Pt 4 of The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction? (the last in this series)
Her [the Proverbs 31 woman] textual identity in the book of Ruth
The identity of the Proverbs 31 woman is enhanced by its placement immediately before the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. The sages who were responsible for the final organization of the Tanakh saw a relationship between the noble wife of Proverbs 31 and Ruth, the widowed Moabitess.
In the Hebrew Bible. . . [Ruth] is considered an addendum to the book of Proverbs. The character of Ruth is thus portrayed as a historical example of the “virtuous woman” of Pr 31:10-31. . . Boaz calls Ruth “a woman of noble character.” In that same passage, Boaz says of Ruth, “All my fellow townsmen [lit., those at the city gate] know that you are a woman of noble character” (3:11). Boaz thus says of Ruth, the ancestress of David, precisely what the poem in Pr 31 says of the virtuous woman.
The desired treasure of Proverbs 31:10 is variously translated as “a virtuous woman” (KJV), “an excellent wife” (NASB), “a wife of noble character” (NIV), “a virtuous wife” (NKJV), and “a virtuous and capable wife” (NLT). With the exception of the KJV, Hebrew isha has been translated as wife, a legitimate translation in the context. However, isha can also be translated woman, as in the KJV. The Hebrew used in Prov. 31:10 is exactly that used to describe Ruth. In the midnight confrontation with Ruth, Boaz declares her to be a noble woman.
On the surface, little similarity exists between the noble woman of Proverbs 31 and the Moabitess Ruth. The Proverbs 31 woman had a husband and children who called her “blessed,” whereas Ruth was a childless widow whose child-rearing skills had not yet been tested. The first woman is comparatively wealthy and has resources to invest in further financial ventures, but Ruth is a poverty-stricken gleaner, forced to gather the grain that others have missed. The Proverbs 31 woman had apparently been raised among the people of YHWH; in contrast, Ruth had spent most of her life as the spiritual daughter of a pagan god. Yet both women were declared noble.
What is it that they had in common? They both feared the Lord. Ruth deliberately chose to follow YHWH, the covenant God of the Israelites. New to the Israelite community and to its religion, she nevertheless quickly earned the reputation of being a woman of noble character.
A Comparison of the Virtuous woman (Proverbs 31) and Ruth
|Characteristic||Proverbs 31 Woman||Ruth, the Moabite|
|Fear of the Lord (the beginning of wisdom)||Your God [will be] my God. (1:16)
[Boaz said,] May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge. (2:12)
|Diligence and productivity||She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servants girls. (31:15)
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her task. (31:17)
She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. (31:27)
|She went into the field and has worked steadily from morning till now. (2:7)|
|Care for others, concern for the poor||She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. (31:20)||Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me. (1:16-17)
I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. (2:11)
|Praiseworthy||Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. (31:30)
Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (31:31)
|All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character. (3:11)|
Never a discouraging word
Seeing the relationship between the virtuous wife and the widow Ruth should remove many of the stumbling blocks that women encounter when reading Proverbs 31. It is possible to be a noble woman, whether married or single. Unfortunately, many popular treatments of the subject intensify discouragement rather than alleviating it, either by skewing the interpretation of the text or by trivializing the nobility ascribed to the Proverbs 31 woman.
1) Skewed interpretations
Interpreting Proverbs 31 through a preconceived notion of what godly womanhood demands has certainly caused many women to be discouraged. The text is misused to “prove” the prevailing idea. [This explains why Proverbs 31 has been used both to keep a wife at home and also to allow her to work in some other job. Factors other than Scripture determine what a woman, or more specifically a wife, should be and do, and the Scriptures are then used to “prove” it.]
. . . her lamp does not go out at night. (Prov. 31:18)
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. (Prov. 31:21).
Other problems arise because this woman’s daily work is envisioned in the context of our own cultural experience. Such is the case with the lamp that does not go out at night. How could anyone arise before dawn to begin her tasks and still burn the midnight oil, working into the wee hours just so that the members of her household can have their scarlet clothes? When does she sleep? Mothers of newborns know what it is to go without sleep, but they survive because they know that eventually the child will begin sleeping through the night. But to think that getting by on a minimum amount of sleep day after day, year after year is a recommended regiment causes one secretly to wonder if God doesn’t get some kind of pleasure out of sentencing a wife to an early breakdown. How can the woman who works herself to death be called wise?
God, however, is the Shepherd who carries the lamps in his arms and gently leads those who are with young, extending both strength and compassion. He provides sleep for the ones he loves. A woman cannot maintain the physical strength depicted in this chapter and at the same time go without necessary sleep. What is the significance of the burning lamp, then?
Note that the line about the lamp is paired with a statement about financial accomplishments:
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. (31:18)
What does her “profitable trading” have to do with her lamp?
Let’s travel briefly to the jungles of Borneo where this writer lived for 19 years. Around 10 p.m. each night, one of us would trudge to the back of the property to shut off the generator and then head back to the house. We could see in the windows the dim lights of kerosene lamps. Inside, two lamps remained lit through the night, dispelling just enough darkness so that anyone getting up in the night would not stumble. These were our nightlights.
Our neighbors depended totally upon kerosene lamps. Part of the daily routine, both theirs and ours, was to prepare the lamps for the night by filling them with kerosene, cleaning the chimneys and trimming the wicks. Occasionally a family would not have enough money to purchase the oil needed to keep the lamps bring all night, so they would extinguish the lights early to save on oil.
The lamp in Proverbs 31 did not go out because the woman managed her finances well, strategically planning for the necessity. She could sleep confidently, knowing that she had oil in her lamps. The rooms would be lighted just enough for household members to move around safely in the darkness.
2) Trivialized nobility
Discouragement can also come from equating man’s questionable judgments with God’s eternal wisdom. In an honest effort to advise women on how to be godly, stress is put upon the details of her daily activities. Some advice has the unfortunate consequence of equating godly wisdom with such actions as choosing tools for the kitchen or supporting a husband’s masculinity. Even though discussion on these matters may be helpful, they do not in themselves comprise wisdom. They are like the Proverbs 31 pin that resembles an antique cameo brooch and sells for $24.99. Its “genuine Austrian crystals” are made to look like rubies, but they are not the real thing.
Even some of the practical, common-sense guidance appearing in Christian women’s magazines cannot be equated with godly wisdom, for it is aimed at middle-class America. True godly wisdom is supracultural. It must apply to the Dayak woman in the jungles of Borneo who lives in a thatched-roof hut as much as it does to the Western woman whose husband earns enough to provide a 3-bedroom townhouse in suburbia. The illiterate immigrant who has never attended school must have access to this wisdom as much as the university graduate who is amply able to homeschool her children. Godly wisdom provides godly character that is needed in any society and at any economic level. The details of a woman’s daily work will vary greatly depending upon her cultural surroundings, her physical abilities, and her economic status, but if she is a Proverbs 31 woman she will carry out her appropriate tasks with wisdom in the fear of the Lord, whatever those tasks may be.
Discouragement mounts when Christian moms are unwisely pressured by their husbands or their churches into adopting philosophies called “God’s Way.” The highly controversial Growing Kids God’s Way has been used by “more than 9,000 churches and schools worldwide,” but it has also spawned division because of the rigidity of its expectations that go beyond scriptural teaching. Above Rubies, a magazine devoted to producing the Proverbs 31 woman, promotes “Breastfeeding God’s Way” in an article that contains some common sense, but also includes questionable exegesis. Ironically, both of these claim to be “God’s Way,” but they contradict each other on the same issues.
Unfortunately, what is termed God’s Way does not necessarily display the godly wisdom of the Scriptures. Preparing for Marriage God’s Way has some valuable exercises for a prospective bride and groom, but its advice in “Husbanding God’s Way,” “Being Wife God’s Way,” and “Family Finances God’s Way” is made up of, at best, highly cultural applications of perceived biblical principles. An acrostic with Bible verses beginning with each letter of the alphabet may be a great tool for teaching both the alphabet and biblical truths to children, but it should not be called “Learn[ing] the Alphabet God’s Way.” “Dealing with Behavioral Problems God’s Way” should not detail a rebellious teenage son’s actions on the Web for the entire world to read — and that not even anonymously. Attaching God’s name to conclusions reached by fallible human reasoning only shows arrogance and results in discouraged woman who find they can’t measure up to legalism’s demands.
God’s way for all people is the way of wisdom, and that wisdom is in the Scriptures. The noble woman, married or single, rich or poor, healthy or inform, is one who knows the Lord, fears him and obeys him, no matter what her outward circumstances are. In choosing God’s way, she adapts his principles of wise living to her individual circumstances in such a way that both her actions and her words reflect the wisdom and character of her Lord.
Carmen J. Bryant @2004 (PDF), 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.
Posts in this series
Part 4: Is this post.