I thought I would start the blog in earnest with what is essentially a tribute to the fantastic women that have shaped me and who serve as exemplary models for my daughter.
Further, Proverbs 31 makes a very good starting point for how I have learned to re-read the Bible and seek the deeper meanings, the things God says beyond and through the actual words.
As a note, when I talk about “Proverbs 31” here, I am specifically referring to verses 10-31. The first nine verses are also important (Proverbs 31:6-7 are my “life verses”), but they do not directly relate to the concerns I’m addressing here.
What do I mean by “deeper meanings?”
Next week, I plan to tackle in earnest the Big Three of Biblical study and interpretation: Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Authority. It is frankly impossible to truly study the Bible and church history without first understanding how you think about the Bible itself.
As a Southern Baptist and an American evangelical, I was more or less taught that the literal, facial meaning of the Scriptures is of paramount importance. Of course, there are allegories and metaphors, but generally, what the Bible says it what the Bible means.
As a preview of next week, this post discusses the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, which will play a big part in my discussions on the topic. In that book, Al Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a heretic) presents what he calls the “classical” view of inerrancy, which in a nutshell is the mainline American evangelical view that the Bible is absolutely and literally true in everything it says or “affirms.”
A deeper view can be found in how the Jewish people have read the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament. Many Biblical scholars (such as Richard Rohr, a friar, prominent Catholic author, and heretic) have adopted this view from a Christian perspective.
The view is called PARDES and says there are four levels to interpreting and understanding Scripture: p’shat (simple meaning), remez (an implied meaning), d’rash (the conceptual meaning, often used as the basis for sermons), and sud (the hidden meaning, secret or mysterious).
When I talk about the “deeper meaning,” I am trying to work through the four levels and find the full meaning of the Scripture. This includes but also moves past the pashat or “simple” meaning of the text and asks the Holy Spirit to make me aware of the other things happening in any given Scripture.
Proverbs 31: the Evangelical Pashat
So what does that have to do with Proverbs 31?
Growing up as a boy in a Southern Baptist church and American evangelical society, I had drilled into my head the idea that I needed to grow up and marry a “P-31 woman,” someone who embodied the characteristics listed in Proverbs 31:10-31. I witnessed those characteristics and standards being placed on the girls around me like a yoke, as if the key to being successful in life was to use Proverbs 31 as a checklist for behavior. (This blog post literally turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist).
Using Proverbs 31 as a “measuring stick” has caused pain and anguish for many women, even in my age group.
Laurin describes how hearing this depiction of Proverbs 31 made her feel “lacking” because she was in her 30s and wasn’t married. She described going to church on Mother’s Day making her feel “like she’d been in a fight for [her] femininity and lost.” Even now that she’s married, she still feels the need to measure herself against the Proverbs 31 woman, believing that she’s “not good enough.”
Rachel Held Evans (a Christian author and a heretic) discusses a litany of modern Christian literature that has turned Proverbs 31 into “a command to women” presented as a “task list through which a woman earns” praise.
This teaching is, at best, pashat, a simplistic reading of the surface level of the text. However, I don’t believe it is even pashat; instead, it is a complete misunderstanding of the text and what it is seeking to accomplish.
Please understand, I am not at all saying that trying to emulate the qualities shown in the passage is bad. On the contrary, it’s commendable. My argument is that we have missed an important truth in the text, and as with many passages in the Bible, the text has been used to harm girls and women. We can and must do better.
Woman of Valor: the Jewish understanding of Proverbs 31
What I never heard in my American evangelical church was that Proverbs 31 has a special place in Jewish tradition.
This passage is called the Eshet Chayil (or Hayil), which literally translates to “Woman of Valor.” This is the Hebrew text of verse 10 that Christian English translations render as a “virtuous woman” (KJV), an “excellent wife” (ESV and NASB), and a “truly good wife” (CEV). The NASB, ESV, Common English Bible, Good News Translation, Holmon Christian Standard Bible, and New Living Translation all translate this phrase as referring to a “wife.”
I’m not a Hebrew scholar, nor am I trying to say that those translations are wrong.
What I am saying is that those translations risk losing the deeper meaning behind eshet chayil.
Despite how I was taught, Proverbs 31 was not addressed to women as a “measuring stick” or as a checklist for living virtuous life.
It’s a song sung by a thankful man praising a woman for the amazing things she does.
This is reflected in modern Jewish tradition. In many houses, the entirety of verses 10-31 is sung every Friday night before the shabbat meal as a way to offer “appreciation for [the mother] who cooked, baked, and sewed, and had now prepared the Shabbat dinner.”
Chayil, valor, represents “bravery, capability, and triumph.”
The woman of valor exhibits these characteristics and embodies the wisdom described in other parts of Proverbs. She strives to perform the will of God in all that she does, so that “her accomplishments testify to her greatness . . . causing her to be praised by her family that [while] many women have done very well, she has exceeded them all.” (Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, “Wonder Woman.”)
Taking the drash view, the only other place in the Hebrew Bible where eshet chayil is used is in describing one particular woman.
Ruth is called “woman of valor” in Ruth 3:11. This is before she gets married (she was a widow), has kids, becomes wealthy, or has influence in the community.
In other words, Ruth is a woman of valor before she outwardly looks anything like the Proverbs 31 woman. Why?
She lived her life with bravery, wisdom, and strength. She sought after God, especially in the face of adversity.
In other words, despite being complete opposites on the outside, Ruth and the Proverbs 31 woman shared the same inner characteristics.
And those characteristics earned them praise.
This is the true pashat meaning of Proverbs 31. A woman does not have to be a perfect domestic and business owner.
She should live with bravery, wisdom,and strength, and she should seek after God.
And she should be praised for those virtues.
So what do we do with this?
The lesson I have taken from Proverbs 31 and Ruth is that it is crucial that I make conscious efforts to praise the women of valor that I know. Further, I truly believe that all of us (especially men (and doubly especially married men)) would contribute to a much better world if we lived the true meaning of Proverbs 31, which is to recognize and appreciate women who seek after God and act with bravery, wisdom, and strength.
And as I said at the beginning, this post is really just a thinly veiled tribute to the women who have shaped me into who I am.
My wife is a woman of valor. She worked more than full time at menial and challenging jobs so I could go to law school. She worked to provide for us when I was jobless out of law school and when I lost my job in August 2017. She keeps our home on track and together despite our ridiculous busyness. She spends tremendous time researching and implementing the best ways to raise and care for our baby girl, for whom she spent unknowable time and energy working to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. She is devoted to God and seeks after Him. Through her job she fights for the unborn and the mothers who have suffered from abortion. She is brave, wise, and strong.
My mother is a woman of valor. With all the time in the world and hands that did not tire from typing, I could not tell you all the ways that she has been crucial to my existence, my health, and my sanity. No matter what I’ve gone through, and no matter how I may have hurt her, she has never failed to be with me. She has guided me through rough waters and equipped me to guide myself. She seeks after God, and trained me how to do the same. She worked tirelessly to make our home a loving and thriving place to grow. Her friends and family cherish and seek after her wisdom. She is brave, wise, and strong.
My grandmothers are women of valor. My paternal grandmother raised my father in tough conditions in rural south Mississippi, and he became an astounding man. She stood with my grandfather as cancer ravaged his body until he was called home. My maternal grandmother spent two decades as a social worker for a poor and neglected population. She provided for her family after my grandfather’s business fell through. She has been wise and strong counsel to an unknowable number of people, including me.
My sister is a woman of valor. She gave her heart and her time to high schoolers to show them a Godly role model. She is an extremely valued friend to a rather shocking number of people. She is brave, wise, and strong.
My aunt is a woman of valor. She made herself into a successful and thriving businesswoman, and when mysterious illnesses robbed her of those successes and her health, she faced them with astounding grace and composure. She is brave, wise, and strong.
My mother in law is a woman of valor. She raised four children into true Godfollowers through significant adversity. She has lovingly and gracefully cared for twin boys with special needs, and she has provided a home and a refuge for her daughter and grandchild after life hit them in a very rough way. She is brave, wise, and strong.
As I tried to make clear at the beginning, it is commendable for any person to try and model their lives after the many virtues shown in Proverbs 31:10-31.
However, I believe the “checklist” model, or turning the passage into a yoke that weighs down women and girls is dangerous and has caused substantial damage.
We can do better. For the sake of my daughter, we must be better.