A capable…unicorn…who can find? It is far more precious than jewels.
Speaking to the women in the room: how many of you have tried, at least at some time in your life, to be a Proverbs 31 woman?
There’s an entire genre of Christian literature—hundreds of books and articles and blogs—by and about women who are struggling to live the Proverbs 31 lifestyle, and they ask questions like “Is God really calling us to live frazzled, sleep-deprived, guilt-laden lives?” And of course there’s an entire other genre of writings and sermons from churches that berate women for not living up to this standard.
And yet this little poem starts out by telling us that a virtuous, or capable, or valorous woman—it depends on the translation—is maybe not quite as imaginary as a unicorn, but she is certainly hard to find! We value jewels because they are rare.
Now, we are told that King Lemuel’s mother gave him these words. And right away, we have a problem. No one can find any evidence of a King Lemuel in Israel. In Hebrew, “Lemuel” implies that the person is dedicated to God, so he may possibly be a pseudonym for Solomon. And if that’s the case, this means that these virtues of womanhood are being recommended to a king who collects wives and sex slaves like trading cards. And they’re being recommended by his mother, Bathsheba, who has her own rather complicated relationship with wifely virtue. You’ll remember that she had an affair with King David—voluntary or not, we don’t know—that resulted in the assassination of her husband, her hasty marriage to the king, and the early death of the child of their adultery. There’s definitely some irony here.
So what’s this even doing in the Bible? Well, Chapter 31 is like so much of the rest of Proverbs; at first glance, it looks like an advice manual for young men. It tells them in many different ways to avoid bad girls and save themselves for a good woman. Oh—but she’s rare!
This list of virtues also has a special attribute in Hebrew, which is not evident in translation; each line starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So it’s actually a poem that goes something like this:
And so on. That makes it particularly easy to remember, whether you’re checking your list against your candidate for marriage, or trying to live up to these standards.
And then the end of the poem advises the husband to give the capable or virtuous woman an allowance(!) out of the income she has brought into the home.
What you might notice about this virtuous woman is that she has the wealth and security—that is, the privilege—to be virtuous and capable, according to these standards. She’s married to an important man. She has slaves. She has the resources to buy fine textiles and expensive dyes; to her credit, she uses her time and money well. She sells to distributors and makes a good income. And she has enough of her own money to run a side business with her own vineyard and to contribute to charity.
She reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen, in Gone with the Wind. Ellen keeps the books for the plantation, and makes sure the bills are paid. She supervises the unpaid workers in her house and tends the sick among her slaves and employees. She is a rock of strength and comfort to her daughters and her husband, and supposedly also to the enslaved dark people and poor white people who sustain her lifestyle. And in her spare time, she keeps busy with needlework.
Ellen is fictional. And the Proverbs 31 woman is as rare as a unicorn, and invented by an adulterous mom for a polyamorous son. And yet there are so many Christian women who are trying to model their working-class or middle-class lives on this extremely privileged woman, including those who ask “Can I be a Proverbs 31 woman if I’m single?”
And it’s not just single women who wonder how to measure up. The Proverbs 31 lifestyle is definitely not for the women among Ellen O’Hara’s unpaid laborers. How would the capable woman survive working dawn to dark under a burning sun, dragging a hundred pounds of cotton behind her?
How would she do today as an American woman who rises before dawn to get to the first of her minimum-wage jobs—does she flip burgers? Clean out airplanes between flights? Keep some other woman’s house clean? Her lamp doesn’t go out at night, because she is just now getting home, in the dark, from her second or third job.
How does the virtuous woman make her way in a homeless encampment, where everything she and her children own fits into a shopping cart or a small tent? She makes a home where she can find one. She rises before dawn because she has to be out of the shelter in an hour. She sees fine linens and food from far away in shop windows, but there’s no way she can buy them.
How does the capable woman take care of her children as they walk through rough country and dangerous people toward what she believes will be freedom and a new beginning? She rises before dawn to start walking north again. She doesn’t buy a vineyard; she sleeps in it. She can’t shelter her children from adversity, from weather, from people who would take advantage of them. She can only keep them walking toward what she hopes is a better life.
Verse 23 says “Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.” And how beautiful that is; and the implication is that his honorable position is due, at least in part, to her virtuous behavior. But can she be a virtuous woman if her husband is lazy, or addicted, or dishonest, or abusive? Or do his behaviors mean that she’s not virtuous enough to keep him honorable?
And there’s certainly no place here for GLBT people.
So the Proverbs 31 woman sets an impossible example for the rest of us. Her virtue is supported by the injustice of slavery and by economic and sexual inequality.
But even as annoying as Proverbs 31 can be, we may be able to find something helpful in it.
What if we start by saying: “A virtuous person, a capable person—who can find one? They are far more precious than jewels.” Now maybe we can talk about what makes a person virtuous or capable, no matter their gender, whether they are rich or homeless, employed or not, married or single, refugee or LGBT. And now, when we look carefully at the list of virtues, we can translate it into these attributes:
But even with all these virtues translated into something workable, Proverbs 31 isn’t quite finished. Let’s hear the second-to-last line again.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
So Bathsheba and Solomon are telling us all that our core virtue is our relationship with God. Jesus has shown us that God is love and love is God—and that love is so tremendous, so overwhelmingly unconditional and powerful, how can we not live in awe of it, and in gratitude so huge it takes over our lives? So we might say “a person who is in awe of God is to be praised.”
The young man in Proverbs is a legacy from an extremely sexist culture, where straying from God’s love was symbolized by running after sexy women. Nevertheless, he is a stand-in for all of us, for each of us. And the virtuous, capable woman—the one recommended to him—is a representation of Wisdom herself, the feminine side of God. Her name is Shekinah, and it means “presence.” She is the presence of the Holy among us, the manifestation of God’s vast love. She is closer than our own heartbeats. For us as Christians, she is the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, the gift of the Holy Spirit, means being consciously and gratefully aware of the presence among us of the source of all love.
All these virtues, in this nice alphabetical list, boil down to three attributes. Virtuous persons are those who love God, love their neighbors—that is, all humans, all beings—and love themselves. Look back at that poem, and you’ll see that each of the attributes fits into those three loves.
So we are not being asked to be “morning people and night people,” as one woman said. We are not being scolded for not meeting the standards of Proverbs 31. We are being invited to open our hearts in awe and gratitude to the presence in us, among us, of an unmeasurable love. And all virtuous, capable, valorous actions follow from that love.
A virtuous person—who can find?
You and I can find. You and I can be. And you and I are far more precious than jewels because the love of God is among us.