Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Woman Or A Wife?

This Sunday will be the second week in a row in which the author of Proverbs says something that upsets me. Scripture has a tendency to do that if we love it and pay attention to it. Last week (Proverbs 1:20-33), Wisdom mocked the foolish, laughing at their calamity when "panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind." Since Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut's were (and still are) tormenting their victims, I considered changing sermons at the last minute to address it, but I didn't. This week (Proverbs 31:10-31), the value of a woman is praised poetically but, it seems, only in her identity as a wife. Perhaps because Monday was my anniversary, that gets under my skin.

"A capable wife who can find?" the author begins this reading. "She is more precious than jewels." I don't disagree. I wouldn't use the word "capable" to describe a spouse as it feels more fitting for a colleague or babysitter, but I share the sentiment that being married to a wonderful woman is an incredible and priceless gift. But the same woman would have great value as a human being and as a member of society regardless of her marital status.

The list of attributes that the author praises is impressive. The woman in question "does good and not harm." Compared to the ships of a merchant, she "brings food from far away," presumably cutting coupons and scouring weekly ads before travelling to four grocery stores to get the best prices. A wise business person, she purchases land and develops it--pretty remarkable for ancient times. She sows her own clothes and makes extra garments to sell in the marketplace. She is wise and kind and teaches others how to behave similarly. Everyone thinks highly of her. Physical beauty and charm, we are told, aren't as substantial as faithfulness.

All of these attributes seem governed by the opening lines: "A capable wife who can find?" Her accomplishments, her labor, her praiseworthiness are all articulated in terms of what she can contribute to her husband and her family. "What about a woman who never marries?" I want to ask. "Why must a woman's value be tied to her husband and children?" I understand that this is an ancient text and that I cannot hold it up to the same scrutiny as a contemporary writing, but we're reading it on Sunday, and, even if I were preaching, it would almost certainly be read without critical comment, without at least an attempt to reground it in the contemporary context. Does this passage do more good than harm?

But there's hope. The last line of the passage makes me wonder whether we cannot hear this differently: "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." Think for a moment how shocking those words are. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands? Let her reap the benefit of her efforts directly? Not through a husband or a family or another man but for herself? Let her works themselves praise her? Let her work speak for itself, independently of its contribution to a man's life? Are these concluding words the Holy Spirit winking at us, reminding us that there is deep egalitarian value even in this ancient text?

I wonder. Proverbs 31:1 identifies this passage as "The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him." I know that headings like that are later additions and almost always reflect a developed tradition and not the actual origins of a passage, but the tradition itself says something. Could this be an oracle delivered by a mother, a woman, to her son, a leader among his people? Could she know how to set him up for something substantial and challenging? Could the long list of positive attributes, begun in the context of a woman's identity as wife, end up flipped on their head by a final twist? I wonder. As a husband and father of two girls, I wonder.

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