3 Theories on Why the Proverbs 31 Woman Doesn’t Study Scripture
Image Credit: Michael Tapp
Last week, blogger Tim Challies posted a question someone had asked him:
Looking over Proverbs 31, something came to mind. You see her busy with worldly concerns, but you don’t see her reading the Bible/Torah, talking about God, praying, or witnessing. Since this is held up to be the ideal for wives, I have a question: Why isn’t she pursuing religious issues and why aren’t they even mentioned?
To be honest, I don’t know, but it’s certainly an interesting observation and one that stands in stark contrast to how we tend to instruct women today. I will leave the question here in the hope that someone chooses to answer it elsewhere.
This is the sort of question that gets me excited, and I’ve spent the last few days percolating on a couple of hypotheses. These are all just theories, mind; I’m basing them off my own knowledge of the scripture and the cultural context, so I’m sure an expert can jump in and correct me (or expand upon these) as necessary. At any rate, even if incorrect or incomplete, they should provide good fodder for thought, especially for anyone (woman or man) who takes their faith seriously.
Theory 1: Asking this question at all means we’re reading our own context into Scripture.
I think many of us take for granted how fortunate we are to live when we do. The simplest, and most relevant, example, is reading. According to Wikipedia, Gutenberg’s press was in operation around 1450. Before then, literacy rates were around 30% for adults in Europe. One can easily imagine that most of those adults were male. Why? Because books at the time were hand-copied, making them costly. Only the monks and the wealthy needed—or could afford—to be literate.
So if literacy was that low a mere 600 years ago, where would that have put literacy in Israel 2600 years ago? Probably at similar levels. And where would the literate have been taught? Largely in the temple. But:
- Women were restricted to the outer courts; and
- They were ceremoniously unclean during their period every month and forbidden to enter then anyway.
To assume that a woman could have just picked up the family scroll and done a daily quiet time, scribbling notes (or coloring) in the margins, is to put our privileged Western lens onto a very different time and place.
Theory 2: Scripture may not have existed when Proverbs 31 was written.
Of course, even if our woman was literate and had access to family scrolls, the scrolls we now call the Old Testament may not have been written yet.
We mostly attribute Proverbs to King Solomon, but that’s not entirely true. Proverbs 31 was written by King Lemuel. And who was that?
Seriously. He is in neither the kingly line of the Northern kingdom of Israel, nor of the Southern kingdom of Judah. It’s possible he was a contemporary of Solomon’s, but I think it’s more likely that he was king of a neighboring city-state during or before the reign of the Judges, in which case he himself would not have access to the Pentateuch. My own personal theory (which has no historical backing) is that he actually dates to the time of the patriarchs. Perhaps he was one of the kings who met with Abraham under Melchisidek in Genesis 14. Perhaps Jacob allied with him before moving to Egypt. We don’t know. But I think it’s a reasonable assumption that this acrostic poem (and that’s what Proverbs 31 is) was passed down orally, quite possibly before the Exodus, when the Pentateuch is traditionally dated. So how could the Proverbs 31 woman have studied Scripture when Scripture didn’t exist?
Theory 3: The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t shown studying Scripture because she so obviously lives it.
Regardless of the accuracy of the first two theories, I suspect part of the point is that our model woman’s virtue was so obvious that Lemuel didn’t need to spend time discussing the source of the virtue. He says she speaks wisdom (vs. 26) and fears the Lord (vs. 30), and that should be enough.
Let’s contrast her, very briefly, with another woman in Proverbs who is shown to follow scripture:
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home”
-Proverbs 7:14, 18-19a
Oh snap, did I just say that the adulteress woman of Proverbs 7 is shown to be following the law? Yes, yes I did. Now, obviously she was cherry-picking and ignoring the laws against adultery, but the adulteress is also following a pattern that repeats many times in Scripture, and that is this: knowing and following the law is pointless if we’re not also living the principles of the law.
And what are those principles? Jesus says it most clearly:
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
So how do we love our neighbor? Let’s bring it back to the Proverbs 31 woman by showing how she does it in contrast to Isaiah 58:6-8 (a passage, I might add, about how the concrete action of compassion is more important than the spiritual discipline of fasting):
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
She loosens yokes
Isaiah 58:6 is about reducing oppression, especially for the enslaved. How do we see our girl live this out? Primarily in vs. 15: “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.”
Based on the fact that the woman is shown to be a wealthy landowner, and based on the cultural context, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the woman had servants, if not slaves. That’s how I read the “maidens” here: they were not daughters, they were women who worked under our lady’s authority. The morality of slavery aside, what does the excellent wife do for her slaves? She wakes up early to cook. I imagine that in other households, that would have been the work of the maidens. And maybe the maidens prepared all the other meals of the day. But our woman here gets up and makes sure the slaves have at least one meal prepped for them. It’s a small way to “undo the straps of the yoke,” perhaps, but can you imagine a Southern Belle of the slave-owning South getting up early to cook for her household slaves?
She shares her bread and clothes
The Proverbs 31 woman really shines in contrast to Isaiah 58:7, so we’ll take that verse in parts. First, she shares her bread with the hungry and clothes the naked. Or, as vs. 20 puts it, “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.”
We don’t know what form her compassion takes. We don’t know if she donated to the ancient equivalent to the Red Cross, or handed food and clothes to beggars. We do know she knew how to cook and sew, and that in some way she actively sought out ways to help those in need. Don’t miss that: she reaches out her hands to the needy. She’s proactive! Maybe one day she hears that a neighbor’s crops were affected by blight, and she sends over some of her extras. Maybe she presents the blind beggar in the city with a new robe of thick wool to keep him warm in winter. Whatever it is, the excellent wife supplies not just for her family (though she does that to the point of luxury), but she also supplies for those who are suffering.
She invites in the homeless
Building off the previous point, we don’t know specifically how the excellent wife assists the homeless, but we do have one clue in vs. 18b: “Her lamp does not go out at night.” This can be connected to the fact that she’s a hard worker (in the next verse she’s making thread, for example), but I think this also serves a practical purpose. There are ancient laws about hospitality; you can see them in play by comparing Abram’s reception of the angels to Lot’s in Genesis 18-19. (Seriously, compare them action-by-action sometime.) The long and short is, it often wasn’t safe to be wandering the streets at night, and the way to counteract the danger was to open your home to travelers.
So how does our woman respond? She keeps her lamp lit. A stranger, walking late at night, wouldn’t have street lights to guide his way, but without the electric glow of a nearby city, a lantern in a window in the middle of the night would have served as a beacon to a traveler that someone would let him in.
She takes care of her family
Most of the time when we talk about taking care of family according to scripture, we think of the extended family (Matt. 15:3-6; 1 Tim 5:3-8), but our care for our family should consider our immediate family as well. Some of the ways the excellent wife does this are fairly common—she feeds and clothes her household—but there’s one way she “does not hide herself from her own flesh” that people don’t often discuss, and that is this: I believe this particular woman is the primary breadwinner for her home.
There are two reasons why I believe this.
The first is simply that she’s the one shown earning income. She buys a field and turns it into a long-term investment; she sells clothes to merchants. She’s a shrewd businesswoman.
The second is that we don’t know much about what her husband does, but we do know he sits in the city gates at least occasionally. We know from the book of Ruth that the gates were a place where deals were made and decisions were reached; it’s a place where civic issues were discussed. It was a place where leaders gathered. It was not necessarily a place where they earned a living wage.
A lot of times Christian circles still make a big deal of the man being the breadwinner, but I believe the Proverbs 31 woman shows that it’s not always true. Sometimes, by mutual agreement, the woman may be the one earning the income while the man pursues a godly passion or position of leadership. For example, in one godly marriage I know, the wife earned the income while the husband was in a period of (partially involuntary) discernment as to whether he should pursue a position as a professor or a ministry role. He is now partnering with a Christian campus ministry in a rural, generally low-income area; while he seeks funding to reach a materially and spiritually impoverished group, the wife will most likely have to continue to work for several years just so their family has access to good insurance. Or, in Proverbs 31 terms, she is doing him good and not evil by making sure their family needs are met, thereby allowing him to do the important work of sitting in the city gates.
Bringing it all together
This was just a quick exploration of the godly character of the Proverbs 31 woman, but my big point is this. It’s easy for modern Christians, especially those who take theology seriously, to be like the Pharisees, so focused on knowledge and spiritual disciplines that we too miss the point: we’re supposed to help the oppressed, and feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and clothe the naked, and take care of our own family. The excellent wife is excellent precisely because she excels at these things. And that’s why I think Isaiah 58:8 can be said of her:
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
Long blog but oh so worth the read. I think you might enjoy looking at our Bible study tool and clicking on Lemuel and reading the different explanations of his name. Go here: https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Proverbs+31 then click on Lemuel and then word study and in the right frame you can see the different meanings and ideas from different sources.
Again so worth the time. Thanks for this.
I was the one who wrote that to Tim C.
First, #1 was not the assumption I made at all. You don’t need a scroll for prayer. Even her husband would very probably not had access to any writings outside of the Temple. The women would have learned through their husbands. There was the ability to speak with other Godly women, but no mention is made of them getting together for that.
Second, #2 they would have had access to the Oral Law handed down even if no access to the Torah in the home. Next, the Bible indicates that Moses wrote the first 5 books: Exodus 34:27, Numbers 33:2, Deuteronomy 31:9, Joshua 8:32, Acts 15:21, John 1:45, Mark 12:19, John 5:46-47. So they did have writings to read, at least by the Biblical account.
Third, #3 is where I have hit up with problems from everyone. I have seen and known cultures who are not Christian, never profess to be, but could equal or beat the morality of many Christians nowadays. When I see this, I wonder about whether or not people have dealt with other cultures and especially non Christian cultures. Not one of them would have a problem with the Proverbs 31 lady but they wouldn’t say they were impressed by her enough to ask her about God/Christ. Nowadays if you did, they’d blow you off.