The Life and Death of the Proverbs 31 Woman

Of all the examples in the Bible, there’s one that dominates the conversation about what a godly woman should look like. But should it?

[Laurin]

For most of my adult life, if I had woken up one morning to read that the Proverbs 31 woman had met an untimely death on her spindle, I would have barely grieved. Because for a long time, the Proverbs 31 woman has been my mental nemesis.

She is the pre-Renaissance Renaissance woman. Scripture tells us that she cooks splendid exotic meals (Prov. 31:14). She sews ornate clothing for her family—from thread and fabric that she herself has spun (Prov. 31:19, Prov. 31:21-22). She also runs a substantial textile business (Prov. 31:24), and from the profits, she buys her own land, which she gardens (Prov. 31:16). She helps the poor (Prov. 31:20). She is constantly productive (Prov. 31:27). And even though she barely sleeps, from her mouth pours nothing but wisdom and kindness (Prov. 31:26). Both her husband and her children lavish praise on her (Prov. 31:28-29).

While she has brought her family tremendous blessing, the Proverbs 31 woman has brought a significant amount of consternation to my soul.

When I was single—and I was single into my mid-30s—I would stack myself up against her as if she were a measuring stick. And I found myself lacking. I wasn’t married, so there was no husband’s heart to trust in me. I didn’t have children, so I had no one to clothe in handmade scarlet garments, and there was no one to rise up and call me blessed. So nearly every Mother’s Day, when our pastor would base his sermon on Proverbs 31, I left church feeling I’d been in a fight for my femininity and lost. I longed to be a wife and a mother so deeply—specifically a Proverbs 31 wife and mother—that I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day.

Now that I’m married, I find I still evaluate myself against her—except now she has become my wifely competition. I sew. I garden. I cook food from afar. (Tacos count, right?) Even though having a husband and child puts me in many of the same categories as the Proverbs 31 woman, her achievements still echo in my heart, implying that perhaps I’m still not good enough. After all, her record has stood for thousands of years. Although she was never even a real person, she has the power to haunt me.

[John]

I sometimes wonder if the book of Proverbs is missing a chapter. It seems rather unfair that the final word in this collection of wisdom is a checklist of nearly impossible standards for women to live up to. I like to imagine there was once a Proverbs 32, where a similar list for men once resided. Then a wise scribe “lost” that bit of the scroll, and men everywhere rejoiced. But since women could not be scribes in the ancient world, Proverbs 31 remains.

I read Proverbs 31 with a bit of guilt by association, feeling that my gender has imposed a yoke of domestic slavery onto women everywhere, loosening the chains just enough to also apply the manacles of career success. If only the author had presented several “excellent” women to choose from—one, a craft-loving homemaker; the next, a savvy businesswoman; and another, a hardworking philanthropist. If he had done this, women today might not feel the pressure to “have it all.” But at least this woman is hypothetical. There isn’t a woman in the Bible who actually lived like this.

Except there is. Sort of.

The Hebrew phrase that’s translated “excellent wife” (NASB), “wife of noble character” (NIV), or “virtuous woman” (KJV) in Proverbs 31:10 occurs just one other time in Scripture outside of the book of Proverbs. It’s used to describe an unlikely heroine. This woman is neither a wife nor a mother when she earns her “excellent” status. She has no money and scrapes by on the leftovers of the rich. She’s not even an Israelite. But one spring night, curled up on the threshing floor at the feet of her benefactor, Ruth hears these words: “And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11 NIV; emphasis added).

While the Proverbs 31 woman has a “husband [who] trusts in her,” (Prov. 31:11), Ruth has buried her husband in Moab (Ruth 1:4-5). In Proverbs 31, the woman “looks for wool and flax and works with her hands in delight” (Prov. 31:13), but Ruth has no time for such pursuits. She must rise in the morning to harvest leftover grain, and she does not rest until evening (Ruth 2:7, Ruth 2:17). The Proverbs 31 woman brings “food from afar” (Prov. 31:14-15)—exotic dishes to delight her family’s taste buds, as well as those of her servants. Ruth, on the other hand, brings home a simple meal of barley to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 2:18). The woman of Proverbs 31 “considers a field and buys it” (Prov. 31:16). Ruth also considers a field—but only to glean behind the owner’s hired servants as a woman of poverty (Ruth 2:3; cf. Lev. 19:9-10). The Proverbs 31 woman “extends her hand to the poor” (Prov. 31:20), while Ruth waits patiently at Boaz’s feet, hoping he will extend his hand and cover her with his garment (Ruth 3:7-9), an act that would symbolize his commitment to redeem her and Naomi from their place of destitution.

Ruth appears to bear none of the marks of the “virtuous woman” enshrined forever in Proverbs, yet she still makes the grade, at least in the eyes of the Lord (and those of Boaz.) It appears, then, that there is hope for every mother, sister, daughter, and wife who has ever sat through a Mother’s Day sermon and felt the weight of “not good enough” pressing in on her shoulders—including the beautiful shoulders of my bride. Perhaps there is something beneath the (probably) flawless skin of the Proverbs 31 woman—a virtue that has nothing to do with planting vineyards and being clothed in fine linen—something that can set a woman apart, even if she does not have a husband to praise her or children to rise up and bless her.

I believe there is a point when the story of Ruth and the description of the Proverbs 31 woman intersect. Ruth, despite outward appearances and heartbreaking circumstances, in a single moment clothes herself in the fine linen of Proverbs 31: “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you,” she tells her mother-in-law, “for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16-17). In this promise to Naomi, Ruth reveals herself to be loyal, brave, and above all, a woman who fears the Lord.

In the same way, the portrayal of the Proverbs 31 woman closes with a look behind the scenes of the perfect family portrait to show that the virtue of the “virtuous woman” emanates from her soul. It depends on neither her accomplishments nor her ability to be a superwoman: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31:30). In this, she is Ruth, and Ruth is she. There is honor for every woman who walks humbly with God—for amazing wives like Laurin who give their life to be all that God created them to be—and presumably, for every man who does the same, thankful that there’s no Proverbs 32.

There is honor for every woman who walks humbly with God—and presumably, for every man who does the same.

[Laurin]

The Proverbs 31 woman is no one’s wifely competition. She’s not the biblical equivalent of a modern-day Pinterest queen whom women are charged by God to emulate. She’s a friend pointing us to the truth.

God makes it clear, through her and Ruth, that what He values most isn’t a woman’s myriad abilities but a heart that is fully His.

In Proverbs 31, God is gently steering women to a great truth. As we go about our days, we can’t neglect the gospel. The good news may be foundational, but it’s also crucial. It’s the difference between living our life striving and living our life in freedom.

The truth of the gospel is this: On the cross, Jesus gave us His perfect righteousness. And we who have been “baptized into Christ have clothed [ourselves] with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Before God, we stand blameless, pure, and perfect—just like Jesus. We didn’t earn God’s acceptance, so we don’t have to work to keep it. We don’t have to prove our worth. This means anytime we’re focused on a checklist rather than Jesus—even if the checklist is from God’s Word—we’re not living in the truth. As I did, we can make the Proverbs 31 woman an idol. We can set her up as an ideal that we struggle and dance around and try to attain in our life so maybe, just maybe, it will earn us the love and approval we’re longing for. But God has already given us exactly what we need—we just need to learn to rest in it.

We can struggle to earn the love and approval we’re longing for. But God has already given us what we need—we just need to learn to rest in it.

As Romans 11:6 tells us, “If [righteousness] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” So we don’t have to turn to husbands, coworkers, or children in search of worth or righteousness. We already have it. We don’t need cooking righteousness or business-success righteousness or well-behaved-children righteousness. We don’t need Instagram-worthy dinner-tablescape righteousness. That’s silly. The beauty of our dinners doesn’t—and can’t—dictate the value of our souls.

This also means we’re free to succeed or fail in all things. With our heavenly Father’s love and acceptance secure, regardless of what we accomplish, we have nothing to lose.

Single? Loved. Married? Loved. Tidy house? Loved. Disaster house? Loved. Tasty dinner? Loved. Too-burnt-to-salvage dinner? Loved. Knocked the workday out of the ballpark? Loved. Want to stay home in stretchy pants forever because of a tremendous office fail? Loved. Loved. Loved. It’s the banner that extends over all our lives, and we are free to live under it—to shake off the striving, and to rest. Proverbs 31 describes an amazing woman, yes, but the picture isn’t of a woman working hard to find acceptance. Instead, these verses show a woman who knows the love of her Father and lives in true freedom.

 

Photography by Ben Rollins

Related Topics:  Growth of a Believer

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What happens to my notes

14 She is like merchant ships; She brings her food from afar.

19 She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hands grasp the spindle.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household, For all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22 She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies belts to the tradesmen.

20 She extends her hand to the poor, And she stretches out her hands to the needy.

27 She looks well to the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness.

26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

28 Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:

29 Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all."

10 An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels.

11 Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence.

11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain.

4 They took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years.

5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.

13 She looks for wool and flax And works with her hands in delight.

7 And she said, `Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.' Thus she came and has remained from the morning until now; she has been sitting in the house for a little while."

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley.

14 She is like merchant ships; She brings her food from afar.

15 She rises also while it is still night And gives food to her household And portions to her maidens.

18 She took it up and went into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also took it out and gave Naomi what she had left after she was satisfied.

16 She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard.

3 So she departed and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers; and she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.

9 Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.

10 Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.

7 When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down.

8 It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet.

9 He said, Who are you?" And she answered, I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative."

16 But Ruth said, Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.

17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me."

30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

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