“A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands…”
-Excerpt from Proverbs Chapter 31
I squirm when I hear about the Proverbs 31 woman.
If you’ve been in Christian circles for a while, you will have heard of this passage. Many an inspirational book and women’s ministry series have taken their cue from this mysterious figure in Proverbs, a woman who is the epitome of grace-filled godly womanhood.
She rises early, takes care of the kids, works hard while her husband is at the city gate. She sews her clothes from scratch, always has a home-cooked meal for her children, delights in keeping her household in order, and her family adores her. She is compassionate and dignified. She is practically perfect in every way.
In Christian shorthand, the Proverbs 31 woman is a benchmark for the godliest of Christian women.
So why do I squirm? Because I’m not her. As Proverbs 31 has taken off as the template for Christian womanhood, Christian girls have been told to model themselves after this woman. Christian men are told to find a woman who fits this bill before marrying her. And no higher praise, it seems, could be given by a husband than to call his wife “a true Proverbs 31 woman”. (Argh.)
It’s concerning to me, and I’m not alone. It seems there are many of us perplexed by the phenomenon of the Proverbs 31 woman. As one book had it:
“We’re all living in the shadow of that infamous icon, ‘The Proverbs 31 Woman’ whose life is so busy I wonder, when does she have time for friendships, for taking walks, or reading good books? Her light never goes out at night? When does she have sex? Somehow she has sanctified the shame most women live under biblical proof that yet again we don’t measure up. Is that supposed to be godly—that sense that you are a failure as a woman?”
We are transfixed by this woman – but are we supposed to be? Is Proverbs 31 really a blueprint for women?
The passage is about the principles
When I read this passage through recently, it wasn’t on purpose. I was reading through Proverbs chapter by chapter – and having the backdrop of the rest of Proverbs helped. Proverbs, after all, is poetry, and it has a number of characters, including Lady Wisdom, Folly, and the Adulteress.
Each of these characters is an allegorical representation of a series of traits, of principles or temptations that were important to be aware of. Within this type of writing, the Proverbs 31 woman is in a different light. “Seeking Lady Wisdom” is a metaphor for pursuing knowledge and wise counsel, particularly from scriptures.
Similarly, Proverbs 31 is a construct of a godly woman and – I realised – fictional. She has time to have a home business, keep up her marriage, raise her kids, cook for her servants and has a perfect family because she’s not real. Naturally, these are all good things to do, but that’s not the point. The Proverbs 31 woman is an example of what a godly wife might look like – not in literal facts, but in principles.
And what are those principles?
She is responsible and competent, able to take care of herself independently. She isn’t lazily lounging in front of the TV for hours and wasting her time. She provides for others in her life, and she can be trusted to use her disposable income well. She is active, able to take care of things for herself while her husband is away. Her value isn’t from her hair or makeup, but from her godly character. She trusts God.
Does it matter that she has a home business while she rears kids? No. What matters is her dedication in all she does.
This is not a list of “shoulds” for women, or men for that matter. It’s a set of traits that should be admired and emulated, not followed to the letter.
Unique and loved by God
Somewhere we’ve lost our way with this woman and made her into an impossible, legalistic standard. We tell women that their value lies in how well they can be this woman – a kind, loving, industrious housewife – because that’s what a real Christian woman should be.
But our value doesn’t lie there. We know that God loves us whether we are perfect or not (and we know the answer is “not”). And as one relevant article pointed out, there are a LOT of women in the Bible who don’t fit this mould who were used in amazing ways.
Deborah, who was a warrior.
Rebekah, who plotted with Jacob.
Rahab, who was a prostitute and saved her family.
Esther, who became queen and broke laws to rescue the Jews.
Mary Magdalene, who was demon-possessed.
Why do we think that any of us are any different?
So instead of reading Proverbs 31 as an impossible standard, we should focus instead on serving God flaws and all. God doesn’t accept us because we’re perfect. As the same article noted:
“The attributes described in Proverbs 31 are not bad. They are good, important and biblical. The problem lies in the guilt that this description inevitably places on many women within the Church. Let’s face it: We can’t measure up to this lady—and I don’t think we are meant to.”
Our worth doesn’t come from meeting this standard, but through God’s love for us. I’m not the Proverbs 31 woman and I don’t need to be.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications and editing professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She is interested in theology and new ideas, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html