When I was in junior high I played the French horn in the school band. This was a compromise because when I said I wanted to play drums, my parents told me that drums were a boy’s instrument and I needed to pick something else. Was I any less of a girl because I wanted to play drums?
When I was in high school, I took home ec. I aced the cooking & nutrition units, but the sewing unit was a different story. I’m not so good at following instructions or cutting or sewing straight lines. Was I any less feminine because my pajama pants final project accidentally became Hammer pants?
9 years ago I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After surgery & 4 rounds of heavy chemo, I’m pleased to say I have been cancer free ever since. Am I any less of a woman because I only have 1 ovary now?
When I started to whisper my sense of call to be a pastor, I struggled to form my lips into words like sermon, preach, pastoral care. Am I any less of a pastor because I don’t have a charismatic, outgoing personality?
What does it mean to be feminine, masculine, woman, man, pastor, laity, Christian, or otherwise? What is truly essential to these identities?
If you’re like me, I always heard this passage from Proverbs 31 as the ideal woman. In some Bibles, the subheading says a virtuous wife. It is important to start off knowing that in Biblical Hebrew, woman & wife are the same word. To be a woman is to be a wife and to be a wife is to be a woman.
While this sentiment is still very much alive today, even if only as an implied paradigm, the extent of this deep pairing of womanhood and betrothal was still a bit different then. It was also of course a very heteronormative context & very much within a gender binary perspective.
There are 2 main rational ways to interpret this passage- wisdom personified & and an ode to the community of women, but first let’s deal with some more of the crazy.
Dealing With the Crazy
In her popular book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans, attempted to live different “commandments” & “requirements” for women desiring to live the Bible literally. The month of January focused on the Proverbs 31 woman. In order to follow through with the so-called directives of this passage, she commits every day to literally get up before dawn, practice contemplative prayer, work out her arms, make every meal, keep the house clean, do something nice for her husband, avoid TV, Facebook, & Twitter, & work until 9pm. She also commits to over the course of the month a variety of sewing, cooking, knitting, investment, & charitable endeavors. None of these goals are necessarily problematic or bad, though they make a hefty combination to do all of them all the time. She even stood at her town’s welcome sign with a poster praising her husband. In the end, Evans reflects with nuance. The experience was educational, challenging, & interesting for her. She also concludes that “trying to copy another woman, even a woman from the Bible, is almost always a bad idea… the Proverbs 31 woman is a star not because of what she does but how she does it- with valor”. With valor comes from the phrase, eshet chayil or woman of valor. It is possible to be inspired by the Proverbs 31 woman while resisting pressure to be all Proverbs 31 all the time. It is not possible nor sustainable to live all of this all the time. In fact, it sounds more like a recipe for a nervous breakdown.
Brené Brown writes, “When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun & fear is that annoying backseat driver.” Now is the time to let go of perfectionism, individualistic obsession, & unhealthy self-reliance.
Trying to live all of the lines, play by play, all the time is attractive for many because it plays into our culture’s glorification of busy-ness. If you are busy, you are important. What if our sense of importance was not based on what we produce or how packed our calendars are? Ecclesiastes 3, also part of the Bible’s wisdom literature says this- “there is a time & a season for everything under heaven… a time to plant & a time to harvest, a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away”. True wisdom knows what time it is including if it is time to rest or time to work. Rest is holy.
It is helpful to note where this Proverbs 31 text is situated in the Bible. This section of proverbs is the last part of the book. This is the big finish that sandwiches the entire collection of wise sayings. Proverbs 1:7 says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom & proverbs 31:30 says “charm is deceitful and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised”. Ellen Davis defines fear of the Lord as “the deeply sane recognition that we are not God” or we are not perfect. Ironically this text that describes a perfect woman has been used as a measuring stick or taught as a directive for women.
To back it up even further, the book of proverbs is placed in the wisdom section of the bible. Throughout ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, wisdom was often personified as a woman. We see this in the book of proverbs in chapters 1, 8, & 9. Kenneth Carter Jr. writes, “wisdom may be defined as a life well lived, a life that matters. Wisdom in the Bible is not enlightenment… Wisdom in the Bible is never merely knowledge. In our culture, knowledge is a form of control exercised for the benefit of the one in possession of learning acquired through privilege and maintained through credentialing. In Scripture, wisdom is a way of life that includes Justice, righteousness, humility, compassion, and fairness.” I think those are values we can all get behind. There is a universality to this wisdom.
The book of Proverbs assumes a male audience & is intended to lay out some practical ways to live well including finding a wife. This is where chapter 31 comes in. Rather than advice for finding a literal wife, perhaps Proverbs 31 is as Kathleen O’Connor writes, “an invitation to search for wisdom as if for a precious stone, to live committed to the path of wisdom with the utter loyalty and allegiance of the person setting out in life with a beloved partner”. Wisdom is a beloved life partner.
Ode to Women
Another something to note about Proverbs 31- it is an acrostic! In Hebrew, the first letters spell the alphabet signaling some level of completeness. In Jewish mysticism, 7 is a number for completion- think 7 days of Creation or the story of Joshua & Jericho- there were 7 priests with 7 ram’s horns, & on the 7th day they had the victory. 7 is completion without our experience. 8, however, is completion beyond what we can fully know. 8 is a divine completion. This acrostic of A-Z is a 7.5, familiar lived completion with a divine element. In order to fulfill the heart of Proverbs 31 & a life of wisdom- a way of life that includes Justice, righteousness, humility, compassion, and fairness- we cannot do it alone. That is why some scholars believe this poem is an ode to the community of women. Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis, writes that this poem was intended not to honor 1 woman, but to “underscore the significance of women’s skilled work in a household based economy”. Proverbs 31 as a liberating word that women are not above, below, or outside the community. Rather, women are essential to the community. She works in the home and in the public space. That was radical then & for some people that is radical now!
This community aspect makes all the difference as we desire to live this overwhelming & perhaps joy filled life of wisdom together. While it may seem overwhelming, Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “I don’t think God will give you more than a community of faith can bear.” We are better together as we dig deeper, ask questions, love each other. In Spanish, an expression is poco a poco, paso a paso; little by little, step by step. Unless you are a teenager, growth does not happen overnight. Wisdom does not happen overnight. No, Proverbs 31 is not a checklist. It is a wake up call that wisdom is daily & cannot be done alone. Rachel Held Evans writes, “Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday”.
I cannot conclude this morning without a little confession. My personal email address includes proverbs31 as part of the handle. I established this email address & Skype handle, etc. before I knew this Proverbs 31 idealized singular independent woman wasn’t all on me. Now I know differently. Now I know better. Now I see my email address as a reminder to thank the people who have helped me move away from a life of shame, moving closer & closer to a life of wisdom & joy. Thanks be to God! Amen!