Proverb brims with less-than-glowing descriptions of women. There are wayward wives, prostitutes, women with smoother-than-oil lips, strange women, loud women, defiant women, wives who are like a continual drip on a rainy day or decay in their husband’s bones, women whose feet never stay at home, brazen-faced women and even a woman so repulsive she is likened to a gold ring in a pig’s snout!
Any woman reading Proverbs may be tempted to conclude that its authors tended to blame women for weakness actually rooted in the male psyche, especially when is comes to sexual sin. But to balance things out there are also some odious descriptions of men, including scoundrels, villains, chattering fools, and sluggards. And Proverbs actually open and closes with positive portrayals of women: first as wisdom personified and then as a woman who can do no wrong.
Just who was this woman on a pedestal described in Proverbs 31? Was she, as many think, the ideal wife and mother? The poem describes a wealthy, aristocratic woman with a large household to direct. She was hardworking, enterprising, capable, strong, wide, skilled, generous, thoughtful of others, dignified, God-fearing, serene – a tremendous credit to her husband. She arose while it was still dark to feed her family. She looked at a field, considered it merits, and purchased it. She wove cloth and made linen garments, which she then sold. “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all'” (vs 28-29).
The description of the woman in Proverbs 31 offers a refreshing contrast to other ancient women, which tend to portray them in more frivolous and decorative terms, emphasizing only their beauty or charm. Still, the perfect woman of Proverbs 31 hasn’t always been a friend to ordinary women. In fact, she has sometimes been rubbed into the faces of lesser women by critical husbands and preacher unable to resist the temptation. What woman could ever measure up to her? And is a woman’s worth to be measured only by what she can accomplish in the domestic sphere? Or is the woman in Proverbs 31 a symbol of all the contributions a woman could make within the culture of her day? Regardless of how you answer these questions, there is more to her story than simply being the ideal wife and mother.
In Proverbs 3:13-16 a young man is instructed; “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable that silver and yields better returns that gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” Here is wisdom in the abstract, personified as a woman.
From beginning to end, Proverbs is aa particle handbook for learning a life based on wisdom. In the end, there are only two choices for both men and women: to embrace wisdom or to love folly. The woman of Proverbs 31 may well be meant to inspire both men and women with a picture of what a virtuous life, male or female, is capable of producing: shelter for others, serenity, honor, prosperity, generosity, confidence about the future 0 true blessedness. Who wouldn’t want to be like such a woman? Who wouldn’t sing her praises?