A Cry For Justice

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

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, 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.

Previous parts in this series:  Part 1     Part 2     Part 3

11 Comments

  1. Barely Reformed

    “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.]”

    Because of his reading of Proverbs 31, a former pastor of mine was convinced that by and large, mothers were to be homemakers. The primary exception to this was engaging in “production”, by which he meant some home based small business. Not too surprisingly, a number of moms from that church were trying to make a go of hosting parties in their homes selling everything from jewelry, makeup, scrapbooking supplies, health supplements, etc. before a few of them finally had to seek jobs outside the home out of financial necessity. This was about the height of the Great Recession.

    I finally figured out that the best thing to do was quietly going about our business as a family (under the radar) regardless of what he might occasionally preach from the pulpit. The only problem was that we would have to be careful about who we told or asked prayer from. We are no longer at that church.

    • Yeah, choosing to just go on being yourself, under the radar, rather than fit into their ticky tacky box, is often wise choice.

  2. a prodigal daughter returns

    Beaten up by Proverbs 31
    I am a devout lover of the Bible. I start each day with it, I’d probably die to defend it, but, I can’t handle reading Proverbs 31. I spent decades in churches that have only 2 portions of the bible that actually apply to women. Ephesians 5:23 and Proverbs 31. The legalists that interpreted Proverbs 31 told us our entire worth was dependent on how we served our families, our husband primarily. Staying up late, getting up early, was a measure of our virtue. We had rules handed to us that men would never submit to. And I notice in churches that develop dress codes for women and men, the men can blend into larger society that women stand out conspicuously

    For example, one denomination only requires men to not wear gold wedding bands and shave a certain way while women are stuck in some odd prairie outfits with uncut hair piled on their head and faces void of makeup. In most male authoritarian religions women are stuck in some kind of Burka which severely limits employment and social opportunities and men — they fit in, they sacrifice very little comfort.

    Proverbs 31 more than any other passage other than obey your husbands is used to control, dominate and make slaves out of women. Men would not tolerate the same strictures on their lives and Christianity would completely die out if it did. Unfortunately to this day I still hear the voice of oppression dictating that this passage meant you are a workhorse until 2 am and then get up at 4 am for devotions whether you just had baby number 8, 3 days before or not. Older women were just as bad as the men in making this passage about endured slavery.

  3. 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.

    I love this! The Proverbs 31 woman can sleep long and soundly because she doesn’t have to worry that her family can’t afford the oil to leave the little oil lamp burning all night!

    And taking this one step further, the Proverbs 31 woman married to an abusive husband who is MISmanaging the family finances may not sleep long and soundly at night because she’s worried about paying the rent and bills and putting food on the table for the kids and having to pay the expensive hairdresser because her husband insists on her hairdo being blonde and fancy and he seems to have run up the new credit card to its limit already!

    Likewise the Proverbs 31 woman who has divorced her abuser and is living in poverty because he is dodging child support — or because he and the courts pressured her so much in the divorce process that she gave in to a highly unjust financial settlement — she may not sleep soundly. And who would dare condemn her? Who would dare say she isn’t a Proverbs 31 woman?

    The financial difficulties are not of her making: they are caused by the abuser.

  4. Fear of the Lord (the beginning of wisdom)
    Diligence and productivity
    Care for others
    Concern for the poor

    Christian women who have suffered domestic abuse usually have these qualities in abundance. But many people don’t perceive them, let alone honour the women for having them.

    Fear of the Lord
    This shows in so many ways: some of which are fear of displeasing God and disobeying the Bible by not submitting to her husband enough, not being longsuffering enough, not being forgiving enough, not “covering her husband’s sins in love” enough.

    Diligence and productivity
    Amazing diligence in walking on eggshells to try to ‘avoid trouble’. Diligence in trying to keep the family finances from falling in a heap and meet the needs of her husband and the children (putting herself way last).

    Care for others
    Bending over backward trying to keep the kids from seeing the full extent of how bad their father is and how unhappy she is; trying to raise the kids to love God and have good characters, while their dad covertly or overtly undermines and opposes her efforts.

    Concern for the poor
    Trying to tithe even when she can’t afford it. Giving to missions and to other survivors of abuse her time, her energy, money if she has it. . . And feeling guilty thinking she isn’t giving enough.

  5. Seeing Clearly

    I am thankful for this 4 part series. It is the first time that Proverbs 31 has made any sense to me. Or that it has seemed relevant to the current century. But it seems rather useless to discover it now. I did the long, tough marriage thing. I took on every thrifty challenge he threw out there. I was the sweet, quiet wIfe of a pastor who did my share of volunteering in the church, and yes, I did play the piano. I worked 3/4 time in my own profession to supplement his income, tried to raise our children while he was telling them why their mother was a lesser person. According to him, I was financially irresponsible, didn’t devote enough time to him, rarely had the correct perspective, got in the way of his ministry, and definitely was not spiritually wise.

    I loved my profession, partially, because it allowed me to connect with people in the real world. Now that I am on disability, that connection is gone, has been for 15 years.

    I long for Christians, friends, family to tell me that I was wise (as in Proverbs 31 ?) to divorce him. One renewed friendship from the church where he pastored the longest, stated it this way. ” He was a good pastor, but he wasn’t a good husband”. I long for my children, who I now have a comfortable relationship with, to tell me they believe I made the best choice I could when I filed for divorce. While I do have good friendships at differing levels, “divorce” is sort of a taboo word. That leaves a lonely void.

    As a woman who loves God and set out to live in integrity, but also live in the church, I arrive at the other side and realize much of life was for naught. And it was a tough life. When I would tell him my life seemed so hard, his response was that everybody’s life is hard, so get used to it.

    So, I guess I am in that space where these 4 posts have stirred up a lot of deep hurts and regrets. But I am OK with that. Because in a little bit of time, I will be inspired to reframe how I see my life as a woman now. One does not have to be connected to a man to see herself in the chapter. And I now have a much better knowledge of what Proverbs 31 really is saying. I will be inspired. The road walking to a new life is a long road. I don’t know that I will ever feel settled.

    • Carol, (((((hugs))))

      Here is a post that shows you were wise to divorce him:
      The Bible virtually commands divorce for domestic abuse

    • Anotheranon

      Carol, could I just encourage you a little? Your service to the Lord hasn’t been for nothing. He knows you have tried so hard to do what is right. He will be glorified.
      Matt.25:40 “And the King will answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” I hope this will comfort you.

  6. Stillblessed

    I enjoyed this series of posts on Proverbs 31 more than I expected I would. I, too, have struggled with being the “Proverbs 31 wife” that the denominations I was in and homeschool publications I read taught was the ‘noble’ way of living. I wanted to be that wife; I worked to be that wife, while living with an abusive husband. Luke so many others have written, I began to dislike that whole chapter. I also spent a lot of time studying it for myself, along with many other parts of the Bible having to do with women. Over time, through my own studying and more Biblically correct teaching, I began to see that what I had been taught about Proverbs 31 wasn’t all correct. But it was hard to find much teaching about it that seemed Biblically sound, yet still didn’t demand a wife be ‘perfect’. I found this series to be very well balanced. I love how it brought out the basic foundation of the Proverbs 31 woman – she fears the Lord, seeks wisdom, and desires to live God’s way.

  7. M-s-t

    There seems to be not much mention of the fact that us ‘common’ women are comparing ourselves to a woman who was most likely a queen. Of course [she had no fear of the future- she had plenty of wealth to ensure she and her family would live well for many years. Of course she can accomplish all of those things listed- she didn’t need to scrub floors and clean toilets. There is much wisdom in all things biblical but I seriously doubt our Lord intended for us to compared ourselves to this woman.

    • Hi and welcome to the blog. We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      I changed your screen name to M-s-t as a precaution (it may not be safe to use your real name on this blog). If you want us to change that screen name to something else, just email The woman behind the curtain: twbtc.acfj@gmail.com — she will be more than happy to assist. 🙂

      I’m not sure we can be certain that the woman in Proverbs 31 was a queen, but it’s likely she her household included extended family and quite posibbly servants as well. So she probably didn’t have to do all the housework singlehandedly.

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