(This is Neil.) This is another contribution – a belated one – to Todd’s “Wedding Lectionary” series. Here I’ll offer a brief commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31, the so-called Hymn to the Valiant (or Capable) Woman/Wife. I am not a professional exegete, but I hope that I can be helpful in a small way.
We should begin by noting that it might seem very odd – perhaps even cruel – to read a hymn to the “valiant” or “capable” wife at a wedding service. Present-day American weddings, after all, already tend to burden brides with crushing and often contradictory expectations. Brides must appear attractive yet wholesome, plan an elaborate (and expensive) yet intimate ceremony and reception, and, finally, express their creativity while still showing respect for familial and religious traditions. And, if David Brooks is even close to being right about the marriages of the upper middle class when he writes, “Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches Rhodes,” the bride might have to worry about whether she is seen as professionally or socially adequate. We can wish that it wasn’t so. But it all too often is. Therefore, it might seem cruel to add another set of expectations to the poor bride, particularly if it comes from males writing in the 5th century, BC.
Why would anyone want to have Proverbs 31 read at a wedding?
Obviously, we need to slow down. We have to first ask a rather basic question: What is a “proverb”? Many commentators have suggested that a proverb is knowledge that comes from empirical evidence. The rabbi and exegete Michael V. Fox, to whom I am indebted for much of this post, recognizes [link is to a PDF file] that some of the proverbs do sound like they come from experience – hopefully, “love covers up all transgressions” (Prov 10:12) does. But, Fox tells us, we can object to this assumption. Many of the proverbs have not been derived in any immediate or obvious way from observed experience. When the sage declares that “the Lord favors a man’s ways, even his enemies make peace with him” (Prov 16:7), isn’t he merely expressing a statement of faith? Has he really collected enough evidence to state on empirical grounds that the man who curses his father and mother will have his lamp “extinguished in deep darkness” (Prov 20:20)? Has the sage conducted a conclusive study of ants (Prov 6:6-11)? Has he interviewed enough courtiers to say that a man “adept in his work” will surely “stand before kings” (Prov 22:29)?
Proverbs is held together, Fox says, not by an impossibly large body of empirical data, but an “underlying system of assumptions” – “structures of meaning” that idealize harmony. The observations of Proverbs constitute wisdom because they are consistent with this “system.” Thus, most obviously, it is “Better to dwell in a desert land, than with a contentious and angry woman,” (Prov 21:19), because a continuously angry woman is toxic to harmony (see the last episode of “The Office”). The sage warns us about contentious marriages no less than 31 times. But there should also be a harmonious peace and composure within the individual, and concord in all of our human relationships. It is the king who must guarantee this harmonious social order, giving “stability to the land” (Prov 29:4) from the top down, by, among other things, defending the needy and the poor (Prov 31:9).
God loves this harmony. God is a God of balance and justice. “The Lord loathes deceitful scales, while he favors an undiminished weight” (Prov 11:1). He will even guarantee this harmony, fixing any temporary imbalance through eventual salvation and judgment.
If we read Proverbs aloud, we can even feel this balance. The antitheses – the righteous man is extricated from trouble, the wicked comes into his place, and so on – have a “tick-tock” quality that itself manifests moral balance. This is a clear sign that wisdom is not a matter of certain principles or a few commandments meant for memorization. It is a way of looking at things. It is an aesthetic, because we ultimately grasp that this wisdom is beautiful, that “the path of the just is like shining light, that grows in brilliance till perfect day” (Prov 4:18). Thus, we follow wisdom even if we can avoid prosecution. The unwise – the unharmonious – strikes us as being ugly, abnormal, and really quite anomalous. Acting with excessive ambition, for instance, is the equivalent of playing a wrong note in a concert or the artist missing a brushstroke (see Prov 10:22).
Glendon Bryce summarizes the meaning of this “moral aesthetic”:
Right is extended to include the realm of aesthetics, and goodness is manifested by its pleasantness. The good is that which contributes to harmony and order in human relationships and thereby fosters a life-style in accord with the best standards of social etiquette.
If we now (finally) turn to the Hymn to the Valiant (or Capable) Woman/Wife, we can see that it doesn’t suggest satisfying some male fantasy. Raymond van Leeuwen, to whom I am also indebted, claims that v. 30a – “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting” – “may be seen as an implicit attack on the ancient (and modern) valuations of women only according to their external beauty and sex appeal.” A wife, Proverbs tells us, is still a treasure in her old age. The Hymn challenges other male stereotypes: the wife is described as heroic through masculine imagery. “She girds her loins with strength” (Prov 31:17), and the phrase, “she puts her hands to” (Prov 31:19), happens to be a military idiom. To be sure, much of this heroic action takes place within the household. And it might express the principle of polarity, in which a male authority encompasses that of the female, who, nevertheless, is left relatively autonomous over her province. But it is worth noting that the wife does seem to have an existence outside the household, and, conceivably, she can buy and own land: “She picks out a field to purchase; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (Prov 31:16). As Bernhard Lang has told us, this sort of activity would have seemed very strange indeed to an Athenian husband.
Furthermore, the Hymns to the Valiant (or Capable) Woman/Wife is not suggesting that a woman assume more and more responsibilities until she loses weight and suffers from permanent sleep deprivation. She isn’t idle, but the main emphasis is that she adopts the aforementioned “moral aesthetic.” She should be “worth far more than rubies” (Prov 31:10), which suggests a likeness to Lady Wisdom, who is herself “more precious than corals” (Prov 3:15; 8:11). Wisdom has “built her home” (Prov 9:1), dressing her wine, fixing her meat and spreading her table, and the wife in her own ordered household does the same. Wisdom has “has sent out her maidens” (Prov 9:3) and the valiant wife likewise gives “tasks for her servant-girls” (Prov 31:15). The wife’s merchandise is very good and Lady Wisdom’s profit is indeed “better than profit in silver” (Prov 3:14). The capable wife makes glorious garments and we know making such fine clothes requires a “spirit of wisdom” (Exod 28:3; Jer 10:9). And the capable wife “opens her mouth with wisdom” – something the king was himself encouraged to do (Prov 31:8-9). Verse 27 might even be translated, “The ways of her house are wisdom.”
The woman is “blessed” (Prov 31:28), and, like Wisdom, is a source of blessing for others. (We should take care to remember that Hebrews aesthetics involved material prosperity. See my post here.) This is not because she satisfies male fantasies (which are often disordered), or because she works herself to complete exhaustion (even though she is active, the capable woman is apparently free of the insecurities that would drive someone to such an extreme), but because she has internalized and embodies the “moral aesthetic” of Proverbs. This is most clear when the sage writes that she “fears the Lord” – she knows that God is a God of justice, a God who loves balance and harmony, and that her life must express reverence to him.
I’ve gone on for far too long, but, if a couple is planning on getting married, I think that Proverbs poses a few very good questions for them:
1. Can the partners really be called harmonious persons, people who appear to be at peace? Or are they tangles of disordered passions – perhaps with “warped minds” and “assumed importance” (Prov 12:8-9)? Do they cultivate harmony in their relationships with others? Can they cultivate harmony with one another, or are they doomed to enter (and perhaps inevitably exit) a contentious marriage?
2. Can the couple imagine that their performance (we can assume that the husband and wife no longer divide their labor quite like their 5th century, BC, predecessors) of ordinary household and economic tasks will manifest the Wisdom of God?
3. Is the husband’s attraction to the wife purely erotic? Can he imagine her as a treasure “worth more than rubies” (Prov 31:10), even as she ages? Does he imagine her to be an exemplar of the “weaker sex,” or can he truly admire her activity and energy?
4. Are they able to live their lives together in obedience to the God who loves harmony, who “lathes deceitful scales” and “favors an undiminished weight (Prov 11:1)? Or is this God still a complete stranger to them?
And, perhaps, that is why Proverbs 31 might be an inspired choice for a wedding reading. (My wife is still not convinced.)