For years, the Proverbs 31 woman has been held over the heads of women in the church, a caricature of singular perfection—making them feel inadequate and less than holy. “Look at all the things this woman does!” books and Bible teachers remind women. “Why can’t you do those things, too?” they ask. Many Christian women have been hurt and diminished by stereotype-driven, culture-biased presentations of the Proverbs 31 figure. Is it any wonder, then, that many women have come to dislike this chapter so much? I believe, however, that it is possible to go beyond the stereotypes and impossible standards of “biblical” womanhood to redeem the truth of this passage—without adding an additional burden onto women’s shoulders.
“An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels” (Proverbs 31:10 NASB). Other translations render the word “excellent” as “virtuous.” However, the Hebrew here is much stronger. The word translated as “excellent” is chavil, which means “strength, valor.” In the Bible, chavil is often used to describe an army or an individual warrior. This wife, then, is no passive adornment! She is a competent leader and force for God. Ironically, our medieval forebears were actually more correct. The Latin Vulgate, the translation used for the first thousand years of the church, used the phrase mulierem fortem or “woman of valor” in this verse. What characteristics mark the woman of valor? Space does not permit a full exegesis of this chapter, but here are a few.
One way that the Proverbs 31 woman breaks with the submissive biblical womanhood model is her wisdom in financial matters. This woman is not only strong and valiant, but she is business-savvy. “She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard… She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies belts to the tradesmen” (vv. 16, 24).
Once, I saw a friend of mine typing away on her laptop before our church’s mid-week service. When I asked her what she was doing, she explained that every night, she balances the books for the business she runs with her husband. She was using her God-given gift for financial wisdom and leadership—emulating the intelligence and ambition of the Proverbs 31 woman.
This Proverbs 31 woman, with her money-wise skills and business know-how, is a powerful reminder to woman and men alike to use their resources well, and for God’s glory. Not all of us will be blessed with our own business, but that should not stop us from knowing where our money goes.
Unfortunately, I learned this lesson in a very painful way when I was still single. I threw my money away as fast I earned it, and I also racked up huge debts on my credit card. I remember crying when I realized how much trouble I had gotten in financially and how out of control I was. Today, my husband and I work together to live frugally, and it’s worth it. We have a special saving account where we can set aside money for our favorite organizations like CBE, or to help someone in need of financial support.
The Bible says “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and it’s true. Using our minds and gifts as leaders in the home, business world, and church is a wonderful way for women to emulate the Proverbs 31 woman in their own unique way with their own unique gifts.
“She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (v. 17). In his book, Jesus the Sage: the Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Ben Witherington III says this: “…the picture is of a woman who has gathered up her dress, [and] girded it about her loins, so she can do hard manual labor” (35). This suggests that the Proverbs 31 woman was active. She was willing to labor heavily and at personal cost for the kingdom of God. And, she was clearly unafraid to use her gifts. Likewise, women (and men) should commit to leading, serving, and working in Jesus’ name, drawing from whatever individual gifts they have been given.
Before I got married, I attended a large church that was part of a denomination that preached traditional gender roles.
Every year, the men would go on a mission trip that involved physical labor—such as building a church in a developing nation. They didn’t even offer mission trips for women, let alone physically arduous ones. So, women weren’t given the chance to live out the full meaning of the Proverbs 31 passage—active service.
Compare that to today. I now live in Texas. You might remember that a while ago, a tornado devastated the city of Moore, Oklahoma. Partnering with a church in that city, a group from my own traveled there to help with the disaster relief. Once there, our group was divided—men taken to one location and the women to another.
Imagine our surprise, when we were taken to a severely damaged house and told we were going to pull it down! A large number of women from various churches had also come, and so undaunted, we set to it. The group consisted of women of all ages—teenage girls working alongside their mothers, and even some elderly grandmothers. Together, we plied nails from boards, tore walls open with crowbars, and removed insulation from those same walls. The owner, a single mother, shared with us the trauma of watching the tornado come and quickly getting her children into their basement. What a privilege it was to offer this woman our physical strength and presence! And all because we pushed beyond the stereotype that women can’t do construction, or don’t enjoy active, physically-demanding service.
So, the Proverbs 31 figure may often be used to limit who and what women can be and do, but in reality, the Proverbs 31 woman is a testament to the strength, giftedness, and competency of women.
Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (10:27). Don’t let the world, including those in the church, limit you from serving God in any area because of your gender. And don’t buy into a narrow prescription for biblical womanhood based on a biased, twisted interpretation of the Proverbs 31 figure. The woman in Proverbs 31 is an inspiring example of someone who used all of her abilities to serve God. I pray that we can all learn from this woman of valor.