The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction? (Part 1 of 4)
The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction? (PDF) is an article by Carmen Bryant which she has very kindly allowed us to reproduce on this blog. Due to the length of her article we will present it in four parts.
In the version below I have removed the footnotes, either by not reproducing them or else by incorporating them into the text in square brackets. Those wishing to use the article for academic purposes should access the PDF version.
The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction?
Carmen J. Bryant @2004, reproduced with permission. Carmen spent 19 years as a missionary among the Dayaks of Kalimantan Barat (West Borneo, Indonesia) and draws upon her experiences there for insights into the description of the Proverbs 31 wife.
“I hate Proverbs 31!” a missionary colleague once said. Now, this was a woman who loved God and loved her family. She was dedicated to serving her husband and training her children, devoting herself to what many would call traditional family values. In a moment of frustration, however, she vented her resentment toward the woman she could never match up to, Superwoman, Mrs. Palestine of 900 B.C. [The actual date of the writing of Proverbs is unknown.]
Some Christian women wince when reading Proverbs 31 because they feel inadequate. Others cringe because they only know the idealized version of someone’s imagination. The text has been used to create a woman who is like the touched-up model on a magazine cover, made to fit an editor’s definition of godly femininity. Driven by peer pressure into following this model, Christian women develop spiritual anorexia, not realizing that the image shoved before them is just as fake as the computer-enhanced photograph in the magazine.
Christian young men dream of getting this Proverbs 31 wife, and young Christian women dream of getting a man who deserves one. But does she exist? Or is she just an illusion, a Cinderella fantasy that disappears when the clock strikes midnight, leaving the prince alone with his dreams? Some say that the Proverbs 31 wife is only an idealized character that embodies all the godly virtues, the heroine of a spiritual romance that ceases to exist when the covers of the book are closed. She is fictional. She is too perfect.
She cannot, however, be dismissed as fictional. God’s Word doesn’t set up standards that are impossible to attain. The God who inspired Proverbs 31 also spoke through Jesus, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and through Moses and Peter, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, 1 Pet. 1:16). Man’s solution to a seemingly impossible goal is to lower the goal. God’s solution, however, is to provide power to reach the goal. Becoming a Proverbs 31 woman is a realistic goal and worthy aspiration.
The problem is not in deciding whether she is real. Rather, the dilemma is determining the true message of the poem, particularly given the culture gap between the present and this B.C. description. Some women see the poem as justification for declaring an emancipation proclamation, while some man use it to confine their wives to the home. Both claim that they are promoting godly womanhood, but the women they describe are so dissimilar that the definition of godliness itself is in question. It is no wonder that Christian wives experience an identity crisis when they read Proverbs 31. Their desire to be a godly woman gets frustrated somewhere between the loom on which this woman weaves her family’s clothes and her lamp that never goes out.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. (Prov. 31:18)
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. (Prov. 31:19)
Focusing on the specific jobs with which this woman occupies herself, however, diverts attention from the wisdom emphasis of the poem. The Proverbs 31 woman is above all a mature woman of wisdom who practices the virtues taught in the rest of Proverbs. Her work is a demonstration of the wisdom she has acquired, put to practice in her own cultural setting. This same wisdom is available to Christian women today, i.e., the wisdom that comes through knowing God and becoming conformed to his character.
Who is the virtuous woman? Her textual identity
Her textual identity in the book of Proverbs
The text of Proverbs does not name the noble woman it describes in such detail. The author is King Lemuel, who was known by Israel’s sages even though he remains unknown to us. He received the instruction from his own mother. In addition to admonishing her son that a king must not give in to any unrestrained living that would jeopardize his ability to rule, she summarizes the kind of wife that would add honor to his name. He must look for a truly valiant wife who fears the Lord and not be tempted by mere beauty and charm. Lemuel applies the advice to more than the royal household, for the husband described within is an elder of the city, not a king. Thus, what was originally designed as advice for a prince has been included in Scripture for the benefit of all classes.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies (Prov. 31:10)
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (Prov. 31:30)
Some deny that this too-good-to-be-true wife could be just one woman. She must be an ideal, composite picture of what one could desire in a wife if it were possible to acquire it all in one package.
Though no woman can match skills and creativity perfectly with this model, all can identify their respective talents within the composite, and all can strive for the spiritual excellent of this woman of strength. This passage is recited in many Jewish homes on the eve of Sabbath, not only setting the high challenge for wife and mother but also expressing gratitude for her awesome service to the household. Dorothy Patterson, in Return to Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Grudem and Piper, p.367.
Nevertheless, we cannot escape the textual presentation of her as one, distinct person whose wisdom benefits not only her household but the community as well. Seeing her as a composite creates unwarranted opportunity for excusing ourselves from any obligation to be like her.
Duane Garrett, in the New American Commentary, says that the focus of the poem is not on the woman at all but on the young man’s need to find such a wife:
The book everywhere addresses the young man (“my son”) and not the young woman. It expounds in great detail on evils of the prostitute and how she is a snare for a young man; it says nothing about lusty boys and the threats they pose for young women.
His conclusion is based at least in part upon the structure of the poem, which he claims climaxes in verse 23, which is not about the wife but the husband: “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.” Verse 23, rather than being an “intrusion” into a text that is primarily about the wife, “actually established the central message of the poem: this woman is the kind of wife a man needs in order to be successful.” Indeed, the husband has no prospect of having a “fulfilling life” or becoming wise “without the good wife because she creates the environment in which he can flourish.
Bruce Waltke, however, believes that “the poem represents the ideal wife as a heroic entrepreneur in the marketplace.” Citing the word of Al Wolters, Waltke outlines the poem’s use of Hebrew terms normally associated with praise awarded to military heroes. The noble wife is thus raised to heroic status because of the good she does for her people. The focus of the poem is not the husband but the wife, “a talented, creative and adventurous entrepreneur [who] serves her husband.” Waltke says that “Garrett’s comment. . .should be emended to ‘this is the kind of a wife the community needs.’ She empowers her wise husband to lead the land in righteousness and justice.” In contrast to the foolish woman who tears down her household and brings dismay to her husband, this wise woman acts in such a way that her husband can fully trust her.
The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down. (Prov. 14:1)
The husband has full confidence in the [noble wife] and lacks nothing of value. (Prov. 31:11)
Before determining how this instruction should be applied to today’s woman, several assumptions need to be recognized.
(We will begin with these assumptions in part 2 of this series.)
Posts in this series
Part 1: Is this post.
Related post from another site: Do I Want My Wife to be a Proverbs 31 Woman? Kinda. Sorta. Maybe [Internet Archive link]
Update: One of our readers has written some excellent insights into Proverbs 31, on another post. Click here to see what she said.