Misunderstanding Mrs. Proverbs 31

The woman described in Proverbs 31 is meant to be an ideal. But in practice, she’s almost an object of ridicule among dedicated Christian women.  Who could do all that?!
At the same time, we don’t dismiss her. We ask her to wear a lot of our hats. She is called upon to endorse our preferences.

I have heard too many times from well-known pulpits and theologians and from other women, that the woman in Proverbs 31 is an ideal picture of a woman who has it all. She had a fulfilling home life and a career outside the home. I cannot find the evidence.

I certainly do not object to wives having careers. But let us refrain from misusing Biblical text.  Let’s let Scripture say what Scripture says, and not press it into our service. There may be Scripture to support our career choices, but I do not find that support in Proverbs 31.

Does the woman in Proverbs 31 have a career? Can we take a look together?

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax
    and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Certainly no one can deny that this woman works. She is incredibly busy at home. She is such a diligent, efficient, committed worker that she seems to do the work of several people. Mentally walk through her day. When exactly do you find time in there for her to go to a job between “…she gets up while it is still night”…and “her lamp does not go out at night”?

Where is the career in this proverb? Is it this?

She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

She is the wife-manger of her husband’s estate.  An estate would include a home and the land where all that the man owns is located: the fields where food is grown, animals are pastured, and other agrarian products produced, all for the provision and wealth of the owner’s family.

She is the manager of all she surveys.  She possesses the trust of her husband and her household, and the prerogative to increase the wealth of her estate. She buys more property to add to her family farm.  This makes her an independent real estate agent?

Or is it that we’re so addicted to the trope that says that ancient women were subservient and socially powerless that we are blind to the plain meaning here: she is a respected woman of social standing with perfect freedom to manage the household estate and broker a land purchase in the marketplace?

Is it this the career?

She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.

I use some skills I picked up in art college to create handmade books, which I sell. I do it all at home. I do not receive a paycheck. I do not spend my days assigned to a different location than my home. I do not observe company hours. And most importantly, I do not work for a boss.

Mrs. Proverbs 31 does not answer to any “boss” but her husband.  

The woman in Proverbs 31 excels at sewing.  She creates garments for everyone in her household so that they are properly, modestly dressed and warm in winter. In addition, she is such a diligent worker that she designs and sews sashes which she then sends to the marketplace to be sold.  She ingratiates herself with the merchants who will offer her products for sale by gifting them with these beautiful sashes. This has been a common practice of homesteaders and farmer’s wives throughout human history. This makes her a businesswoman with a career?

She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night. 

Picture her sitting in front of the household accounts at night after everyone else is in bed. 

This woman is a wife and mother who works tirelessly for the benefit of her family’s estate. She feathers her nest, she builds up her home. I  do not see any evidence in the passage which places this woman under the authority of a boss not her husband, or transplants her effort to another sphere outside her home, non-inclusive of her home

I just can’t find that outside-the-home job in Proverbs 31. If you find it, please let me know.

She opens her arms to the poor, and extends her hands to the needy.

This woman, and by extension her family, profits from the overflow of her domestic activity.  She is doing all these things for her household, and she is so diligent that she produces a generous surplus and God rewards her industry. This is the home overflowing out into the world, not the world — a job—inserting itself into the home. Nor is it her leaving her home to be profitable for another’s interest.

Charity begins at home; her generosity sends her wealth out into her community. Missions begin at home; her abundance sends the next generation out into the world and into the future.

Generosity, charity, philanthropy, obedience to the Lord’s commands to love your neighbor. Call these a career if you like but I don’t see it.

Don’t we have to devalue her hard work at home in order to insist that she have a career in addition to her homemaking?  If so, is that because the work done by a woman in her home, for her home, isn’t perceived as being “real” work? Or significant work?

Let’s find other sources of blessing on our lifestyle choices. Proverbs 31 Woman is busy enough without putting on all the hats we need her to wear.

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