The story goes that once upon a time, an aging queen sat her son down for a chat. “Listen, Lem,” she began, “Those girls you keep bringing home? Well, I ain’t saying that they’re gold diggers, but they ain’t messin’ with no broke goatherds, capisce? You’re a king, so let’s cut to the chase: WHAT IN THE HOLY HOLISHKES ARE YOU THINKING? What you need is a virtuous girl, by which I mean one who can knit—designer knitting, mind you, that generates enough income to fund her real-estate business. Obviously, she’ll make all of your clothes too… yes, even those scarlet ski pants of which you’re so fond. She’ll arrange a steady stream of extracurricular activities to keep the kids busy while you’re hanging out with your buddies so she can work her daily shift in the soup kitchen, and it probably goes without saying that she won’t have time to sleep. Ever. Now go find her!” And all the maidens of the kingdom fled in terror. The end.
That’s more or less how the Biblical book of Proverbs wraps up, and it makes for one of the most horrifying Bible study topics I’ve ever experienced. Groups of women meet up to wade in guilt together and discuss how they can start measuring up to Mrs. Proverbs 31, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that Lemuel’s gal would have had no time for Bible studies herself. Things get desperate, and if you don’t think modern women would start stitching dresses just to be more virtuous, think again. Even the ladies who go with a more “letter of the law” approach leave the Bible studies with dark circles forming preemptively under their eyes.
I doubt King Lemuel’s mom imagined her motherly advice would ever be construed as God’s Will For Womankind. Furthermore, I doubt that the womanizing, perpetually hung-over Lem ever found a wife to fit his ideal (er, make that his mom’s ideal). The virtuous wife was a fantasy spun from parental reproach, a strong work ethic, and good old-fashioned hyperbole, and there is no evidence suggesting that such a superwoman ever existed. In fact, the latter third of the Bible makes it clear that God is much more interested in our sincerity and love than in how late we stay up knitting.
I guess what bothers me so much about this famous chapter is that King Lemuel’s mother adds one more voice to the chorus telling us women we’re not enough—not productive enough, talented enough, skinny enough, smart enough… fill in the blank. And when the aging queen’s advice is taken as God’s decree because it shows up in the Bible, the not-enoughs take on the full weight of divinity. It’s no longer a simple matter of “I am not enough;” it becomes “God thinks I am not enough.”
Yet Jesus is the one who comforted a housewife flustered over her massive to-do list: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” It didn’t matter that what she was worked up over was Jesus’s dinner; he would forego a feast to enjoy her company. And to another woman who wasted a year’s wages on a perfume bath for his feet (rather than giving that money to the poor as Jesus’s dinner hosts angrily insisted she should have done, as the Proverbs 31 woman would have done), he extended kindness, gratitude, and the grace she had been craving.
I’m not saying that Lemuel’s mom didn’t have some good points—as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt and a glassful of cultural perspective—but I find myself wishing that King Lem had acted a bit more kingly to start with and let that damn Proverbs 31 woman rest as all women should: in peace.
* Title and topic inspired by a dear friend.