For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 16 – Proverbs 31:10-31 (Related)
One year on Mothering Sunday my wife received a card from our highly creative elder son, which marked her out of 13 as a good Mum, according to the criteria of Proverbs 31. Sadly she failed miserably when it came to buying fields and selling clothes, but she did pretty well on the rest, if you translate for example the Hebrew for ‘from afar’ in v.14 as ‘from Tesco’s’. It’s a lovely picture, and as someone once said, about as realistic as Snow White. And of course nowadays, in these days of ‘househusbands’ it’s a notoriously difficult passage to read because it can be seen as politically incorrect, and about keeping the little wifey at home while the men go and do the important stuff. So what positives might we gain from this text?
The first thing to look at is the context, and if this passage is linked, as many think, to the first nine verses of chapter 31, it puts a new slant on it. King Lemuel (no idea who he was!) has been taught wisdom by his mother, including the kind of characteristics he might find in a good wife. As both Queen Mother and Mother-in-Law she clearly values the kind of characteristics listed in this passage. In fact it’s an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so it is literally an A to Z of good character (according, of course, to the culture of the time). I wonder what words we would use if we were to construct such a poem today?
But what constitutes good character? The word translated ‘noble’ in v.10 and 29 is a Hebrew word from the context of battle: great warriors are described in the same way. This is far from the shrinking violet ‘little woman at home’ persona which our culture has been rejecting for decades. So a better translation then ‘noble’ might be ‘courageous’. She is an entrepreneur, a diligent worker, a carer and a provider for the family, and her contributions to the stability of society are obviously valued highly here. But not just the family: in v.20 her care for the poor is held up as a virtue, and she is clearly not so wrapped up in her family group that she turns a blind eye to the needs of others. Charity might begin at home, but it doesn’t stay there.
But to get even more deeply into the text, we need to note two changes within the passage as a whole. The first is a move from what she does to who she is. Before v.25 there is a list of her achievements and actions, but after that it is much more about her strength, wisdom and efficiency. Both her husband and her children praise her, and are clearly proud of her. But above all she fears the Lord (v.31), an assertion which provides the climax to the passage. All that she does, the text implies, flows not just from her devotion to her family, but also to her God. No wonder her husband has full confidence in her (v.11).
The second change is more subtle, though, but even more profound. In v.10 the question is asked (by the Queen Mother?) ‘Who can find such a great woman?’ Then through most of the text such a find is described – she does this, that and the other. But then there is an abrupt change in v.29. Instead of talking about the good wife, the writer suddenly talks to her: ‘… you surpass them all.’ Apparently many Jewish husbands, as part of their Sabbath rituals each Friday evening, recite these words to their wives. There are loads of great women about, but you beat the lot of them! I’m guessing those wives really look forward to that weekly affirmation of who they are, and I wonder whether the rest of us might have something to learn from those Jewish men.
So I wonder whether a more constructive approach to this text, rather than avoiding it as portraying stereotypes which are just not acceptable in the 21st century, might be to learn from the intentions behind it: to affirm the tremendous value of women in our society, and to bring regular personal praise to the one God has given to us.