A woman of valor who can find? ~ Proverbs 31:10
I have a few friends who believe that a Christian woman’s role is clearly prescribed in the Bible and that it involves traditional female domains like domesticity, submission to the male as the head of the household/the church, and taking primary care of children. While I try to understand their views and choices (they do seem to genuinely enjoy their family dynamics at least when talking to me), I admit that I don’t get it. Maybe it’s my upbringing by a strong single mom, maybe it’s my love for being in positions of leadership, but I have always bristled at the idea of conforming to a traditional female role in my professional or my personal life. Does that make me a disobedient Christian?
Rachel Held Evans one of my favorite authors and bloggers – I hope my blog and my writing is half as thoughtful and well-written as hers one day – asks a similar question in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’: “Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman? And do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?” Rachel spent a year reading the Bible, researching both conservative and liberal commentaries on the text, and trying to live by the many instructions that show up throughout the Bible. I haven’t actually gotten around to reading her book yet. That’s why I was so excited when I found out that she was going to be just a couple of hours down the road in Mobile, Alabama at a women’s conference called “Women of Valor” last Saturday. I recruited some girlfriends to journey to the conference with me to find out what Rachel discovered about Biblical womanhood and to learn why the conference was entitled “Women of Valor.”
So, does a blueprint for Biblical womanhood exist? Unclear. Even scholars and writers who subscribe to the idea of Biblical womanhood don’t agree on which instructions we should and shouldn’t follow. There are a number of instructions for women ranging from covering your hair while you pray to not praying in church to sitting in a tent when you’re on your period to engaging in polygamy. Rachel writes more about this here. So, there isn’t a single, clear way for women to behave even according to the “experts.”
Ok. If there was a mold that we could all agree on, would the women celebrated in the Bible fit into it? Doubtful. Esther married a pagan. Ruth was a widowed, childless foreigner. Rahab was a prostitute. Deborah and Junia preached the gospel. Sarah, Elizabeth, and Ruth were childless for much of their Biblical stories. And time and again you see women taking initiative and being leaders in their communities and for their people. Instead of offering a single vision for how women should behave, the Bible offers a rich diversity of stories and experiences.
Finally, during her year of Biblical womanhood, Rachel Held Evans gained a new perspective on the woman described in Proverbs 31. The woman in Proverbs 31 wakes before dawn, provides food for her family, makes nice clothes for everyone, works long into the night, and is never idle. In mainstream Christian culture women are told to read Proverbs 31 and use it as a checklist of things to do in order to become the ideal wife. I once attended a multi-week Bible study on how to be the Proverbs 31 woman. Around this same time I was recovering from a breakup and I actually made a vision board based on this idea of the Proverbs 31 woman and attempted to create a laundry list of works and virtues that would help me become worthy of one day being a wife. Seriously. SMH at myself.
Anyway, I could relate to Rachel’s questions about the Proverbs 31 woman and the pressure to live up to a seemingly impossible standard. Luckily, Rachel made the acquaintance of an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava who told her that, in Jewish culture, Proverbs 31 is seen as a poem written to celebrate women for what they have already accomplished and who they already are rather than shaming/motivating them to try to emulate the woman in the poem. Jewish men memorize Proverbs 31, not women, and Ahava’s husband actually sings Proverbs 31 as a song of praise to her every Sabbath.
Some Biblical versions have Proverbs 31:10 translated as “An excellent wife who can find?” but Ahava told Rachel that the Hebrew translation of the description of the woman is “echet chayil,” which means “woman of valor” or “A woman of valor who can find?” The Proverbs 31 woman is not praised just because she’s a great wife, she is praised for having valor, being courageous, bold and spirited. Ahava also said that in Jewish culture the phrase “woman of valor” or “eshet chayil” is used the same way we use the phrase “Go, girl!” in American culture. So if I never end up being a wife, I can still be a woman of valor. If I never have children, I can still be a woman of valor. If I don’t spend my time sewing or cooking or tending vineyards (another of the Proverbs 31 woman’s many talents), I can still be a woman of valor.
So, my takeaway from the weekend is that there is no clear Biblical standard or blueprint for what it should look like to be a woman. (Thanks be to God!) The women of the Bible are unique, strong, and faithful in diverse ways. So, if you want to stay at home and be a traditional caretaker for your family, do it with valor! Eshet chayil! Go, girl! And if you want to preach at church or share leadership with your partner, do it with valor! Eshet chayil! Go, girl!
Do you ever feel pressured to follow a certain set of rules to comply with Biblical (or cultural if you're not a Christian) manhood or womanhood? Who are women of valor in your life and how can you honor them? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading! Eshet chayil!