The Proverbs 31 Superwoman - Ideal or Impossibility?
Proverbs 31 has been quoted over and over again as a description of the perfect woman. It has been used to show the wide range of activities such a paragon might engage in — how industrious and virtuous a good wife could be. But is Proverbs 31 still a viable model for ideal womanhood — can it really be used in the twentieth century as a practical guide to living?
The Christian woman today is caught in a quandary. She's beset on every side by a crowd of "experts" giving all kinds of advice on how she should live her life. But who to listen to? Those rabid feminists who view all males as chauvinist pigs and want to be more equal than the "enemy"? Those of the quasi-religious anti-lib backlash who promise fur coats and adoration from husbands manipulated through principles of submission and sex supposedly derived from the Bible? Or the assorted givers of advice anywhere on the spectrum in between? A woman of more fundamentalist persuasion will try to live by "every word of God," using the Bible to guide her through the maze of advice and rhetoric. But even she may find herself puzzled. After which scriptural model should she pattern her life? The wife Sarah, who stayed in the back of the tent while her husband and his visitors talked "men talk"? Or the prophetess Deborah, who judged an entire nation and helped lead its troops into battle? Or should she try to live up to the standards set forth in that oft-quoted passage on the epitome of Old Testament womanhood — Proverbs 31? The Ideal Bible Family? Before making any snap decisions about what the Bible does or does not say about women and their place in the family and the world, some background material needs to be taken into account and carefully considered. Throughout biblical history, families who have lived up to the divine ideal have been the exception rather than the rule. In fact, one is hard pressed to find such an example — Mary and Joseph perhaps? We can look back on approximately six thousand years of recorded history and see that not one society — mini or maxi — has ever lived up to God's standards in the area of human relationships. Even the theocracy of ancient Israel had to compromise with human frailty by enacting legislation covering polygamy, divorce and slavery. The Bible gives us very little by way of inspiration for balanced family living if we try to use the lives of the righteous men of old as models. For example, it is doubtful that many of us would want to emulate the examples of family life as practiced by Abraham, Jacob, David, or Hosea. The men of the Old Testament (and their wives and/or concubines) developed lifestyles in accordance with the customs and practices of the societies in which they lived. In New Testament times, Paul and John stayed single in order to cope with the desperate hardships (and the threat of martyrdom) they knew they would be forced to undergo. All of them tried to do the best they could in the circumstances in which they found themselves. But just as God did not put His heavenly stamp of approval on any past human society or government (with the exception of Israel at its inception), so He didn't by divine fiat declare that the lifestyle of David or Abraham or Paul was a pattern for all humanity throughout the ages. But — and notice this — He didn't condemn any of them for their particular family structure (or lack of it) either. David got into trouble, not for polygamy, but for murdering a man in order to acquire a wife that wasn't rightly his. Moses was chastened for losing his temper, not for marrying an Ethiopian woman. And God Himself, for a unique and special purpose, commanded Hosea to marry a woman who was a prostitute. This Present Evil World. Any Christian, male or female, should be aware of the fact that this is not God's world. For at least the past half-dozen millennia it has been ruled by Satan the devil. II Corinthians 4:4 states that he is the "god of this world" (see also Luke 4:6; Eph. 2:2; Rev. 12:9). And God is going to continue to allow Satan to rule until Christ comes a second time to set up His world-ruling government. In the meantime, all of us find ourselves in some sort of less-than-optimum situation. As the author of the book of Ecclesiastes lamented: "It is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.
Proverbs' Ideal Woman
"A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 'Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.' Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates."
I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered " (Eccl. 1:13- 15). The life we are given to live is filled with problems and contradictions, which are nearly all the result of living in a Satan-governed society. Nothing we can do as individuals — no amount of keeping God's laws — is going to Change the world order. Christ alone can do that. Perhaps, as some have said, the Bible has the solution to every problem, at least in principle. But it is beyond our puny human powers to implement those solutions alone, right now, today. God hands us an imperfect life and expects us to do the best we can with what we have been given in our own situation. And Our Private Corner of It. With all this as background, we can look at our present family configuration in the Western world and realize that it, also, is not God's ideal. Although God instituted marriage, He did not necessarily invent or approve every detail of all the many forms marriage has taken down through the centuries. So we should not assume that even the American "Bible-Belt" model of marriage and family life is exactly what God had in mind, either. Remember, this is all Satan's world — even our own comfortable corner of it. The "ideal" nuclear family today is not without its problems and stresses. Our present setup puts tremendous pressure on individual family. members to provide emotional solace and sanctuary from a difficult world. Usually absent are the members of the extended nuclear family — uncles, aunts, grandparents — who formerly shouldered some of the emotional burden. Expecting too much of one another, family members today may often feel smothered or harassed by each other's constant demands. They may seek comfort outside the home with their respective peer groups. The home may then become an empty shell, a place to sleep when there's nothing else scheduled. The Home As Motel. Our society is structured so that the home is no longer the center of life's activities. Fifty or sixty years ago it ceased to be the hub of cottage industry and agricultural activity in the Western world. It is now basically a bedroom and sometimes a feeding station for independently functioning family members. This separation of the home from the mainstream of life has drastically changed women's role, making it nearly impossible for them to play the important part they once did in a more home-centered society. Virginia Satir, writing in Conjoint Family Therapy, described the impact of this development on women a few decades ago: "Women, living in cities in 'boxes in air' or tucked away in suburbs, felt separated from the bustle and 'real purpose' of the modern-day world. They had been educated for tasks other than housekeeping and child rearing, and tawght to be aware of scientific and cultural events going on outside the family world. They now found themselves losing work experience, seniority, self-confidence, as they focused solely on the wife and mother roles.... Some women went outside the home to work, placing their children — in nurseries, with neighbors, or with a succession of babysitters. Some stayed home and fretted, parenting in a listless, half-hearted, absentminded way. Some stayed home and turned child rearing into an over-intense occupation to compensate for a feeling of uselessness and a feeling that life was passing them by" (pp. 24-25).. But what is all this leading up to? What has it got to do with ideal womanhood from a Bible stand-point, or Proverbs 31 in particular? Just this: Proverbs 31 describes a righteous woman who is energetically utilizing all the options available to her in a much more idyllic, agrarian society where the home provided a base of operations for her multitude of creative endeavors. The kind of home she lived. in was the center of life, industry and agricultural activity. She was not cut off from the world and its opportunities, because the world revolved around her home. Proverbs 31 Updated. Proverbs 31 was written in poetic style and is not an actual account of a particular historical woman. It is the author's idealized vision of a "good wife." This Wonder Woman of the past was not the typical average Jewish wife and mother of her day. She was married to a man of means who had succeeded in politics on a local level (verse 23). While perhaps not an Eleanor Roosevelt, she was at least a wealthy upper-middle-class matron. She had at her command a bevy of "maidens " or servants (verse 15), and it is also implied that she had at her disposal field hands to help her plant vineyards (verse 16). She had enough money under her control to speculate in real estate (verse 16), to provide capital for her own small business (verse 13), to " reach out her hands to the needy" (verse 20), and to clothe her family in fine garments (verses: 21-22). She had been well educated and was able to absorb the wisdom and teaching of God's Scriptures (verses 26, 30). What would happen if such a talented and exceptional woman were bodily removed from her ancient setting and plunked down in the middle of twentieth-century America? How would she react? First of all, once she had gotten over the culture shock, she might find herself utterly unfulfilled in a role as the stereotyped upper, middle-class housewife, once her children were old enough to be out of the home, at school for the largest part of the day, she would find herself with nothing to do. Her one-women linen-garment business would be anachronistic, not to mention unprofitable, Competition from machine-made clothing would render her endeavors futile and a bit ridiculous, It would also no longer be profitable for her to buy small fields and plant vineyards — agribusiness has taken over that facet of her former life. Besides, she would now have no field hands to help her. Her servants would have dwindled from the former staff of several dozen to a maid that comes in twice a week and an after-school babysitter. There wouldn't be any needy people in her part of town, either, so regular contributions to her favorite charity would take the place of her own personal gifts to individuals. She would have plenty of money to buy her family's clothes ready-made, better and cheaper than she herself could weave and sew. In fact, she would find that her entire former lifestyle was now impossible — none of it would fit or be practical any more. As an urban or suburban housewife, she might be able to bargain hunt, to shop wisely, to plant a small backyard garden, or to sew some items of her family's wardrobe, But she could not practically carry out her former activities unless she lived on a farm, where life still revolves around the home to a certain extent. So what would she do to regain the sense of fulfillment and self-respect she used to have? Her only recourse would probably be to specialize. She did have an interest in real estate. Perhaps she might take a course or two, get her license and make herself a career in that field. Or she might go back to school and go on to become a successful clothing designer. Or she might opt for some different career entirely. But there's no way she could go back to being the Jill-of-all-trades, mistress-of-the-house-on-the-hill that she used to be. Keepers at Home? But wait a minute, you might be saying. This is supposed to be a righteous woman! Where does she get off leaving home and going out to work in the mainstream of society? Doesn't the New Testament command women to be "keepers at home"? This is the impression that many Christians have — that our model of the family — a woman isolated at home with several small children, far away from the world of work — is God's ideal. Actually, this separation of the husband's world from the family and the wife are part of Satan's system. Sociologists are aware of the obvious problems it. presents, and how badly it affects. wives and children. Virginia Satir again describes the results: "Men's family lives became so separated from their work lives that they lived almost in two separate worlds.... "They often wished the family would be geared more to their needs. They were tired and discouraged and rattled from the day's exploits and decisions. They could do with a family turned rest home or quiet sanitarium" (op. cit.). And, incidentally, the remark made by the apostle Paul about women being "keepers at home" (Titus 2:5, KJV) does not mean that women should be "kept at home," or confined to that environment. It does imply that the domestic duties of a wife and mother should receive top priority. In other words, women are not being admonished to stay put in one location, as long as their household is well cared for. And the "home" about which the apostle Paul spoke does not exist in most parts of the Western world in our day and age. Rare exceptions are home-based, family-centered businesses, and small farms or homesteads where every family member's contribution is necessary, It is obvious when read in the light of the rest of the Bible that God does not universally limit women's role in such an arbitrary fashion. There is danger in trying to take a biblical statement out of its historical and social setting and forcing it to apply in the same way to an entirely different society two millennia removed from the milieu of which it was descriptive. Limited Alternatives. If we are to be living by every word of God (Luke 4:4), extracting from the Bible all the principles that apply to our present situation, there are several other factors we must take into consideration. First of all, God wants and commands everyone of us to develop the talents. He has given us to the fullest extent possible (see Luke 19 and Matthew 25). Living in this "present evil world!" (Gal: 1:4), it is difficult for even men to do, this properly. But it is much more difficult for women. Women today are presented with a limited set of alternatives that leave a lot to be desired — in fact, none of them parallel the life God would ideally want them to lead. For instance, today if a woman with children chooses to work outside the home, once those children are old enough to be left in some sort of day-care arrangement (which, remember, is not a sin, though sometimes hot the best — the Proverbs 31 woman had servants which could and probably did fill the same function), she faces many problems. She runs head on into the same frustrations that already beset men in our society, plus she may have to contend with sexist prejudices on the job. She may also have to deal with her own long-ingrained feelings of guilt about not being in her "proper" place. But she will receive the benefits of human dignity and self-respect that go along with earning a salary, and her children may actually benefit from her bettered personality. Then again, there may be days when she just doesn't have enough energy to do real justice to her several pursuits. But working is one way of coping, and some women may be able to handle this situation well, or even flourish in it. But a woman who chooses to stay at home and occupy herself with full-time duties as a housewife also doesn't live in a bed or roses. Unless she is one of the rare farmers' wives who can actually literally practice the activities of the Proverbs 31 woman, she has to put up with the feeling of being cut off from the "real" world of influence and accomplishment (by our society's admittedly twisted standards). She may also have to cope with an ebbing sense of self-respect and self-worth. She may have to suffer intense loneliness, especially while her children are young and she has no really stimulating adult companionship except, in some cases, a tired, uncommunicative husband at the end of the day. Or a woman may avoid all these family-related problems by choosing to remain single. This in itself is an honorable way to live (see I Cor. 7:25-28), but it comes with its own set of trials and tribulations. Lack of sexual fulfillment, loneliness, functioning in a couple-oriented society — all have to be dealt with. Find Fulfillment. So the options are there, for most of us they are less. than perfect, and God allows us to choose the "least worst" of them for our own particular situation. The Bible does not give strict guidelines as to exactly how a Christian woman should structure her lifestyle in this society today. But she is guided in principle to try to find fulfillment and develop her talents in the best way she can. Until Christ returns to set up an ideal utopia free from Satan's influence, all any of us can do is make the best of a bad situation. What God really wants is for each of us — men and women alike — to self-actualize — to develop all of our talents to the full in service to ourselves, our families, and the rest of mankind. This is one of the principles we can derive from the example in Proverbs 31 — this woman was using her abilities to the full. How we try to emulate her example in the context of our own particular position in life is up to us. There is no pat answer or set formula that is right for everybody, Proverbs 31 is an ode to a woman that might have been. Her era has long ago vanished — but the spirit of achievement and excellence she stood for should give every woman today the inspiration to achieve a similar success in her own life.