Today I'm happy to introduce guest blogger Katherine Alumbaugh, my former intern, who holds a ThM degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Let’s start at the beginning of Proverbs 31. Here are verses 1 and 2: “The words of King Lemuel, an oracle that his mother taught him. O my son, O son of my womb, O son of my vows.”
Who is speaking and who is being addressed? This is the advice of a Queen Mother to her son, the King. Originally, these are words of advice from a woman to a man. Just to be completely clear, the original audience of Proverbs 31 was a man, not a woman or women in general. Nowhere in the chapter does the author address wives or women hoping to be wives. These are a woman’s words to her son, who has a very specific job—he’s a king.
In verses 3–9 she gives him instruction on moderation in drinking, ruling justly, and protecting the poor and vulnerable. Starting in verse 10, this Queen Mother begins describing the type of wife her son should choose.
Think of it this way — don’t you think Queen Elizabeth probably had a few words for Prince William on what kind of wife he should choose? Can you imagine the PR nightmare the royal family would have had if he had chosen a wife who was pretty but not much else?
This is a similar situation. The woman King Lemuel chooses will be a queen! His mother has first-hand experience with this role. In describing the kind of wife her son should look for, she describes a woman who has influence and power. The household she runs has looks a lot more like Downton Abbey than your house or my house.
One characteristic of good writing is when the writer shows the reader something instead of telling the reader. The same is true here. The reason the author details all of these “tasks” is because they show what a godly woman looks like in this context. We get a glimpse into the daily life of an aristocratic woman in the ancient Near East. Verse 15 references her “female servants.” (Note, she has multiple servants; she is not running herself ragged trying to do this all on her own). She is active rather than passive in managing her household. She directs and delegates to servants, using her influence for the benefit of everyone around her, including those who work for her.
Even though the woman describe is an aristocrat, the wisdom in this passage applies to everyone. The point is not that all women should do these specific things (or the modern equivalents). The summary verse of this chapter reads, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” (31:30). The point is that the ideal characteristic in a spouse is the fear of the Lord, which manifests itself in godliness and wisdom.
The cultural idea that a woman’s highest attributes are charm and beauty is nothing new. People believed it then, and people believe it now. The man reading this proverb is meant to understand that a woman’s charm and beauty may give him the impression that a life with her would be good, but these characteristics can be deceiving if there is no character to back them up. Charm and beauty can be false illusions promising a man happiness.
Just to be clear, charm and beauty don’t have to be deceiving. We don’t want to go to a different extreme and say that beauty is bad—it’s not. God is the source of all beauty. And other Scriptures tell men to delight in the beauty of their wives (see Song of Solomon, basically the entire book). But this Proverb (31:30) is saying that beauty alone does not make a woman a good wife. The true characteristics that lead to a happy life are godliness and wisdom lived out.
One of the beautiful things about the wisdom of Proverbs is that it can be applied to anyone in any circumstance. In 31:10, this ideal woman is called ishet-hayil, or the woman of valor. It’s a title that has significance.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, immediately after the book of Proverbs comes the story of two widows [Ruth and Naomi] who are about as far from a palace as they could be. These two women, related by marriage, are homeless and at risk of starving to death. That is, until one of them, the one who is also called ishet-hayil, a woman of valor, risks everything to provide for her mother-in-law. And her selfless acts lead to her being “praised in the city gates,” just like the very last saying in the book of Proverbs describes the ideal wife. In Jewish tradition, many see Ruth as the flesh-and-blood example of a Proverbs 31 woman. If that’s true, then standing side by side in the pages of Scripture are both a Queen and a homeless woman demonstrating that being a woman of valor has nothing to do with a woman’s circumstances, and everything to do with her character.
So, what does the ideal woman really look like? I think the answer is a lot simpler than we make it out to be. The ideal woman looks like Christ. She is a woman who displays love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. She seeks justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with her God. And no matter her circumstances, she seeks to live out God’s kingdom. This woman uses every resource, everything at her disposal, to care for others.
An interesting thing about Proverbs 31 is that it is chock full of military imagery. The Hebrew uses words like “spoils,” as in spoils of war, and “prey.” Verse 17 could be literally translated, as “she girds her loins.” Verse 29 describes her as having “done valiantly.” All of these terms are normally used in the Old Testament in heroic warfare literature, but here, God uses them to describe a woman. This woman is not a pastels-only, soft-spoken, doesn’t-have-her-own-opinions kind of woman. Over and over, the author speaks of her strength. She’s a businesswoman engaged in international commerce. She makes decisions and takes the initiative to help others. She is a leader.
Just a side note, feminism did not come up with the idea that a woman has more to offer the world than a pretty face. God did. And He has been saying it a whole lot longer. But maybe we haven’t been listening. Carolyn Custis James once wrote, “The greatest asset a woman brings to her marriage is not her beauty, her charm, her feminine wiles, or even her ability to bear a child. It is her theology” (When Life and Beliefs Collide, 190).
Whether a woman is running a palace or trying to find the next meal for her family, if she is a woman of valor, she will live life in a way that reflects Christ to those around her.