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The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology

Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary

Proper 20: Proverbs 31:10-31

Being a believer in gender equality, I'm tempted to skip over this passage in Proverbs on the virtuous woman, or, as the NRSV puts it, the capable wife. On the surface, it appears to be sexist and patriarchal, deriving from a cultural context far removed from modern society and no longer applicable today. It has often been interpreted from the point of view of male superiority--sometimes even by women!--and of course it does reflect a time and place that is geographically, temporally, and culturally distant from modern Western life. However, I believe that if examined from a proper perspective, today's reading from Proverbs has much to say to modern believers, men as well as women.

Proverbs 31:10-31 is a Hebrew acrostic poem, in which verse 10 begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each subsequent verse begins with the next letter in the sequence. (The first letter in the Hebrew word for "woman" is aleph, also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; cf. Psalm 119 and Lamentations 1-4 for other examples.) The Hebrew words for "woman" and "wife" are the same, a reflection of a culture in which marriage was considered the normal state of affairs. A similar situation obtains in English, where the modern English "woman" is derived from the Old English "wif-man," whose meaning is fairly obvious. The poem praises a woman for her devotion to her husband and family, for her industriousness, her strength, her business sense, her concern for the poor, her confidence, her support of her husband, her dignity, her confidence in the future, her wisdom, and her fear of the Lord. If you change "husband" to "wife" in this list of attributes, it is evident that they would then describe a worthy husband. Changing the word to "spouse" covers same-sex couples as well.

The poem, then, is clearly applicable to married people of either sex, and if the specific mentions of a spouse are omitted, or perhaps if "friends" or something similar is substituted, it applies to single adults as well. Each of these attributes is a proper subject for discussion at length, but I want to focus on the first and last lines of the poem, beginning with the word that immediately follows "woman" in Hebrew.

The word translated "virtuous" in the KJV and "capable" in the NRSV is a word that, when used as a noun, is rendered elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as "wealth" or "army." As an adjective it is often translated "strong" or "skillful." The translation "good" in the RSV and the Living Bible misses the point, and KJV's "virtuous" is not much better. The word denotes a person of power and ability, someone to be reckoned with. It carries with it connotations of worth and value (hence the use of the same word for "wealth"). That the person figuratively described with such a term is a woman is noteworthy; the only similar references are in Proverbs 12:4 (is the current passage a poetic exposition of that verse?) and Ruth 3:11. Although the connotations may not be exactly the same in Hebrew and English, I think an appropriate translation of the first half-verse of this poem is "A strong woman, who can find?"

Read from this perspective, it is no wonder that the poet ends with the exhortation, "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." In contrast with the attitude of many men of his day--and many of the present day--the poet calls on men to acknowledge both the contributions and value of the "strong woman," not only in private, but in the city gates, where the business of the city was conducted. Anthropologists suggest that our ancestors living in Paleolithic times may have lived in groups that were more or less sexually egalitarian, a condition that disappeared with the invention of cities. It has taken millennia for women to regain some measure of gender equality, and in some parts of the world, and in some religious groups, men are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their domination over women. When confronted with the culturally and ethically backward purveyors of such views, we would do well to point to the poet of Proverbs 31 and borrow his (or her?) words--"A strong woman, who can find?"--and offer the answer, "All around you!"

Originally posted to Tod OL Mundo on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  And Jesus would have none of the business of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    librarisingnsf, mapamp

    treating women as second class citizens, chattel or property.  His interactions with women throughout his ministry makes me believe that he truly valued women.  

    I have always enjoyed reading about the 'strong' woman. She was capable and able to do so many things and do them all well. I am always inspired to care and love my family, the poor, those in my community, and use my talents and gifts for the same.

    I have heard some women preach on this chapter and they are ofter jealous of this woman's accomplishment and deride them as impossible.   I think there are real women doing the same every day and have done so throughout the ages. I have a daughter in law who is raising three children, has her own part time career, takes time to share with those less fortunate, loves and cares for her extended family, and does quite well by her husband (my son).  She supports his career and he hers. He doesn't leave all the child rearing or housekeeping to her. They do call in help when they are overwhelmed ( grandparents ( that's me)).

    Anyway, I do appreciate your the time and effort you put into share this. Thanks

    "He is no fool who forsakes things that he cannot keep, so that he might gain things that he cannot lose." - Jim Elliot

    by looking and listening on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:17:57 PM PDT

    •  As presented in the canonical gospels, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quarkstomper

      Jesus was a champion of women, frequently going beyond the customs of his day to recognize and care for them. Although they aren't listed among "the Twelve," several women were disciples and supporters of Jesus, according to the gospels. Apparently many in the early church also valued women and followed both female and male leaders (including Paul, contrary to the anti-female rap he often has). It's too bad male dominance sprang up fairly quickly and squelched sexual egalitarianism in proto-orthodox Christianity, so that it only survived, for awhile, in Gnostic circles.

  •  nice exegesis (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    librarisingnsf

    and Proverbs 8 gives us the strong, capable female types too, whether Wisdom or a female co-creator.

    •  Divine wisdom--Sophia-- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quarkstomper

      as portrayed in Proverbs almost certainly lies behind the description of "the Logos" in John 1, alongside other influences, such as Greek philosophy. The Gnostics saw Sophia as a co-creator, along with Christ.

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