I have a hunch that the most-hated woman in the Bible is not bad-girl Jezebel. It’s the “woman of noble character” in Proverbs 31. One friend whined to me, “I can’t stand that Proverbs 31 lady. I feel tired just thinking about her.”
Who can blame us? P-31 is so competent—so intelligent, industrious, and strong—that she intimidates your garden-variety believer. (That’s all of us, right?) She certainly challenges anyone suggesting that the ideal wife has no independent thoughts, or that she’s unintelligent, dainty, and fearful.
It’s easy to shy away from P-31 because we identify so little with that kind of perfection. Yet perhaps a few observations can help us appreciate rather than abhor her.
First, the word “noble’ used to describe her in Proverbs 31:10 is used in other contexts to refer to prowess or bravery in battle. Think “valor.” So we could call P-31 a “woman of strength.” We find this same word used to describe Ruth (Ruth 3:11) and the “good wife” in Proverbs 12:4.
Perhaps it helps, too, to know that Proverbs 31:10–31 is a poem. In fact it’s an acrostic with a line devoted to each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Think: “An Excellent Wife From A to Z.” Maybe the author laid out the chapter this way to show completion. Or perhaps to aid memorization.
Certainly the placement of this section of scripture helps us see that the first and last chapters of Proverbs serve as bookends. While Proverbs closes with this description of the noble woman, it opens with wisdom personified as a female. And throughout the Book wisdom speaks. “In Proverbs 31 we find someone who is probably equally a model for men and women as someone who teaches wisdom,” says Dr. Robert Chisholm, who chairs the Old Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Dr. Chisholm also points out that P-31 is probably a member of the upper class: “Proverbs tends to reflect this mindset of an upper-level official giving his son advice on how to be a responsible citizen and leader in the community.” In this case the husband has a large estate supporting many people and businesses, and he stations himself in the gate—the ancient Near Eastern version of City Hall. Meanwhile, his wife runs the plantation. This is not your average working-class couple. And in that sense, Ruth was nothing like this woman.
For us to think our lives must directly parallel hers is about as logical as thinking God wants us to exemplify Martha-Washington-meets-Martha-Stewart. Of course if we had that many servants, we too would have time to raise our kids, purchase exotic foods, run real estate businesses, plant vineyards, make and sell clothing, oh—and help the poor ….
The point of the passage is not that we should model our schedules after P-31’s or aspire to accomplish as much as she does. Rather we need to see the character behind the activity: She is a strong, hard-working, others-focused woman. And more than anything else, she possesses the key quality that runs deeper than charm and outlasts beauty—fear of the Lord (Prov. 31:30).