To a Man, But for Men and Women: Rethinking Proverbs 31:10-31 by Ryan O’Dowd

proverbs 31 coupleOver twenty years ago I memorized part of Proverbs 31 and recited it when I proposed to my (now) wife. Proverbs 31 communicated my love and appreciation for my wife’s faith and devotion to God, and not just her physical beauty and charm.

A decade or so later, I returned to study this passage in an academic setting. Important questions started coming to the surface. For instance: Why has Proverbs 31 been so enthusiastically adopted by women of all stripes as a mantra and shibboleth of biblical womanhood? And why do so many women admit resentment and intimidation at the prospect of fulfilling its supposed expectations of them?

Then, of course, how have men largely been able to ignore this passage, apart from using it as a checklist for (and against) women?

And, on a somewhat related note, why don’t these men blog with the same fervor as women on the subject of gender-specific vocation and godliness?

The root problem, I believe, is twofold. First, most readers separate this chapter from the rest of Proverbs and lose sight of its literary context. And second, Proverbs 31 is read as a passage to women, despite being addressed to men.

As I argued in another post, it’s essential when reading any part of Proverbs to recognize that the whole book was not only written to men, but was composed within a “feminine” frame. That is, the countless sayings to and about women that dominate chapters 1-9 and 31 “frame” or enclose the main body of sayings in chapters 10-29 and color proverbial wisdom with a feminine hue.

I readily acknowledge that Proverbs is interested in issues of human sexuality. But I’m concerned is that many readers have never understood the larger role of the feminine motif and the way it imbues the whole book with what we might call the eros of human learning—becoming wise means orientating our deepest human desires to a particular way of loving and learning. The man’s sexual impulse serves as a metaphor for learning as a whole.

When readers are aware of this feminine eros in Proverb, they come upon the woman in chapter 31 and immediately recognize her resemblance to the cosmic Woman Wisdom and architect in creation from chapters 1-9. Christine Howard Yoder describes the relationship this way:

The analogous relationship between Woman Wisdom and the valiant woman also opens a window to the way a seeming hodgepodge list of the woman’s works actually speaks to the all-encompassing nature of wisdom in everyday life.
Both women are hard to find and are more precious than jewels. Both have a house and a staff of young women. Both provide food, prosperity and security. Both are known at the city gates and bestow honor on their companions. Both are physically strong and loath wickedness. Both extend their hands to the needy. They laugh. And both teach; their identities and instructions are associated with “fear of YHWH.”
This uncanny resemblance undergirds the presentation of the woman in Proverbs 31. She is a physical manifestation of Wisdom in action in the world and an invitation to the man to delight in that wisdom (and not only in a good wife).

The analogous relationship between Woman Wisdom and the valiant woman also opens a window to the way a seeming hodgepodge list of the woman’s works actually speaks to the all-encompassing nature of wisdom in everyday life.

Her activities encompass time: Rising early and staying up late, in winter, planting and harvest, her work is unbounded by days or years or seasons. Her wisdom involves the whole body in work: hands, eyes, arms, mouth, tongue, mind.
The valiant woman’s activities ennoble place: starting in the home, moving into the local community, out to traders from distant lands, and then returning back home again in the end. Like Woman Wisdom’s vision of the world (8:22-31), this woman’s work touches every part of the known world, and it involves development or care for every area of creation.
Reading this as some kind of checklist misses the forest for the trees. These expansive descriptions, when coupled with the relationship between the Proverbs 31 woman and Woman Wisdom, sanctions the work of men and women, both of whom are expected to become wise stewards of work in every sphere of human life: family, business, trade, manufacturing, crafts, real estate, agriculture, social outreach, and education, to name but a few.

The chapter imagines all kinds of people, doing all kinds of work, at all times, in every corner of the created world, but never one person, or one gender, doing everything, all the time, everywhere.

It’s also worth considering for a moment that, for an ancient woman to do all the things the valiant woman does in this chapter, she would have had to be among the upper 1% of society—wealthy and privileged. The Harvard Business School graduate working for J.P. Morgan on Wall Street with a large house in the suburbs.

Very few women at any point in history have had access, much the less time, energy, and gifting, to work at such high levels in all these spheres of life. It’s as if the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world exemplify true womanhood, leaving billions of women left regretting or disparaging their own trapped place among the poor, uneducated, enslaved, and powerless.

How many women today who have chosen homemaking, childrearing, and homeschooling as a primary vocation resent their well-dressed, professional, nanny-aided counterparts? And vice versa?

If Sandberg’s popular book Lean In represents the heavy-handed biblical womanhood model at the root of much of this tension, then Barnard College President Debra Spar’s Wonder Women is its foil and the kind of antidote I’m recommending here.

Spar doesn’t back off wanting women to dream and aspire to beautiful and productive womanhood—at home and in the public sector—but she does recognize the need for the whole culture of men and women to pause and be realistic about womanhood and manhood. Can we really have it all? And just how much can we do in work without exacting serious costs to our health, family, and relationships? What is a “good life,” and who gets to define it?

These questions lead us to consider a final factor in our reading of Proverbs 31: Ruth and Boaz. In most versions of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth follows Proverbs rather than Ecclesiastes, as in our English versions. Leaving the reasons for this change aside, the point here is that the original Jewish readers understood the story of Ruth as a natural sequel to Proverbs.

This is largely because the word “valiant” in Proverbs 31 is repeated three times in significant places in the book of Ruth. This Hebrew for word “valiant,” sometimes translated “noble” or “excellent,” implies strength and valor and is used exclusively in hymns to God, kings, and warriors. The only two women who are labeled valiant are the woman of Proverbs 31 (verses 10 and 29) and Ruth (3:11).

At this point in her story, Ruth is not wealthy, not active in trade, not spinning wool, not married, and, therefore, not clothing her children in scarlet. She’s a childless, poor, non-Israelite, lower class widow. Her valiance is in the faith and courage she exercises in returning to Israel to carry on the family line of Elimelech and Naomi. Hard, gritty, faithful, and hopeful work.

It’s also significant that Naomi sends Ruth to the fields of Boaz because Boaz, too, is described as a man of “valor” (2:1). As the story draws to a close the people of the city gather around the family and pray for Ruth to do “valiantly” (4:11) in raising offspring with Boaz that will keep God’s covenant family intact.

Read after Proverbs, the story of Ruth and Boaz provides practical examples of the central lesson of Proverbs 31. To find and treasure a valiant woman is to come to hear Wisdom’s call to human vocation.

Man or woman, rich or poor, Israelite or Gentile, young or old—all of us are beckoned to go out together, in love for God and world, and bring about God’s designs for justice, hope, life, beauty, health, friendship, and everlasting shalom.

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