Many evangelicals will be confused by this, but the first time I even heard of the Proverbs 31 woman was in my second year of university at 20 years old. I remember it, because it came from the video below which was shown at a campus fellowship I attended somewhat regularly.
My encounters with this famous woman haven’t been that many since, probably because I haven’t been a part of any particularly conservative groups since that one. Here’s the general idea if you haven’t encountered this mysterious woman yourself: in Proverbs 31 is a list of things that this woman does, ranging from encouraging her husband to sewing to buying a field and caring for it. The standard conservative interpretation is that this is a list that all women are supposed to do, hence its inclusion in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In non-conservative circles, I just haven’t really heard it referenced at all, which led me to the conclusion that the text really does lend itself to that interpretation if others simply aren’t bothering to talk about it.
Throughout this month, Rachel tried to do as much as possible of the Proverbs 31 to-do list as often taught in evangelical circles. It was a lot harder than her first two months, and that isn’t surprising if you’ve actually read the list. She had to do all kinds of sewing, including some explicitly to sell for charity. She had to buy a field and plant crops in it. She had to meet her husband at the city gates to praise him (with a “Dan is awesome!” sign). She had to be up before dawn every morning and still be working after sunset. And so on and so on. You get the point – some of the other things she did in previous months were extremely hard, but trying to live out Proverbs 31 as a to-do list was downright impossible.
Here is where I found myself surprised once again by another aspect of Rachel’s work which I did not wholly expect: the level of biblical scholarship. I’ve completed my M.Div. so I am a bit arrogant that I have a fairly good understanding of biblical scholarship. But this is the second time, both through consulting with Jewish interpreters who do typically know the Hebrew Bible far better than Christians, that she has given me a huge “ah-ha!” moment with a completely new insight. The first was in the previous chapter where she learned the meaning of the words often translated as “helper” or “helpmeet” to describe women in the creation story. It does not simply mean helper. It is paired with a word that actually gives the overall meaning of “helping by opposing,” as in, they are both able to stand because they have equal weight supporting each other. I’m going to hold to the claim that I focused more on Church History and on New Testament as to why I was clueless on that linguistic fact.
Let’s get back to Proverbs 31, then, for the second “ah-ha!” moment and the subject of this post. Depending on your translation, this woman is described in different ways: virtuous, competent, good, etc. The Hebrew phrase is eschet chayil, which is best translated as “woman of valor.” Also visible in the Hebrew is how a lot of other words in the poem of Proverbs 31 are actually military terms. It’s a hero poem, not a task list. Interestingly, Jewish men are required to memorize this poem and sing it to their wives each week. It is not, as in some evangelical circles, something that women should memorize so that they can strive to do as much of it as possible in order to please their men. In other words, it is a poem thanking this woman for all she does, not a prescription that all women must do the same. Even within the text itself, it claims that it was being passed on by the King as told by his mother; his mother told him to respect women’s efforts and he is passing that on. I have to applaud him for that, and I have to applaud the many Jewish men who have continued the tradition of similarly honouring their wives.
This honour is not because the women have crossed off all or even any of the Proverbs 31 list. Jews understand that it is not supposed to be a to-do list. Instead, it models the absolutely essential nature of so many of the things that women do and praises them for it. A Jewish woman interviewed by Rachel explains that being a woman of valour is about doing whatever God calls you to do well and with integrity. It is not about following the rules.
According to Ahava [the Orthodox Jewish woman], the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor.
Maybe that valour is expressed in the home, in the field, and at the city gates, or maybe it is expressed through working a hard office or church job where she is likely paid less money and granted less respect to do more work. Maybe she is married with lots of kids she stays home to care for, or maybe she is middle-aged with no interest in ever marrying. Valour can be expressed through many callings, and men like myself should be honouring whatever ways our sisters are valorous instead of trying to pidgeon-hole them into specific roles.