A recent blog post by Melanie Springer Mock on some of the philosophical problems with the Live 31 movement prompted a lengthy comment from me on the biblical context of Proverbs 31 and I thought it was worth reposting here.
The opening of Proverbs tells us that what follows are the “proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Prov. 1:1). While these proverbs were not written exclusively to, for or about King Solomon (cf., e.g., 30:1; 31:1), Proverbs 1:1 gives us some of the narrative context, telling us to look to the story of Solomon and subsequent kings of Judah (like Hezekiah whose men allegedly copied the proverbs of Solomon; cf. 25:1).
In Hebrew scripture, Solomon plays a significant role because he is supposed to lead Israel in right worship of YHWH God. But, paradoxically, Solomon possesses matchless divine wisdom while at the same time is unable to fully exercise this wisdom because of his marriages to non-Israelite women who encouraged him to adopt worship of other gods in addition to YHWH. The nation of Israel (and its kings) had been warned by prophets time and time again that if they married or had dealings with their polytheistic neighbors that this would lead to worship of other gods and subsequent enslavement to these nations (in the ancient Near East, political domination was linked to the gods – if a city or nation managed to conquer other nations, it was supposed that their patron deity was the head honcho of the world).
So when we get to Proverbs, the call to wisdom is directed specifically to kings (or those who would be rulers/leaders) who must choose to worship YHWH alone (and lead the nation in worship of YHWH). In Proverbs, both wisdom and folly are personified by descriptions of women who are out to seduce the king (let’s call them “Lady Wisdom” and “Dame Folly”). Both Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly each call out to the simple-minded, inviting them to enter her dwelling. The difference between the two is that Lady Wisdom’s house is a sure foundation, while Dame Folly’s house leads to death. Entering into Lady Wisdom’s dwelling (i.e., espousing her) will lead to wisdom and life which will cause the kingdom to flourish (9:1-12). Succumbing to Lady Folly’s entreaties, by contrast, will lead to immorality, death (9:13-18) and the destruction of the kingdom.
First of all, I think it’s a mistake to take Proverbs 31 as a list of “what a woman should be” and apply it directly to the (female) reader. Lady Wisdom is a literary type, an exaggeration. She must be viewed in the context of Proverbs which purposefully sets up two opposing characters: wisdom (good) versus folly (evil). The point is that Solomon (and other rulers!) need to choose wisdom, not folly, in order for Israel to flourish. If it were meant to be a guide on how to get a good wife or husband, we should encourage women to prepare lavish feasts and drive around town calling all the single men to come to their houses for a little action.
Secondly, while people are quick to point out the virtues of “the excellent wife” in 31:10-31, they never think to look at preceding verses which are, in fact, a word of advice to King Lemuel. Before exhorting Lemuel to embrace the excellent wife, his mother (31:1) instructs him on the ways that befit a king. She warns him against inappropriate sexual exploits (31:1) and indulging in strong drink lest it impede his judgment as he makes decrees and so risk perverting the rights of the afflicted (31:5). She exhorts him, instead, to save the wine for those who really need it (31:6-7), and speak up for the rights of the destitute, for those who are poor and needy, and to make righteous judgments as a ruler (31:8-9).
All this is not to say that the woman described in Proverbs 31 doesn’t have a lot of great qualities which anyone (male or female) would do well to emulate. Helping the poor is always a good thing, as are being trustworthy and wise. However, we must take into account the cultural differences between Proverbs and our own place and generation. It is problematic to see these and the other qualities in the passage as being gender specific. Few (at least in our culture) gather wool and flax and make their own clothing. Most of us don’t buy fields and plant vineyards. These are aspects of a different economic culture, not indications of God-ordained gender roles.