“You’re familiar with Proverbs 31, right? That’s a burden women have lived under for a long time.” The Proverbs 31 woman. A certain interpretation of it anyway. For a fresh, full perspective on this beautiful acrostic poem celebrating women, read Rachel Held Evans’ post on how this passage comes to life to empower our Jewish sisters. For the rest of us, though, it tends to be used as a laundry list (pun oh-so-very-much intended) of domestic bliss that’s exhausting and unattainable. Which is why my aunt turned to me at dinner one night and asked, “A husband of noble character, who can find? You should write that.”
Challenge accepted. With a little help from my own husband of noble character, we set about tweaking the Psalm to celebrate “biblical manhood” as some might call it.
A husband of noble character, who can find?He is far more valuable than a Rolex. The heart of his wife trusts in him, and he will have no lack of gain. He does her good, and not harm, all the days of his life. He seeks nails and wood, and works with skilled hands. He is like the bow of a hunter; he brings her game from afar all season long. He rises while it is yet night and provides food for his household and tailgates for his friends. He considers a field and buys it; with the profits of his hands he plants a vineyard. He dresses himself with strength and makes his arms strong. He perceives that his merchandise is profitable. His lamp does not go out at night. He puts his hand to the hammer, and his hands hold the nails. He opens his hands to the poor and reaches out his hands to the needy. He is not afraid of snow for his household, for all his household is clothed in red and blue (Ole Miss colors, of course). He makes enough money for the finest clothes; He dresses in Brooks Brothers and sharp blazers. His wife is known throughout town, taking her seat among the ladies of the Junior League. He makes furniture and repairs technology to sell on Etsy and Amazon. Strength and dignity are his clothing, and he laughs without fear of the future. He opens his mouth with wisdom, and he gives instructions with confidence. He carefully watches everything in his household and does not eat the bread of idleness. His children stand and bless him. His wife praises him: “Many men have done excellently, but you surpass them all!” Charm is deceptive and a buff body is vain; but a man who fears the Lord is to be praised. Reward him for all he has done. Let his deeds publicly declare his praise.
See, we are not what you might call a traditional family. In some ways, we very much are (I did take his name after all), but we don’t subscribe to the breakdown of characteristics and duties we grew up associating with men and women, respectively. We don’t buy into a single head of the household thing, because we’re both adults. The problem with the gents having to take care of “the women and children” as one lump group is that it equates the women with the children, assuming we’re not capable of handling our own lives and sharing the load fully with our partners. Not to mention, it makes no sense for same-sex couples with partners who are both perfectly capable of changing diapers or working 9 to 5 or doing the laundry regardless of their gender identity. As my favorite coffee mug assures me, “I’m a grown-ass lady and I do what I want.” What I want is to be Matthew’s partner, and thankfully that’s what he wants too.
I’m the picture-hanger, he’s the ironer. I’m the spiritual leader of our home (“Obviously. You went to seminary. Why would the lawyer be in charge of the spiritual stuff just because I’m a guy? That makes no sense.” His actual words. Have I mentioned that I love this man?), he’s the financial manager. I’m the primary decorator, he’s tech support. I’m the passenger/DJ on road trips, he’s the driver/navigator. We’re both pretty much everything else to whatever extent our gifts and willpower will allow– cleaners, chefs, pet care providers, breadwinners… We’re spouses. We’re together. We’re Team Henry.
Fun fact about this Psalm: this family isn’t exactly Gender Norm and Gender Norma either. Notice how few of the details were changed to make it “manly”, because the fact is, this is a poem praising the breadth of the female experience drawn from women across Scripture. It’s not some monstrous expectation that one person would do all of this, and do it all well. It’s a praise of women in all our forms: merchants, seamstresses, mothers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, breadwinners, travelers, night owls, early risers, joke-sters, teachers, and on, and on… Many of the terms are what we’d call traditionally masculine: strength, business sense, ambition. The truth is, “the Proverbs 31 woman” promoted by complementarians (folks who believe men and women have distinctive, rigidly sex-specific roles that complement each other but never overlap) doesn’t resemble the women of the Bible as much as it does Donna Reed and June Cleaver. On the admittedly somewhat rare occassion that a woman is named in Scripture, she stands out as worthy of praise for more than cleaning house and making babies (although the women who do that well day in and day out carry the entire story of Scripture on their hips and deserve a round of applause and a foot rub, too). The women of Scripture are creative, rebellious, brave. They are Shiphrah and Puah the Israelite midwives who saved countless babies from a genocidal Pharoah, Rahab the prostitute who outsmarted her corrupt government to save God’s messengers, Deborah the judge, a political, religious, and military leader who stood out in a field of men, Esther who used her influence as the king’s new wife to advocate for her people, Mary who defied cultural norms and helped convince her husband to listen to God rather than the gossipy neighbors to bring the Christ child safely into this world. They are the kind of women June Cleaver would have absolutely nothing to talk about with at the neighborhood potluck. They are the kind of women we hope to be.
Good news: these are the women God has created. Unique, gifted in a wide variety of areas, part of a community where our gifts can be shared and multiplied. You. Me. Our grandmothers. Our coworkers. Our aunts. Our sisters. Our nieces. Our pastors. Our politicians. Us.
In the image of God, we’re created. Male and female we’re created. Both fully, messily, blessedly the image of God. Don’t think for a second that if you don’t fit a checklist that this doesn’t apply to you. The point of this poem is to celebrate your worth as a child of God, never to question it or to make it conditional upon a set of tasks.
A woman of noble character, who can find? Well, do you have a mirror handy?
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.