Is She Real or Symbolic? – Proverbs 31:11-12

GUEST POST: By Warren Baldwin
Proverbs 31 sets the bar high for womanhood. The woman modeled here is intelligent, motivated, competent, family-oriented, spiritual and hardworking. She is every woman’s dream and every woman’s nightmare. A Christian woman today can look at her life as the consummate example to emulate. She can also grow frustrated from the demands this example places on her.

The question in verse 10 may not be rhetorical: “A wife of noble character who can find?” The Sage (the author of Proverbs) may really wonder if such a complete personality can exist.

A similar question is asked about a man in 20:6: “A faithful man who can find?” Proverbs is about developing wisdom, character and a faith-based life (1:7), qualities that require study, discipline, mentoring and hard work over a lifetime. Since such a level of maturity is as rare as rubies (v.10:b), the Sage may harbor doubts about how many men or women could attain such a level.

“Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.” (31:11)

The wife’s nobility is her strength and ability to provide adequately for her family. Knowing the domestic scene is under her capable oversight, the husband makes himself vulnerable, entrusting himself to her care.

Life is a battle sometimes, a constant warring against scarcity and lack, a battle to ensure that our loved ones have food to eat and clothing to wear. That sense is embodied in the statement, the husband “lacks nothing of value.” This phrase comes from a Hebrew word (šālāl) meaning “to plunder.” It is a military term referring to “the spoils of warfare … suggesting (ing) that the woman is a warrior in the battle of life.” (Longman, Proverbs, 543).

This doesn’t mean that she lives in hostility with other people, but she recognizes that just as the first couple battled against the encroachment of weeds in their garden (literally, Genesis 3:18,19), so she must wage war against the encroachment of debt, hunger and desperation in her garden, her family. So she works hard, like a warrior in active combat, to provide what her family needs.

“She brings him good, not harm, all the days of his life.” (V.12)

The good she brings him is economic. Her head and hands are employed negotiating business deals (v.16) and making clothes for sale (v.24). But the value she brings her home is not limited to financial matters. She has a benevolent spirit (v.20), a love for her children (27-28), and a heart for God (v.30). She is a noble woman.

The Proverbs 31 Woman sets the bar high. But is it set too high?

  • Can anyone achieve the levels of success this woman has without suffering significant burnout?
  • Does this woman’s children cry at night?
  • Run high fevers?
  • Question her authority?
  • Does she ever get frustrated that her husband is sitting at the gate (v.23) instead of helping her at home?
  • Does the fabric of her sanity ever unravel?

Questions like these cause some interpreters of Proverbs to question if the Proverbs 31 Wife is real or symbolic. Thomas McCreesh notes that this wife performs her role so well her husband has nothing to do but sit at the gate all day basking in the respect she has earned! Can she perform her role so well that the husband’s contribution to the family is unnecessary?

McCreesh also notes a correspondence between the Proverbs 31 Wife and Woman Wisdom in the earlier chapters of Proverbs. In Proverbs 1 another woman, Woman Wisdom, is crying out in the streets for the simple to listen to her words of insight (v.20ff.) In chapter 9 she fixes a meal in her house of wisdom for the simple to come dine, feasting on the ways of understanding (v.1ff). In opposition to her, Woman Folly has also fixed a meal, urging the simple to gorge themselves on her unhealthy banquet of stolen water and food (v.13ff.).

Chapters 1 through 9 depict two women vying for the attention of the young and simple. They can dine on the wisdom and morality of Woman Wisdom (representative of God), or they can dine on the foolishness and immorality of the pleasure served up by Woman Folly (a representative of ancient pagan idolatry).

Seen in this way, chapters 10 through 30 of Proverbs is the meal that Woman Wisdom serves. The young and simple who make these chapters their meal, feasting on Woman Wisdom’s insight on morality, honesty, prudence, decency, integrity and other core values, will find themselves under Woman Wisdom’s protective care. They will lack nothing of value and will be respected in the community (the city gate). Woman Wisdom thus becomes Capable Wife (or the Proverbs 31 Wife), taking care of the young and simple who have dined at her banquet. (See “Wisdom as Wife: Proverbs 31:10-31,” Revue Biblique 92 (1985).

So, is the Proverbs 31 Woman real or symbolic?

Let’s turn to Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi and eventual wife of Boaz, her kinsmen-redeemer, for a look at a noble woman. In Ruth 3:11 Boaz tells her, “And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character.”

How does Ruth measure up to the high standards of the wife in Proverbs 31?

She was loyal to Naomi, she “plundered” the fields to provide food for her family, and she upheld the community standards by honoring Boaz’s kinsmen-redeemer role rather than pursuing younger (or wealthier) men (Ruth 3:10).

As a real, live person, Ruth embodied many of the qualities of the Proverbs 31 Woman. Perfect? No. But certainly one who modeled the value of fearing the Lord and doing the best she could to see that her family could trust her and would praise her, because they lacked nothing of value from her hands.

Warren is a minister in Kansas. He and his wife have three children, two in graduate school and one in high school as a senior. They enjoy sports and traveling together. Warren’s book on Proverbs, “Roaring Lions, Cracking Rocks and Other Gems from Proverbs,” is available at www.warrentbaldwin.com. You can read more insights from Warren on his blog at Family Fountain.

11 thoughts on “Is She Real or Symbolic? – Proverbs 31:11-12

  1. Proverbs 31 has always been an encouragement to me since I was young – a challenge no doubt, but possible with the help of God – certainly not in my own strength! I would say that dear Ruth though, provided food for her family by the hard work of 'gleaning', rather than use the word plundering. To me, both women are real!

  2. Wonderful post! I love reading your insights Warren. I feel the same way when I read Proverbs 31 as I do when I read James – who could possibly live up to that standard?!? I know I continually fall short. But the more I learn about the Sanctification process the more I realize these examples are a lifelong persuit and I will probably finally be the Proverbs 31 wife after I have experienced all the trials and lessons God has for me in this life, have come through the fire, and stand before the Lord as the perfect person he always meant for me to be.

  3. Wonderful post! I love reading your insights Warren. I feel the same way when I read Proverbs 31 as I do when I read James – who could possibly live up to that standard?!? I know I continually fall short. But the more I learn about the Sanctification process the more I realize these examples are a lifelong persuit and I will probably finally be the Proverbs 31 wife after I have experienced all the trials and lessons God has for me in this life, have come through the fire, and stand before the Lord as the perfect person he always meant for me to be.

  4. Wow, Warren, I continue to admire your devotion to studying the scriptures. I think your post deepens our understanding, not just of Proverbs 31, but of the entire Book of Proverbs as well.

    Through your research, you bring some interesting perspectives to light. I had never heard of this passage being considered as possibly symbolic before our discussion via e-mail.

    Then, during my own research for this series, I too came across several well-respected commentaries that mentioned the idea of this passage referring to a symbolic woman of wisdom.

    But there is also, as you say, many strong indicators that this passage does indeed refer to an actual wife.

    Scripture is fascinating to me. This is why I love to study it so much! No matter how many times I may read it, there is always something new to learn.

    I especially appreciated your section of rhetorical questions such as: “Does this woman's children cry at night? Run high fevers?”

    Real wives understand and experiences trying times, especially when our kids are sick. Warren, I think you addressed this reality with compassion and empathy.

    Proverbs 31 is not about a PERFECT woman, but a NOBLE woman. And this series aims to encourage women to develop character, through our devotion to Christ.

    Thank you, Warren, for stretching us as we search the scriptures together. Well done!

    For His Glory,
    DJ Hughes

  5. Thanks to all who responded. I appreciate the feedback and would like to offer some clarification and explanation.

    First, this post was not in anyway meant to denigrate womanhood, motherhood, or being a wife. The woman I am married to is a wife and mother. I certainly have no desire to lessen the status of those relationships; society does enough of that.

    Mentioning that some interpret the Proverbs 31 Woman symbolically is not an attack on these relationships, either. I feel the weight of being truthful with what I write. And, part of that truth is that there are some respected exegetes who see symbolic teaching here that places burdens not just on the woman, but on the man as well.

    One exegete and commentary writer, Dave Bland, notes that in chapter 31:10 ff the man is in the background, “portrayed as doing nothing more than sitting in the city gate praising his wife.” The woman works while the man sits. He asks, “Does the woman exist only to serve the husband? Is the poem advocating that young men find industrious, hardworking wives so they can simply lounge around town square? Something more is at stake.” Bland is one who interprets the woman as “wisdom incarnate.” In other words, the woman of ch.31 is anyone, man or woman, who “represents the culmination of a life lived by wisdom.” (Bland, Proverbs, 282-83).

    This is not to say that the Sage (the writer of Proverbs) does not have a real woman in mind. He might be thinking of his own wife or mother

    But it is interesting to me that all through the book the Sage addresses young men, then at the very end he addresses the women.

    He even uses women earlier in the book to address young men. Both Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly (chapters 1 and 9) address young men. Are these real women? Or are they literary devices used to communicate an important truth?

    Please note: I presented both options, and then presented Ruth as an example of a real Proverbs 31 Woman.

    Which, leads me to explain my choice of the word “plunder” in reference to Ruth. Yes, the Bible says she “gleaned” from the fields. I chose the word plunder to connect her to the Proverbs 31 Woman, verse 11. Prov. 31:11 says the husband lacks nothing of value. This is a very softened version of what the original language says: spoils or plunder. Plunder refers to the spoils of warfare. Longman says, “The idea of this verse seems to suggest that the woman is a warrior in the battle of life. She goes out and fights on behalf of her family and comes back with victor’s spoils, which allows her to thrive in the midst of the conflict.” (Longman 543).

    Bruce Waltke affirms this view. “The surprising object, spoil …, a military metaphor, implies that the woman has to win essentials like food and clothing through strategy, timely strength, and risk in this fallen world.” (Proverbs 2:521-22).

    I realize the Bible is the final word and not commentaries. But, the use of commentaries that develop the original (Hebrew) language here is what informs us that the word used in v.11 is plunder. Also, even though this is a military term, it is not to be understood that the Prov. 31 Woman got her food the way unethical soldiers do – robbing from the conquered. She got it from hard work.

    So, when I went from Prov. 31 to Ruth to provide a concrete example of a woman that lives by Prov. 31 principles, I used a word that Prov. 31 uses in reference to the wife: plunder. This, I hoped, would bring the connection full swing. Definitely Ruth gleaned, just like the Prov. 31 Woman worked hard to provide for her family. And the world Prov. 31 uses is plunder.

    Wrap up 🙂
    If we come down firmly one side or the other – real or symbolic – that is fine. There are excellent arguments for both. But, I felt it my responsibility to at least let readers know there was another perspective. And that one of the perspectives expects as much from male readers as it does from women readers.

    Thanks again for reading. I hope this offers some clarification.

    Warren

  6. One of my favorite bloggers guesting at one of my favorite blogs! Excellent post, Warren. I haven't heard some of these interpretations before. DJ, thanks for having Warren write here!

  7. Proverbs 31 has always been an encouragement to me since I was young – a challenge no doubt, but possible with the help of God – certainly not in my own strength! I would say that dear Ruth though, provided food for her family by the hard work of 'gleaning', rather than use the word plundering. To me, both women are real!

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