The Abuse of the Proverbs 31 Woman
Readers who are not looking for possible significance beneath the surface of the Proverbs 31 poem initially read the poem as describing the perfect, and ‘capable’ wife. In fact, many women today model themselves after the attributes associated with the woman who received praise from both her children, and her husband, for her outstanding abilities to provide. However, reading Proverbs 31 as some kind of checklist sees the tree but misses the forest. The expansive descriptions, when coupled with the relationship between the Proverbs 31 woman and Woman Wisdom, sanctions the work of both men and women, who 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. She is the symbol of Wisdom, Torah, the soul, and even Yahweh. The Proverbs 31 woman is not a perfect model of Jewish womanhood or the paradigm of who the wife is to be to her husband, but a symbol of what it means to reflect the image of Yahweh.
There is playful ambiguity in the opening question of Psalms 31:10. The description of the woman appears to not be truly real; no person could conceivably achieve all that she does. “The answer to the tantalizing question defeats itself, and one begins to wonder, in light of this superwoman, if this is not the Wisdom that cannot be found in Job 28 because it is with God.” The ending to the poem is equally mysterious, for if the poem’s task was merely to the industry and skill of the woman, there does not appear to be any preceding chapters to prepare or resemble it. Therefore, many questions bubble to the surface such as: was this poem mainly for men? Is such praise realistic in this culture?
One of the immediate effects of picturing wisdom as a character is to disallow the view that wisdom is something to be possessed. It is more likely that Wisdom, the woman who calls out in the streets of the city (Proverbs 1), is one who herself possess those who come to learn from her. By bringing the two notions of wisdom as a woman, the early sages created a metaphor in which it becomes the reader's task to ask about ancient social roles of women that might illuminate the sage’s understanding of wisdom. The same question works in reverse as well, one must know the ancient understanding of wisdom in order to truly understand the ancient view of femininity. Therefore, it is necessary to begin with the common conclusion of the ancient world; Israel was a patriarchal society.
In the most general sense, this meant the family name, land, and inheritance passed through the male members of the family, ultimately giving them the power. The term “patriarch” is an expression of the social structure in which the ancient Israelites lived. The father was the head of the household and was recognized as both legal and spiritual head of the family.Wives and children were expected to be submissive and dependent upon the father. Due to the absence of any constitutional governance, the patriarch ruled without external restraint and, as head of the household, assumed responsibility of the family welfare. Women were able to gain limited status through marriage and childbirth, however outside the context of the household they were viewed as second-class citizens. “What is remarkable about the portrayal of wisdom as woman is that these traditional female roles of wives and mothers are not used explicitly in reference to Woman Wisdom.” The Old Testament, as it is presented today, is a product of this patriarchal world, and more importantly, “a literate, urban elite of male religious specialists.” The Hebrew Bible is the work of male authors and editors whose views reflect a dominant theological perspective; the women of the Bible are presented through the eyes of men for the purposes determined by male authors. However, though this is a man’s world, this does not mean women were suppressed and portrayed unsympathetically. As was just shown, wisdom is categorized separate from the expectations of the Israelite woman. Therefore, something deeper is happening within the Proverbs 31 text that is not evident on the surface. It cannot be avoided, however, that women’s voices are not being heard directly by the readers and therefore should be approached with caution and awareness.
The Feminist Approach
When many feminist first approached the Bible, emphasis fell on documenting cases against women. Many scholars in this field found the quandary of the female in Israelite culture. Less desirable than a boy in the eyes of her parents, a young girl would often stay close to her mother, but was controlled by her father till marriage where the power was then transferred to her new husband. Biblical examples of this can be seen when Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom to protect a male guest (Gen. 19:8) or when Jephthah sacrificed his daughter after making a premature and immature vow to Yahweh (Judg. 11:29-40). Men controlled the sexuality of women, and women succumbed to the power of men. However, recent feminist critique has begun discerning approaches to a patriarchal system, and are concentrating on discovering and recovering traditions that challenge the ancient culture. Many feminist are seeking to highlight traditionally neglected passages and reinterpreting more familiar ones.
God as Female
A prime example of neglected texts are those that describe God as having feminine characteristics. In a patriarchal society it is difficult to imagine that the Creator would be compared to a second-class citizen, however in the words of Trible, “to reclaim the image of God female is to become aware of the male idolatry that has long infested faith.” Some of the prominent neglected texts that feminist turn towards are often those that depict deity as a female. Hebrew is a gendered language and nouns are categorized as masculine and feminine. Within this reality, the biblical God is not constrained to strictly masculine attributes, as is so often thought. Jacob blesses his son Joseph: “by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty (shaddai) who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts (shadayim) and of the womb (rakham)” (Gen. 49:25). A Psalmist declares that God is a midwife (Ps. 22:9-10) and God is portrayed as a woman in labour pains who ‘gave birth’ (Deut. 32:18). The female imagery of God the mother is too often ignored or neglected, therefore the idea of God having female attributes is difficult for many to conceptualize.
The book of Proverbs, like much of the Old Testament, presumes an exclusively male audience. This can be known by language directed towards young men in search of wisdom who are invited to choose between two women. On one side is Woman Folly, often described as a harlot who promiscuously calls out to passersby to follow her foolish and destructive ways (Prov. 9:13-18), while on the other side the Wisdom Woman who entices people to follow and pursue ways leading to peace and joy. Woman Wisdom does have a hint of erotic attraction as well, appealing to young men to “seek and find her” (Prov. 8:17), to “love” and “embrace” her (Prov. 4:6-9). This erotic language is seductive and appealing and can be related to the language used in the love poetry in the Song of Songs. These two women, both personifying the values of wisdom instruction, suggest remarkable ambivalence towards women’s roles in their own society. On one side, Woman Folly is antithetical to wisdom values, associated as she is with activities that threaten a patriarchal society. Woman Folly, when juxtaposed with the ideal faithful wife from the perspective of Proverbs, is an adulterous woman or a prostitute. She “seizes” young men saying, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey” (7:1-27). On the other hand, Woman Wisdom stands as an opponent to the foolish and validates a feminine attribute to wisdom. Thus bringing together these two opposing interpretations of woman imagery in the Hebrew Bible. The poetry found in Proverbs is bold in its use of female imagery. Wisdom is portrayed as a construct that is close to God, indeed it was with God in the beginning playing as a child does before God (Prov. 8). It appears the holy God is beyond all human categories, including gender distinction such as masculine and feminine, and the poetry sewn throughout Proverbs breaks away from dominant masculine metaphors and creatively makes use of feminine imagery.
For contemporary women who have grown up thinking that the super-heroic figure found in Proverbs 31 is just another impossible standard in which they will qualify, they are missing the substantial depth of the poem. Too often contemporary readers will reduces womanhood to marriage, motherhood, and domesticity after reading Proverbs 31, when in reality the passage is about a character that transcends gender, circumstance and humanity. Proverbs 31 is poetry with the subject of illustrating what wisdom looks like in action. If the components of a character seem unreachable, the likelihood is that they are unreachable; this poem is packed with hyperbolic, militaristic imagery that is working in an acrostic form. In the same form that the ancient men abused women by establishing standards through metaphoric language of wisdom in Proverbs 31, contemporary readers must be cautious not to fall into the same trap of abuse. Now, approaching Proverbs 31 from a literary standpoint, recognizing the metaphorical language of wisdom used throughout, reread Proverbs 31.
10 A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Reading Through a New Lens
It is clear that a woman of this stature would indeed be honorable and praiseworthy. If this poem is consistently used to define contemporary womanhood, than it is necessary to consider the various theories that have been considered up to this point. The first theory that has been brought to the surface is the recognition that the ancient near east was a patriarchal society. Men controlled the abilities and the sexuality of women, therefore a reading about ancient womanhood, which was most likely written by the mind, and the hands, of a man, must be brought into question. The second theory to consider is the abundance of feminine language used in the Hebrew Bible to describe power and wisdom. In fact, God himself is frequently described with feminine attributes. A feminist reading recognizes that Proverbs 31 might be talking about something far greater than the roles of the woman in the household. Finally, this poem is often labeled as a metaphor for wisdom, which is an ongoing theme in Proverbs. With that in mind, Proverbs 31 is most likely written to illuminate the character of God and the example by which men and women were to model themselves after.
These texts have a tendency to raise other issues, especially for modern readers if not for those in antiquity. As Douglas Knight points out in his book, The Meaning of the Bible, “the personifications allow the authors, who were probably male, to attach stereotypes of women to each figure, Wisdom, on one the one hand, and Folly, on the other.” The construct of Wisdom might not come off as seductive to both the young and the old persons, but casting it as a women definitely heightens its appeal to those of the opposite sex. By extension, Folly is characterized as a prostitute, who were condoned in Israelite society and not normally accepted in normal social circles. Prostitutes in the ancient Near East were often suffered extensive estrangement by being considered dangerous figures to associate oneself with. Folly, the opposite of Wisdom, by association to a woman living an adulterous lifestyle, is therefore something that should be avoided at all costs. The male perspective thus “controls the concept of wisdom,” as Douglas would put it, concluding the male’s expectations for women. Therefore, regardless of how one might read Proverbs 31 in a contemporary setting, the abuse of woman has already taken place. The understanding of wisdom throughout history is now tainted with the assumption that it lives in opposition to Woman Folly. A loving woman lives in opposition of a prostitute. As Folly should be avoided and cast away, so shall the women living in adultery. The standard is established, and there is nothing that can be done to erase the injustice of Proverbs 31.
Proverbs 31 is prescriptive in the same way Job and Ecclesiastes are: it exhorts its readers to be practically wise. The poem portrays wisdom personified, as can be seen throughout Proverbs. To offer an example of this, compare the opening of Proverbs 31:10 poem, “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels,” with the early Proverbs 8:10-12, “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion.” Could Proverbs 31 not be a concrete reminder of Woman Wisdom’s sagacious discretion? The “ideal” woman is the Israelite society is not one who is expected to maintain the household or raise the children up independently, but rather one who herself walks in wisdom. It is not uncommon for attributes such as wisdom to be associated with femininity. As was mentioned, Yahweh himself was categorized as having female attributes. Therefore, it is not out of question to imagine that the woman portrayed in the Proverbs 31 poem is in fact the sought after wisdom of man and woman. It is at this turning point that contemporary readers can redeem the portrayal of women. No longer shall this verse be used to suppress and contain the qualities of wisdom by the standards of women, but rather the woman of Proverbs 31 should be recognized as God. Proverbs 31 is not a standard by which humankind can obtain, but rather a reflection of wisdom from God. To put this into practice, again reread Proverbs 31 replacing the woman with God.
The Availability of Power
The life and work of the Israelite woman centered on the home and duties to the family. Many turn to Proverbs 31 to determine the responsibilities of the Israelites woman, at least through the eyes of a man. She is to be a mother to many children and is to be an industrious manager of the household. She is to care for the children, and to bring them up in wisdom (26); she is to feed the family (15) and provide clothing for them (13). Socialization is also key to the Israelite woman. She has no true legal authority, besides her association with a man, but should be loving and generous to the poor (20). Despite this overwhelmingly androcentric and patriarchal orientation littered throughout the Old Testament, Israelite faith was categorized as a women’s faith. Though there are leading biblical female characters that emerge in the Hebrew Bible (Sarah, Rebekah, Ruth, etc), new hermeneutical tasks are seeking to give a voice to the “offstage” women that are hidden within the stories. These tasks require new interpretive strategies including various forms of literary criticism and feminist interpretations in order to invoke a new response to these retold tales. Interpreters such as Trible, Bal, Exum, and Fuchs seek to celebrate unsung triumphs of Israelite women, mourn and rage for unlamented victims, and boldly prosecute unnamed crimes. By contrast, she appears equal to men, having the luxury of going to public places as a male would (1:21), providing instruction of young men (Prov. 1-9), and valuing her product according to currency exchange (Prov. 31).
When reading the Proverbs 31 ‘ideal’ woman, one realizes that this woman is exalted above others and exemplified in her culture. She is immensely capable and seems to never stop. She handles all matters of the household both house duties and business. She has a husband who seemingly has nothing to do in the wake of his self-disciplined wife. Certainly this is a counter-depiction of how a woman was to act in the Ancient Near East in an Israelite culture. Perhaps this is the intentions of the author. The author did not write about the wife that all men should seek after, for the text even states, “a capable wife who can find. She is far more precious than rubies” (v. 10). Rather, this exaggerated list of qualities describes a God who is the only one capable of achieving such high status. This metaphor was never intended to conjure up a physical woman, but to illuminate imagery of a caring and compassionate God in which humanity is to strive to imitate. “She” is not a wife that should be sought after, but rather, “she” is God.
Women are still underprivileged in our society. At the time of writing these words I am sitting at a table with a young mother of two who is temporarily living under our roof as she flees an abusive relationship. There are many things I want to say to comfort her, but the reality is that many men still seek power over women. In this circumstance it is through physical abuse that man feels empowered. For businessmen it is through lack of promotion; for fathers it is lack of attention. In the context of the Ancient Near East, power came through the honor and shame system. The collapse of man is pride. Speaking from experience, there is nothing that hinders my ability to grow, love, and nurture in the way God demonstrates more than my pride. It is for this reason that the contemporary reading of Proverbs 31 haunts me. As if women needed more avenues of oppression, traditional readings of Proverbs 31 convert a beautiful depiction of God’s embodiment of wisdom and contort it to subjugate women.
There are many concerns for those who attempt to use these verses to proclaim a model for the ideal woman or as a guide to virtuous living for young women. The first concern common among many feminist critics is that not all women aspire, nor are capable, to be wives or mothers. To establish that as a standard for an “ideal” woman is unfair for women who are celibate, single, lesbian, or infertile. Though there are statements in the Proverbs 31 poem that could apply to any woman, like verse 20: “She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Other verses are limited to women who are married, “Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land,” (vs. 23) or have children, “Her children rise up and call her happy” (vs. 28). While this might have been a social standard in the ancient near east, the contemporary standard is far different. Therefore, to base womanhood from a standard that was for a specific context is an irresponsible use of the text.
Another concern is the trap many fall into of categorizing this as a poem written directly to women for the instruction of women. There are many errors in this theologically, but even practically one runs the risk of losing the value this poem has for every person. Though there are attributes that have been traditionally gendered assigned, much of the significance lies in the virtues of strength, dignity, wisdom, and care. If this Proverb is read to women only, men lose the insight the poem provides. As the Proverbs say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Wisdom is meant for every person, therefore the model of Godly wisdom should be made accessible to all. Finally, by not reading against the grain of Proverbs 31, one runs the risk of continuing the oppression of women that has taken place since antiquity. It has become all too important to give a voice back to the silenced of the Hebrew Bible. No longer should Proverbs 31 be interpreted as a checklist for the ‘ideal’ wife or the ‘honorable’ mother, but a standard by which all are striving after. By allowing this to be a standard for all, humankind is advancing not hindering; it is innovating rather than remaining dormant.
In conclusion, Proverbs 31 should not be read out of context from the entirety of Proverbs, as it is so often done. The writers of this Proverb, and most likely many others, was more concerned with the bigger questions of humankind such as: what will contribute to the happiness of humankind or how should humankind obtain and maintain wisdom? They were much less concerned with the statute and responsibilities of women, therefore the contemporary reading of the Proverbs should not bring this assumption to the text. Wisdom, since the creation of existence, inspires us to rejoice in being fruitful and productive. Woman Wisdom, who embodies the qualities which the Proverbs encourages us all to have, should be modeled by both men and women. Traditionalist have gone wrong in their interpretation of Proverbs 31 as a model for women only. If we all apply God’s revealed wisdom to our own lives, we will acquire the ‘precious jewels’ of Proverbs 31.