Want to totally freak out a Christian woman with just three words? I’m sure you’re much too nice for that, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Here goes – “Proverbs 31 woman.”
Yup. The seemingly indomitable superwoman of the final chapter of Proverbs strikes fear into the breast of many a believing woman. I think too many of us have been convinced she’s some kind of Martha Stewart on steroids, able to produce her own edition of “Better Homes and Gardens” single-handedly every day without so much as a hair out of place, let alone a broken fingernail or a grumpy word. Of course, she simultaneously raises perfect children who never have snotty noses, make embarrassing remarks with loud voices in the middle of church or tip the entire contents of the school sandpit on the lounge room floor every single day. Every. Single. Day. (Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a bill from school for the number of times they’ve had to refill the sandpit because of what my son brings home in his sneakers.)
How can we ever hope to measure up to the Perfect Christian Woman? Because if you’re even a little like me, you’re not perfect. Not even remotely.
Breathe. There, that’s better. Want to know a secret? You were never meant to read it that way. Breathe again, and repeat. Feel a little calmer now?
Proverbs 31:10-31 was never designed to be a checklist of everything every woman needs to achieve in her week. Whew.
This poem is derived from the teachings of King Lemuel’s mother. She comes from the perspective of a woman of status, who would have had servants in the home to help fulfil all the chores listed, while she’s out purchasing real estate and giving wise and faithful instruction and all those other things you’re stressing about. Her situation is (almost certainly) not your situation. Busy woman though she clearly is, she’s not in the office 9-5 every day, and battling peak hour traffic twice a day before coming home to cook, clean and care for the family. Even if she did all that, she wouldn’t be expected to somehow fit in physical fitness, a beauty regime, a sparkling social life and volunteer work.
What we can take from the teachings of Lemuel’s mother is that a godly woman is not confined to one simplistic role. Her options are wide open. The woman of Proverbs 31 manages household servants, runs a business (and is considered a financial provider for her family), makes her own decisions to purchase land, has had sufficiently important social and civic achievements to be “praise(d) at the city gate,” and—as someone who is financially blessed—chooses to bless those who are in need.
Don’t view this passage as a checklist – see it instead as a menu, offering a glimpse of the wide range of choices open to women.
What this Scripture was designed to be was a husband’s blessing on the wife, not the wife’s list of How I Don’t Measure Up. Jewish husbands recite this poem to their wives on the Sabbath evening (Friday evening) before commencing the meal. The husband commends his wife as an eshet chayil, a woman of valour. Rachel Held Evans notes, “The praise is meant to be unconditional” (http://jenhatmaker.com/blog/2012/12/21/women-of-valor-pinterest-aside).
It doesn’t just end at the Sabbath dinner table though. The accolade is used by Jewish women and girls to encourage one another and celebrate their achievements. (Perhaps a little like some people use “you go, girl” – but less irritating!) When I think about it, there are women worthy of a resounding eshet chayil all around me. So, to a number of my friends and their daughters this week, I offer you these words of blessing (you’ll know who you are):
- Finished your Masters in Social Work this week? Eshet chayil!
- Trying to keep on holding it together while you are waiting for another of your children to go through surgery? Eshet chayil!
- Off to Singapore to compete in a gymnastics event, with a proud mum in tow? Eshet chayil!
- Waiting with faith and hope and desperation and agony for the birth of a much-wanted child who may have significant health and developmental issues? Eshet chayil!
- Waiting and wondering what the future holds as your workplace looks toward closing down due to funding cuts? Eshet chayil!
- Still waiting and hoping and praying for the job you believe God has for you, while trying to keep your chin up through the doldrums of unemployment? Eshet chayil!
- Embarking on an exciting new venture in life? Eshet chayil!
Perfect is something we don’t have to be. But women who are expectant and ready to step through the doors God opens? We can be that. Women who can laugh, cry, stumble and rise again through life? We can be that. Women ready to bless one another with words and actions of encouragement and inclusion? We can be that. Or, to the men who read here – a husband ready to “rise up and call (your wife) blessed” and a man whose words and actions encourage the women around you to live out God’s calling? You can be that too.
Look out for Eshet Chayil (Part 4) next week.