The Proverbs 31 woman hovers in the back of my head as I get up each morning, because it’s normally before daylight (v.15). That’s at least one characteristic of the woman of valour ticked off! Just as well, because my capability with sewing and textiles is next to nothing, and that comes up at least 4 times in the description of this woman! (v.19, 21, 22, 24) I jest, but she seems like super-woman compared to me. I feel inadequate next to her varied capabilities and energy.
For some women, Proverbs 31 is a passage that brings them freedom because they have been squeezed into extra-biblical gender roles. Far from being only at home, the Proverbs 31 woman is involved in business (v.24) and real estate (v.16)! Yet, where I live in Tanzania, it is the norm for women to take on the economic provision for their families on top of the domestic. Proverbs 31 can become a boulder, weighing women down by its burden.
The stakes are high with the Proverbs 31 woman. I want to be described as strong and graceful. I want my children to praise me and my husband to be proud of me. But then, I have a husband and children. What of a single woman? Is she excluded from the ‘woman of valour’ category?
The approaches to Proverbs 31 are many, so how ought we to read it? It seems pretty clear how not to read it: unless the society in which you’re living in includes servants, city gates, and sailing ships, it’s not a particularly useful ‘shopping list’ of things to look for in a wife! But Proverbs itself helps us to work out how to read it. I want to suggest that when read in the context of the whole book, Proverbs 31 is not about the ultimate woman, but about being a human in God’s world. It’s about wisdom and wise living, a lesson for both men and women, taught in the object lesson of a woman.
It’s easy to read Proverbs as a collection of unrelated, well, proverbs! If this was the case, we could simply read Proverbs 31:10-31 as outlining the perfect wife, at least for its cultural context. But the book of Proverbs in fact holds together as a whole, and one of the threads that runs through the first section, chapters 1-9, is the personification of wisdom in feminine terms.
In the first chapter, as “Wisdom calls aloud in the street”, it’s a she who ‘raises her voice in the public squares’ (v.20). You might think this was just a trick of gendered language, like calling a ship ‘she’, except as Proverbs goes on, this Lady Wisdom starts to sound like a real woman. For example, she is able to “set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendour” (4:9).
Now, she’s clearly not an actual real woman, because she says she was there when God set the heavens in place and marked out the horizon on the face of the deep (8:27), so what we’re dealing with is a wisdom spoken about in womanly terms. We’re asked to imagine wisdom as a woman.
And the language used of this personification of wisdom is strikingly similar to what we find in Proverbs 31. She is more precious than rubies, her ways are pleasant and her path is peace, those who lay hold of her will be blessed. (3:15, 18) If you’ve read Proverbs 1-9, Proverbs 31 sounds like the reprise of the same theme, of this Lady Wisdom.
Recognising this helps us to work out what to do with the adulteress in chapters 5-7. She’ll be familiar to many of us. She dresses sexy (7:10), makes the first move (7:13), tries to lure a helpless young man to her bed (7:17), and has a voracious sexual appetite (7:18, 26). All the things Good Christian Girls don’t do, and are warned about from their earliest days at youth group. The young man meanwhile is exhorted to steer clear of her (5:8, 7:25), because she is dangerous (7:26) These are the myths of rape culture that exist in Christian culture: women as hunters, preying upon helpless men, who cannot be blamed for their actions.
Except, the adulteress in chapters 5-7 isn’t telling us about dynamics between men and women. She’s telling us about folly. About all the other things Proverbs steers us away from: laziness, deception, excess. Her contrast is not ‘the wife of your youth’, but Lady Wisdom. The point is not about dangerous women, it’s about abandoning the way of wisdom. Anyone who reads it as about dangerous women has made a colossal - and foolish - error, because they have got caught up on the image and missed the larger point.
In Proverbs, it is fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, not fear of woman. That’s why wisdom can be characterised as a woman. Think about it: why is wisdom not characterised as a man? Though our society might balk at a woman being an example for men to follow, the Bible has no such hang ups. After all, it is the whole body of Christ that is being conformed into his likeness, not just the men in it!
Which brings us to what to do with Lady Wisdom herself, as we meet her in Proverbs 31. She should be desired by every person, not as a wife to possess, but as an example to emulate. She is industrious, trustworthy and prudent, the very things the rest of Proverbs commends.
As you read, you can almost take each ‘she’ and replace it with Wisdom. Her hands are eager to work (31:13) for wisdom is to look to the ant (6:6). Her preparations for winter (31:21) parallel the wisdom about being sure to get work done in good time (24:27). Her generosity to the poor (31:20), shows that she is wise (19:17, 28:27). The praise of her husband and children (31:28) is no surprise because a person is praised according to their prudence (12:8).
Wisdom implores every human to be like this woman, because she is wisdom embodied. She is exactly who the young men Proverbs addresses should be like, and it’s in that exemplary sense that each of us should look to her. As they are exhorted to get wisdom (4:7), here is one who has allowed wisdom to so infiltrate her that she could be called wisdom incarnate. Praise God for teaching us all about the wise life, through the Proverbs 31 woman!
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). Read more from Tamie on her blog