I have often heard Proverbs 31 cited as a biblical description of the ideal wife, particularly in Mother’s Day sermons. John Walton and Andrew Hill have another take on what is going on in that passage (Old Testament Today, 2nd edition, p. 380), which looks right, so I’m happy that Louis McBride brought it to my attention in a blog post today.
Walton and Hill note a problem that has been created by the reading with which I am most familiar:
The woman who is described sounds wonderful. She also sounds impossible! For centuries many women have read this passage and aspired to be that woman. They often have experienced a sense of frustration and failure–even damaged self-esteem–when they felt unable to ‘rise to the Bible’s standard.’ How could they ever succeed at becoming a ‘Proverbs 31 woman?’ Men have exacerbated this situation by using the passage as the basis for their expectations of their wives (not to mention by delivering guilt trips from the pulpit).
They suggest that Proverbs 31 is not an achievable ideal, nor a job description, nor a representation of “what women should aspire to and what men should seek,” and so they “propose an alternative suitable to the literature.”
Consider rather than using the label ‘ideal,’ understanding the portrait as ‘composite.’ In this view, the chapter contains twenty-two (one for each letter of the alphabet) observations or illustrations about wise or productive women. What are some of the forms wisdom will take in female guise? That is what the chapter explores.
A woman should aspire to be wise. To the extent that she is engaged in activities addressed in this chapter, wisdom will give an idea of how to conduct herself. Men should find wisdom in a woman attractive. But this is not a checklist; neither does it exhaust all of the forms that wisdom could take. It represents ‘the ABCs of womanly wisdom. (380)
This certainly makes good sense to me, given my understanding of the nature of the biblical proverbs.