Proverbs 31 is one of those texts that gets whipped out at college bible studies and women’s conferences as an instructive text for women looking to become wives. Verses 10 through 31 describe a woman (a wife, more specifically) of incredible talent and skill – she sews, she cooks, she brings home exotic foods, she invests in real estate. She does it all, effortlessly apparently, and Christian teachers (both male and female) have long taken the text as a template for the ideal Christian wife.
The problem is that if the text is in fact meant to be instructive, all of us church gals are supposed to be Superwoman. Proverbs 31, as it is most commonly taught, creates an impossible standard. And consequently, many of us walk around with a complex for a fair portion of our lives, feeling like failures because we haven’t stayed up late enough, gotten up early enough, accomplished enough with our limited time and energy. Reading Proverbs 31 as instructive to all women is, in short, a deeply destructive practice.
But that isn’t the only way to read it.
In her poignant and humorous book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans digs into the linguistic context of the passage as well as the use of the passage in Jewish rituals. In one of the most eye-opening passages of the book (at least from my perspective), Evans explains that this portion of the Bible is, of all things, a warrior poem. (See January: Valor, p. 75 – 76.) While most English translations read, “she provides food for her family,” the Hebrew is literally “prey” (v. 15). Ditto for “her husband…lacks nothing of value” (Hebrew: “booty”) and “she girds herself with strength” (Hebrew, “girds her loins”).
So first and foremost, this isn’t a retiring, domestic-type woman. She’s a hero, a la Beowulf or Roland. (Or Xena, I suppose. If you must.)
More importantly though, this warrior woman isn’t meant to set a standard to achieve – according to Jewish tradition, she reflects the talents and abilities inherent in all women. Evans’s friend Ahava, an Orthodox Jew, explains:
“Here’s the thing: Christians seem to think because all the Bible is inspired that it all should be taken as literally as possible also. Jews don’t do this. I get called an Aishet Chayil (virtuous woman, Prov. 31 woman) all the time. Make your own Challah instead of buying? Aishet Chayil! Do work to earn extra money for the family? Aishet Chayil! Make Balloon animals for the kids on a holiday? Very Aishet Chayil!! You see, even though [Orthodox] Jews take the TORAH very literally (all 613 commandments!) the rest is seen differently, as a way to understand Our Creator, not as literal commands. Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings Aishet Chayil (right after blessing the kids) and it’s special, because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he sees everything past the minimum needed to survive as me blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women CAN do that, and many do already.”
My dear sisters of all faiths and ages, this is who we are already. Not who we ought to be. This woman is already my grandmother, Norma, who used to sew awesome clothes for the teenaged version of my mother. And my housemates Maya and Dana, who are awesome hostesses. She is my sister-in-law Becky who makes amazing wall art for her kids’ rooms. She is my mother, Sharon, who is opening her home to thirty people this Saturday in celebration of M.L. and my upcoming marriage. She is my soon-to-be mother-in-law, Carol, who carries on the Polish traditions of her parents and visits elderly relatives. She is Stephanie, another sister-in-law, who selflessly lets others bask in the joy of holding her newborn daughter. She is Kate in Houston, who has homeless friends, church friends, and friends around the world. She is Katherine in Buffalo, who skillfully nurses old people, young people, nice people, impatient people, and hurting people. She is every woman pastor and professor I have studied under and every church lady who brings casseroles to potlucks or sings in the choir.
So this is how I will teach my daughters, should they ever exist, about Proverbs 31. Through the books and blogs and lives of the women of valor around them and through all the good things such women work in the world. Maybe I’ll just teach them to shout Aishet Chayil! at every woman in their lives.