I have a hunch that the most-hated woman in the Bible is not bad-girl Jezebel. It’s the “woman of noble character” in Proverbs 31. One friend whined to me, “I can’t stand that Proverbs 31 lady. I feel tired just thinking about her.” And recently I picked up an article that began with, “I really don’t like the woman in Proverbs 31.”
Who can blame them? She is so competent—so intelligent, industrious, and strong—that she intimidates your garden-variety believer. (Isn’t that all of us, really?) P-31, as she is sometimes called, certainly challenges any view which might suggest that the “little wife” has no independent thoughts, or that she’s unintelligent, super timid, or fearful.
The word translated here as “noble” or “excellent” refers in other contexts to prowess or bravery in battle. Here it has the idea of commanding respect. This phrase, which we could also translate, “woman of strength,” is used elsewhere of Ruth (Ruth 3:11) and the “good wife” in Proverbs 12:4.
Yes, P-31 amazes us. And it’s easy to shy away from her because we identify so little with that kind of perfection. Yet perhaps a few observations will help us grow to appreciate rather than abhor her.
First, this section of the Hebrew Bible is a poem. In fact it’s an acrostic with a line devoted to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as if to say, “An Excellent Wife From A to Z.” Perhaps it’s done this way to show completion, or maybe it’s to aid memorization, such as the alphabets stitched in 17th century samplers.
Next, it helps to see the “bookends” of the first and last chapters of Proverbs. While the book closes with this description of the noble woman, it began in chapter one with wisdom personified as a female. And throughout the entire book of Proverbs, wisdom speaks. “In Proverbs 31 we find someone who is probably equally a model for men and women as someone who teaches wisdom,” says Dr. Robert Chisholm, professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Dr. Chisholm goes on to point out that she’s probably a member of the upper class. “Proverbs tends to reflect this mindset of an upper level official giving his son advice on how to be a responsible citizen and leader in the community. We know from verse 23 that she is the wife of a prominent citizen who has a place at the city gate with the town elders. This suggests her husband is not a royal official, the background presupposed in several other places in Proverbs, but a local dignitary.” He’s got a large estate that supports many people and businesses. And she runs it all while he handles other community business. This is not your average couple.
So for us to think our lives must directly parallel hers is about as logical as thinking we should manage our homes like plantation owners—picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello. If I had that many servants, I, too, might manage to find and purchase exotic foods, make a real estate purchase, plant a vineyard, operate the spinning wheel, make and sell clothing, help the poor ….
The point of the proverb is not that we should model our schedules after hers or find identity in accomplishing a lot—to look like a hybrid of “Martha Stewart meets Martha Washington.” Rather we need to see the character of the person behind those tasks: She is a strong, hard working woman who thinks of someone other than herself. In fact more than anything else, she’s a woman to be praised because she possesses the key quality that runs deeper than charm and outlasts beauty—fear of the Lord (Pro. 31:30).