Friday, August 14, 2009

Proverbs 31

I found it very interesting that there would be such vibrant viewpoints regarding this scripture on one of my previous posts and so I'm hoping to dig a little deeper and add some fact to what, to me, has always been perception only.

I have to be honest and say first, I've always hated this scripture. It brought to mind a few women I've known or counseled with over the years who took it to a very extreme place. A place of timidity, rigidity of opinion, lack of thought and creativity and moreover, a place where freedom and strength, also known as feminism in some circles, were shunned. As someone who takes great delight in the freedoms of women, the strength that we can and do exhibit so often and with such greatness, the beauty and power that women like Maya Angelou have embraced with such grace, I have often been quite offput by this scripture and it's detailed and exhausting description of what I 'should' be doing at every given interval of my day.
Knowing that only truly remarkable fakes could pull off even a vague impersonation of this 'ideal woman', I gave up entirely, a surrender to failure which is undoubtedly more common than the lovely ladies in the church pews would admit. I also quietly allowed a large and imposing CANYON to spread between myself and the God who inspired such ridiculous and impossible instruction to be penned as a 'gift' for women. This is obviously not something we can agree on, God, so let's just not talk about it, shall we?
Having discovered relatively recently that in fact there IS a God, and knowing that He is wholly loving, failed to make a difference in my mind for this controversial passage. There are things I can never understand and never be, lets just leave it at that. In other words, 'Look, God, we just started speaking again. Let's not dredge up all that old stuff again, hm?'
But He has a way of doing just that, bringing up all those old things that we've tucked away to be dealt with later. So this is my later.
Here's the way I, and so many other women around the world, read Proverbs 31. And please note here- this is not the actual passage, but one woman's interpretation- and before you judge, understand also, that I know this isn't REALLY what it says.

"A wife of perfect character and form, who can find? God values her the most because she's better than you. Her marriage is completely happy 100% of the time and her husband is proud of her perfection. She never says or does anything against his will or opinion and is a bright blessing to his life because of it. She labors constantly within her home and never sits down to read a book or take a bubble bath or smoke a cigarette. She is wealthy enough to have servants and she's nice enough to treat them well. In spite of this wealth and service, she still makes all her own clothes, cooks all her own meals and never actually sleeps because she's made of sterner stuff than that. She is so industrious that she has enough for her family and the family next door as well, clothing and feeding all their kids too.
Her husband is a hunk and spends his considerable free time on currency trading. He has a lot of friends and they're all jealous of him.
She is a seamstress, a merchant, a trader and a vintner all at once and makes a considerable fortune on each vocation.
On top of all of this, she is also incredibly wise and intelligent and many come from far and wide to hear her speak. She is completely secure in the future because she knows how amazingly capable she is and because they're wealthy after all, so what's to be afraid of?
She never sits, never sleeps, never worries, never weeps, never yells or spanks or fails to read all the labels on her groceries to make certain they're all organic and don't contain red 25. And of course, because of all of this, her teen children, who are pimple free and full of peace, love and harmony, rise up and tell her what a bang up job she's done on every darn thing. Her husband never has an affair with a coworker, develops an addiction to pornography or beer or is ever late for dinner because this wise, beautiful, intelligent, smoldering woman is waiting at home with a meal made from scratch on a table she carved from the oak out back.
Many women do good things, but only the one who matches this description is worthy of love and due respect.

I imagine that for those of you who love Proverbs 31, seeing it butchered this way is a bit annoying. But you have to understand, there are those women out there who read it just this way, as a judgment on us, a hopeless task that we can never fulfill and one that would change us, mold us, into a cookie cutter Christian female without personality, practically without personhood at all. This verse is not beautiful to us, but damning, depressing and frankly, boring.

I came across a piece recently, which puts some of the actual proverb (not my parody) into a clearer perspective, at least for me. This is a character sketch of the proverbs 31 woman, taken from the Woman of Faith Study Bible

" Ahh, the noble wife. Busy, Busy Busy! How does one woman find time for so much?
That's it! She is not one woman. She's all of us- and none of us. In a time when most women were not taken very seriously apart from childbearing, the writer of this proverb dared to present a picture of a woman as a glorious, vibrant, competent and intelligent creation of God. The imagery is as relevant today as the day he wrote it. As we put some of the noble wife's talents into a modern context, we recognize her in ourselves and in our sisters.
Some women might go after quality clothing for their families and shop at several supermarkets to find the best buys. They fill their houses with plants. Their pantries are well stocked, their bathrooms are laden with plenty of toilet paper and fresh towels.
Some women contribute clean used clothing and food to the poor. They give birthday parties for disadvantaged children and tutor slow learners. They rock newborn babies at the hospital, wash windows for the elderly and take in foster children. Their homes are gathering places for neighborhood kids.
There are women for whom no job is too challenging or too niggling. They chop wood for the fireplace, mow the lawn and shovel snow. They repair the toaster, put up shelving, balance the budget and debug the computer. They also dress attractively, quilt and sew and sell homemade gifts on consignment.
A Godly wife may impress her workplace with her good judgment and reliability. She plans the weeks activities to make sure the important things come first, both at home and at work. She prays and sets family goals with her husband. She encourages him, asks about his day and shares her insight. On special occasions she may invite friends from his or her work to dinner.
A wife of noble character wears many faces and fills many roles- roles that can change with the seasons of her life. In essence, she draws her strength from The Lord to lay down her life for those she loves. Her creative industry may fill her day with countless activities or only one or two to which she gives herself deeply. Her reward? Her children adore her. Her husband cherishes her company, trusts her judgment and brags about her to all of his friends. She will be remembered- long after she is gone- not as a woman who beautifully knit a sweater or successfully balanced a budget, but as a woman who sought the Lord first of all."

Reading Proverbs 31, I have to assume that it isn't a to-do list of virtues or I'd be overwhelmed before I even began. It simply isn't possible to be all those things at once, or even a fraction of all those things, really. But as is often the case with God, quite often when I believe He's speaking judgment on me, He's actually speaking Mercy.
This passage needs to be exclaimed in every church, from every pulpit and spoken to every woman we meet. And it needs to be spoken in this way; not as an impossible task or a divining rod of spirituality, not as a measuring stick to gauge our failures and successes- but this; as an endless list of possibilities for who we are and who we can be.
This is not a passage of condemnation- or at least I've found a way to read it so it no longer strikes me as such- but one of limitless possibilities for freedom in who we are as women, to be whatever we're gifted to be in whatever way we're able. It isn't describing one single woman who miraculously accomplishes so many tasks, but describing all of us, living such vastly different lives, using our myriad talents and loving within our own individual marriages/ relationships. We are each of us so different, so purposefully different, that it would be a cosmic waste to conform to one rigid standard or tradition of living.
I believe this passage is a great and wise instruction on how to use our talents to make a way for ourselves in this world, and also a reminder that we aren't all the same, but are each so valuable to Him for those differences. Where one can sew, another might build, and still another write or sing or bake or rockclimb or sail or play drums. And all are 'worth far more than rubies' to the One who formed us, who gave us our gifts and who is always so faithful to provide ways of using them.
I've come to discover that these verses are not a means of separating the wheat from the chaff, the spiritual giants from the poor losers, as I have often seen myself, who can't get their act together in the wife/mother role- but rather a celebration of all of our differences and the beautiful tapestry we can become if we choose to love one another beyond those differences, and actually, love because of those differences. In terms of a 'to-do' list for my spiritual life? My number one rule of 'Love God and Love Others' still stands firm.


jkroft said...

You hit it right on the little dot! Thanks for passing along your thoughts, which I think were gifted to you by The One Who Wrote Them. I have been inclined to notice my own shortcomings in this passage too, but now I have a fresh look at it and I'm smiling all over my face. You are indeed a gem, Melissa. A><>J

melissa said...

love you, aunt J.

Chelsea said...

Very Nice Said! I agree, we are each beautiful and unique because of our differences not in spite of them!

Chelsea said...

Very Nice(ly Said - Sheesh!

rebecca said...

Melissa, you never cease to make me laugh. I had never thought about women reading into Proverbs 31 like that, but it does make sense that it could make some feel like failures.
Nice work on spelling it out for others to clearly understand.

Melinda said...

Melissa, I always love reading your blog. Those are some great great in fact that I would like to publish your post in our Sept. MOMS newsletter. This is the big break you have been waiting for, I know. Let me know ASAP if I have your permission to print it. MOMS is on Sept 9th.
Thanks, Melinda