Since I have been at Holy Trinity I have had the opportunity to preach on some of my very favorite Bible passages. Passages like the call vision of Isaiah, the Samaritan woman at the well, that beautiful poem about Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2. When the preaching roster is being put together each term I have enjoyed looking through it to find a passage I love and giving myself the opportunity to revel in them for a while.
When this term’s preaching roster came out I noticed right away that Proverbs 31 would be one of the readings. That made my choice easier. There is no way I was going to choose that one. So I chose a different week and a nice passage from the Gospel of John.
But then about a month ago Dave asked me to swap with him and I found myself on the roster for today. So I saw that God was not going to let me get away with avoiding Proverbs 31. I saw that I would have to confront this woman who closes the book of Proverbs with her tireless industry and limitless wisdom: this perfect, ideal wife and mother who for millennia has left all of us mere mortal women feeling hopelessly inadequate.
Proverbs 31, you may notice, is not one of my favourite passages!
But maybe it is time for me to make peace with this woman, and maybe even to say something that will reconcile us all to her just a little.
I need to acknowledge at the start that this is a passage that I can’t help reading as a woman. I don’t know what it would be like to read this passage as a man. So a lot of what I say this morning will be addressed to women and the men might feel a bit left out. So I apologise now to the men here and hope you will listen in anyway and maybe hear something of value to yourselves as well.
Most of my ministry life has involved me in the lives of women, as I have taught them, listened to them, prayed with them. I think I can say with some authority that few women need any encouragement to feel inadequate. We don’t need the media to tell us that we really ought to be as attractive as Marilyn Munroe, as rich as Gina Rhineheart, as intelligent at Marie Curie, as selfless as Mother Theresa and as good with children as Mary Poppins. We don’t need to be told that… because we seem to be born with expectations of ourselves that are way beyond hope of fulfilment in the life of any one woman.
And this morning, as I think about the young women I know who are struggling with eating disorders, I am in no mood to be charitable with images that place burdens on young women that they just can’t carry.
The last thing we need is to open up our Bibles and find another womanly ideal that we can’t live up to:
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
When my children were both pre-schoolers I wrote a poem to express my annoyance at the high expectations I placed on myself and felt the world was placing on me. I called it “The Perfect Mother” but maybe it could be called “A modern Proverbs 31 Woman”. Here it is…. And even as I read it I feel a need to apologise that I am no Emily Dickinson:
She keeps a house that is spotlessly clean,
And her children well groomed and fit to be seen,
And they speak no word that’s offensive or obscene.
Of her home she is indisputably queen.
She cooks meals that are healthy, gourmet and lite.
She has a flat tummy and a bottom that’s tight.
And she never eats chocolate – not even a bight.
And she has great sex with her husband every night.
She is always well dressed (by 8 am),
And takes her kids out to stimulate them.
If they don’t feel well, she’ll find the problem.
She can diagnose infection by looking at phlegm.
She works hard for her church and seeks no reward.
She takes notes during sermons and never gets bored.
When playing the organ, she beautifies each chord.
She’s led all her children’s friend’s mothers to the Lord.
Her children are well behaved and polite
They express their feelings so they never need to fight.
They obey their mother, because they know she is right.
They never pick their noses, or hit or bight.
If you need her advice, she’s always free,
And right every time, she has proven to be.
She will write a novel – or two or three,
Just as soon as she’s finished her PhD.
So what do we do with this perfect woman in Proverbs 31? Is it really necessary to be reconciled to her? After all, she isn’t real, she is a literary creation form a very ancient book.
I think we need to learn to love her because the thing that stops us from loving her also stops us from loving each other. If we are tempted to push her away because she shows us our inadequacies, what will we do with real flesh and blood women who do the same thing? How can I love women who are more beautiful than me, more talented than me, more successful than me, more godly than me, if I hate this biblical representation of womanhood? I have to ask myself if I need people to be weak and vulnerable and broken before I can love them?
It seems to me that women have been resenting the strength and beauty we see in each other ever since the first descendants of Abraham when Leah hated Rachael because Jacob loved Rachael more; and Rachael hated Leah because Leah had more children. I wonder how different the Old Testament story might have been if Rachael and Leah had supported each other rather than competing.
So it is worth having a closer look at Proverbs 31.
The first thing worth noticing is that this woman is free of many of the constraints that tend to hold us back. She is clearly very healthy in body, mind and spirit, to be able to work they hours she does. She is also wealthy. She has servants to give orders to. The huge amount of work that gets done in her household is not all being done by her. This wealth suggests that she is not the wife of just anyone, and if we look back a little to verse 1 of Proverbs 31 we find that a king is being addressed:
The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
This suggests that maybe the whole chapter should be read as advice to a king. Now, something that has never changed in the many centuries since the book of Proverbs was written is that giving advice to a king is really tricky. It needs to be done with wisdom, with finesse, with cleverness.
Now the book of Proverbs is written in the genre of wisdom literature, and it is in the nature of wisdom literature to be clever. And generally speaking, open, frank, straightforward criticism of a king is not clever. And so, in my study of Old Testament wisdom literature I have been becoming increasingly aware of the way it claims King Solomon as its patron and hero and then behind his back shows him to have been a fool: someone who, for all his famed wisdom, did not in fact walk the paths of wisdom at all.
And one of the biggest areas of foolishness in Solomon’s life was his marriage policy. He married for political reasons – to form alliance with other nations. This meant of course that he brought worshippers of foreign gods right into the heart of Jerusalem. But it also meant that housing and dressing his enormous harem became a huge expense for Israel and, along with Solomon’s other extravagances, this made crippling taxes necessary in order to service the nation’s mounting debt.
By the time he died many of his people felt as though they had returned to slavery, not to a foreign nation but to their own king. And so they asked Solomon’s son for relief and he said he fully intended to outdo his father in the demands he would make on his exhausted people. And so it went on, one king after another, not serving their people but forcing their people into servitude.
And here in Proverbs we find an oracle given as advice to a king – presumably one of Solomon’s descendants. We don’t know who King Lemuel is, and my guess is that he is actually fictional, and so could refer to any king in Judah or Israel.
Let me read the first 9 verses:
2 No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!
3 Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
5 or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
6 Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
8 Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
9 Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
It seems to me that the biggest mistake people make about the Proverbs 31 woman is in dividing verses 10 to 31 from verses 1 to 9. There is a reason why people do that. Scholars who look at form and structure consider these two halves of the chapter to be two independent poems – and they may well be right. But these two poems were clearly put together for a reason, even if they started their lives separately. Lemuel’s mother warns him against inappropriate use of women and alcohol. She speaks about the inappropriate use of women:
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
Can very easily be seen as a criticism of Solomon. She then expands on the inappropriate and then the appropriate use of alcohol, and after that it seems reasonable that she should add some positive advice about women, particularly about how choosing a wife can be done wisely.
So this picture of ideal womanhood is not in the Bible, I believe, to tell women how to be and to make us feel inadequate because we can’t live up to it – it is there to tell a king what to look for in a good queen. This woman is not just someone who will keep house nicely for her husband, she is someone who will rule a nation at his side.
This is the sort of woman a king should choose. So when you place this wisdom about marriage next to the marriage policies of King Solomon… you see that this portrait of an ideal woman is not just domestic, it is highly political.
You see that immediately when you look at the Proverbs 31 woman and ask “who was her father”. Was he the pharaoh of Egypt? Was he the king of Moab? Was he the son or even the cousin of any sort of king? We have no idea. This woman is depicted as a good wife for a king only because of what she beings to the family and the nation in her own person – her wisdom, her devotion, her hard work – and not because of any political alliance that the marriage would bring.
The Proverbs 31 woman could not be more different from Solomon’s harem. They were a drain on the nation’s resources. She is not a drain but a resource – a national treasure. She adds to the wealth of the nation through her business skills and her hard work.
The expense of Solomon’s harem made the poor of his nation even poorer through heavy taxes, but this women
opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Clothing and housing Solomon’s harem in the style that their dignity demanded was one of the extravagances that put Solomon and his descendants into serious debt. But the Proverbs 31 woman
makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple
that she has made with her own hands.
This poem was not written to tell women how they should manage our households, it was written to demonstrate the stupidity of kings and noblemen who married for property and power rather choosing capable, strong women who could work beside them and increase their prosperity through honest, wise labour.
This poem says to kings and to other men: choose a capable wife and give her the freedom to use her wisdom and strength for the good of the family and the nation. Put her in a position to consider a field and buy it, without having to check back with you about every decision. Choose a capable wife, give her freedom an, in the words that close this book of Proverbs:
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
I’m sure you know that for much of the history of the human race married women have not tended to be allowed to own property. Wisdom says to men in those cultures: everyone who labours has a right to the fruit of their labour – including women.
And in many cultures women have been hidden away in domestic space, out of sight of the world. Wisdom says to their husbands – let them out, let them use their gifts and trust them do good, not ill, and to increase the prosperity and honour of your family.
In a lot of ways cultures like that are not the reality most of us live in. So what are we to make of this marital advice?
Though I think that sermons on Bible passages should usually aim to do what the passage does, I think that advice from me on how to find a good wife is the last thing anyone here wants or needs. But to those of us who have partners I think wisdom here tells us to give our partners freedom to exercise all the capabilities and strengths they have. It tells us not to anxiously cling to our partners and so hold them back from any good they might do in the world. It tells us to be proud of our partners, even when their achievements put us in the shade.
And returning to my own sense of inadequacy that I started with: wisdom tells me to love this Proverbs 31 women and everyone like her. It tells me to stop comparing myself with women seem to be more capable than me. Wisdom tells me not to do anything to stand in the way of other women being all that they can be – just because I am afraid that they might be more than I am. Wisdom tells me to celebrate the achievements of other women, even when those achievements are greater than my own.
And underneath all that wisdom whispers something else in my ear. I am among the first generations of women to be released from the many constraints that have been put on my sisters in the past. Legislation and contraception have made the lives of women today immeasurably different from the lives of our grandmothers. What am I doing – and what will I do – with that freedom? Will I be like the woman in Proverbs 31 and take the path of wisdom; the path of energetic labour from morning to night in the service of others? Will I embrace the freedom I have been given or will I constrain myself through fear: fear that my best efforts will be inadequate; fear that my best intentions will be misunderstood; fear that I will be successful and my success will make others feel inadequate an I will be left alone in my success?
Or will I be a woman who fears the Lord and nothing else, and in that freedom devote myself to doing the hard work of providing for my family, giving to the poor, working for justice and serving the God who created us all – male and female.
Lord, set us free from all that holds us back from the path of freedom, the path of service, the path of wisdom, the path of Jesus.
First preached by Margaret Wesley at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 23rd, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.