Proverbs 31 is a well-known and quoted text, particularly in reference to verses 10-31. Also known as “Ode to a Capable Wife,” the second half of Proverbs 31 describes an “ideal wife” who is a hard worker and looks after her family with love and integrity. She is worth far more than rubies and can outshine any other woman. She is a model of self-control, diligence, and prudence. She’s a shrewd businesswoman and a skilled housewife. She is kind and just–loved and appreciated by her husband, children, and community. Essentially, the woman described is perfect.
So, what does a Proverbs 31 woman look like today? Is the text to be taken literally and applied fervently among the female sex? To understand what Proverbs 31 really means, we must look at the text in relation to the overarching theme of women in the Old Testament and the depiction of females as remarkably good or wantonly bad with no in-between.
What is the Proverbs 31 Woman in Relation to the Social Climate at the Time?
“The Old Testament texts lend themselves with particular clarity to consideration of the effects of the double standard on women’s lives, since in biblical times this standard was enshrined in criminal and religious law, as well as in social custom” (Jesus and Women, p. 22).
When reading Proverbs 31:10-31, it’s important to understand that the text was written during a time when women were treated more as property than equal partners, especially in marriage. There were stark double standards between what was socially acceptable for males vs. females. For example, “it was acceptable for men to engage in premarital and extramarital sex so long as it did not involve the wife (property) of another man. On the other hand, women who were caught engaging in fornication or adultery were liable to be executed” (Jesus and Women, p. 40).
This is evident in the theme of the Proverbs as a whole. The “subject” of the Proverbs is a young, innocent male who must learn how to “recognise and avoid the wiles of the seductress/adulteress” (Jesus and Women, p. 40). This adulteress woman uses her female sexuality and “painted” eyes (makeup) to lure men into her bed. The Proverbs equate the adulteress with a prostitute because of her eyelashes (6:26-27), “which logically gives rise to the implication that a woman who wears eye makeup is on the whore spectrum” (Jesus and Women, p. 42).
So, What Does Proverbs 31 Really Mean?
Understanding the context and cultural expectations of the time, what does Proverbs 31 really mean? In one sense, the passage is complimentary to the female sex. But in another sense, it sets an impossibly high standard for women and wives to achieve. “The ode to the good wife is highly original in its recognition of and praise not just for womanly abilities and achievements, but also for its depiction of the good wife as an exemplar of Wisdom and its associated virtues. Where it falls short from a female perspective is in its classification of women as either remarkably good or wantonly bad. Most women are a mixture of good and bad, as are men. However, in Old Testament texts men are judged on their overall characteristics and not just on their flaws” (Jesus and Women, p 42).
Women, on the other hand, don’t receive such courtesy, as is evident in the biblical stories of Jezebel (the bad girl) and Ruth (the good girl). Here is the breakdown:
Jezebel: The Bad Girl of the Bible
Jezebel, although a foreign Princess from Sidon, was the wife of Ahab, King of Israel. She is most famously known for her powers as a queen: she vigorously promoted the worship of Baal, the primary god in Sidon’s religious pantheon, which prompted much anger among Elijah and other followers of Yahweh. She also gave questionable advice to Ahab that went against Israel’s ancestral property laws. Ultimately, her actions resulted in her being thrown out of a window, trampled to death by horses, and eaten by dogs (2 Kings 9:33-35).
But was Jezebel as evil a villainess as she is biblically and culturally depicted? While there’s no doubt that her actions were cruel and deceitful, overall, “her tactics are comparable to those of the kings of her era” (Jesus and Women, p. 44). Additionally, “the final image of Jezebel beautifying herself before her death are meant to round off and cement her image as the type of seductress and femme fatale who leads men astray. However, there is no evidence of this in the biblical texts, which reveal her as a loyal, faithful and supportive wife to her husband. From a female perspective, her beautification of herself before the arrival of her assassin, king Jehu, is the equivalent of a man putting on his suit of armour” (Jesus and Women, p. 45).
Ruth: The Good Girl of the Bible
The story of Ruth focuses on her transformation from a pagan to an adherent of the God of Israel and her loyalty and self-sacrifice in regard to her mother-in-law Naomi. Throughout the text, Ruth displays true covenant faithfulness–her love and devotion toward her late husband’s family and religion despite being a foreigner herself. Ultimately, she is rewarded for this loyalty with acceptance into the house of Boaz, who marries her and secures safety and security for both Ruth and Naomi.
But was Ruth as pure and innocent as she is biblically and culturally depicted? Upon meeting Ruth for the first time, Boaz is quickly smitten by her. He invites her to eat with him and instructs his servants to treat her well. “When Naomi hears of Boaz’s kind and noble treatment of Ruth, she speculates that he could be a potential husband for her and begins to devise a plan of seduction. She tells Ruth to wash and perfume herself and put on her best clothes. Once she is all dressed up, she is to go to the threshing floor where Boaz will be working and bide her time until she discovers where he will sleep for the night. When he is asleep, she is to creep under his blanket (3:5)” (Jesus and Women, p. 46).
Ruth does as Naomi suggests, and when Boaz awakes to find her in his bed, he lets her know he does intend to marry her. The story ends favorably for all. However, “it is interesting that the wiles of Naomi and the seductive behaviour of Ruth are not criticised and have not detracted in the slightest way from the popularity of the story, from admiration for Naomi or from Ruth’s status as the ultimate good girl” (Jesus and Women, p. 49).
I believe that the story of Naomi and Ruth exemplifies the power of female solidarity in defeating the double standard and generating joy and harmony.
What Does a Proverbs 31 Woman Look Like Today?
So, what does a Proverbs 31 woman look like today if the passage was written during a time when women were characterized as either all good or all bad? The qualities listed and celebrated in the passage are excellent. All women (and men) should strive to be kind, loving, hard-working people. However, it is important to understand that nobody is either all good or all bad. The perfect Proverbs 31 woman simply does not exist because nobody will ever be without flaws, and expecting Christian women to be all good all the time is unrealistic at best.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read Jesus and Women, in which I dive deep into the double standards women face in the Old Testament and how Jesus’ loving and accepting attitude toward women illuminates the way forward.