Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Redeeming Proverbs 31

A year ago I was pretty fussed about I Timothy 2:11-15, five little verses that seem so out of place, ambiguous, hurtful and contradictory to Jesus’ words and actions in the gospels. I wish I’d turned around and read Proverbs 31 which describes a “wife of noble character.” I didn’t because who wants to read a list of crappy jobs a woman is supposed to do in order to please her husband and be a good girl? I’m not even married! Even worse, that “proverb” is little more than an impossible list of qualifications, yet another set of expectations I as a woman will fail to fulfill.

That famous verse, Prov. 31:30, makes me sick. charm is deceptive, ladies, and beauty is fleeting--but a woman who fears the lord is to be praised. Yet another man-made snide criticism of women disguised as a sickly sweet suggestion--stop obsessing over clothing and all your other trivial nonsense, women, and read your Bible!--is hardly appreciated. 

Luckily I did read my Bible and realized I’d had Proverbs 31 wrong the whole time, and so have a lot of other people. Let’s start at the end, with not a sickly sweet suggestion, but a command - and not a command to women. In fact, the entire passage is addressed to men, not women. Verse 31:

Give her the reward she has earned,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

The city gate, we read earlier, is where her husband works, the place for the leaders of the land. There is no word on what he does exactly at the city gates--it’s not important. The wife is the breadwinner of this household, the economic powerhouse and commander of a host of servants and enterprises. She’s making, buying and selling all kinds of cloth; she evaluates farmland, buys it with her own money, and starts a vineyard; she trades, she weaves, she imports, she provides. She’s strong, she’s smart, and she’s dignified.

It’s hard for me to read something like this without analyzing it for power plays between genders. I want to argue that she obviously leads men (a household includes men and women of course), operates economically above men’s level (she’s in control when trading with merchants), and is generally a lot more useful than her husband. Her husband is respected at the city gates, but in the poem, his position is regarded as little more than a feather on his wife’s cap. It is she, the author (oft-debated, as usual) says, who deserves praise. Give it to her.

It’s horrifying that people have assumed this text to be advice to women. It is written to men, specifically men who have been blessed with a position of power. It is an ode to women and their hard work in every avenue of life. It’s not a road map for today’s women to read and wonder--am I working hard enough? Is it bad that I sometimes “eat the bread of idleness” and watch Game of Thrones instead of washing my dishes? Should I be getting less sleep so I can learn how to sew? No. Women, this is a description of your life, a wondering look at the many directions in which your concerns are spread and the awe-inspiring way you can hold them all together. It is a reminder that your many tasks (maybe not trading and sewing and ordering about a household; you have your own tasks) have dignity and that your strength is not only noted, but marveled at by men. This is recognition.

But primarily, this proverb is a call to men to recognize women. Proverbs 31 paints a picture of a man getting credit and respect in his job. Does he need more acclamation? Perhaps. We don’t know; Proverbs 31 is not about him. What is obvious is that this hard-working woman deserves public praise and her work--both her domestic pursuits and international trading ventures--has earned her a reward. Maybe she’s not one of the city’s elders (maybe she’s qualified except for her gender, or maybe she wasn’t interested in the position anyway; doesn’t matter); her work is laudable.

It is not a coincidence that the two verses preceding this ode to hard-working women command a king to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves . . . [and] speak up and judge fairly.”

Her work has earned her a reward. Give it to her.

Lastly: to redeem that nasty little verse 30 people take as a sweet suggestion that women fear the Lord rather than obsess about clothes and trivial details. This wife of noble character is dressed in the best clothing, in the most beautiful color. Her household, also, is well dressed and everything in this poem suggests that her impressive ability to note “trivial” details is one of the many reasons she has been successful.

Rock on, women. You’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but damn, you do good work. Keep it up.

Men, go read Proverbs 31 and marvel.

Khmer women: trading.
My big sis being bad-ass on the cello.

Japanese merchant.

Rosa on the far left, commander of the household.

The Korean ahjumma is to be both feared and praised.


  1. Sounds like after your Master's you are destined to lead a Movement. Some powerful brewing is taking place :)

  2. Seriously. I so get it. Those verses in timothy are like, really?! but then you kinda take a step back and think of the context. there has to be something that explains that, right?! Most of what the comments on my bible suggest is related to Paul talking directly about the Ephesian church - and churches with similar problems. Apparently, they were having to deal with false teachers and women were more susceptible to believing false things coz they didnt have much knowledge in the Word. That ties in with him telling them to learn - studying wasn't acceptable for women in the society - in quietness and full submission; not only so that they'd learn more about the Truth and be able to discern things better, but the way in which they had to do it had a hint of caution to avoid further problems.

    This topic evokes so many controversial feelings ha. I've been trying to learn more about this coz I'd like to believe that it's only controversial to me coz of the culture we're in, right?! coz if the bible says something it must make sense in some way and if I struggle to get it, it has to be a limitation of mine or of the people who have been talking to me about it. right?!
    Anyway, thank you for the post. quite helpful. I bought a book called recovering biblical manhood and womanhood, put together by john piper. you might wanna look into it. I haven't really started reading it yet but will soon :)

    1. Oh no! Don't read it! It's trash, I promise! Well, do read it but only because it's good to understand what complementarians are saying. But what they're saying is illogical and unbiblical. Really. Piper is famous for basically saying (in that book and elsewhere), "Women can teach men as long as we don't have to see them doing it." Lots of problematic things in that book. Much MUCH better is the response book written by Gilbert Bilezikian called "Beyond Sex Roles." (Here's a book review: It takes a much more Bible-centered approach to the issue. A relevant website is