For Mother’s Day: Exposing the Myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman

[Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and I’m really hoping someone will preach along the lines of this post from the archives. If you hear that sermon, please let me know!]

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Proverbs 31 – The Woman Who Never Existed

There is a lot of wisdom literature in the Bible about work and families and parents caring for children. But when it comes to working mothers, the person who gets the most attention is the Proverbs 31 Woman. If you give the passage even a cursory glance, you can see why some people mistakenly look at her as the ideal for all women. “Biblical womanhood” some call it. There she is, the Proverbs 31 Woman: now go forth and do likewise! (Or you could just watch Rachel Held Evans give it the old college try.)

What a load of hogwash. Some people seem to read Proverbs 31 as a biography of the woman every woman should emulate. I have some news for you: The Proverbs 31 woman never existed. She’s not a real person. She’s a personification.

The Book of Proverbs begins with a call to Wisdom, personified as a woman. It then goes back and forth in comparing this woman Wisdom with another woman, Folly. After this there are a few chapters of wise sayings and insights on life and faith. Chapter 31 comes along and the wise sayings and insights come to an abrupt halt. The first 10 chapters and the last chapter are like bookends to Proverbs, and (like other parts of Scripture) constitute a chiasm.

The Usefulness of Chiastic Structure

This chiastic structure demands that we read the last chapter in light of the opening chapters: Proverbs starts with a call to follow the woman Wisdom and avoid the woman Folly, and ends with warnings against foolish behavior.

It then provides an example – through the person of the Proverbs 31 woman – of what wisdom in action looks like. That personification is a literary device to give us an idea of how someone can live out the wide range of wisdom found in the middle portion of the Book of Proverbs, wisdom that includes work and families and parents caring for children.

Working mothers and working fathers certainly need wisdom in caring for their children. We can look to God’s word, of course. Even more, we who belong to Christ have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

So if you are a parent who works in the home or whose job takes you out of the home, you can rest in knowing that God cares about your work, your family and how you care for your children. And He is with you always.

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23 Responses to For Mother’s Day: Exposing the Myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman

  1. lauradroege says:

    Thanks for reposting this, Tim. I’m really tired of hearing or reading accounts of people who are trying to be just like the Proverbs 31 woman (or telling women that they ought to be like her!) when she’s a personification, not a person. Along those lines, I’m sort of dreading tomorrow’s sermon at church; I don’t know if this pastor will preach about Mother’s Day, but Mother’s Day sermons always leave me a little queasy and a little grumpy. I mean, I appreciate the shout out to moms, but really, does every minor holiday have to become a sermon topic?! And for that matter, do we really need a holiday to remind us to love our mothers?!

    • Tim says:

      These “holidays” are so driven by the companies that make money off them. If only people would put as much drive behind understanding what God’s word really says and not stopping at superficial readings like the kind that result in someone wrongly concluding the Proverbs 31 woman is a real person who actually lived and is now a model for women (but not men) everywhere.

  2. karen d says:

    I also wish we would wake up to the truth that as a personification, the Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t model womanhood — she models wisdom, personified, in other words, wise living for both men and women. Two things would happen: women would stop trying to figure out what “biblical womanhood is” (because there is no such thing) and “people who submit to the authority of the Bible in their lives” would have to grapple with the idea that a female character is normative and instructional for both genders — in other words, a Leader and a Preacher for men and women. Well, that’s my $.02 🙂

  3. Rev. Carlene Appel says:

    Your wish was granted a long time ago Tim. When I was a church pastor, I preached on Prov. 31 multiple times in multiple places. If those who hold that up as THE model wife and stay at home mother actually READ the description they wouldn’t be.
    1. The woman had SERVANTS. Long before I was a pastor I got so disgusted with this significant piece being glossed over, that whenever I heard this passage preached in a church,, when the (always male) pastor greeted me at the door as we were leaving, I’d say “Gee, I could do it all like this lady if I had SERVANTS too like she did.” (v. 15) This usually brought an uncomfortable smile to their faces as they went to shake hands with the next people leaving. It’s very plain that she’s filthy rich. If you studied the culture of that time period you’d find that wealthy women had wet nurses to feed their babies and had nannies to raise them.
    2. This woman was NOT A STAY AT HOME MOM. After the servants are given their breakfast and housekeeping duties for the day she’s off to work. She works long hours until late into the evening (v. 18) and has a very profitable career as a clothing manufacturer and merchant of high end wear. Besides the linen garments she also manufactures purple items, something that only the wealthy could afford, in fact she wore purple herself as did her entire family.(vv. 21- 22). She conducts real estate transactions, hires workers and pays them out of HER OWN money (v. 16).
    3. She’s a strong and well educated woman (vv. 25-26).
    4. Note the response in vv. 28-29 of her children and husband to this highly educated, highly paid female executive who spends more time out of the home than in, who sends the message “You can have it all, you can do it all.” Check this out: “They rise up and call her BLESSED/HAPPY (depending on your Bible trans.) “Her husband too, and he PRAISES her saying ‘Many women have done well, but you SURPASS them ALL.’

    Is it any wonder why generations of Christian women have been made to feel inadequate after being pounded over the head by male pastors and leaders of women’s groups with a completely out of context eisegesis of this Proverb. They are so blinded by their idolatry of male supremacy that it renders them unable to do a proper exegesis of the passage. If they took their blinders off they’d NEVER use this passage a model for what they see as a proper Christian woman because if they did they’d find themselves in the same league with NOW and the early women’s lib movement. (Think Helen Reddy “I am Woman.”) If anyone here is old enough to remember it, the message was well summarized in a commercial for the perfume Enjoli. A woman in a business suit with a briefcase enters and sings triumphantly “I can bring home the bacon! (band plays dah duh dah duh) Fry it up in the pan! (dah duh dah duh) and never never let you forget you’re a man! Cause’ I’m a woman!” (womens’ voices “Enjoli!”)

    Yes, we could all do it all if we were wealthy enough to have servants like the Proverbs 31 woman. Until then, join me in throwing up the next time you hear a sermon yet again lifting her up in such a grossly out of context way on Mother’s Day or any other day for that matter. (snicker, snicker) Maybe a united barf party in churches across the land will get their attention.(Ha-ha) Somehow I doubt it, but it will make for quite a diversion. ;-))

    Happy Mother’s Day y’all!!!

  4. Jeannie says:

    I may have made this comment last time and it’s slightly tangential but anyway … at my aunt’s funeral, I was asked to read Scripture. She had written “Prov 16” on a piece of paper but it just didn’t sound like something my aunt would choose: you can barely read 2 verses without getting into references to pride, dishonest tongues, wrongdoers, scoundrels, and plots. (And she wasn’t the type to give her enemies an earful at her funeral! 🙂 ) So after a discussion with the minister we settled on Prov. 31 instead. When I read aloud the words “Give her the reward she had earned, and let her works bring her praise in the city gates,” they seemed to sum up the combination of sorrow and pride that I felt at that moment. I totally agree with your post, Tim, yet I will never think of Prov. 31 without thinking of my dear aunt.

  5. Pingback: Proverbs 6:20-23 A Mother's Teaching | JimErwin.com

  6. Lydia says:

    Tim, I wish pastors would skip the typical Mothers Day sermons in totality. I have heard from too many precious women that they would rather stay in bed than go and be reminded of their infertility which can feel a lot like a curse while they see drug addicts giving birth to babies they put in trash cans. Especially in churches that practice the errant doctrine of something bizarre they call “biblical womanhood”. And in these churches they totally misuse 1 Tim 3 to make it even more of curse….”saved in childbearing”. A horrible translation/interpretation for women. The truth is Paul was referring to being saved because of the birth of Messiah. The historical context is imperative to understand.

    I have often wondered who they think these biblical women should emulate since their Savior and model was male.

    I have come to the conclusion we do not hear near enough about Him.

  7. Lydia says:

    I will say that my late mother thought the Proverbs 31 women a total hoot when it came to the whole CBMW type industry in evangelicalism. Would these men really be comfortable with such an accomplished and successful woman who was hardly ever home? She thought they missed the whole point in light of how they interpreted Paul concerning women.

    • Tim says:

      If they want to see someone resembling the Proverbs 31 woman, they should be hoping to see a woman at the head of the table in a corporate board room.

  8. Marian says:

    I grew up in a (Reformed) church tradition that seriously avoided “topical” sermons like those related to civic or other non-faith-related holidays. Then, for years, I’ve worked as a musician in other denominations that use a lectionary. While the lectionary, even with its three-year cycle, has the drawback of leaving out parts of Scripture, the good news (pun intended) is that it makes it hard for the minister/pastor/priest to ignore the day’s Good News from Scripture andpreach “on” a pet topic or a random holiday, like Mother’s Day. As a (married) woman who has the sorrow of not having had children, that’s fine with me. I have no objection, of course, to allusions somewhere in the service to the blessings of having had a good mother (or being a good mother), or prayers of thanks for them, but preaching with teh FOCUS on Mother’s Day? That has always seemed quite odd to me.

    Re: Proverbs 31:The denomination I grew up in had had a girls club, not unlike Girl Scouts, whose motto (which we had to memorize) was Prov. 31:30 (“Grace is deceitful, beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised”). I can’t say that was impressed on us in any negative way. I was always drawn to Proverbs 31, not at all put off by it, because (while I agree with your view that its a personification) it presents a wise, intelligent, competent woman free to use the talents God gave her in many areas, unhampered by male disapproval of her doing so.

    BTW, I came to this blog via a link a commenter posted re: Christianity Today’s “Should Christian Colleges Let Female Faculty Members Teach Men the Bible?” (re: Cedarville University). As somebody looking at the evangelical world more or less from the outside (though I’d consider myself evangelical in what I think is a biblical definition) that issue was, and is, rather bizarre to me, and not a little disheartening.

  9. I have another view of Proverbs 31 that you might consider. The book of Proverbs is, mainly, written as if a father were giving advice to a son. (We might wish that women were addressed directly.) It was not written to women or wives. It is a father giving an example to his son on how to consider, praise and appreciate his wife. The father praises his own wife, not anyone else.
    To read this as if it were a pattern for women to follow is like reading love poetry regarding what a man finds beautiful in particular woman and making it the standard of beauty of every woman. “I am dark, but comely” results in fair-skinned women thinking that they do not measure up. It’s a silly way to interpret poetry, but it is what the church has done here.
    I do not reject your view that Wisdom personified might be in view, but I think it is unnecessary.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the insights, Brian. I agree that your description is the motif, but I maintain that the point is wisdom personified rather than mere fatherly advice.

  10. Pingback: The Bible Encourages Women Who Work Outside the Home | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  11. Thank God that God cares for my family.

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