face yearning for a touch of makeup. And all of this would bother you more if you were not so totally exhausted.
In your head, it should not be this way. Somewhere, somehow, you just know another woman has got it all pulled together. She relishes the endless housework and somehow manages to do it all with a smile and a houseful of happy children. There is even a Biblical model for her. You know the one I mean – that perfect, virtuous woman written about in Proverbs 31.
Have you ever read that passage and marveled at the shining example of female perfection? A woman who makes her own clothes, and even makes things to sell in the market. An early riser who does not shrink away from a huge to-do list. A woman skilled in business. Someone who plans so well for her own family that she has lots left to share with the needy. To top it all off, she does not seem to have any conflict in her family. After all, she only speaks wise and kind words, and her husband and children only speak well of her. She is everything we wish we could be, but are painfully aware that we are not. There is only one problem with this picture. The woman portrayed in Proverbs 31 was never intended to be our model.
What? How can that be? After all, we have all grown up hearing sermons on this passage. Entire books and even women’s ministries have been dedicated to it. Giftware and greeting cards for Christian women abound with the theme. Why should we suddenly stop looking to Proverbs 31 as a standard to emulate?
It is not written to women. Proverbs 31 is identified as words of wisdom being passed down from a mother to her son, King Lemuel. She is eager to teach him the about the kind of woman he should pursue – not the kind that will ruin his life, but the kind that will enhance it. So, she attempts to paint him a thorough picture of what traits a good wife may possess. The passage is meant to help a potential husband discern his future wife’s character, not to dictate her job description.
It is not a checklist. Did you know that the verses about the virtuous woman are actually an acrostic poem? When studied in the original language, each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is written as a literary piece, not as a comprehensive description of Christian womanhood. When we confuse the imagery for a checklist, we miss the beauty of the passage and set ourselves up for feeling inferior to a “perfect woman.”
It is intentionally idealistic. Once we realize the poetic nature of the passage, we can see why the woman comes across as ideal. But this also extends to her husband and children. Everyone is portrayed as happy, polite and secure. There is no mention of the inevitable friction of everyday life between husband and wife, or parents and children. (A dead give-away that this passage represents an ideal!).
It may not be talking about a woman at all. Some scholars speculate that the woman in this final chapter of Proverbs actually depicts Wisdom, which is personified as a woman in previous chapters. That would certainly be consistent with the wise behaviors attributed to the woman in Proverbs 31.
Does all of this mean that the passage has no useful place in the lives of women today? Definitely not. The book of Proverbs, including Chapter 31, is wisdom literature that inspires and challenges us to reach higher in our lives. The problem is not with the passage, but with our incorrect interpretation of it. When Proverbs 31 is understood in its proper context, it can bring us joy and freedom, and deeper insight into the benefits of wise living. However, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing Proverbs 31 as a perfect model for all women to fulfill. So, dear woman, I challenge you to let go of the Proverbs 31 ideal in your head and rise instead to the challenge of living as a wise woman where God has placed you – in your uniquely imperfect circumstances.
Question: What are your thoughts on the Proverbs 31 woman?