A few weeks ago I went to a women’s get-together at church. The subject was valuing our Christ centered femininity and appreciating the reasons for our God-given existence. Each of us put together a collage of images representing the things we felt gave our lives and our faiths purpose and meaning. (Yes, there still is one place in the modern world where grown woman make collages). Not surprisingly, more than one woman talked about her journey to be a better, more complete version of Proverbs 31.
Personally, I’ve always had issues with Mrs. Goody-Goody Proverbs 31. I mean, as hard as it may be to swallow the Biblical passages telling women to submit to male authority, one can find practical wisdom in these, if grudgingly at times. On the other hand, little ‘Miss-I’m-so-amazing-I-am-literally-the-final-word-in-Proverbs’ seems like she’s just there to torture us. I mean, why isn’t there a Proverbs 31 for men? It isn’t as if women aren’t already under enough pressure to be ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way’. There are all those cultural stereo-types we are constantly striving to embody flawlessly, or at least better than our girl friends. In the West, the ideal may be a waifish career woman who hires the best organic caterers for her dinner parties, or, in the East, a well ironed, walking burka that cooks and cleans for her twelve children, but whatever the expectations, women feel them intensely. Now add to that twenty-one whole verses dedicated to telling women all the things they’re suppose to accomplish in a day and you’ve got a recipe for some seriously stressed out June Cleavers. But….Proverbs 31 is the word of God…So, after coming home from the church event I decided to have it out once and for all with this peerless woman, this paragon of femininity. If she is going to be forever held up to me as a standard of perfection, it’s about time I seriously dealt with her.
In verses ten through twelve, we discover that her husband trusts her and she does him good rather than evil. Well, sure, we all strive for that, so far I’d say that’s just good marriage advice. Verse thirteen, however, begins the ticking off of the lady’s accomplishments as she starts looking for wool and flax which “her hands delight in.” I assume this means she sews and apparently enjoys it. I know my mother-in-law would like me to emulate this but the closest I’m probably going to get are the flax seeds I throw on my salads and pay extra for in my smoothies. Next, she’s compared to a merchant ship, “she brings her food from afar” for her family and her servants. What does that mean? Does she travel often bringing back culinary souvenirs for friends and relatives? Does she scour multiple grocery stores for the perfect ingredients? Does the exotic section at Trader Joe’s count? Whatever the answers, I do like this particular verse because I’m very good at eating and if the truffle oil I brought back from Santa Barbara can in any way compensate for my inability to sew, I’m all for it.
It’s in verse fifteen where I really start hating the woman, that’s where she “rises also while it is still dark.” She then proceeds to buy a field, with her own earnings, and then “makes her arms strong”. She probably pays for that gym membership with her own earnings too. Sometime after lunch, superwoman goes and gives to the poor then richly clothes herself and her own family in purple and scarlet while instructing the servants. In other words, along with everything else, she’s stylish and wealthy. She makes and sells her own clothes, even dealing with the tradesmen in the town, supplying them with creatively fashioned belts. And this is where I began to question the logic that this really is a picture of everything we’re suppose to strive to be. For one thing, let’s think about famous female Bible characters. Esther, for example, was rich and well dressed and probably pretty good at telling the servants what to do, but I seriously doubt she sold belts at the market place or got up before dawn to cook and sew. And while I’m sure Mary was a competent housewife, if she did run her own business we certainly don’t hear anything about it and we do know she wasn’t dressing Jesus in purple robes. In fact, the matriarchs of the Bible are all very different. Line up Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Eve and the Queen of Sheeba and you have a array of colorful personalities not at all resembling an afternoon with the Stepford wives. What about Martha who appears to be the ideal driven and accomplished Christian woman? She is famously rebuked by Christ himself for being so busy she doesn’t have time for the very person all of these good deeds are suppose to be in honor of.
So what are we to make of Proverbs 31? After reading the chapter carefully it seems to me that, rather than the mirror on the wall, ever reminding us how far we are from the most successful of them all, the passage is actually a window into the unexpectedly wide and wonderful world of diverse possibilities. It isn’t all that a woman must be, it’s all that she can be. So, in a time and place where few women go to work, the Bible says we can. In a culture where most women do work, the Bible says it’s perfectly ok to stay home and cook and sew. While other religions narrowly proscribe the boundaries of femininity, a Christian woman is free to become a domestic diva, a pillar of the business community, an accomplished artist or a competitive athlete. No matter what the pressure from the prevailing culture, be it society at large or the micro-culture of a particular church or peer group, the God of the Bible values soccer moms, scholars, fashionistas and foodies.
What a wonderful God we serve! Far from an unreasonable task master, I am continually impressed by what a God of liberty and grace He is. It is also a reminder to me that when a passage of scripture becomes lost in a haze of culture, tradition and human reasoning, misinterpretations often filter into the collective Christian sub-conscious. When this happens, the answer is to go back to scriptures and honestly engage with the text. As my mom says, we never have to be afraid of the truth, the word of God always sets us free.
There is another possible interpretation of the woman of Proverbs 31. If we see the Christian community as a household, this perfect woman could be a kind of female Christ figure who labors and sacrifices that the family of God may be sheltered and richly clothed in scarlet. Perhaps a picture of God’s maternal touch? Either way, we see a Savior who is the lover and redeemer of all His children, whatever form or shape they take. The God who is creative enough to fashion each singularly beautiful flower is hardly the kind of father who would ask for conformity when it comes to his beloved.
At the end of the women’s church meeting the leader asked us to write down something we valued about whomever happened to be siting to our left. As we begin to accept God’s grace and freedom in our own lives, we also do a better job of appreciating others, valuing their differences and not feeling quite so envious of those talents they may have and we may lack. After all, we lack nothing in Christ, for together, as His body, we are all of us uniquely, beautifully, perfectly complete.
By Lisa Cusack | Freelance Writer & Teacher