Are you looking for a good wife?
If you are hoping that you will find a good woman to share your life with, and perhaps have the pleasure of making her a wife, it would be good to know what you are looking for. We’ve talked before about looks fading and basing your decision on such things as being very short sighted and not the basis of a good marriage. What a good wife is like is something many people have given advice on. Where better to turn to than the Bible. Proverbs 31: 10 – 31 it is a fabulous text to study.
10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
If you are a woman reading this, here are some study notes that will encourage you and that you may find rather different from what you may have been taught in the past about this passage. Take note men here too. There’s plenty to learn. My thanks to the late Rachel Held Evans for her excellent blog on this topic.
- It’s a poem with a unique structure emphasising it’s purpose
The subject of this twenty-two-line poem, the “woman of noble character”, is meant to be a tangible expression of the book’s celebrated virtue of wisdom. The author is essentially showing us what wisdom looks like in action.
Packed with hyperbolic, militaristic imagery, the poem is an acrostic, so the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. This communicates a sense of totality as the poet praises the everyday achievements of an upper-class Jewish wife, a woman who keeps her household functioning day and night by buying, trading, investing, planting, sewing, spindling, managing servants, extending charity, providing food for the family, and preparing for each season. Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday.
As a poem, Proverbs 31 should not be interpreted prescriptively as a job description for all women. This passage was intended to show a young man the qualities he should look for in a wife and the things he should value in her. Rather its purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up the loom.
2. The “Target Audience” of Proverbs 31 is Men
In the Jewish culture, it’s not the women who memorise Proverbs 31, but the men. They memorise it, to sing it as a song of praise to the women in their lives—their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends.
It is very interesting to note that the only instructive language in the poem is directed at the poem’s intended male audience: “Praise her for all her hands have done.” Many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavours of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith. An empire of books, conferences, products, and media has evolved from a subtle re-positioning the poem’s intended audience from that of men to that of women. No longer presented as a song through which a man offers a woman praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns it. This misses the point of the text entirely.
3. Proverbs 31 Celebrates Valour
The first line of the poem—“a virtuous woman who can find?”—is best translated, “a woman of valour who can find?” (The Hebrew is eshet chayil, “woman of valour”; the male equivalent is gibor chayil, “man of valour.”) Jewish women today cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice, to battles with cancer with a hearty “eshet chayil”! (Think of it as something like the Jewish “you go girl.”)
Valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. If you are a stay-at-home mom, be a stay-at-home mom of valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, or a barista at Starbucks, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. In other words it is not our roles that define us, but the integrity and bravery we bring to those roles. That’s what makes you a Proverbs 31 Woman.
You don’t have to turn to Proverbs 31 to find women of valour. You can turn to Sarah, Deborah, Esther, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, Martha, the Apostle Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Tabitha too. And you can turn to the women of valour in your life and around the world who are bringing their unique gifts, insights, passions, and callings to bring hope and healing to the world. That’s what it really means to honour Proverbs 31.