I've wanted to write about this for some time, and now that I'm ready to do so, I'm a little reluctant. I feel the need to issue a statement before we proceed. You know that I'm not trying to offend you, and have nothing against tradition, sacred text, or authority. So please, in view of this information, do not throw stones.
Ok, so here's my grand confession: I don't like Proverbs 31.
It started many years ago, when I was trying my darnedest to fit in. You will be shocked to discover that I haven't always found myself to be part of the 'in' crowd and often had to bust my butt to have someone to sit next to at lunch. Well, church wasn't much better. In some churches, the pastor's kids are automatically 'in', while in others they are automatically 'out'. I had the great misfortune of being in an 'out' church while in high school.
So I tried a sampling of the various cliques. I wasn't a stoner, nor a sports kind of gal. I didn't work in the goth group despite the fact that I wore all black clothing. I worked my way down to the last group. The Church Group. I'm calling them this to sound nice. But really, they are the fringe weirdos that all cling together because nobody will have them. In order to have an image, they start bringing their Bibles with camouflage covers and five highlighters.They wear an icthus on every article of clothing and only want to watch Christian television. They say 'PRAISE GOD!' when you are talking about where to go for coffee, and put W.O.G. stickers on their notebooks. If you don't know what a WOG or a MOG is, just be grateful.
Sincere in their beliefs or not, you cannot argue with me that this group is socially awkward and will one day look back and shake their heads at their behavior OR become those socially awkward adults that won't let their kids play with action figures unless they are Bible action figures.
So...I got a new Bible and small notepad for jotting down the ingenious things our socially awkward youth pastor would say. And I tried, once again, to fit in. At the time, The Church Group was delving deep into the wisdom of one Joshua Harris. His book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was making quite a splash on the church front, telling everyone that dating is a bad idea. Suddenly we had a deluge of breakups and purity pledges and group hangouts that were meant to give time for 'fellowship' but not 'dating'.
I've been arguing somewhat with the courtship crowd for awhile, but that isn't today's focus. One of the teachings of dear Mr. Harris was on what you want/need/expect/should pray for in a spouse. While I might encourage my girls to find someone that respects them, understands them, loves to learn, shares in those beliefs that cannot waver...the interesting (crazy) people that Mr. Harris attracted encouraged the world at large to just make a checklist from Proverbs 31.
Does she wear purple cloth? CHECK! Proceed...
Does she work with wool and flax? CHECK!
Does she get up while it is still dark? CHECK!
And if you were the female, all you had to do was ask if your potential courtship partner respected you for your linen purple tunic more than your chest size. Yes? CHECK!
I know, I know...the book of Proverbs shouldn't be held to the tests of today's society. Yes, it is relevant, but no it isn't historically compatible. Times change. If you want to disagree, I'm going to ask you if you spend much time outside the city limits in a tent after you discover a boil on your bum. Yes, there was a virgin birth. Yes, there was death and life and ascension. As always, there exists a fine line between literal and symbolic. I don't think that trees will really clap their hands or that I can leap over a wall, unless God has some sort of specific reason for happy trees or me with bouncy feet.
So where in all of this does the book of Proverbs land?
Is it literal, but just in need of a modern makeover? If you updated verses 10-31, my sister says it would say things like She wakes up before she really wants to and puts lunches in backpacks. She stumbles to minivan and starts the carpool pickup. She shops at Costco to get good deals. She helps with homework. And I'm sure somebody out there in Evangelical Bookstore World has made an 'modern' version of the Proverbs 31 woman. No doubt you can get it embroidered onto a Bible cozy or hideously oversized sweatshirt.
I haven't done any research on this passage, and might catch an earful from my husband, who actually teaches classes on understanding these passages in their historical context. I haven't attended his classes, however, and don't know what the historical context of verses 10-31 is.
But I'm just going to take a stab in the dark here. The author of Proverbs is largely thought to be Solomon, who was a king. Few people think he actually sat down and wrote his tidbits of wisdom. But despite all the years that have passed, it is by and large thought of as 'his' book. You probably have heard that he was the son of great King David, was reputed to have stopped a baby from being cut in half, and had quite a few wives.
Well, as I think on this passage that has always caused me internal sighing, I have to wonder why this passage is still upheld as the checklist for What Makes A Great Woman. Solomon was giving advice on how to pick out a good wife. Um...have 300 wives? That might help in the quest! Also, a king who is looking for a wife is usually looking for a queen. A queen might have the funds to 'consider a field and buy it and then plant a vineyard' as the passage suggests she should. A normal, everyday woman in the time of Solomon wouldn't have been able to do such a thing, would she? Where would she get the money? Could she even buy a field without the permission of the man that owned her?
I've also been puzzled by the portion that says 'her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.' I'm going to equate this with something like a city council or even church board. But what does this have to do with the wife? Will she only be great and 'beyond the price of rubies' when her husband has a spot on a council? Why is that? What does the greatness of one spouse indicate about the other? Support, for sure...but then what about the opposite? If I fail at being someone 'great', how much does that reflect on me versus my family?
It says that 'her lamp doesn't go out at night'. It also says that she 'wakes while it is still dark'. So...the woman has insomnia? Or is just really, really haggard? If she doesn't ever get to sleep, and has to weave scarlet clothes for her kids, how can she really 'laugh at the days to come'?
If I knew I was up against a lifetime of spinning and cooking and staying up late and getting up early, I certainly wouldn't laugh about it. And I would definitely make my spouse come home from sitting around with the elders. No sir, he would be at home making hummus and carving me a new bed because I would be moving into my own bedroom.
There is a portion about having a servant girl, which I wouldn't necessarily be against...except for the whole immoral issue of slavery. Maybe it means I'm supposed to hire a live-in housekeeper? A chef? A launderer?
But if I had such a household staff...what would I do? Would I then be free to pursue my talents and dreams? If I had servants doing all the undesirable tasks, why why why would I be staying up late at night, not letting my lamp go out?
I once had a teacher who proposed by telling his love how she was like the Proverbs 31 woman. Despite what reactions that would elicit in me, she answered in the affirmative and they still live happily ever after.
I'm all for a man giving praise to a woman for the things she does, her attributes, her qualities, her hard work. So why does this passage bother me so much?
I wonder if Austin would react similarly if I made a male version.
The Proverbs 31 Man
He gets up early and works out in order to maintain chiseled pecks.
He makes homemade breakfast and lets me have all the hot water in the shower.
He goes to his very lucrative job that provides enough for our chic home and quarterly vacations to Europe.
His wife is totally wicked hot and the envy of all the PTA.
He comes home early because he couldn't wait to see his kids, and tells me how lovely I am in sweatpants and a ponytail.
SIGN ME UP! I want me one of those!
I'm not going against years and years of history here. I know that this passage has a purpose that doesn't rest on my understanding of it. But I'm also very much under the impression that many others misunderstand it too.
Perhaps the Jewish view of women and their role as wife/mother/home manager is very different from the Americana Cherry Pie role we place on Evangelical Christian women today. Maybe they were indeed praised for being clever and resourceful, and not just because they could bring milk and graham crackers to Sunday School Silly Sing-Along.
Maybe I just need to be Jewish. After all, I would be encouraged to plant a vineyard and have a housekeeper.
Now that would make me laugh at days to come!