By: Brittany Ann
“What is a Proverbs 31 Woman?”
The subject of countless Mother’s Day sermons, women’s Bible studies, Christian blogs for women, and Christian women’s ministries (such as Proverbs 31 Ministries), the Proverbs 31 Woman (also known as “the Virtuous Woman”) certainly gets her fair share of attention. And it’s not difficult to see why, either. I mean, you have to hand it to her…
The epitome of what it means to be a Godly woman, the Proverbs 31 Virtuous Woman meaning certainly gives us a lofty ideal to live up to.
She’s smart, she’s strong, she’s capable… She rises at dawn and her lamp does not go out at night… the husband of a Proverbs 31 wife has full confidence in her and their children rise up and call her blessed. She’s everything the modern Christian woman could want to be and more. She has it all, she does it all, and she even gets her own chapter in the Bible to tell the rest of us how wonderful she is.
The characteristics of a Proverbs 31 woman are enough to give any Christian woman serious comparison envy. I suppose it should come as no surprise, then, that reactions to this Proverbs Woman are mixed.
While some modern Christians idealise her, working hard to live up to her inspiring example of how to be a Godly woman, others read Proverbs 31 and feel like a failure, wondering how they could possibly measure up and if they should even try. Meanwhile, other Christians pretty much ignore the Proverbs 31 woman, assuming that the Bible passage doesn’t apply to them for whatever reason (whether that’s because they aren’t a wife or a mother, or simply because the passage is thousands of years old).
Personally, I spent a lot of years ignoring the Proverbs 31 woman. Sure, I had read about the Proverbs 31 woman in the Bible at some point or another; it just wasn’t a topic I devoted a lot of time and attention to. I figured: She was perfect. There was no way I could measure up. And I didn’t need the pressure of trying to conform my life to some out-dated, old-fashioned B.C. ideal.
(Not that I think the Bible is outdated — I don’t. I just wasn’t interested in forcing my life to fit the expectations of an entirely different culture and time.)
Besides, I didn’t personally know anyone who could fit this perfect woman of Proverbs 31 description. So I just figured it was impossible in today’s world.
After reading yet another blog post about the Proverbs 31 Virtuous Woman, however, I eventually caved. After all, I’d been reading so many articles about this Proverbs Woman, so many people’s opinions of the woman of Proverbs 31…
When was the last time I read for myself what the Bible says about the Proverbs Woman? When was the last time I actually read about the Proverbs 31 Woman in the Bible? What is a Proverbs 31 Woman really?
So I decided to do just that. (And then I read some more books and articles too) And what I found out about Proverbs 31 women surprised me…
6 Surprising Facts About the Virtuous Proverbs 31 Woman
“A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.”
1. Proverbs 31 is Written to a Man — Not a Woman
It’s interesting to note: When Christian women read the Bible verses about the Proverbs 31 woman today, we typically start in verse 10, where the NIV Bible breaks up the text with the subheading: “Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character.” We tend to totally skip over the first 9 verses in the chapter… which set the stage for the portion of the Proverbs 31 passage that we’re most familiar with. But if we go back a few verses to Proverbs 31:1, where the chapter opens, you’ll find that this passage is actually written to a man (King Lemuel), not to Christian women as a whole:
“The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.” — Proverbs 31:1
And furthermore, God didn’t speak these words Himself to women everywhere (although all of Scripture is inspired by God). Rather, they are words of advice spoken to King Lemuel by his mother as advice to her son (not to her daughter(s) or to daughters everywhere). And here’s why it’s important to see the Proverbs 31 woman explained…
2. Proverbs 31 is One Woman’s Motherly Advice — Not an Overarching Prescription
Have you ever heard of the acronym for B.I.B.L.E.? Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth? It’s pretty catchy. Easy to remember. I like it. But unfortunately, it’s not entirely accurate. Because while there are many, many verses of instructions for Godly living in the Bible, not every Bible verse is a command or instruction. And while we can absolutely benefit from every verse in the Bible, not every verse in the Bible was written to or about us. (And honestly, it’s pretty self-centred to think that they would be.)
“Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigour on those who ruin kings.”
Proverbs 31 was not written to the Proverbs wife to instruct them on how to “measure up.” It was written for a man to inspire him for what type of woman to look for. (A virtuous woman… one with characteristics of a Proverbs 31 woman).
Read in context, the mother is basically telling her son: “Don’t make bad choices. Don’t get drunk. Don’t chase women. Treat others well, and find yourself a good, Godly woman. Here’s what that looks like.”
NOT, “Christian women, you must do EVERY SINGLE ONE of these things to measure up to be a Proverbs wife.”
3. In the Jewish Culture, Proverbs 31 is a Song of Praise (“Woman of Valour!”)
Have you ever read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans? While I don’t necessarily agree with 100% of her theology, the book was a very interesting read, and I especially appreciated how diligently she worked to seek out more of the Jewish context behind the Old Testament passages we still read today.
For example: As Rachel shares in her blog post, 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Proverbs 31 Woman:
“I first learned this from my Jewish friend Ahava who told me that in her culture, it’s not the women who memorise Proverbs 31, but the men… They memorise it, Ahava said, to sing it as a song of praise to the women in their lives—their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends. Ahava’s husband sings Proverbs 31 to her at every Sabbath meal.”
Plus, not only do Jewish men use Proverbs 31 to sing praises over their wives for being such wonderful Godly women, but Jewish women also use the passage to praise each other as well!
According to Rachel’s newfound Jewish friends, the phrase “a virtuous woman who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10) comes from the Hebrew word “eshet chayil,” which can be translated as “woman of valour.” So Jewish women will praise each other with a hearty “eshet chayil!” as a way of saying “You go girl! You’re awesome! Woman of valour!”
I love that!
4. The Virtuous Woman is an Allegorical Character, Not a Real Person
It’s also important to remember: While scholars aren’t in 100% agreement, the Proverbs 31 woman likely was not real. Rather she is simply a compilation of the best traits of Godly women as a whole.
In fact, if you read through the entire book of Proverbs, you meet three other allegorical characters first: Wisdom, Folly and the Adultress. No one considers those 3 women to be real people, and the Proverbs 31 woman probably isn’t either. Rather, she completes the set. (Wisdom and Folly go together; the Adultress and the Wife of Noble Character do too. Pretty neat how that works out.)
You can’t be a trophy wife, the perfect mum, a successful entrepreneur and a crafty DIY mama all at the same time? You’re not perfect? You mess up sometimes? Lol. Welcome to the club! None of us are. We aren’t meant to be.
(And even if the Virtuous Woman WAS a real person, the text seems to indicate she wasn’t a young mum with little ones at home, but an older woman with years of experience. And also that she didn’t do ALL of the things all at the same time. Proverbs 31 is simply the highlight reel of the BEST things she did in various seasons over the course of her entire life.)
“She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.”
5. The Virtuous Woman Isn’t Weak, Passive or the Family Maid
Another thing I noticed right away when I read Proverbs 31 in the Bible is that the Virtuous Woman isn’t a weak, passive pushover at all!
I feel like, oftentimes, we women get so hung up on submission, thinking that in order to be a good Proverbs 31 wife, we have to be quiet, keep all of our opinions to ourselves, and just let our husbands do whatever they want, even when our husbands make decisions we don’t agree with.
(Not saying we DO that successfully; just that we feel like that’s what’s expected of us…)
But if you look at the woman of Proverbs 31, she is confident, capable and self-assured. Her husband goes off to the city gate (where he’s a respected elder), and he’s totally confident in her to take care of everything while he’s away. The Scriptures tell us, “Her husband has full confidence in her,” “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard,” and “she is clothed with strength and dignity.”
She honours her husband. She reflects well on him. But she’s still her own person with her own skills, strengths, and abilities, not just the family maid.
How often do we think that the Proverbs 31 Woman is the perfect example of the perfect Proverbs wife and the perfect Proverbs mum? But count how many times her family is actually mentioned. A full HALF (11) of the verses in this passage are about how hard she works–both inside and outside of the home. While only four even mention her husband, and her kids are only mentioned once! And look at the end — Does it say “Honour her for what a calm and gentle mother she is,” or “Honour her because she is super crafty while still managing to keep her house spotless?” Nope.
It says: “Honour her for all that her hands have done.”
She’s her own person with her own unique, God-given talents and abilities that DON’T all revolve around her family.
6. There’s More Than One Way to Be a Virtuous Woman
Remember earlier how I said the phrase “a virtuous woman who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10) comes from the Hebrew word “eshet chayil,” which can be translated as “woman of valour?”. Well, as it turns out, Proverbs 31 isn’t the only place “eshet chayil” is mentioned in the Bible. According to this article by Rachel Held Evans, you can also find it in Ruth 3:11, where Boaz tells Ruth:
“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”
How often do we, as Christian women, assume that, if we want to be amazing Godly women, we HAVE to be wives, mothers and homemakers? That something is wrong with us if we’re not? (Or something is wrong with us if we’re not the perfect Proverbs wife or mother.)
Well, guess what. Ruth’s life looked NOTHING like the Virtuous Woman’s life.
- She didn’t have servants. She was so poor she had to go glean the leftovers in Boaz’s fields.
- She wasn’t a wife. She wasn’t a mom. Her husband died without giving her children, leaving her a widow.
- She had next to no money or resources to her name. No one would have envied her life.
And yet, Boaz saw her and called her an “eshet chayil” — a woman of valour. Because that’s exactly what she was… in essence, a woman of Proverbs 31.
And you know what? You can be a woman of valour too. We don’t have to be perfect Proverbs 31 women. The woman of Proverbs 31 is not real anyways. But by being the amazing Godly woman God created YOU to be! Not a wife? Not a mum? Mess up all the time? (Yeah, we all mess up all the time.) That’s okay. Instead of feeling discouraged, let’s be inspired! We can all be Proverbs 31 Women — imperfections and all. 😊
Article supplied with thanks to Equipping Godly Women.
About the Author: Brittany is a wife, a mother of three, a writer, author, teacher, and lover of Jesus.