A family member once told me that she’d read the whole Bible a couple of times, and she saw the whole thing as a manual on how to fail.
Leaving aside how this misses the whole point of the New Testament for a moment, I get how someone might feel that way, sometimes. The first thing that came to mind when she said that, in fact, was that Proverbs 31 lady. She’s up before dawn. She’s dealing in real estate. She’s spinning wool to clothe her family, and she’s using a drop spindle which takes sooooo long (I worked at a living history museum one summer, and learned first-hand what an insane amount of work goes into covering bodies in a pre-Industrial society). Oh, and she has extra to sell, too. Her gardens are productive and well-weeded. I bet she knows what to do with mulch and can fold a fitted sheet. She’s probably one of those people whose house looks like it walked right out of Pinterest, but you know she came up with all of that herself because it’s hard to browse the internet when you’ve got both your hands working the drop spindle (does messing around on Pinterest count as “eating the bread of idleness”?). If she had a blog, I would hate-read it (but oh, I would totally read it).
I recently read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans. In it, Evans describes the year she spent trying to obey every command related to women in the Bible (over 300 of them!). Each month, she focuses on a different facet of Biblical womanhood, from modesty to domesticity. Her research and experience are interesting, as is her insightful reflection on it. Someone who grew up evangelical might relate to it more than I did–the traditional understandingof “Biblical womanhood” that she begins with is entirely alien to my culture. I still found it thought-provoking.
One of the most interesting sections was the chapter “Will the Real Proverbs 31 Woman Please Stand Up?” wherein she examines this scripture. I cannot count the number of ladies’ Bible studies I’ve attended on this proverb. The Proverbs 31 woman is an impossible standard, a measuring stick by which we all see how very short we are.
One thing I didn’t know was that the phrase “eshet chayil” usually translated as “a virtuous wife,” would be better understood as “a woman of valor.” The poem actually has some warrior-woman overtones, and most English translations downplay this aspect. Evans identifies a number of places in the text where translators have minimized the power of this figure. For example, where verse 15 says, “She provides food for her family,” “prey” would be a more specific translation than “food.” In verse 17, “she girds herself with strength,” but the Hebrew phrase behind that translation is the same one that is elsewhere rendered, “girds her loins,” as in, preparing for battle.
Evans corresponds with an Orthodox Jewish lady who says that her husband sings Proverbs 31 to her every week as part of their Sabbath meal, and it’s not to point out the ways in which she has failed to meet this standard, but rather to say, “You’re so great, even King Lemuel’s mom would have admitted it.” Evans writes,
“I looked into this, and sure enough, in Jewish culture, it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in a song[…] Eshet chayil is at its core a blessing–one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally.”
The whole book is worth a read, but I’m especially glad for the reframing of Proverbs 31. Women set up impossible ideals for ourselves–I love turning this poem from a to-do list into a high-five.