Woman and Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 31:10-31

Here is another essay that I wrote for my Old Testament class earlier this year. It concerns the literary relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book of Proverbs. Enjoy!

Introduction

The relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book has long been a vexatious question for commentators. Despite perennial uncertainty, there exists a certain literary kinship, at once subtle and multifarious. Characterised by recurring verbal and metaphorical motifs, Prov. 31:10-31 fittingly concludes Proverbs – linked to both the compendium of ethical maxims for which the book is most famous, and its deeper, structural worldview. The ways in which the passage brings closure to Proverbs will be unfurled in the following analysis. After a brief exegetical survey, this essay will explicate the passage’s concluding role under three, broad rubrics. First, it will show that the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 is valorised as an exemplar of the wise and virtuous living commended by the book’s main section. Second, it will consider how the passage offers an embodied picture of Wisdom, tapping into the feminine imagery that pervades the book. Third, it will suggest that Prov. 31:10-31 – particularly when seen in light of the book’s intended audience – consummates the entire vision of Proverbs with an epitome of Wisdom’s loving embrace.

Exegesis

Prov. 31:10-31 opens with a rhetorical exclamation of the high value of the ideal woman (v.10);[1] what follows is a paean to this individual. The question of whether she is specifically identified as a wife (or merely a woman who happens to be married) is, at this point, immaterial. That she is a woman is, as we shall see, of deep, structural importance. In any case, she is presented as a blessing to all who fall within her beneficent orbit. Her husband is completely enriched by her, and consequently, is able to flourish (vv.11-12, 23).[2] Subsequent verses offer a digest of the ennobling heights this woman reaches: she faithfully cares for her family (vv.15, 27), and works with vigour and industry (vv.14, 17-19); her labours span both the domestic and public spheres of life (vv.15-16, 18); and her actions and speech are characterised by integrity (vv.25-26). More than a maelstrom of activity, the woman plans ahead, and with considered judgment makes a profit on her work (v.16). Changing circumstances do not disturb her, for she uses foresight to respond to them (v.21). The ideal woman “laugh(s) at the days to come,” harnessing wisdom in the pursuit of successful living (v.25b). It is not just her family that is blessed (cf. vv. 27-28): this woman is generous to the poor (v.20), and her servants are cared for (v.15). Her circle of concern thus extends beyond her kin, and for that she can be seen as just and righteous. Punctuating the poem is a number of verbs evoking a sense of controlled energy.[3] Together, they construct a picture of someone who is engaged in constant, though profitable, activity (v.27b).

However, the universal wisdom this woman uses is not merely secular or profane. The poem’s climax praises her as one “who fears the Lord” (v.30).[4] Echoing what has been dubbed the motto of the entire book (1:7; cf. 10:27), the author extols the wisdom that flows from, and is oriented towards, an acknowledgement of God. Remaining within the sphere of godly devotion informs the woman’s acts towards others.[5] It channels, drapes and shepherds true understanding about one’s position in God’s creational and moral order.[6] This is but one (important) linkage between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of Proverbs, reflecting its role as an appropriate conclusion to the book.

Prov. 31:10-31 – an Exemplar

Most obviously, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases a woman who practices the wise advice commended in the pages of Proverbs. Specifically, it poetically describes many of the qualities the book repeatedly exhorts, whilst also offering subtle evidence against the folly that is consistently denunciated. A short review reveals the many connections between Prov. 31:10-31 and book’s main body (10:1-29:33). The kind of foresight the woman displays is frequently upheld (30:25). So, too, is her industry (10:4; 12:11). Verses encouraging justice for, and generosity towards, the poor, find expression in the woman’s openness to the needy (18:5; 19:17). King Lemuel’s wise sayings, immediately preceding Prov. 31:10-31, encourage its audience to “…defend the rights of the poor” (30:9b). We may also cite those passages that speak well of wise speech (10:19-21; 15:2), not to mention commendation – both implicit and explicit – of marriage to a wise woman (14:1; 12:4; see esp. 18:22). This last category of wisdom sayings is particularly pertinent, for, as will be shown, the eulogizing of the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is quite deliberate when viewed in terms of the book’s intended readership.

Space prevents a more thoroughgoing analysis. However, it is clear that, far from being merely an epilogue, separated from Proverbs’ main collection of adages, Prov. 31:10-31 weaves those adages together into an artfully constructed literary individual. Like the tributaries of a great river, the seemingly disparate sayings of Proverbs eventually merge into a unified picture of enlivening sagacity. The ideal woman is offered as an exemplar, a paragon, of wise living;[7] a dramatic figure who, in her work and character, reflects the virtues repeatedly commended in the book’s main body.[8]

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Embodiment

Probing deeper, the ode of Prov. 31:10-31 taps into Proverbs’ foundational structuring of wisdom and wise living, which find extended expression in the book’s first nine chapters. In so doing, it helps to frame Proverbs with the substantive reflections of Chapters 1-9. This is made clear, firstly, by the aforementioned inclusio pertaining to “fear of the Lord” (31:30; cf. 1:7).[9] That alone suggests that Prov. 31:10-31 should be read as one part of a literary frame, orienting Proverbs theologically. Other linkages imply that the woman of the passage in question is to be seen as more than a pristine exponent of wise living. Indeed, the linguistic inclusio reflects the reality of a broader metaphorical framework, tying the beginning and end of Proverbs together.[10]

Most germane are specific echoes, found in Prov. 31:10-31, of wisdom’s personification in the book’s longer sapiential reflections. Through periodic interludes, Proverbs 1-9 presents wisdom in decidedly feminine terms. Lady Wisdom constantly beckons her audience to a life of wisdom (e.g. 1:20-33; 3:14-17; 8:1-36), offering herself up as a dazzling distillation behind such an existence. She is wisdom’s guardian and an attribute of God, submitting the resume of cosmic creation as evidence of her claims (8:22-31).[11] There are several, allusive connections between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom: both see wisdom and fear of the Lord intermingling within the female persona (1:29; 31:30);[12] like Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman is compared with precious jewels (3:14-15; 31:10);[13] and the ideal woman is to be “found”, just like Lady Wisdom (3:14; 31:10; cf. 18:22). More subtly, both figures bestow riches upon those who are near, building homes and supplying feasts (8:18; 9:1-2; the entire tenor of Prov. 31:10-31).[14] These verbal cues are held together by the overarching use of feminine imagery, which suggests the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 functions as an embodiment of Wisdom herself.[15]

To be sure, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is not to be equated with Lady Wisdom, as if they were one and the same persona under different guises. Whilst Lady Wisdom is presented almost prophetically[16] – publicly beckoning all people to accept her teaching – the ideal woman is more interested in wise activity; she is not seen primarily as a teacher.[17] Conversely, although Prov. 31:10-31 depicts its subject as a mother, Lady Wisdom is never imagined in these terms. Caveats notwithstanding, the implications of the forgoing analysis are profound. The presentation of the ideal woman in Prov. 31:10-31 allows the passage to hook itself into the sapiential substructure of the book. Having been described in feminine terms, Wisdom now “re-appears,” – this time, incarnated as a woman. Though historicized and literal, the ideal woman is such that the boundaries between her and Lady Wisdom blur.[18] The power of cosmic creation has become embedded in the labours of an individual.[19]

Wisdom personified directs her readers to the anthology of Prov. 10:1-31:9, which then find concrete expression in a woman par excellence[20]she of Prov. 31:10-31. The passage climactically fulfils the book’s honouring of Wisdom: manifesting, not only the disparate pieces of sapiential truth already surveyed, but also the underlying unitary wisdom personified in (for example) 8:1-36.[21] As if to underscore the ideal woman’s status as such an embodiment, Wisdom’s antithesis is also given voice: Dame Folly (see 9:13-18, for e.g.), and her historicized counterpart, the female stranger (5:1-6; 7:1-27).[22] Chapters 1-9 present the intended audience of Proverbs with a choice between wisdom and folly, life and death. If Lady Wisdom promises the former, then Dame Folly, with her alluring (yet deceptive) words, reflects and offers the latter.[23] They consistently encourage the pursuit of Lady Wisdom; Prov. 31:10-31 completes the lesson – offering a subtle rebuke to the siren song of Dame Folly – with a dramatic portrait of Wisdom-in-action.

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Epitome

To say that the ideal woman is an embodiment of Wisdom brings us to the book’s two-fold vision, and the consummating contribution that Prov. 31:10-31 makes to it. It is consistently upheld in the foundational chapters of Proverbs, and brought into sharp focus with the book’s final poem.

The subject of Prov. 31:10-31 acts as the literary capstone for the idea that wisdom, far from being an unattainable force, has condescended to the realm of ordinary human experience (cf. 8:31). As a contingent embodiment of Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman allows the book of Proverbs to unveil a most remarkable claim: that the cosmic wisdom of the Lord – the divine summons with which creation is suffused, and by which it was brought into being – is to be reflected and applied, even in the quotidian events of life.[24] The lofty apologia of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully unfurled in Chapter 8, is precisely the same power by which the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 lives. Thus, she is more than the concretization of a metaphor; she is idealized evidence that the seemingly mundane aspects of human existence are to be governed and shaped by that which God used to establish the created order.[25] Although it is foreshadowed in Prov. 9:1-2, the totality of wisdom’s reach – even into domestic life – comes to complete expression in the book’s final poem.[26]

Simultaneously, it is precisely the domestic arena that links the ideal woman to the other part of the two-winged vision of Proverbs. That Prov. 31:10-31 centres upon kin and domicile suggests it is playing on the motif of domestic instruction Proverbs establishes in its early chapters.[27] Here, the intended male readership becomes particularly noteworthy. This audience, set within such an environment, is consistently implied (1:8; 10; 15; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1),[28] and the teaching of young men on the cusp of adulthood drives, in part, the goal of Proverbs.[29] Moreover, the book’s foundational chapters exhort their readers to pursue wisdom and reject folly[30] (see the programmatic statement, 1:1-6) – whilst also implying that wisdom (or Wisdom) is “wooing” them. Indeed, Proverbs envisions a kind of union, even “marriage,” between the book’s intended readership and the wisdom that has reached down to delight in humanity.[31] Wisdom is commended to it (male) readers with intimate language (4:5b-8);[32] she “loves” those who “love” her (8:17); and there are constant warnings against adultery, matched by a moving account of marital fidelity (5:15-20).[33] Marriage, then, is to be seen as kind of metaphor for Wisdom’s embrace, and the young men of Proverbs are called upon to reciprocate like a husband with his beloved.[34] Prov. 31:10-31 fits snugly into this goal, which ultimately explains her (and Lady Wisdom’s) femininity. Functioning on a plurality of levels, the ideal woman epitomises more than just the union between humanity and Wisdom; acting as a historicized surrogate for the object of the wise man’s pursuit, she is also presented as the epitome of the ideal marriage partner in this divinely-mandated project (cf. 14:1; 18:22).[35] Together, the wise man and the ideal woman are to be seen as reverently channelling the cosmic wisdom of God into the seemingly jejune (even secular) sphere of domestic life. Prov. 31:10-31 closes that vision by demonstrating the enduring fruits of such an aspiration.[36]

Conclusion

Despite the apparent disjunction between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of the book, the passage is actually a deeply integrated part of the message of Proverbs. More than that, it provides fitting closure to literature that repeatedly extols and commends the pursuit of divine wisdom. The window of literary inclusio allows us to discern the links between the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 and all that precedes her. Through her life, she functions as a paragon of the wise advice laid out in the main section of Proverbs. More deeply, we find a figure who climactically embodies the unifying power of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully personified in the book’s foundational chapters. These strands are woven together into an enlivening portrait of womanly wisdom-in-action for the lasting benefit of the implied audience of Proverbs – young men, who are urged to unite themselves with wisdom as a man expresses fidelity to the woman he loves. Thus, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases an individual who draws on the cosmic wisdom of creation to successfully fulfil her daily obligations, whilst also capping off the book’s entire, manifold vision with alluring evidence of Wisdom’s life-giving charms.


[1] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10-31: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 891. Throughout this essay, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 will be called the “ideal woman.” Despite various translations (e.g. the woman/wife of noble character), uniformity is most prudent.

[2] John A, Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 712.

[3] A sampling: “brings,” “selects,” “provides,” “considers,” “grasps,” “opens,” “makes.”

[4] Derek Kidner, Proverbs: an Introduction and Commentary (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 15.

[5] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 535. See also Frank E. Eakin, “Wisdom, Creation and Covenant,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 4, 3 (Fall, 1977), 231.

[6] Ronald E. Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104, 1 (March, 1985), 7. See also Kitchen, Proverbs, 34; James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom – An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 10.

[7] Bruce Francis Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22 – Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99, 2 (June, 1980), 213.

[8] Kidner, Proverbs, 25.

[9] Leo Purdue, Wisdom and Creation: the Theology of Wisdom Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 79. See also Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 63.

[10] Murphy, Proverbs, 249. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 215.

[11] Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” 10.

[12] Ibid, 255. See also Tom R. Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character in Proverbs 31:10-31,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153, 609 (Jan-Mar, 1996), 16-17, for a list of similarities between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom.

[13] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 216. See also Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1990), 27.

[14] Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes – An Introduction to the Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 23. See also Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 189.

[15] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[16] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 80.

[17] Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 908. However, see Prov. 31:26.

[18] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 205.

[19] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 18-19.

[20] Murphy, Proverbs, 11. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 205.

[21] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 293, 356. See also Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[22] Murphy, Proverbs, 246. See also Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31, 519.

[23] Ibid, 282.

[24] Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, (Message of Biblical Spirituality; Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), 16.

[25] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 86.

[26] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 17.

[27] Murphy suggests a village setting. See Murphy, Proverbs, 49.

[28] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 24.

[29] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 13. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 889.

[30] Ibid, 22. See also Murphy, Proverbs, 52; Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18.

[31] Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18. See also O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 61.

[32] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 76.

[33] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 1-9, 207; Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 100.

[34] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 82. See also Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, 22. Of course, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that wisdom was not for women also. Everything said about the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 – including her very inclusion within the book of Proverbs – should be enough to disabuse one of that notion.

[35] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 912. See also Murphy, The Tree of Life, 17; O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 79; Kitchen, Proverbs, 723.

[36] Ibid; see also Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 101.

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