Howard Wallace's home page

September 20, 2009
Proverbs 31:10-31

In the wisdom tradition, weighing the situation and choosing a wise alternative was seen as central to growing in maturity. In this passage, the choice of a capable wife is presented as one of the most crucial choices in a man’s life. This passage is another typical wisdom form, the acrostic, with each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

In Prov. 31:10 and following, we read a poem in praise of the good and virtuous woman or wife, the word can mean either. Interestingly, the word translated ‘good’ in the NRSV actually implies ‘strong.’ The strong woman, who can find? There is a sense of strength of character as well as physical strength in caring for the labour-intensive needs of a household.

The woman of worth is held up as providing well for her husband, children, and household. In accord with the wisdom ideal, she provides ahead for their needs, so they need not fear for the coming winter. Her generosity extends beyond the immediate household to the poor and needy in the wider community. She fulfils the call of Sophia wisdom from the beginning of the book of Proverbs (see last week’s reading, Pentecost 15).

In vv. 10-12, the good or strong woman’s value is seen as adding to the quality of life for her husband. In vv. 13-15, she provides for her household in traditional tasks, working with clothes, food, and the supervision of servants. Verse 16 sees the scope of her activity extend beyond the household, as the woman buys a field and plants a vineyard. In v. 17 her strength is seen as a virtue, and in v. 18 (and v. 24), she is pictured as one whose merchandise is profitable, presumably selling her crafts and the fruit of the vineyard. Some contemporary readers have thus seen in her a model for women in business. Perhaps a closer counterpart might be a woman farmer or the wife living on a farmer, someone who works tirelessly at a variety of tasks in making a home for her family, with a place in the wider community.

In v. 20, the scope of her efforts again widens further beyond the household, as ‘she opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.’ This shows a concern not just for the family and those in her immediate circle, but a concern for the welfare of the poor. In typical wisdom fashion, concern for the poor is not painted in broad, prophetic strokes, but rather is seen as an individual response to a person in need.

Because of her provision and hard work, she has no reason to fear the onset of winter, and can laugh at the future (vv. 21 and 25). Her family’s wealth is reflected in the purple and crimson colours of their clothing, with hers of linen.

Her role in providing reflects well on her husband, who seems somewhat less hard-working. He ‘is known in the city gates,’ and ‘takes his seat among the elders of the land.’ All this is presumably possible because of her good provision for the household sphere.

She is a woman of wisdom with ‘the teaching of kindness…on her tongue.’ Her hard work is characterized in the saying, ‘she does not eat the bread of idleness,’ with the implied corollary being that because she does not eat the bread of idleness, her household all have bread in plenty.

In v. 28, there is a sense of the woman finding her affirmation in the gaze of others: her children, her husband, and, by implication, even her God. In v. 30, there is an implied contrast between the beautiful but seductive woman of Proverbs 5 and this woman of real worth in God’s eyes, whose inner beauty comes from the fear of the Lord, that central tenet of wisdom faith.

In v. 31, it is unclear who is the subject of the imperative, perhaps her husband or the listeners to the proverbs:  ‘Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.’ While she has a crucial role in providing for the household, it seems here that given the limitations of the culture of her day, it is not ultimately in her hands to apportion the proceeds of her labours. Yet in the end, she will be praised in the city gates, the domain of her husband and the elders.

In preaching on this passage, you might encourage listeners to think of women in their family or experience who model this kind of resilience and care for family and community. Alternatively, in a world where there is some breakdown in gender roles such tasks as care for family and community need to be underscored and their importance heralded.

Psalm 1

Return to OT Lectionary Reading