The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction? 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)
Related post from another site: Do I Want My Wife to be a Proverbs 31 Woman? Kinda. Sorta. Maybe
I’ve been considering why people are hesitant to believe reports of abuse. Not just that. I’m considering the responses even when they DO believe it. There is a tendency to blame the targets/victims and I have wondered why that is.
And here’s something that’s been a slight comfort to me. It’s not just us. Targets of abuse aren’t the only ones blamed for the things they’ve suffered. People want to blame victims, all victims of everything! And I am starting to think it’s innate. My friend’s child saw an abuse prevention video about child abuse. This 5 year old told her mom that she would tell if someone tried to hurt her, but she didn’t think that would happen because she wouldn’t be in the situation depicted in the video. No one taught her that. She did it to protect herself from having to believe that bad people can get to her. The mom corrected her and told her to never EVER blame the victim and so on.
Here’s another example. I have observed in a couple of fb neighborhood groups where I read that if someone reports a theft from a car, the next post or two rails on the victim of the crime for having left ___ in a car. This is consoling to me because I see that it’s not JUST targets of abuse that are blamed, it’s anyone who suffers.
I’ve seen people mourning the loss of children and thoughtless commenters asking if the child had been vaccinated or questions about the kid’s diet and so on. That’s not to comfort the mourners. It’s to comfort the ones who don’t want their kids to die from the same thing that took my friend’s child. They try to discover what could have been done to prevent that suffering so that they can avoid their own suffering. And in doing so, they blame the bereaved.
I could go on and on. It seems to boil down to this. People want to believe that bad things, all bad things, are preventable; that the victims of these bad things made some mistake and if they can just avoid those same mistakes, they will be just fine. Blamers seem to NEED to believe this. And when they are confronted with a horrible thing, they look for ways to believe that that thing could NEVER happen to them, that they can live and behave in such a way to avoid that particular suffering.
And so blamers ask heartless questions of grieving parents, of victims of crimes, of us. It’s not just us. It’s anyone who’s experienced suffering. Consider Job’s friends interrogating him and insisting that he had to have sinned. This has been going on since the beginning of time. But we don’t have to participate in this cycle. We can advocate for others and for ourselves. Now that I know what victim blaming is, I confront it. When I see it on Facebook, I call a fb foul and leave a comment like “fb foul. Criminals steal because they are criminals not because of the location of the things they stole. NEVER BLAME THE VICTIM.” I noticed a friend advocating for a child who had been bullied because he liked some character on his school supplies. The fb crowd was criticizing the child’s parents for buying him those school supplies. The school supplies didn’t beat him up. Bullies did. My friend entered the fray and educated those who were willing to listen and ranted to me about the ones who wouldn’t. I’m proud of her for trying!
These days people seek me out to tell me stories about how they noticed victim blaming and how they took the opportunity to advocate and educate. They will find me or call me and tell me about conversations with people to let me know that they are making a difference. I give them imaginary gold stars on our imaginary advocacy chart. I have my imaginary gold stars handy if you’d like to tell some advocacy stories.
For further reading, see Persis’s post on The Just-World Phenomena and Victim Blaming.
Also [this link was added after publication] Enabling? Sins of the Victim? Tetchy topics indeed!
Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.'” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2)
I am writing here about a subject that I am certain others know far more about than I do, but I am going to broach the subject and hope that many of you can weigh in.
There are certain psychological mechanisms and dynamics that accompany entrenched power and its reaction to those who confront it. No doubt psychologists have studied these attitudes and patterns. Whether it be the top dogs in some powerful corporation, a dictator like Pharaoh who imagines himself to be God, an abuser who sees himself entitled to power and control, or church leaders who long ago left off Christ’s example of greatness through humble, sacrificial servanthood, the very same kinds of reactions can be expected when we look to such power brokers for justice.
What happens when power goes wrong?
For our purposes, let’s consider specifically what happens in a local church or denomination when power goes wrong. We could spend quite a lot of time on HOW it went wrong as well, but we leave that for someone doing a PhD thesis in psychology or sociology. Such dissertations have no doubt already been written and hopefully with some benefit. But what do we have when power goes wrong in a local church, for instance? That, after all, is the typical stage where the Christian abuse victim is dealt so much injustice.
Those at “the top” in such a local church have jettisoned Christ’s example and teachings about greatness in the kingdom of God. He said it very clearly. Just as He came not to be served, but to serve and give His live as a ransom, so must we do also if we are to be “great” in God’s measure of greatness. When local church leaders yield to the temptation of personal, worldly “greatness,” they have been seduced by the sirens of “privilege.” Power and privilege, you see. The one follows the other. Get to the top, get in control, get that power “over,” and you can then enjoy the perks. Reputation. Adulation. Veneration. Money. Being served. Benefits. Privileges. Advantages. It is the spirit of “I will be like the Most High.”
Of course there are costs. Just like the Old West in which the quickest draw was always being challenged, and eventually someone even faster came along, so it is at the top. It turns out to be rather precarious up there and behind the scenes there are very often “shoot outs” as church leaders vie for top gun status. “Where is Associate Pastor Jones?” “Oh, he felt he was called by the Lord to another field of ministry and resigned.” Reality? Associate Pastor Jones got to be too threatening to the head honcho. Or at least Honcho perceived him as a threat.
Alright, power and privilege. Now, what do you suppose is going to happen when Linda comes along and reveals that her husband, a long time church member, significant donor, and let’s say, deacon, has been wickedly abusing her and the children for a long, long time? That he is, in fact, not what he portrays himself to be on Sundays? What do you think is going to happen?
Well, we all know, don’t we? To the degree that unmasking what this wicked man really is will cause a shakeup in that church, to that degree the power/privilege enjoying elite are going to tell Linda (in pious-sounding language of course) to be quiet, get back home, and let’s hear no more about it. If that sounds too critical of these power/privilege fellows, then just do some reading on “whistle-blowing.” Books on that subject are not hard to find. Because Linda, you see, has just blown the whistle. Turns out all is not perfect in Camelot after all, and Linda is rocking the peace of the kingdom.
I am a pessimist/realist when it comes to confronting the possessors of power and privilege in the local church. Just as Moses found when he confronted Pharaoh — and remember, Moses was given some pretty convincing tools to use! We call them the plagues! — just as Moses found, so will we. Pharaohs don’t appreciate being threatened. They don’t like being told what to do. Not even if God Himself is telling them anything! Did Pharaoh repent? Nope. And I believe that is the normal outcome we can expect from people “at the top.”
Therefore, just what does this say about the spiritual condition of most local churches today? It is the experience of so many of our readers, and our own personal experience as well, that the typical and even expected outcome of an abuse victim going to her pastor and church for help, for justice, is to be dealt a heaping serving of injustice. Ok, we might grant that in some of the cases this is due to pastors being naive about the nature and mentality of abuse. But even in those cases, if such church leaders and members would honestly examine themselves, there is a sense of power and privilege being threatened. And so we ask again — what does this all say about the true spiritual condition of most local churches?
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things.
And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?
Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”.
Romans 2: 1-5 NKJ
The word ‘knowing’
Thanks to Martin Lloyd Jones’s sermons on Romans (link), I have learned something that I never knew before. In Romans 2:4, “do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” the word ‘knowing’ has meaning that is not well conveyed in English translations.
It means not considering, not acknowledging, and not understanding — but it means more than merely those things. It means a willful contemptuous unconcern. A deliberate, contemptuous, and willful ignorance.
So when Paul is seeking to prick the hearts of unbelievers by talking about how they despise the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God is meant to lead them to repentance, he is pointing to the fact that they are not considering, not acknowledging and not understanding the goodness of God, and they are doing this willfully, deliberately and contemptuously.
The goodness of God is offered in providence, in common grace, and in the gospel; but some people show contempt for it and go about their lives deliberately ignoring all the evidence from creation, their consciences, and (if they have heard it) the preached Word of God. They willfully scorn the truth that the goodness of God is meant to lead them to repentance. Instead, they take advantage of the patience, goodness and longsuffering of God, to give themselves more time to entrench themselves in sin. And thus they fill up the cup of God’s wrath against them.
May the Lord preserve and protect us all, and guide us into the paths of truth.