That evening at home, Stuart and I talked about our days and I told him about this panel discussion. I said to him, “It was the consensus of the female seminarians that we don’t need husbands, we need WIVES!” Stu replied, “What do you think I am? I AM the rector’s wife … or at least I will be!” Now I laughed at that initially, but he called me out. “Who bakes the cookies in this house?” Oh … he had me on that one – I only do that at Christmas. “And who cooks most of the dinners around here?” OK … he had me on that one too – I’m a utilitarian cook … he cooks for the joy of it. “And if you open up every cookbook your mother ever gave us, to whom did she give them??” OK … that was three for three because all of them have “To my cooking buddy Stuart from Mom” written in the front cover. I conceded … I already HAD a rector’s wife (and someday when a church calls me to be a rector, then it will be official … right now he’s the Priest-in-Charge’s Wife). And I have to admit, he’s good at it. So much so that some of my male colleagues have said they will be sending their wives up so my “wife” can teach them how to care for a priest!
“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” This passage from Proverbs is probably one of the more well-known sections of this book. Proverbs is part of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Wisdom texts – which also includes Job, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the apocryphal books of Wisdom, and Sirach. These texts are devoted on how to live a wise and faithful life and often are full of practical advice. The author of Proverbs is giving an extended lesson to his son. So we must begin by realizing this “capable wife” emanates from a position of male privilege and patriarchy. Ancient Jewish culture had strong gender role expectations for both men and women (not unlike what our pastor friends found in their congregations). And I don’t know about you, but reading this exhaustive list of what a capable wife does … well it made me TIRED! I was ready for a nap after just reading this list! She “seeks wool and flax” and weaves cloth; she rises while it is still night and provides food for her household; she considers a field, buys it and plants a vineyard (and probably makes the wine too!); she is a business woman who makes linen garments and sells them; her children and husband call her happy (I’d call her exhausted … but who am I?). This woman is doing all things, at all times, for all people! We call this … over-functioning, don’t we? And it is tempting to fall into this idealized standard which no woman, or man, could possibly live up to.
It is possible that our poet author of Proverbs is ascribing to this capable wife the very virtues of Lady Wisdom which he extols. It is no small thing that wisdom is personified in both Hebrew and Greek as a feminine quality. We also need remember that the Holy Spirit is also personified in both Greek and Hebrew text with feminine names. So our Scriptures speak of God’s Spirit which imparts Wisdom as part of the femininity of God – even in the midst of a patriarchal culture.
We still live in a patriarchal culture which affords particular privilege to men but at the same time also binds men into rigid gender expectations which limit their expression of what it means to be male. Patriarchy is a part of our sinful nature which hurts both women and men. God’s Spirit placed into our holy writings the seeds of respect and honor for both feminine and masculine and when we dig just a bit deeper into this passage, we find some things which address the patriarchy of our own day – especially in what Proverbs 31 does not say about the capable wife.
First, nowhere does it say that the wife’s value and worth are derived from her husband. She is a woman of her own worth and value and although later Christian tradition would try to make a woman’s identity a consequence of her husband and her status dependent upon him, this just isn’t in the passage. This capable wife is her own person and, if anything, her husband’s reputation is dependent upon her qualities, not the other way around! This woman’s worth is a result of her own thoughts and actions – there is no indication of her being submissive and demur. She is pursuing her own ends rather than obeying orders and doing so for the good of herself and her household. The writer praises her for being purposeful – we might even say she’s being praised for her headstrong ways.
Second, this wife is not extoled for childbirth and child rearing. In the ancient world, bearing children and rearing them was a key status credential for women. The writer only makes a passing reference to her children rising up and calling her happy – he does not say anything else about motherhood as her primary or sole identity. The passage has a lot to say about this woman’s generativity (she “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” and “provides”), but her generativity is a result of her intellect and wisdom not her biological functions.
Finally, this passage says absolutely nothing about her appearance. Not one word! It says nothing about her age, her body shape, her clothing, her make up – it says nothing about all those things with which our current culture is so obsessed. Our culture tells women and girls that their core value is based upon physical beauty – and a standard of physical beauty largely promulgated by magazines with Photoshopped images of models creating a standard of “beauty” no woman could ever achieve. We obsess about this. We have and epidemic of eating disorders because of it. We spend way too much money on plastic surgery and make up because of it. The world tells us that our worth is based on impossible images and that which will not last but the poet says rightfully, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…”
Our common life is woven with painful realities of the cultural expectations put upon us based upon gender as well as other aspects of our transitory and fleeting earthly nature. The good news is we are called to a different, and dare I say peculiar, way of life – one grounded in our real worth as God’s beloved children and not one based on our biology, what we look like or our social status. Our identity in God, who we really are, is something which cannot be taken from us – it is the one thing which endures forever.