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.
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.
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.