The Wednesday Men’s Bible Study has been reading the book of Proverbs this fall. It is a fascinating book in numerous ways. Among them, Proverbs sets up a dichotomy between a “bad woman,” who embodies vice and a “good woman” who is described by a man to his son in the passage we heard read today. While the lector was reading it, I tried to peek through the latticework of the pulpit to see the reactions on women’s faces.
Chapter 31 is the culmination of Proverbs. The wife it describes can be read as the anthropomorphized embodiment of wisdom or as the actual, literal spouse a wise man should seek. There is much in the description of this wife that can alternately affirm or madden, depending upon one’s point of view.
On the one hand, Proverbs’ ideal wife supports her husband. Proverbs says, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
This ideal woman is also a consummate homemaker. Proverbs adds, “She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household…She looks well to the ways of her household…her children rise up and call her happy.”
On the other hand, Proverbs acknowledges the ideal woman as a person of business and commerce. The writer says, “She considers a field and buys it…She perceives that her merchandise is profitable…She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.”
Beyond her vocation, whatever it may be, Proverbs says that, for the ideal woman, “Strength and dignity are her clothing…She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
In all, Proverbs offers a comprehensive depiction of a womanly ideal. It praises women highly and in many varied ways. And yet, there’s something about this last chapter of Proverbs that irritates. Similarly, I daresay that, for some, hearing me talk about it has been irritating. The source of that dual irritation is this: Whether or not Proverbs’ description of the ideal woman is well-rounded; whether or not it’s true; it is a description written from a man’s perspective. Remember, both the speaker and the hearer in Proverbs are men. It is irritating, because a man has dictated the ideal of, and for, a woman. A man has defined what a woman should be.
Women in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is in the news. I will leave any comment on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to those far more knowledgeable than me. That is for the policymakers and politicians, not the preacher. But I daresay we all agree that the reversion of Afghanistan to Taliban rule and the resulting plight of Afghan women is a horrifying tragedy. Life for women under the Taliban is the radical extent of men defining what women can and cannot be, of circumscribing women’s existence by a man’s imagined ideal.
The extreme example can illuminate, but it can also obscure all the more subtle ways that men continue to define women, that men create boxes of all kinds into which they attempt to neatly categorize and control women. One need not look halfway across the world to see such attempts.
It is a hallmark of postmodernity that we each create our own story, that rather than a metanarrative into which we are trapped, we can write our own script. This realization is, with fits and starts, liberating people of all categories, in part, by blowing up the categories. Women, perhaps most of all, are discarding the ideals men have for eons set for them and instead determining their own. Despite vestigial attempts by men to define women, women are writing their own stories. This is a good and Gospel thing.
Of course, for Christians of any kind, the writing of the story never merely asks and answers, “Who do I want to be?” but rather “Who does the God of grace and love want me to be?” Blessedly for that, the very book of Proverbs with which we began offers a different, and contrasting, image of womanhood. It is so radically different that some scholars over the centuries have mused whether it might have been written by a woman. It is found way back in chapter eight, where wisdom is once again personified as a woman, but here, unbound by men’s preconceptions, she is free. Halfway through that chapter, Lady Wisdom begins to speak in the first person, owning her own ideal. Lady Wisdom says:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when God had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When God established the heavens, I was there,
when God drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when God made firm the skies above,
when God established the fountains of the deep,
when God assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when God marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily God’s delight,
rejoicing before God always,
rejoicing in God’s inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Lady Wisdom here is so exalted that some theologians even equate her with the Holy Spirt, broadening our previously-limited conception of God to include the feminine. Lady Wisdom is sheer freedom. She is power. She is co-creator. She is, in God’s eyes and in her own, sheer delight. And she is woman.
This is an expansive ideal, an unlimited ideal, an ideal that finds it source not in man’s opinion but in God’s enlivening and overflowing love. When I read it, as a man, it startles me; it admittedly discomfits me; it amazes me what God has in store for women. And it also strikes me as just right. I happen to be married to a woman smarter and better than I am, and I am blessed with a daughter who is brilliant, good, and fierce. My daughter is also a dancer, and when she dances, it is like seeing wisdom in motion. I am reminded daily (and sometimes pointedly by them!) that no one—and especially no man—is to tell them who they are, what they can do, or who they will be.
Of course, elsewhere Holy Scripture puts actual human form on Lady Wisdom, when Eve discerns knowledge of good and evil while Adam dithers, when Esther saves her people from blindly bloodthirsty men, when Mary Magdalene proclaims the Resurrection to those eleven cowering male disciples.
So it is today. So long as there are men and a broken world, I suppose men will seek to define and control women. But just as there is no controlling God’s Holy Spirit, there is no controlling those who stand beside God as God’s master workers, who are daily God’s delight. I, for one, would not begin to try.