That Damn Proverbs 31 Woman*

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.

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  1. Thank you for writing this.

    My girlfriend was spiritually beaten over the head with this particular chapter by her parents for much of her life. I’ve told her often that there’s nothing in the Bible that says women need to emulate the Prov. 31 woman any more than there is for men to emulate Solomon’s propensity for collecting wives and concubines, and given the source (King Lemuel’s mother) I see this more as a warning against the unreasonable demands of a matriarch for her potential daughter-in-law than as a formula for men to find a Christian SuperWife.

    A man who loves his wife only because of all the things she does for him doesn’t really love her the way God loves us all — unconditionally and without need of works.

  2. Hilarious! Even more ironic when you consider there’s good evidence in context that the point of Proverbs 31 is to persuade men to be more supportive and encouraging of women: http://www.ericpazdziora.com/writing/in-search-of-the-ideal-proverbs-31-single-man/

  3. scarlet ski pants, hmmm?

  4. So good! I am nauseated when I even hear the words “Proverbs 31,” mostly out of guilt, anger, and resignation.

    I love how you answer the question, “What would Jesus think of a Proverbs 31 aspiring woman?” because the answer is Martha! On the converse, I also wonder, what would the present-day literal-Proverbs-31-proponents think of Mary?!!

  5. Ugh! I am still hung-over from this and so many other passages. I don’t know how to have peace, it’s all just fear of failing, even though according to everything I was ever taught I been “failing” my entire life.

  6. Don’t you just love how all the Proverbs 31 proponents totally skip over the first third of their revered chapter?

    And they kind of miss the point of the beginning of the whole “excellent wife” thing … “An excellent wife who can find?” is tantamount to saying “you’re not going to find one”. (Especially if you keep partying!) It’s an acrostic poem talking about the ideal/perfect woman … which we all know doesn’t exist. As you said, she’s telling him to get his mind out of the whorehouse and start raising his standards — but not necessarily his expectations.

    And of course the last couple of verses sum it up once again: Don’t go for her looks, go for her heart.

    It’s so sad that all these “Proverbs 31 Woman” proponents are all about looks and not about heart — “you must LOOK like this shining ideal … God and your future husband don’t care if your HEART is already there.”

  7. Hah, wow.
    I love this….
    And really? I love the truth about it. Love it quite a bit.

  8. Wow. I guess I need to be thankful that I have never read Proverbs 31 that I can remember, but the standards are still there. In our culture the messages that you can never measure up seems to seep into our pours from thin air. I tend to ignore the “shoulds” as much as I can, but it is hard when they are screaming in your ear. Who knew that it was based on the old Testament? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  9. I am so glad I never had the Proverbs 31 woman preached at me incessantly. I do not have issues with her, but I love reading about how our generation is dismantling the myth behind her. We need women to model ourselves so badly in our Christian walk, and the poor evangelicals have abandoned Mary, cut out Judith…mighty women indeed. And of course, what about Deborah (prophetess)? Better to bash eager-to-please hearts upon the impossible ideal…

  10. Mr. G.E. – “A man who loves his wife only because of all the things she does for him doesn’t really love her the way God loves us all — unconditionally and without need of works.” Well said. I’m sorry your girlfriend had to live under those expectations, but it sounds like she’s got a man in her life now who can help help remind her of grace. Thanks for stopping by!

    Eric – Thanks for the link; I always appreciate your take on “familiar” Bible passages. In fact, my husband and I often have lunchtime conversations sparked by something “Eric Whatshisname” wrote. 🙂

    Liz – Sounds sexy, eh?

    Karen – I think the present day Proverbs 31 proponents have a tendency to turn Mary into yet another to-do item — “Have you had your quiet time yet today?” ::eyebrows lowered in godly admonishment:: It nauseates me too.

    YM – How well I know this. You would think that after being taught we can never measure up, we’d just give up trying, right? It creates such a vicious cycle of despair.

    Scottie – Yes, yes, yes. Beauty is fleeting, but the appearance of pious busyness is not? Point = missed. (Though not by you; Anne’s a fortunate lady!)

    Beka – Thanks… and I love the truth about it too. Man, how I wish I could have been hanging out with Mary and Jesus that evening.

    Megsie – I don’t know how much the impossible standards around us are based on the Old Testament or how much this chapter of the Bible is filtered through those standards and turned into something it was never meant to be. Either way, it’s something I intend to fight with logic and grace as long as I have daughters to raise.

    Sam – Hmm, I haven’t read about some of those other gals in awhile. Is one of them the one who nailed a tent peg through someone’s ear while he slept? (Note: NOT a good story for the kindergarten set.) I am really looking forward to reading Rachel Held Evans’s final take on all of this.

  11. I am not quite as hard on the ol’ Proverbs 31 woman. I have always read it as poetry. Basically, to me, the chapter says, a good wife loves and respects her husband, cares for her household and children, and loves God above all else. I am encouraged by her work outside of the home. It tells me woman was not created to serve man and raise up babies with no brain of her own. I have never felt like Proverbs 31 was something unattainable, only an image, like a painting of who I want to be inside.

    But, I can definitely see your point. If you have been told or have believed that this chapter is a step-by-step guide to exactly how each day of your life should be lived, well, that just sucks. What would that mean for single women? Women without children? Women who can’t thread a needle to save their lives? Women struggling to break free from abusive relationships?

    We can’t let the Proverbs 31 woman become the Bible-version of an airbrushed supermodel on the cover of Vogue. Those women have photo editors to make them look “perfect.” Miss Proverbs 31 had a poet to make her sound perfect.

    Great food for thought this morning. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Interesting translation point:
    The Hebrew phrase that is sometimes translated “Virtuous Woman” or “Capable Wife” in many English versions of the Bible literally means “Woman of substance.” The word for “Substance” can also mean “Authority” or even “Armies” depending on context.

    That doesn’t necessarily help with how some choose to use the description of the “Woman of Substance.” The book of Proverbs is a highly contextual collection of writings and needs to be handled with care, as history shows. But at least we can wrestle with the text knowing that the writers of Proverbs new that women aren’t made of glass.

  13. Let’s not forget: the Proverbs 31 woman had female servants – PLURAL! – to boss around and do her dirty work! So let it be known: you won’t be able to even THINK about living up to those standards until you have a housecleaner, a nanny, and a cook! 😉

  14. I’m coming to this party pretty late 🙂 Just wanted to throw in my 2 cents.

    First, I agree that the Proverbs 31 woman should not be thrown in a lady’s face as a standard she has to live up to or risk being a failure. That’s just plain stupid.

    At the same time, though, I have always found the Proverbs 31 woman to be a HUGE encouragement. In a world where the church tells women that their “real” value is in popping babies and resisting the evil temptation to work outside the home, the Proverbs 31 woman stands with me in solidarity to say that women CAN be active in ALL spheres of life, not just those spheres that some men want to hold us in.

    I went through the list of things the Proverbs woman does and diagrammed them. Her activities were split about equally between activities that are family-oriented, ministry-oriented, and career/financially-oriented. In other words, the things she does in life are balanced. She doesn’t have to stay in the home once the kiddos arrive, but neither does she have to swear off the married life in order to keep her career. She is the women who reminds me that my life is not pre-planned and defined just because I do or don’t get married and/or have kids.

    I think she is a powerful figure of encouragement to any woman who has ever been told that home and family are the only options for ladies. I hope you can come to see her that way too! 🙂


  15. I’m reading a great new book by Dr. Tony Evans and his daughter, Chrystal Evans Hurst called “Kingdom Woman” with some great perspectives on Proverbs 31 as well as to “challenge women to look higher than where you are to whose you are, and to be transformed by the truth of being a Kingdom Woman.” The book encourages women to set their eyes on Christ and to pursue what God has created them to be. It is true to that goal. I am thoroughly enjoying it! I also found they have free devotional downloads for the book at http://www.kindgdomwomanbook.com. I hope it blesses you as it has me!

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