I’ve always despised Proverbs 31, until this week. Throughout my life, this bit of biblical scripture has been regularly used to praise certain types of women and shame all other women. I have never been what is considered a “capable wife”, at least not in the ways I was taught to interpret it previously as a young girl and then even more so as a nervous newlywed. This week, I read all of Proverbs 31. I loathed this chapter, and how despicably it was used to bait women into judging each other and encouraging men to think this cattiness was normal and right, that I had never read it myself, not wanting to bring myself further down. I feel like using this scripture as we typically hear it preached around Mother’s Day, at some weddings, and in the grooming process of the purity movement, is a dangerous interpretation that has caused harm, whether intentionally or not. In many ways, this chapter is hyperbole, like a biblical tall tale. Verses 1-9, which are not normally connected with Proverbs 31, are said to be from the mother of King Lemuel. There is no consensus regarding who Lemuel truly is. It sounds like his mom is giving him a pep talk before he leaves for college, advising him to stay away from women and not to drink. A little while later, she suggests he give alcohol to people who are poor so they won’t remember their sorrows while next recommending that he defend the cause of people in need. Then, after that motivational yet somewhat contradictory speech, the verses we normally associate with Proverbs 31, those that left me feeling incompetent for much of my life as a woman, come into play. Viewing this as a caricature, King Lemuel’s mom sounds like a stereotypical nagging parent of a young adult, giving well-intentioned advice, possibly asked for, possibly not. Imagine said parent saying verses 10-31 and the overall picture completely changes. Yes, given that we don’t know who Lemuel is, we also don’t know that his mother had anything to do with the second part of Proverbs 31. In the same way, we don’t know that she didn’t. Since Lemuel himself may not be real, it’s not implausible to offer that these verses weren’t meant to be taken literally and were actually facetious. In verse 10, a capable wife is compared to a precious jewel. Either, nearly no one is a capable wife because jewels are rare, or all wives are capable and should be treated as precious jewels. Further along, this wife is like a merchant ship bringing food from far away, waking up in the night to cook in verses 14-15. This was normal then, because there wasn’t electricity and it takes hours for bread to rise and bake. This wasn’t extraordinary. It was necessary for anyone to survive at the time. Next, this same capable wife buys a vineyard. Based on laws of the time, she probably wouldn’t have been able to buy land, as I understand it. A female Israelite could own land that she inherited from her father only if there was no male relative for the land to go to. It’s highly unlikely that she would have money on her own and be at liberty to buy anything with it, much less a piece of land. This leads me to assume Proverbs 31 is an exaggeration and not actually meant to be used to advise or admonish women, especially not women of today. In verse 18, the capable wife never sleeps. She’s also charitable, and for some reason, it’s extra special that she has winter gear. Her sheets are handmade and her clothes are fancy. Beyond this, she’s an entrepreneur. When she opens her mouth, only nice things come out. She knows everything that happens in her house, and of course, she never sits to take a break. Her kids call her awesome and her husband says that she’s better than all the rest. You should be picking up on my sarcasm by now. Do you know a woman truly like this? Is she actually happy? Teaching Proverbs 31 as if this were a rational goal is asking women to exist only to benefit others. Even when this was written, during a time when women were viewed as property and being a wife was generally necessary for survival, these ideals were lofty and unattainable. For all we know, these are very possibly the words of a mom who thinks that every woman isn’t good enough for her little boy. When I read Proverbs 31 as I might read the unbelievable adventures of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, I feel assured that my worth as a person is not contingent on who I am as a wife or a mother. My children say I’m awesome because I’m their mom and they love me. My husband says I’m better than all the rest because I’m his wife and he loves me. It isn’t because I do anything different from anyone else. It is not because I’m actually better or more awesome than another; it’s because there is only one me. If I wasn’t married and I didn’t have children, there would be someone else who saw greatness in me, because my greatness isn’t due to my last name or the zebra marks across my abdomen. My greatness comes from me being me as I was created to be. If you’re going to use Proverbs 31 to teach anything, maybe use it like a rancher might teach a new farmhand how to lasso a giant blue ox caught in a tornado eating pancakes with an ax as a fork. It can be a good story in the right context. Without context, tall tales become legends people believe are true, striving to achieve feats beyond reality and reason.
2 thoughts on “Once upon a time, there was a capable wife…”
Wow, wow, wow. Mindblowing alternative view of Prov. 31. What a freeing perspective. I always hated Prov. 31 too because I perpetually failed to live up to its impossible standards, and because of it – and the older Christian women who shoved it down my throat – to this day feel ashamed and like a failure as a woman, wife, mother, and homemaker. The thought that it’s snark – omg. What a relief! Love your perspective, insight, and sarcasm. This should be shouted to the rooftops.
It is a freeing perspective, isn’t it? When I read Proverbs 31 now, it makes me chuckle