The Proverbs 31 Superwoman

If looked at as the ideal that all wives and mothers should strive to emulate, it seems the Proverbs 31 superwoman can only make women feel inferior and/or guilty that they don't measure up. After all, "who can find such a woman? for her price is far above rubies."

What purpose would it serve for the Word of God to simply be describing a seemingly unattainable goal?

The Proverbs 31 woman also would appear to possess a few characteristics (e.g. being a land speculator and merchant) that are not necessarily consistent with other biblical descriptions of virtuous womanhood (i.e. Titus 2:3-5). At the very least we must agree that these unusual characteristics are not necessary for ideal womanly virtue.

If, on the other hand, the Proverbs 31 woman is seen as being uniquely fulfilled in the Bride of Christ (i.e. the Church), this exhaustive list of grand virtues takes on a completely different meaning.

"The heart of her husband (Christ) trusts in her (after all, the gates of Hell cannot prevail against her), and he will have no lack of gain (in making disciples of all nations). She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life."

She makes provision for those in her care, is diligence in her work, is an enterprising merchant and steward for her Husband. She also "opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy."

And how about this imagery: "She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet." What better clothing can be found than the baptismal robes which are washed clean in the scarlet blood of the Lamb? With such raiment, one can weather anything!

"Her Husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. ...Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come." (She has nothing to fear in the coming tribulations.)

Proverbs 31:10-31 is a complete stand alone proverb, and is set apart from the first nine verses by a particular poetic device. It is an "acrostic." Each line of this proverb begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, spanning the entire alphabet, in proper order. This "A to Z" type of acrostic device is likely a way of indicating that it offers complete coverage of the subject matter. I wonder if we could therefore find within its verses all seven marks of the Church identified by Luther: possession of the Word, Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, Office of the Keys, Office of Ministry, Discipleship, and the cross (suffering on account of one's faith).

Rev. Burnell Eckardt opines:
"She spends a lot of time spinning and sewing and feeding, etc. Yet 'strength and honour are her clothing.' So this is a parable: what she's sewing is a baptismal garment of righteousness; what she's feeding is the Feast of Salvation."

Of preaching and teaching: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."

Luther writes:
"Thus St. Augustine, too, in the ninth chapter of his book On the Spirit and the Letter, where he treats of the statement in the last chapter of Proverbs (31:26), 'Law and kindness are on her tongue,' makes the most excellent remark: 'Therefore it is written of wisdom that she bears law and kindness on her tongue for this reason—law, in order that she may render the proud guilty; kindness, in order that she may justify the humbled.'”

[Luther's Works, vol. 27, pg. 274. Lectures on Galatians]
Law and kindness = Law and Gospel.

Ambrose writes:
"The beauty of a good thing pleases the more, if it be shown under various aspects. For those are good things, whereof the texture of the priestly robe was the token, that is to say, either the Law, or the Church, which latter hath made two garments for her spouse, as it is written* —the one of action, the other of spirit, weaving together the threads of faith and works."

*The footnote here references Proverbs XXXI

[Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. X. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. (225)]
More from St. Augustine:
"Let no one say that one gave the law, and that another teaches the law: for the same teaches it who gave it; He is the Master of His own law, and teaches it. And mercy is in His tongue therefore mercifully teacheth He the law, as it is said regarding wisdom, "The law and mercy doth she carry in her tongue.”* Do not fear that thou art not able to fulfill the law, flee to mercy."

*The footnote here, again, references Prov. XXXI

[Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. VII. St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John Soliloquies. (51)]
The parallels between the Proverbs 31 woman and the Church seem almost endless. After all, should we not consider that the Bride of Christ would be the fullest embodiment of the virtuous wife? Earthly marriage is but a shadow of the greater mystery of Christ and the Church. In all her virtues, the Bride of Christ is the perfect help meet of her bridegroom, and He will present her spotless to His Father.

"Who can find such a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." She, the Church, is the pearl of great price, and Christ gave up everything He has to purchase her.

Until this week, I did not have any patristics to back this up. It just made perfect sense to me when I first
reviewed this Proverb two years ago in light of Rev. Eckardt's comment quoted above. However, after researching it further now and finding the above quotes from Ambrose, Augustine, and Luther, one can see that this interpretation is not just a pious personal opinion, but is consistent with what the Church has taught from the earliest of times.

It is certainly also true, as found in many other patristics and commentaries, that many aspects of the Proverbs 31 woman are certainly things which could be praised in a uniquely accomplished and virtuous earthly wife. However, the text itself makes it quite clear that this is not what is expected of every godly woman. In fact, it seems to indicate that there is only one example of such a woman to be found. The entire Proverb is framed with these two statements:
"who can find such a woman? She is far more precious than jewels" and "Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou hast surpassed them all."

Women who heed the godly admonitions of Titus 2:3-5 are to be praised as virtuous wives and mothers. Yet earthly marriage is but a shadow of the greater mystery of Christ and the Church. The Bride of Christ "surpasses them all." Women, therefore, should not measure their personal accomplishments next to the Proverbs 31 woman, but rather should seek comfort and shelter within Her.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

A more specific point: A godly and fertile women barely has enough time to care for her husband, children, and home, let alone conducting land speculation and real estate transactions, planting vineyards, seeking wool and flax to work with her hands and spin, making and selling linen garments, and delivering sashes to merchants.

Were my wife to attempt to imitate these things while she has seven children at home to educate and care for, it would be at a heavy expense to her primary vocations of wife and mother. Doing so would, I contend, make her uniquely NOT virtuous.

As I wrote in the post above, many aspects of the Proverbs 31 woman are certainly things which could be praised. Even the ambitious activities I just mentioned might be found in a uniquely talented and accomplished woman - perhaps one who has not been blessed with as many children, or whose children have already grown up.

However, I do contend that the text itself makes it quite clear that this is not what is expected of every godly woman.

Anonymous said...

Since we are addressing a woman in the Bible with "ambitious activities", can we also address the unique talents and accomplishments of Deborah, Esther, and even Mary, mother of Jesus? These "superwomen" could also make women feel inferior and/or guilty that they don't measure up. Were I to attempt to imitate their attributes and unusual characteristics with several children at home to educate and care for, wouldn't it, too, be at a heavy expense? Can their lives also be uniquely fulfilled in the Bride of Christ, so that their grand virtues can take on a different meaning to me? Why would the Bible include these additional examples of seemingly unattainable goals?

On a side note, what hope can you provide for the men who have the lives of Samuel, Elijah, Job and Paul to compare themselves to? If my husband were to attempt to imitate their attributes and unusual characteristics while providing for his family, he's surely setting himself up for failure, isn't he? Why does the Bible give even more examples of seemingly unattainable goals! How can we picture their lives differently, so that their grand virtues have a different meaning to us entirely?

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think I understand your objection, but everyone should not measure their achievements next to those biblical examples either.

These were particularly amazing individuals who served great roles in God's immutable plan. We honor them as saints, and seek to emulate many of their characteristics. However, not everyone can match their particular subjective achievements, and as far as I know no one suggests we should.

The Proverbs 31 woman, on the other hand, is not a named individual. She is unfortunately viewed by some to be an objective ideal held up by God's Word as something ALL wives and mothers should imitate.

I am suggesting that her obviously admirable achievements are not what everyone should feel compelled to imitate any more than all the achievements of the individuals you have named.

However, it seems clear to me (and the above quoted fathers) that the Bride of Christ should see herself in this parable and make sure she continues to reflect these characteristics.

You ask what hope can I provide for the men who have the lives of Samuel, Elijah, Job and Paul to compare themselves to? - or for women who might compare themselves to Deborah, Esther, and even Mary, mother of Jesus?

I'd say: "Get over it!" You are not those people, and God has not called you to their particular callings.

To those who may be feeling inferior and/or guilty that they don't measure up to these individuals, I'd suggest that they should instead strive to do the best they can in the particular vocations God has placed them in.

There are many aspects of all these individuals, including the Proverbs 31 woman, which are certainly worthy of imitation. But only if one is called to a similar vocation in life which would give them reason to imitate some of these particularly admirable attributes.

Dakotah Gumm said...

Wow, thank you so much for this post! I'm preparing to write a series on the Proverbs 31 woman in different walks of life, but as a Lutheran studying to be a church worker, I can't believe I missed the blatant Christology in this passage! This certainly changes my entire perspective on the series. God's blessings!