I have a confession to make. I don’t have a problem with the Proverbs 31 Woman.
One of the upsides to growing up Catholic is that I lack much of the scriptural baggage that my evangelical friends cart around, particularly in regards to Proverbs 31. I was exposed to the text through the rhythm of the liturgy, but it was never emphasized during the early years of my religious education.
So when I stumbled across this proverb I was impressed. Here was a woman in scripture who embodied the virtues described throughout the Book of Proverbs, who seemed to know herself and what she was about, and was praised for this.
I was unaware that this passage was being handed out during my high school and college years as a job description to my non-Catholic female peers and as a shopping list for my male counterparts. I eventually figured out that the woman of Proverbs 31 was the source of spiritual frustration through conversations punctuated by heavy sighs and numerous eye rolls. I realized that many evangelical women have a conflicted relationship with this person – an impossible standard to live up to, and yet everything they were supposed to be.
Maybe I was reading it wrong. Maybe I was supposed to have a problem with her too. I tucked my affection for this passage away and stopped bringing up Proverbs 31 in conversation.
A couple of years after college I stumbled across Rachel Held Evans’ series on Women of Valor, and her analysis of this passage and the phrase “eshet chayil” (woman of valor). Her writing revealed that this passage was never intended to be a check-list for women, but was instead a poem of praise and a summary of the virtues described throughout the book of Proverbs.
Her words felt redemptive and permissive. I was allowed to like this proverb again, to stop feigning frustration and contempt. Someone had finally put into words the original emotional response that I felt when I first discovered the description of this woman – that this was an accolade, not some formula for being the perfect Christian woman. I could openly embrace scripture that I previously felt obligated to wrestle with.
Rachel’s words were so freeing, and this passage had such an impact on me that I did what any sensible person would do – I went out and got an eshet chayil tattoo. Not the words eshet chayil, but an actual portrait of the Proverbs 31 woman.
This passage and the tattoo are significant – a tribute to the women of valor in my life, and affirmation and praise of their character and accomplishments. It is a reminder to myself to always aspire to be a woman of valor.
This all sounds very dramatic, to be so touched by scripture that I had to have it represented in ink on my arm. But something about the significance of the tattoo changed when I found out that I was pregnant a few weeks after the initial line-work was done. And then, a few months after that, we found out that baby was going to be a girl. Somehow, all of the intention behind the tattoo, the excitement at being allowed to really love a text suddenly felt so naïve.
It’s one thing to be excited about aspiring to be a woman of valor. It’s a completely different matter to actually be one and to attempt to raise one up.
And now my daughter is here, and my tattoo is complete, and I am still mulling over what it really means to be a woman of valor, and for my husband and me to raise up this child to be a woman who is one.
It’s a daunting task and one that is puzzling at times. How do I ensure that my child will have a heart that is compassionate toward the poor and vulnerable? How can I ensure that this tiny person will someday work diligently to meet the needs of her family? Even if we model good financial stewardship, how can we guarantee that she will be prudent in that regard? There are so many questions that need answers.
Even as I move away from reading this passage as a prescription for women to reside in the strict role as homemaker, it can easily become another list – where the essence of being “eshet chayil” is reduced to just being a “good person.” And that’s not enough.
Perhaps the trouble is that this proverb, and more specifically verses 10-31, are read and studied in isolation. The reality is that this passage is an acrostic poem tacked to the end of an entire book that instructs in the ways of wisdom.
A Woman Who Fears the Lord
When I sit with this piece of scripture and dwell on it, I find myself clinging to the second to last verse, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The Book of Proverbs begins with the assertion that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” and here it ends with a similar declaration following the description of the eshet chayil.
And the conclusion that I have come to is this: that the essence of echet chayil, the core element of being a woman of valor, comes down to fearing and loving the Lord.
Everything else, every other piece of character or wisdom or strength flows forth from the way in which this woman relates to God. The best thing that I can do to be a woman of valor for my daughter is to fear the Lord – to reverently and passionately love and follow Jesus.
The best thing that I can hope and pray for my daughter is that she will do the same.