On September 19, one of the RCL OT Readings (Proper 20, Pentecost 17) is Proverbs 31: 10 – 31. CSBV Research Associate Ashley Hibbard invites us to a new way of reading this text.
It’s a bit of a joke in my household that the only texts that women are really supposed to study are Ruth, Esther, and Proverbs 31. For many decades now, a certain sector of the Christian world has treated these as “women’s texts,” because . . . well, they feature women, right? There’s even an entire brand called “Proverbs 31 Ministries.” Sermons of dubious quality are preached on this text in many churches around Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday, most of which laud the women of the congregation for living up to such an incredible standard (when every woman knows she does not), but the worst of which present Proverbs 31 as a sort of “to do” list for how a “real godly woman” will act (when every woman knows that she cannot).
While much of the misuse of Proverbs 31 has not been intended to control or oppress women, it has all too often created a sort of works righteousness, by which women measure themselves against this text. But I think it is likely that we have read wrongly both the intended audience of this text, and the identity of the woman being discussed.
Proverbs 31:1 says, “The words of King Lemuel: a burden that his mother imparted to him.” Verses 2-9 are an exhortation about wise leadership, and warnings against excess, and then 10-31 are an acrostic that tells King Lemuel about the sort of woman he should find. This was not first written as a “to do” list for women, but rather as an exhortation to men, and perhaps especially leaders, of the sort of woman whom they should pursue.
But if the intended audience was the only error in our reading, we would still be left with Proverbs 31 as a text that could be used oppressively, as every woman would feel that they had to compete with an unreasonable standard in order to be a pleasing wife. But there are many clues that we have also misread the identity and purpose of this woman. Proverbs 31:10 summarizes this woman as a “woman of hayil.” Typically translated in this text as “excellent” or “noble,” the word most often refers to valour or military might. This isn’t a nice wife who takes care of her husband and doesn’t burn dinner. This is a discerning, capable woman who knows how to make and execute her plans. She is the sort of woman who is not only the equal of a man, but the equal of a king. And if we read Proverbs as a whole, we realize that she sounds a great deal like a woman who we have encountered before.
After two warnings against adultery in Proverbs 5-6, the “father” whose voice frames the first nine chapters of Proverbs makes a third warning, this time focusing less on adultery and more on a figure that the title in many bibles calls “the adulteress.” The text describes her as “different” and “foreign” (7:5): strong words of distrust and concern in a highly endogamous culture such as Israel’s. She is given to lust (7:13) and excess (7:16-17) and causes the death of the one who follows her (7:27). The following chapter, by contrast, turns to wisdom, depicting wisdom as an oft neglected woman who can be found anywhere, whether out on the highways on in the city gates (8:2-3), waiting to instruct the men who will listen to her. What she has to offer is better than the most valuable of material possessions: silver, gold, or jewels (8:10-11). Perhaps this last is particularly noteworthy, as here we read of a wisdom worth more than jewels, and in Proverbs 31:10 we read of a woman worth more than jewels. The similarity of these two “women” suggests that it is not a wife who is being discussed in Proverbs 31, but rather wisdom itself. King Lemuel’s mother is wise enough to know that while her son’s choice of a wife is indeed of importance, it pales by comparison to the first “woman” to whom her son should commit: Lady Wisdom. Wisdom is the wife fit for a king. She is the one who will feed the servants (31:15), help with land consideration (31:16), provide for the poor (31:20), and give him wisdom in his judgements (31:23).
We could end the conversation here. We could simply say that this text has nothing to do with human relationships and everything to do with wisdom – but for one, small detail. In the standard texts of the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is not listed among the “historical books,” as Christians have typically perceived the material in Joshua-Esther, but rather in the ketubim, or the Writings. And while the order of the Writings is not completely consistent, the most significant Hebrew texts that we have place Ruth after Proverbs. And in Ruth 3, Boaz says that all the men of his city know that Ruth is “woman of hayil,” the very words that are used of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 31. At least one editor of the canon saw this connection, and placed Ruth in such a way as to provide a narrative demonstration of the wisdom text that concludes Proverbs. How fascinating that the greatest text (arguably) on the value of wisdom is written by someone from outside Israel, and is best demonstrated by a woman from outside Israel.
And so how should we, as God’s people today, use Proverbs 31? We use it carefully, as we should all scripture. It is not a tool – or worse a weapon – to goad women into a certain mould. But when read as the sort of wisdom to which all people should aspire, and to which leaders especially should seek to bind themselves, it should not be lost on us that the scriptures then proceed to demonstrate what a life of wisdom can look like in the life of God’s people. Wisdom in Old Testament narrative is demonstrated best through the story of a marginalized-yet-noble woman whose humility and grace not only secure her a place in the leading family of Judah, but in the ancestry of the Lord Jesus himself.