My mother asked me the other day if I thought the woman from Proverbs 31 represented a real woman and, given the Spring Term discussion that's been happening in the Upperclass Women's Small Group (one of our fantastic Small Groups on campus), I thought I might have something on my hands to blog about.
The Proverbs 31 Woman, as she's sometimes called, pulls a heavy load. Her description flows from vague praises of her value (v. 10-12) to vivid images of her vocational prowess (v. 13-22) and standing in the community (v. 23-31). This is the wife a king should look for, the wife any man should look for.
But this presents a difficulty. The P31-W is a highly advanced model, hardly human. What woman would claim that she is already a woman of noble character? Find her, and I'll bet she's not married. Marriage has a way of bringing our faults to light. We discover over and over again the depth of our selfishness and immaturity. That selfishness and immaturity falls away from us over years of marriage and we become more and more like the men and women God always meant us to be.
A "wife of noble character" might become a wife of noble character over time. Might. But does that really happen?
Our Small Group is filled with women who have displayed amazing character over the past year. April models creativity, support, industry and maternal love (she's the second best wife I know). Mindy demonstrates faithfulness. Cat knows all about service. Katie has mastered both honesty and forgiveness in every arena of her life. And don't get me started on Amy (seriously, my wife is amazing!).
But King Lemuel (or his mother), the author of Proverbs 31, didn't know Katie or Cat or Mindy or April or Amy.
In Proverbs 31 no specific example is given. If I were writing, I could say, "Look at the women from Small Group, Son. Find yourself a woman with their character and you'll be forever glad you did."
The Bible wasn't always arranged in the order in which we find it today. Turn the page from Proverbs 31 and you'll hit Ecclesiastes 1: "Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless." This might seem like a good transition: "Find yourself a wife of noble character. Oh, nevermind. Forget it. The good ones are already taken. Join an all male Small Group. And have you ever considered a career as a celibate philosopher?"
The Proverbs 31 Woman, in abstract, is terrifying, robotic. Not superhuman, really, but sub-human, the way mannequins are sub-human. That's not a woman to love, to hold, to cherish.
What would happen if the next page you turned to in your Bible after reading Proverbs 31 was the story of Ruth? In some ancient versions of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures), we can find the scroll containing Ruth right after the scroll containing Proverbs. The arrangers of the Tanakh thought Ruth to be a model of the P31-W.
Tell us a story. Tell us a story that we can be caught up into and see ourselves inhabiting. Those stories, stories that take P31-Ws and turn them into Ruth are vitally necessarily if we are to allow God's word to adjust our lives in the real world.
What do we see in the Story of Ruth?