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05 June 2018

The “Proverbs 31 woman.”

It doesn’t just mean a devout homemaker.

PROVERBS 31 WOMAN /'prɑ.vərbz 'θɜr.di 'wʌn 'wʊ.mən/ n. A productive woman, like the ideal wife described in Proverbs 31.
2. A complement offered to a valued wife, whether or not she matches the woman of Proverbs 31.

Among many Christians, the ultimate compliment you can pay your wife is to call her a “Proverbs 31 woman.” Properly, it means she meets the bible’s standard (more precisely, Lemuel’s mother’s standard) for an ideal wife. But since people don’t bother to read their bibles, Christians included, they really just mean she’s a good Christian. Whether she’s actually productive is a whole other deal.

Yeah, I’ll quote the relative part. It’s not the whole of the chapter; just this bit.

Proverbs 31.10-31 KWL
10 A capable woman: Who’s found one? She’s worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband’s heart trusts her, and he has no shortage of loot.
12 She pays him back with good, not evil, all her life’s days.
13 She asks for wool and flax. She’s happy to work with her hands.
14 She’s like a merchant ship: She imports food.
15 She rises when it’s still night. She provides meat for her house and her employees.
16 She organizes a field. She plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands.
17 She belts herself with strength. She makes her arms strong.
18 She tastes her merchandise to make sure it’s good. Her lamp isn’t put out at night.
19 She puts her hands on the spindle. Her palms hold the distaff.
20 Her palms spread for the humble. Her hands reach out to the needy.
21 She doesn’t fear snow for her household: All her house are warmly clothed in red.
22 She knits herself tapestries. Her clothing is purple.
23 Her husband is recognized at the city gates. He sits with the land’s elders.
24 She makes and sells tunics. She gives belts to Canaanites.
25 Her clothing is strength and honor. She will relax in days to come.
26 Her mouth is opened in wisdom. The Law of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She watches the goings-on of her house. She doesn’t eat bread idly.
28 Her children rise and call her happy. Her husband praises her:
29 “Many daughters do well, but you surpass all of them!”
30 Grace can be false. Loveliness is useless. A woman who respects the LORD will be praised.
31 Give her back the fruit of her hands, and her deeds will praise her in the city gates.

Check it out. Only once does her devotion to God come up; in verse 30. And no doubt her good deeds are the result of loving God and wanting to excel for his sake. But the bulk of this passage is about the fact this woman works. Works hard. Gets stuff done, and does it well.

Not just a stay-at-home mom.

American Christians tend to use “Proverbs 31 woman” to describe a devout stay-at-home mom who manages to raise the kids, do the housework, and have a profitable side project going. But that’s a 20th century concept. (And yes, I’m aware we live in the 21st.) Don’t get me wrong; being a stay-at-home mom is a hard job. So’s being a working mom. Those ladies deserve honor for keeping their families functional.

But this isn’t that. Remember, Lemuel was a king. (Scholars guess he was Edomite, ’cause there are no Israeli kings with that name.) So, befitting his lifestyle, the woman Lemuel’s mom praises runs an estate. This woman has a household staff. And she’s not one of those idle duchesses who dabbles in hobbies while the staff does everything: She works too. She’s a businesswoman.

Lemuel’s mom was trying to give him an idea of the sort of woman he oughta have in his harem. Yes, I said harem. This was a patriarchal culture, and men could have multiple wives, and kings tended to accumulate harems. But contrary to many people’s ideas about how harems worked, the women weren’t expected to lounge around in luxury and await their husband’s attention. They had children. They were expected to manage their children, supervise the kids’ nurses and tutors, supervise their own servants, and busy with other duties.

Some scholars wonder whether “A capable woman: Who’s found one?” implies the answer is no. I doubt it. Lemuel’s mother was likely describing herself. Lemuel wouldn’t have kept, and spread, her advice otherwise.

His mom describes the capable woman as producing fabric and fine-quality clothing. As preparing food for not just herself, but the servants. As designing and planting a vineyard. As earning enough money to cover her household needs: She doesn’t need an allowance from her husband. She earns so much, she can afford to give to the needy.

Her character is largely implied by her actions: She’s not idle. She doesn’t settle for inferior product. She plans ahead. She takes care of herself. She’s an able complement to her husband, who praises her for her deeds, along with his children.

Lemuel was expected to not just find such women to marry, but to give them the honor they deserved. Such wives would be of great value to their community, and particularly to him. His value would increase because of such a wife. He ought never take her for granted. He should be so productive.

How literally do people mean it?

So yeah, when people describe the women they know as a “Proverbs 31 woman,” they aren’t necessarily describing a productive woman. They tend to only mean a devout one. Who appears to have her act together when it comes to raising her kids and running her house.

Like I said, people don’t read their bibles. So they’ve not seriously studied Proverbs 31. They just know the saying describes a good woman. They know what they think is a good woman, so they call her that when she meets their ideals. If a man figures an ideal woman is one who cooks him dinner and cleans the house, he’ll call her “my Proverbs 31 woman,” and figure that’s a good Christian-sounding compliment.

Likewise a woman’s fellow Christians will call their friend “a Proverbs 31 woman,” by which they mean she’s devout like they are. And appears to have the rest of her life in order, but mostly they mean she’s devout. She follows Jesus, she shares their views on moral issues, and sometimes shares their politics. Whether she gives to charity like the literal woman in this passage does, kinda depends on the Christians and their priorities.

So yeah, a “Proverbs 31 woman” in popular Christian culture tends to be a bit of an empty compliment. They’re trying to say she’s a good woman; they’re trying to say it in a superlative way; they’re missing the point of Proverbs 31 in the process. They don’t even know the point.

The point is a valuable, hard-working woman who supports her family and community. And y’know, that’s not just a good compliment to make of a woman. It works for a man too. It’s just you’re not gonna hear a lot of Christians talking about being “a good Proverbs 31 man.” Not just because they’d be weirded out by making this passage gender-neutral, but because (sad to say) a lot more women than men meet this standard. But every husband and father should be a good Proverbs 31 type man. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.