This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Towards the end of the 20th century there were major shifts in the thinking about the role of women and motherhood. Television sitcoms reflected some of these changes – from the nuclear family in ‘Lassie’ with the stay-at-home Mom, through to the late 1980s when 75% of American TV’s female characters worked outside the home.
However, in the last decade or so there has been the realization that the superwoman image of women who strive for perfection at work and at home, is unrealistic and potentially dangerous. The New York Times occasionally runs an article touching on the tension and competition between full-time mothers and full-time professional women.
I suspect it would come as a great surprise to many today to read Proverbs 31:10-31. Considering the things she does and the pace of her life she would make a good New Yorker! However we see here not just characteristics of an ideal wife but also a picture of the Bible’s view of womanhood.
Proverbs 31:10-31 is written as an acrostic, using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to set out features of the woman it describes. While she is a woman of means with a household staff, there are lessons that apply across societies and time. We see a range of qualities in her life. She is a manager and multi-competent – responsible for the management of her household.
Capable yet caring. The woman of Proverbs 31:14-22 is an entrepreneur, taking on significant responsibilities. She’s a business woman, known in the market place, buying and selling produce and property. She has an eye for property and investment opportunities, as well as trading, turning in honest profits. Physically fit and strong, her lamp does not go out. Yet she is compassionate and caring giving a percentage of her profits to the poor, reinforcing the biblical principle that prosperity is to be shared with those who are less well off. She ensures her family are well clothed and that their linens and garments are the finest quality.
One of the outcomes of her competence in running her household and in getting good returns on her investments, is that her husband is freed up for public life: ‘city gates’ indicates that he may have been a magistrate or judge. Another outcome of her wisdom and her work is that she is economically secure (verse 25). Idleness is not part of her makeup or lifestyle.
Her conversation is not simply small talk or gossip. Verses 26 and 27 tell us that that she uses opportunities to speak words of wisdom to her family and her household. She brings God into her conversation – his revelation and his wisdom for life. In her life God’s teaching is intertwined with her lifestyle. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible takes women seriously and treats them as men’s equals, for in Genesis 1:27 we read: God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
What is the key to her success? Her independence? Her entrepreneurial gifts? No. We read in verses 30-31: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. These words form a fitting conclusion to the Book of Proverbs for they bring us back to chapter 1:7: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; fools despise wisdom and instruction. This is what this woman has learnt – a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Pray. Every woman is a unique combination of temperament, gifts and passions that demand unique expression. Let’s commit to pray that God’s grace will be so poured out upon the women in our lives that they will receive the praise, respect and honor due to them.