The Woman in Proverbs 31: Yikes!

Okay. There’s a woman in the Bible that leaves me feeling a little, well unnerved. And she comes up in this Sunday’s lectionary (RCL, Year B, September 20). Described in Proverbs 31, she’s known as the “capable wife.” Unfortunately, we’re missing a few verses in Sunday’s lectionary, which makes a huge difference.

Here’s how it starts on Sunday:

“A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life…”

Well, that’s so true. Capable husbands, wives, spouses, and partners ARE hard to find, ARE more precious than jewels.

Yet “the good wife” unnerves me is because she’s SO accomplished. And kind. And smart. She’s running a business from home, but she’s not dictatorial. Rather, she’s working side by side with her servants. She takes care of those who are in need. She makes her own clothes, and she makes clothes for other people. And she dresses stylishly, wearing “fine linen and purple.”

She apparently does not sleep, given that “her lamp does not go out at night.” And when she does sleep, she gets up early, “providing food for her house.” She reaches out her hand to the poor and needy; her clothes are made of “strength and dignity.”

AND her children rise up and call her happy, along with her husband. (He’s down at the town square, of course, thinking deep thoughts with the elders of the land, probably because everything is running so well at home.)

Which would indicate that not only is she productive…but that she gives everyone around her a lovely sense of well-being. Because of the well-oiled ship she runs, and because of her strong emotional balance, other family members are freed to live their lives as fully contributing members of society—happy and productive themselves. They go out for the day and come home to a lovely table, groaning with home-cooked food every night.

Yikes. Whew. Lots of pressure here.

Alright I admit it. My lesser self pops right up and says that it is easier to relate to the women in the Bible who are tortured, or who are prostitutes, or who even turn entire nations around, than to Mrs. Perfection here. I’m drawn to Judith, for example, who decapitates a drunken king and stuffs his head in her food bag. And to Deborah, who leads 10,00 men into battle. And to Sarah, who gives birth at age 90 and laughs when she finds out she is pregnant.

Ah, my twisted sense of things.

The idea of this woman has inspired countless retreats, books, sermons and more. Many find her tremendously informative and inspiring. And I’d probably like her as a neighbor, if I wasn’t feeling totally intimidated.

Forgive me, Lord.

But I need the context to really appreciate her; and I find it in what is missing from Sunday’s lectionary–the speaker, the person describing this ideal wife. And that is no other than another woman! “King Lemuel’s mother,” as she is described in a footnote, is chronicling the kind of woman she hopes that her son will choose for a wife.

“Don’t marry a slouch!” she says. “Don’t marry someone who doesn’t care about the poor!”

“Marry someone who is kind and tries to reach out to everyone, poor and rich alike, in the family and outside of the family. Find a woman who is honest and strong, faithful and independent.”

Was there ever a King Lemuel? Well, he’s not in the history books. There might have been. But there’s no proof of that.

Taken in this context, though–a mother describing qualities she’d like to see in the woman that her son marries–makes sense of the passage for me. Significantly, she also describes, (in verses omitted on Sunday), what qualities she’d like to see in her son: sobriety, kindness toward the poor, and sound decision-making skills so that his kingdom is not lost to callous indifference or stupidity.

After all, the Book of Proverbs is a compendium of moral and religious instruction designed to keep youth and young adults on the right track. Compiled during the post-exilic period—that time when the Hebrew people were in exile from their own lands and laboring to keep themselves united in their faith—Proverbs, like all wisdom literature, is the best advice of the time, collected and processed over thousands of years.

Who wouldn’t want a daughter-in-law like the one described? Smart, accomplished and kind, both inside the house and out. Hard-working, productive, thoughtful. Strong, caring, faithful.

Heck, she might even be fun to have over for tea! She’d probably bring the cookies!

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