How many times have you gone to a women’s Bible study on Proverbs 31? It seems that discussions on this passage usually turn to how to be a good wife, mother, and house cleaner. Yet isn’t a woman so much more than just that? Doesn’t God have other work for us to do, as well? Isn’t there room for women to be leaders in God’s economy? The Proverbs 31 woman is more complex than most of us imagine. She is intelligent, creative, and a complete, well-rounded woman that follows God’s leading. So, why do we rarely talk about those qualities in our Bible studies?
About ten years ago, as these questions ran through my mind, I noticed the last verse of the passage: “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (v. 31). This verse led me to begin studying the Proverbs 31 woman and other great women of the Bible.
As I reflected on the verse, I was struck by the fact that it was not just her husband and children that praised her but the leaders of the town. Surely their praise was not for her ability to clean house. The text reveals much more. Think about it—would the mayor and council of a town come up to just any woman to praise her for her cooking and cleaning? I doubt it. They would, however, praise and reward a person for important social and civil achievements. What did she do to receive such praise? I had to find out.
As I read and studied, I began to see things I had never before noticed. We often assume she spent her time cleaning house. Yet I noticed she doesn’t dust, sweep, or do dishes because she has servants to clean house. What about cooking? In verse 20, we see that she gets up in the morning to provide food for her family. The Hebrew word that we often translate as “provide” means to give, deliver up, and yield produce. This word has little to do with cooking. It seems she provides the food for the family, probably from the morning market. We have no idea if she or, more likely, if one of the servants cooked.
I have often been told that, as a woman, I am to keep the house clean because the passage mentions that this ideal woman works tirelessly to keep her house clean. This idea comes from verse 27: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” Yet this verse does not suggest she actually engages in the tasks of cleaning the house—only that she makes sure that the servants are doing their jobs properly. The Hebrew word for “watches” means to look out, spy, observe, or watch as a watchman in a city tower would do. Apparently she leads the household and makes sure it is up to her standards.
Through these studies, I began to recognize her as a well organized woman that sets her priorities and sticks to them. What are her priorities? I am sure they are God, family, and work. What is her job? She is a businesswoman that deals in sashes and linen garments. Apparently, she is in wholesale business since she sells to other merchants (v. 18 and 24). In fact she has a business plan that people follow today: In verse 24, we see she decides on a product (“she makes linen garments and sells them”) and has a target group (“supplies the merchants with sashes”). She works hard at her business: “She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks” (v. 17) and “in her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers” (v. 19). She is concerned about product quality control since “she sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night”(v. 18). She knows the quality of the product and is making a profit, enough to buy land, plant a vineyard, and help the poor. That takes planning and intelligence.
It was money from her business that enabled her to buy the land (v. 16). I realized that it doesn’t say that she considered the land and asked her husband to buy it. This woman was knowledgeable about land. Was it because she helped work the land first with her father, and then later with her husband? During planting and harvest the whole household, women and children would be working in the fields.
So I saw that she is a businesswoman and a landowner. But is there even more to this Proverbs 31 woman? Yes! Verse 20 states that she “extends her hands to the needy.” We often translate this Hebrew word as “extends,” yet it can also mean to let loose, let go, or set free. Who is she setting free? The Hebrew word translated as “needy” refers to a person subject to oppression and abuse, needing help and deliverance from trouble. Is this woman doing more than just giving money to the poor? Could it be that she is an advocate for people, especially other women and orphans that are being abused or neglected? If we are to follow her lead then we must speak out and help the oppressed and abused of today. Luke 4:18 explains that Jesus came “…to release the oppressed.” Who were the oppressed in his days? It was the poor, the women, and the slaves. To me, this is a call to be bold and speak out to release women to follow the calling of God on their lives, even if this calling includes preaching and leading.
Not only is the Proverbs 31 woman a businesswoman, a landowner, and an advocate for the needy, in verse 10, we see that she is called a woman of “noble character.” The King James’ version translates it as “virtuous woman.” Another version reads “excellence.” All these words are adjectives that are often associated with the notion of chastity. But is that what this Hebrew noun means? The word is used 242 times in the Bible and the majority of the time it is used for an army, or mighty fighting men, men of valor, or people of great wealth. If this word is often used for men of valor, why is it not used for the women of valor? The passage is indeed describing a woman who goes beyond the traditional duties of wife and mother. This woman is praised by God, her husband, children and the elders at the city gates not for housework but because she is a mighty warrior for God.
It was here in my studies that my perspective on women in the Bible and women in general changed. What I found was that women are to be more than obedient wives, wonderful mothers, and superb housekeepers. We are to be more like the Proverbs 31 woman and the other women in the Bible who were led by God to mighty deeds that perhaps went beyond traditional roles for women. And with that realization came my biggest question: Are we ready to model their examples?