A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction? (Part 1 of 4)

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.

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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)

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Related post from another site: Do I Want My Wife to be a Proverbs 31 Woman? Kinda. Sorta. Maybe 

Update: one of our readers has written some excellent insights into Proverbs 31, on another post. Click here to see what she said.

8 Comments

  1. Lisa

    Reading about being a virtuous wife so the husband can “flourish” and have a “fulfilling life” just reminds me how my husband used me for the advancement in his career, but invested nothing good in my life. I’m so disgusted with the wife being told she is responsible for everything to include making Mr. Selfish happy and successful.

  2. Has anyone else heard that Prov. 31 is meant to be a song of praise to the woman? I heard that somewhere, but I can’t find anyone to confirm or deny it.

  3. Annie

    My husband has a real gift for making my virtues seem like faults and his faults seem like virtues.

  4. Diagrégoreó

    Thank you for writing about this. Surprisingly, I didn’t know about Proverbs 31 until God started waking me up to the truth about life. (The name I use here {diagrégoreó} is from Luke 9:32 and means, “I awake out of sleep, am thoroughly awake.”)

    As I started searching scripture looking for help and hope after realizing that the all the things I had been taught and believed about my life and humanity were not real, God started revealing truth through his Word. This part of the Bible was such a huge part of understanding why I was the way I was.

    The religion I was raised in is one of the biggest cults still in operation today. Unlike many other “Christian” denominations, most members of this cult brag that they have never read the Bible, so I didn’t really start searching God’s word until later in life. Worldly success stories about high levels of education reached, top ranking athletic achievements etc., are the things that are respected.

    So when I came across Proverbs 31, I cried. This was my heart and my nature! Throughout my life I had been criticized for caring too much about things that didn’t gain me anything, working too hard for little or no financial reward, and not caring enough about how I looked or how others perceived me to be. Now, let me just say here that I was raised with and by people who have no conscience and they very much care about how others perceive them to be. (In one of the original checklists for psychopathy by either Hervey Cleckley or Robert Hare, “impression management” was the first item on the list. It’s on the web somewhere if you care to look.)

    As years went by I found information that helped me to better understand my nature. [I found out that I am] geared toward others and relationships mean more to me than money or status or material things. (I had to be taught vanity because to my family, how you looked to the world and how the world responded to you, was how they valued you.) I had no value to my family as I was painfully shy and hated attention. My family thought I was special needs because I was not like them.

    But abusers who try to squeeze every woman into the Proverbs 31 mold are just going by a different means in order to gain control. They care nothing for truth because, as stated in John 8:44, there is no truth in them. In the hands of an abuser, the most caring, considerate person can be made to feel absolutely worthless, and using Proverbs 31 as a weapon would be completely soul-destroying. People without the ability to love others are never capable of being satisfied and we are forewarned about them in 2 Tim. 3:3. Here the Greek word, aspondos explains why:

    aspondos: (an adjective which is the negation of spondē, “a libation-sacrifice” used for making treaties and covenants) – properly, unable to please (placate) someone; implacable, not to be bound by truce.”

    Of course these same type of people wouldn’t know a Proverbs 31 wife even if Jesus himself came down and said it was so, because as someone noted about people without a conscience, “They know the cost/price of everything, but the value of nothing.”

    • survivorthrivor2

      Diagregoreo, I too am her! Awaken from sleep and thoroughly awake! Thank you, glory to God, and I thank Him for His mercy & lovingkindness. I did read Proverbs 31, probably a lot throughout my life as a believer, but didn’t think much about it at all. It was just a passage in the Bible to read, so I did.

      Having had some time to actually look back and remember what my younger self might have summarized about it, I thought of my parents. My Father treated my Mother like a Queen, and in turn, my Mother treated my Father like a King with all the respect, trust and admiration she could. They were truly amazing and I know I was very blessed. They lived 1 Corinthians 13 (The Love Chapter) almost to the letter, and not just with each other, but with all they came in contact with. They are my heroes!

      In my mind, I knew I didn’t have someone who loved me like Christ says a man should love his wife. It was a painful reality. As it says in Ephesians 5:25, 5:28 and in Colossians 3:19, which is my favorite “Husbands love your wives [be affectionate and sympathetic with them] and do not be harsh or bitter or resentful toward them.” So, therefore, how could I possibly be “her” the Proverbs 31 woman? It was impossible for me to “re-act” properly, to a husband who was not “acting” properly to me. In a marriage it is not a one way street. I hope you understand all the implied externals, we must all take our own responsibility, as the Holy Spirit leads us in all truth.

      God is a God of order and has an order to everything He does and our part is to follow His order. I believe if a truly Godly man does love a woman as Christ commanded him, the woman, if Godly, will follow. (I realize those of us who have been and are targets of an abuser do not fall into the category of being married to a truly Godly man.)

      I know it seems simplistic, but God is simple, in His true nature. Psalm 68:5 “A Father to the Fatherless and a judge and protector of the widows IS God in His Holy Habitation.”

    • survivorthrivor2

      My Father said that his entire life, “Most people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”

  5. One of our readers has written some excellent insights into Proverbs 31, on another post. Click here to see what she said.

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