The unnamed woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 appears to be the woman who has it all and who does it all. She has a supportive husband and grateful children. She is a capable household manager and a commercially successful buyer and seller of goods and property. She is generous, optimistic, wise, kind-hearted, and God-fearing. Her many activities and abilities make an impressive litany.
Such a biblical superwoman is indeed rare: “She is far more precious than jewels,” says verse 10. In fact, the poem’s portrait is probably not any one woman, but a composite of many women and their various qualities and abilities. This is the ideal woman, quite likely intended as a man’s guide for choosing a wife.
Yet even as a composite picture, even with its apparently exhaustive and exhausting list of accomplishments, this picture of ideal womanhood is far from complete. It tells us nothing about women’s friendships or intellectual activities. It remains silent about women’s religious responsibilities and political involvements. With these limitations, the poem stands squarely in the patriarchal tradition which interpreted women’s lives primarily in relation to their husbands.
The poem’s point of view is limited further by its strict poetic structure. In the original Hebrew, the poem takes the form of an acrostic: the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each successive line begins with the next letter until the alphabet is complete. Anything not expressed in this form would have been omitted, and so the poem is not as complete or as well organized as it might have been.
In spite of its patriarchal viewpoint and its strict poetic structure, however, the poem offers an example of an industrious, capable, and relatively independent woman. In addition, the poem moves beyond a narrow patriarchal bias to affirm the woman’s own worth and accomplishments. It supports her right to be adequately rewarded for her labor and justly praised for her work:
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates. (verse 31)
Too often, women have not been given this kind of credit for their contributions. Too often, women have been restricted or silenced or ignored. We tend to hear more about Elisha curing Naaman the leper than about the Hebrew maidservant who brought the two together. We read much more about Job’s suffering than the suffering of his wife. Too many find it easier to call Philip an evangelist than to grant the same title to the Samaritan woman who evangelized an entire town. Yet in the spirit of Proverbs, these women and many others deserve to be recognized and rewarded for their work.
As we recognize the contributions of these biblical women, we also need to recognize their full humanity. The wife of Manoah was not only a wife, not only the mother of their son Samson, but a woman of great faith (Judges 13:1-24). The unnamed wise woman of the besieged town of Abel (2 Samuel 20:16-22) may have been married, but she appears in the biblical narrative as a public and political figure, know in the city gates in her own right.
Like their biblical counterparts, women today still perform valuable work both inside and outside of their homes. They still provide faithful examples of life and witness, still exercise their God-given gifts and abilities. And Proverbs still encourages us to recognize women’s worth and work.
As we do so, we need not limit ourselves to certain letters of the alphabet or to a patriarchal point of view. Instead, we need to claim the whole experience of women, including women’s friendships and women’s participation in intellectual, political, economic, and religious life. Then women may truly receive a fair share of their labor and a rightful place in the city gates.
Excerpted from Remember Lot’s Wife and Other Unnamed Women of the Bible.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: In what ways have you received recognition for your work both inside and outside of the home? In what ways have you missed the credit due you?