Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31
This familiar passage tends to draw a strong response, either positively or negatively, but rarely neutral.
Read the WorkingPreacher.org commentary by Brent Strawn in 2009 for a solid treatment of the patriarchal layers in this passage that would have women “working everywhere…on everything…for everyone.”
We recognize in ancient texts the power dynamics that allow men to idealize female virtue in terms that benefit men and often harm women. Notice that this text cannot even imagine a virtuous woman who is unmarried, that is, who is not in relation to a male as wife.
We might expect contemporary audiences to bring resistance to the seeming perfectionism of these verses that sets women up to chronically fall short. Do not shy away from this critique of the text. It’s important to problematize for both men and women this depiction of “a capable wife.” Still, beyond this, what else can we say about and hear within this text?
Proverbs is part of wisdom literature. While the Bible includes narrative, law (torah), history and gospels, it also includes several books categorized as “wisdom literature”: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. These books address how to live a wise and faithful life, often in very practical terms, particularly in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Proverbs puts much of this teaching about wisdom in the mouth of “Woman Wisdom,” the personification of wisdom in Hebrew Scripture as well as in much of the ancient world. She calls upon humans to walk in her ways and follow her path. Proverbs 31, then, is set in the larger context of wisdom literature, and the more immediate context of Woman Wisdom. In fact, some argue that the “capable wife” of verses 10-31 does not refer to any actual woman (she’s too good to be true!) but to the ideal of Woman Wisdom herself. Indeed, several verses are reminiscent of earlier depictions of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs.
What it Doesn’t Say
What else can we explore in this text for preaching? As a woman living in the 21st century, I am struck by an awful lot about women that Proverbs 31 doesn’t say, and that is worth noting, too.
First, it doesn’t say that a wife’s worth is derived from her husband’s. She is not a derivative being, as much of the later Christian tradition will argue, whose identity is a consequence of her husband’s, or whose status depends on his. Nor is there any claim that her virtue lies in her submission to her husband and his direction.
Her virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices. Just follow the verbs for this sense of agency and action. She leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others. It is anachronistic to speak of “an independent woman” as no one in the ancient world thought in these individualistic terms. Nevertheless, this is a woman with full agency, in charge of herself. The writer praises her purposefulness, we might even say her headstrong ways.
Second, it doesn’t say anything about pregnancy or childbirth, often key credentials for womanhood in the ancient world, and still in our own in many quarters. It mentions children once in verse 28, “her children rise up and call her happy,” without referring to the mother-child relationship at all. There is a striking omission of mothering or motherhood as a state of being or source of identity or virtue in the entire passage. The passage does describe a lot of generativity, however. Again, if we follow the verbs throughout, she “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides,” is creating and cultivating a lot.
Thirdly, it doesn’t say anything about her appearance or physical appeal. There is nothing about weight, shape, clothes, make-up or make-over, the sole topics of women’s worth if current popular culture in America were to be believed. Has she achieved “younger-looking skin?” Does she “bulge in the wrong places?” Does she know “what not to wear?” We’ll never know.
This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.
As a preacher you can proclaim the power of the good news of Jesus Christ into all three of these areas of contemporary life in America: the derivative status of women, the many forms of generativity, including childbearing, and the destructive tyranny of fake beauty. Proverbs 31: 10-31 offers an alternative starting place and ending place: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”
Many of you will conclude this text is too much a minefield and steer clear, with good reason. If you preach on it, and I hope some of you do, it may well be an opportunity to allow good news to speak into some of the most enduring and painful realities of our common life, as well as to evoke inspired portrayals of faithful living.