Proverbs 31:10-31 is the famous poem celebrating the "capable wife."
It is often cited in praise of wives and mothers, and is among the most popular and familiar texts from Proverbs. Of course, "popular" and "familiar" does not necessarily mean "clear" and "without interpretive difficulties"" One of these difficulties, to be sure, is that Proverbs is a patriarchal text and chapter 31 is certainly no exception. Preachers might appropriately worry that 31:10-31 is a masculine commendation of women and "woman's work." Such a concern is not unfounded.
Verse 10, for instance, seems to begin oddly and ambiguously, if only because it apparently suggests that a capable wife is hard to find and yet the poem immediately proceeds to praise one. This one (woman), that is, may be the "ideal" that one (man) cannot find. But even if she is difficult to find, it's no wonder why: she's working hard! And working hard everywhere (verses 14, 16), on everything (verses 15a, 16, 18a, 19, 24a), for everybody (verses 12, 15b, 20, 21b, 24b, 27a) -- from dawn (verse 15a) to dusk (verse 18b) no less! Again, preachers might well worry that 31:10-31 depicts an idealized woman only from a patriarchal perspective.
These concerns are real, but there is more to say about the passage. And yet, while there is more to say, that should not undercut the preceding concerns. Some churchgoers will also worry about 31:10-31; others will not. Some will know they should worry; others will refuse to worry. Part of the preaching task, at least according to Emerson, is "to convert life into truth... life passed through the fire of thought."1 Part of the truth about life is the patriarchy of the ancient world -- including the biblical world. Part of passing that life through the fire of thought is to think critically and theologically about such patriarchy, including such patriarchy in the biblical world. Such a task is not restricted to the clergy in seminary classrooms, but is one for the priesthood of all believers, whether male or female, if they are to be thoughtful and faithful Christians in the contemporary world.
Passing the life of the biblical world through the fire of homiletical thought reveals more, however, than just worries about patriarchy in Proverbs 31:10-31. In fact, close attention to the biblical world and the specific wor(l)d of Proverbs reveals two important things about the "ode to the capable wife."
1. Not all of the hard work of this hardworking woman is adequately or accurately described as "woman's work" -- not now and certainly not in the patriarchal world of antiquity. The wife in Proverbs 31 is not in the kitchen scrubbing dishes and biting her tongue! While she clearly takes care of her husband (verses 11-12) and household (verses 15, 21, 27) and excels at domestic activities (verses 13, 15, 19, 22) she is quite active outside the home as well. She is a successful businesswoman, considering a field and buying it (verse 16a), and is a viticulturist to boot (verse 16b). She is an entrepreneur who works late into the evening (verse 18), who plans ahead (verse 21), and who is not idle (verse 27). She knows how to dress for success (verse 22) and how to sell goods for a profit (verse 24). Her work compares favorably to merchant marines (verse14), and one suspects that the reason her husband is well known (verse 23) is because of her, not vice versa!
Indeed, the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (cf. Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1). It should come as no surprise, then, that the word "capable" (ayil) in verse 10 is the same word translated "strength" in 31:10 and "excellently" in 31:29. All three translations are apropos for this most amazing woman.
But this woman does more than simply succeed in business or at domestic duties. She is no uncaring tycoon: instead, she "opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy" (verse 20; in Hebrew, the last phrase is the same used in verse 19a, thereby linking her provision for the poor to her other skills). This woman is also far from silent. She speaks with wisdom and the "teaching of kindness" (literally, the torah of hesed) is on her tongue (verse 26). Her strength, that is, appears to be as much moral as it is physical (cf. 8:14).
2. The last observation leads directly to the second important item. Within the world of Proverbs, the capable wife looks quite a bit like Woman Wisdom. She, too, is strong (compare 8:14 with 31:17, 25) and opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; cf. 31:26). She, too, "laughs at the time to come" (31:25; cf. 1:26). Indeed, the opening nine chapters of Proverbs present the student of wisdom as a son, listening to the instructions of his father (1:8; 2:1; etc.). Peppered throughout are speeches by Woman Wisdom (e.g., 1:20-33) who is to be desired rather than the temptations presented by the Strange Woman/Dame Folly (see 2:16-19; 7:10-20; 9:13-18).
Although it is not a narrative, one can "read" the rest of Proverbs as a story about this child who has been instructed at home by his parents about the ways of wisdom and folly. Proverbs 31:10-31 see this child out into the "real world," far from home, and into all kinds of areas and subjects, without giving up on the quest for wisdom. In such a "story," 31:10-31 can be seen as a picture of the child of chapters 1-9 back home, all grown up and "done good." Most (!) important among the good and wise things he has done is "marry up." His wife bears striking resemblance to the earlier depictions of Woman Wisdom; she incarnates, as it were, Wisdom. The son of Proverbs 1-9 has learned well and has chosen wisely.
The connections between the capable wife and Woman Wisdom might suggest another explanation for the picture in 31:10-31: that portrait may be a sapiential and mythological ideal as much as a patriarchal one. That is, this is no "real" woman, but Woman Wisdom. Only she could possibly work that hard!
1Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Divinity School Address (1838)" www.emersoncentral.com/divaddr.htm; accessed May 27, 2009).