Readings (Year A):
Reflection: Women of valor
When I read through Proverbs 31, an excerpt of which appears as the first reading this week, my first reaction is exhaustion. A good wife “works with willing hands,” scripture tells us. “She rises while it is still night and provides food”; “with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard”; “she opens her hand to the poor”; “she makes linen garments and sells them”; and she “does not eat the bread of idleness.” Moreover, she does all this with a smile: “Her children . . . call her happy.” As I look around the toddler toys covering the floor that desperately needs to be vacuumed, the piles of clean laundry waiting to be folded, and my ever-growing to-do list at work, I can’t help but compare myself to the woman seemingly depicted here—a comparison where I come up short.
I’m not the only one who reads this passage as a list of requirements for the perfect wife and mother. Many Christians of all stripes have made much of the “Proverbs 31 wife,” depicting her as the ideal. The perfect woman, in other words, is one who can take care of the house, run her own business, feed her family, be home with her kids, and care for her husband (no room for LGBTQ identities in this view of womanhood)—and do it all with a smile.
But further exploration into the passage suggests that perhaps these interpretations are missing something.
Scripture tells us that this passage, at the very end of Proverbs, is a teaching King Lemuel learned from his mother. In Hebrew, the poem is an acrostic: each line starts with the successive letter of the alphabet and lists a different quality. In Judaism, midrashic traditions posit that perhaps this was a poem Abraham wrote for his wife Sarah. Or, alternatively, each line of the poem may be about a different woman rather than some laundry list of traits one woman must embody all by herself.
While this may make the Proverbs 31 wife a little less intimidating, I still find myself chafing against the reading. Even taking one trait at a time, this woman (or women) is still defined not for herself, but for what she does for others. She is valued for the work he does, not for who she is. Nor is there room for any other way of understanding womanhood outside of a cisgender heteronormative marriage and motherhood.
Looking to the Hebrew points to another important realization about the text, however. What the readings translate as “worthy wife” is actually eshet chayil, or “woman of valor.” More than a wife and mother, this term calls to mind a soldier bringing home the spoils of war for their family. The only other woman referred to as eshet chayil in the Hebrew Bible is Ruth—not a wife or mother at the time.
If we can praise Ruth for being a woman of valor in her bravery in making a life for herself and Naomi, perhaps it is time to reclaim other women of valor in scripture besides (or in addition to) the Proverbs 31 woman and outside of heteronormative assumptions about femininity and womanhood. We don’t even have to look outside the Hebrew Bible for these examples. There’s Miriam, who braved the wrath of the Egyptian pharaoh in order to help hide her baby brother and who became a leader of the Israelites in her own right during the time they wandered the wilderness. Vashti, who was executed for refusing to be objectified by the king, and Esther, who saved the Jewish people through her cunning. Deborah was the only female Israelite judge, and she helped lead her people into battle. Jael was physically strong enough to kill her enemy by driving a tent stake into his skull. Even without considering the strong and subversive women of the New Testament, the list goes on: Eve, Hagar, Zipporah, Rahab, Tamar, Judith, and all the other named and unnamed women who showed how varied biblical womanhood can be. We might not hear about these women on Sunday mornings, but they are no less strong and full of valor than the Proverbs 31 woman.