I wrote in the E-News this week that when viewed through a progressive lens the Bible becomes a rich compendium of collective human spiritual experience with much to say about how to navigate the times in which we live.
Nevertheless, it’s an understatement to say that the Bible can also be deeply problematic for us as we navigate our way through the challenges of the present time.
Texts never have only one meaning. There are, broadly speaking, three questions to ask when encountering any Biblical text -each question opening up a particular lens through which the text is read and heard.
- What was the original author’s intention and what do we know about the historical-socioreligious context in which they were writing?
- How has the Judaeo-Christian tradition – evolving over numerous and differing historical-socioreligious contexts, read and understood the text over time?
- Finally, how do we hear and understand the text within our 21st-century historical-socioreligious context?
The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as Wisdom. Proverbs belongs within a family of books that include Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach or sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus. Although adapted to Jewish issues and concerns Wisdom literature is not Hebrew in origin and similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.
Wisdom focuses on the challenges of skillful living. In the face of suffering it is unsatisfied by the conventional answer: because God wills it. Wisdom challenges suffering and the apparent futile and fleeting nature of life and says: yes, but why?
Wisdom presents a complex and multilayered worldview – its voice sitting in tension with more conventional voices. We see this back and forth playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Wisdom is also personified as the feminine principle of the Holy Spirit named in Greek as Sophia. Sophia, displaying profound feminine qualities has often been referred to in English as Lady Wisdom, or Woman’s Wisdom.
Proverbs 31 appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, one King Lemuel (identity unknown) in the qualities he must look for in a royal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found in verse 10 and onwards is in its original context is a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. This was not intended to be a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness.
Playing the part of rabbi for a moment, I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.
All wives are women but not all women are wives and the ancient Hebrew word isshah does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, isshah could be rendered woman as much as wife, which is important in breaking the close identification of the text with wifeliness.
English translators have for 500 years struggled with the Hebrew word chayil; variously translating it as good, virtuous, valiant, or as the NRSV does – capable. Yet, all these translations miss chayil’s clearest meaning of warrior-like. There is quite a difference when verse 10 is rendered: a warrior-like – strong woman who can find?
Mainstream Judaeo-Christian interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31 has read it as a hymn to the virtues of the good wife -a phrase that automatically conjures up images of subservient dutifulness. I understand that even today some rabbis continue to read this text as a love poem to their wives on the eve of Shabbat.
The Tradition’s patriarchal view of the relationship between men and women has led to a repeated misreading of the text as an endorsement of the view of a good wife as an obedient and domestically industrious adornment to her husband. Yet, when we cast off our patriarchal blinkers and actually read the text, we are startled by what it does not say. If we are looking for the actual words of Proverbs 31 to extol the virtues of the good wife as the embodiment of the German slogan: Kinder, Küche, & Kirche – Children, Kitchen, & Church, we will not find them here.
Wisdom 31 nowhere presents a picture of dutiful and obedient wifeliness. Neither does it in any place extol the virtues of motherhood. This woman is not chained to her stove or her children, she is not domestic at all but seems to be something of a combination of a wise and frugal merchant, creative artisan and farmer, and social philanthropist. The text denotes that her husband is well known at the city gates. Who with a wife like this will not be envied?
When chayil is rendered warrior-like, strong, invincible, Amazon-like, as opposed to merely virtuous or capable, the exhausting list of this woman’s social and domestic productivity is only capped by her crowning glory, which resides not in her industriousness, neither in her physical beauty, or her cocktail social charm and whit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Wisdom 31 concludes with:
Give her a share in the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Today, this is a difficult text for the unwary preacher. It is a text that speaks to both the hopeful expectations as well as the enduring pain and struggle lying at the heart of contemporary issues of gender and power.
It’s extraordinary when considering that such a text, read for centuries as en hommage to a patriarchal view of wifely virtue is, in reality, one of the clearest Biblical endorsements for what we have come to refer to as the emancipation of women. Such a reinterpretation rests on the strength of what the text actually says. Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to engage this text from within our own sadly, contentious context.
The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes a huge social awakening. It is a veritable tsunami that continues to sweep before it centuries of women’s experience of injustice and oppression at the hands of both the female as well as the male supporters of patriarchy.
In its original context, Proverbs 31 constituted an idealized image of royal womanhood. Nevertheless, allowing for such idealization, the text expresses Wisdom’s image of womanhood as strong, vital, and socially engaged in all aspects of civic life.
Wisdom’s worldview deeply informs the shape of Jesus ministry and teaching. Wisdom’s challenge to worldly values of dominance and power echoes loudly in Jesus’ deeply countercultural honoring of women.
In Mark 9:30-37, the gospel appointed to be read on the same Sunday as Proverbs 31, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about where his road leads – to death and resurrection. As he opens his heart to them Jesus notices that they are not listening. So, he asks them: what, instead of listening to me, were you talking about? They sheepishly reveal that they had been wrangling over who is to be top dog among them.
Jesus’ response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. It’s service, he tells them, not worldly honor that is the mark of true greatness. Children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Jesus driving home his point takes a little child and in Wisdom’s voice proclaims:
whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me; and not only me, but the one who has sent me!
In the wake of the tsunami of women’s emancipation, our society is also awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the cry of the child. Open your ears – can you hear? Wisdom is still speaking.