Proverbs 31 – beyond gender politics

Proverbs 31

Every day of this year my curate and I are writing a daily reflection on the chapter of Proverbs which correlates to that day of the month. There are only 8 months which have 31 days, so we’ll visit Proverbs 31 eight times.

The final chapter of Proverbs includes two poems, which don’t appear to have much connection. A poem from the Mother of King Lemuel to her son and the celebration of a noble woman (v10-31) The second of these is highly controversial on the back of twentieth century changes in gender politics so I was tempted to leave Jon to write about that in March and take the easy route!

But reading Proverbs 31 again, I realise that v10-31 is one of the most famous and memorable passages of the book, because of this poem about a woman of noble character. Its a ‘Marmite’ poem, people love it or hate it, depending on our view of ideal womanhood.

Fifteen years on from the twentieth century, we can look back and see it as one of the most dramatically world changing periods in human history. Unprecedented international conflict, dramatic advances in technology: transforming communications, enabling travel and therefore interaction between cultures and thirdly the rise of gender and racial equality. We’re not there yet, but dramatic progress towards recognition of the value of all humanity was made in the last century.

With that came a lot of pain, a lot of struggle and a large amount of challenge to traditional gender roles or expectations. When we read Proverbs 31 we read it against that backdrop, it influences how we read this ancient poem.

The writer of Proverbs wasn’t writing with the same backdrop, I don’t know what the ‘battle of the sexes’ looked like in Ancient Israel, women certainly had a role in the royal family as we see from the first poem in the chapter, but the definition of the roles of men and women was a different world to the one we live in.

One of the themes we discover when we explore wisdom and folly in Proverbs, is that the wise are teachable, fools take offence. So what can we learn from this poem, which can lead us in wisdom?

The poem is written to a young man to advise him on choosing a wife. We’ve had hints of that through the book, this is a thorough exploration of what the writer believes makes a good wife. Can we leave aside the battle of the sexes and gender for a minute and look at this from another angle?

She is trustworthy, she brings good not evil, she works hard to serve others, she seeks to be generous to those in need, (v21) her kids go out into the snow in warm clothes (very topical this week!) she honours her spouse, she speaks wisely and she builds healthy family relationships.

That’s an amazing list of good character, I’d love to be described with only half of those characteristics.

I love it, that our final poem on wisdom isn’t about a great king ruling with brilliance, or a genius academic writing inspirational books or a powerful warrior with brilliant battle strategies. But the model of wisdom which is honoured is a person living a generous, honest, self-sacrificial life in an unglamorous way and that is honoured for the huge blessing it is for those around them. Who do you know who lives that way and how can you encourage or thank them today?

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