Men long to meet somebody like her; women, on the other hand, wonder if she is even real. Who is the Proverbs 31 woman of the Old Testament and what can us, men and women from the 21st century, learn from her today?
Just who was this woman on a pedestal described in Proverbs 31?
Was she, as many think, the ideal wife and mother? In traditional Jewish homes, husbands and children recited the poem in Proverbs 31 at the Sabbath table. Written as an acrostic, each line begins with a Hebrew letter in alphabetical sequence, making it easy to memorize. The poem describes a wealthy, aristocratic woman with a large household to direct. She was hard working, enterprising, capable, strong, wise, skilled, generous, and thoughtful of others, dignified, God-fearing, serene—a tremendous credit to her husband. She arose while it was still dark to feed her family. She looked at a field, considered its merits, and purchased it. She wove cloth and made linen garments, which she then sold. “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (verses 28-29).
The description of the woman in Proverbs 31 offers a refreshing contrast to other ancient depictions of women, which tend to portray them in more frivolous and decorative terms, emphasizing only their charm or beauty. Still, the perfect woman of Proverbs 31 hasn’t always been a friend to ordinary women. In fact, she has sometimes been rubbed into the faces of lesser women by critical husbands and preachers unable to resist the temptation. What woman could ever measure up to her? And is a woman’s worth to be measured only by what she can accomplish in the domestic sphere? Or is the woman in Proverbs 31 a symbol of all the contributions a woman could make within the culture of her day? Regardless of how you answer these questions, there is more to her story than simply being the ideal wife and mother.
Before we can discover more about her true identity, it is worth posing a broader question: Are there really all that many women running around in the pages of Proverbs? Perhaps, in fact, there are only two main women in Proverbs: the wise woman and the woman of folly (as some have called her). The latter encompasses the adulteress and her many wicked counterparts; the former encompasses wisdom in the abstract and wisdom made concrete in the woman of Proverbs 31.
In Proverbs 3:13-16 a young man is instructed: “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” Here is wisdom in the abstract, personified as a woman.
Proverbs 31 echoes this praise: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies…. 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 dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (verses 10, 12-16). Here is a concrete example of what wisdom looks like in a person’s life.
By contrast, the man who welcomes the brazenfaced woman, the prostitute, the adulteress is nothing but a fool. He has fallen prey to the woman of folly, who offers deceitful pleasures that will lead to his death.
From beginning to end, Proverbs is a practical handbook for leading a life based on wisdom. In the end, there are only two choices for both men and women: to embrace wisdom or to love folly. The woman of Proverbs 31 may well be meant to inspire both men and women with a picture of what a virtuous life, male or female, is capable of producing: shelter for others, serenity, honor, prosperity, generosity, confidence about the future—true blessedness. Who wouldn’t want to be like such a woman? Who wouldn’t sing her praises?
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Discover more about the Proverbs 31 woman and other women of the Bible in Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda’s Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture. It looks at the lives of fifty-two prominent—and not so prominent—women of Scripture, offering a fresh perspective on the story of salvation. Readers can reflect on the life of one woman each week for an entire year.