Why We Need to Stop Idealizing the Proverbs 31 Woman

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?

10 thoughts on “Why We Need to Stop Idealizing the Proverbs 31 Woman

  1. What a great reminder to check our sources of information and know the context etc…
    I remember that as a young Mom, I had unrealistic expectations that caused me to become very discouraged and exhausted. I was never good enough it seemed because I had accepted the words and teachings of a dangerous and sick church pastor who was very controlling and misinterpreted the bible.
    I can’t change the past but have been able to heal it with the help of a therapist. It’s so much better to live in grace. While I aspire to be a good Mom, wife and now “Nana”, I have learned to be so much gentler with myself. It’s a much better way to live!
    The picture painted of the godly woman in Proverbs 31 is lovely. When I look at my life, I hope that those around me see the light of His love glowing through the imperfections of my humanity.

    1. Hi Donna. Your comment about God’s love glowing through our imperfections reminded me of 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NLT): “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” If the apostles didn’t expect themselves to be perfect, why do we? It’s about letting God shine through us, not showing a perfect model. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. This is a great post. I like how you point out that while she isn’t a checklist she can be inspirational. (But that’s all she should be.) Thanks for sharing! (I’m a fellow-TW)

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! I have hated that chapter since becoming a wife and mother because it made me feel so inadequate, lazy, unworthy and just never good enough. When I know I am more than enough!

    I’ve been grumbling about the Proverbs 31 woman in the last two years because mothering has been especially exhausting and yet also deeply rewarding. I love being a mommy to my three boys! And then I read that chapter and I’m reminded that, “Nope, you’re not doing enough!” And it has robbed me of the joy of motherhood.

    This blog post gave me back my joy and an appreciation of that chapter. Thank you!

    1. Hi Frances. Parenting is the hardest job in the world! So often we moms feel like we fall short; we are so hard on ourselves. How good to know that God has chosen us for the unique job of raising the specific children He has given us… because He knows we can do it! I hope your joy continues this week.

  4. I love the Proverbs 31 woman. I have no issue with setting up an ideal. There has to be a standard in order for us to have good goals. Not meeting them perfectly should not be a cause for self hatred but a reason to rally and keep going instead of letting one’s self go. My favorite thing about her is that she laughs at the future. She is confident, brave and capable and that helps everyone around her.

    1. Hi Cynthia. I appreciate your feedback. I agree, Proverbs 31 paints an inspiring picture of womanhood! But I contend that the Bible is full of wise women – married/unmarried, young/old, wealthy/poor, with kids/without kids, confident and strong/broken and weeping – who lived wisely in the place God had put them. I believe we need all of these examples to provide a balanced picture of how a godly woman should live through the seasons of life. If we focus only on Proverbs 31, we miss out.

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