Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why I am (and am NOT) the Proverbs 31 Wife

I've been overwhelmed by the "Proverbs 31 Wife" for as long as I've been aware of her. Nearly an entire chapter of Scripture exalts her accomplishments as wife, mother, seamstress, cook, community-outreach coordinator, counselor, home manager, and business entrepreneur. Described as nobel, excellent, and worth more than rubies, she's freakin' wonder woman.

Being a part of the Christian church has given me plenty of opportunities to learn exactly how to be a "P31 Woman" (there are countless Bible studies, websites, programs, clubs, books, blogs, seminars, and t-shirts all dedicated to this goal). And all my exposure to Mrs. Excellent has given me plenty of opportunities to confirm that I just don't measure up. (Never mind that she is Jewish royalty with abundant wealth and a houseful of servants - two things that I am, alas, without.)

I love how Rachel Held Evans puts it in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (which I shared my mixed feelings for here). After a month of trying to live out the Proverbs 31 ideal, Evans came to this painful admission (one I know I have faced as well):
"I couldn't shake the feeling that if these were indeed the accomplishments of a competent, capable, virtuous, valiant, and worthy wife, then I must be none of these things." 
Fortunately, Evans doesn't allow this depressing conclusion to be her final one (which is what I have tended towards in the past). Instead, she seeks out insight for this passage from a Jewish woman. As Evans puts it, "Seeing as how Jews have several thousand years on us when it comes to interpreting Scripture, Christians might consider listening to them more often."

And Evans doesn't just interview any Jewish woman. No, no. She interviews an Orthodox Jew named Ahava, who lives in Israel and is the wife of a rabbi. Yeah - authentic source here, people. Ahava gives a perspective on this passage of Scripture that I found to be not only fascinating, but a huge relief. Here's what she had to say when Evans asked her the question, "[Do] Jewish women struggle as much as Christian women to live up to the Proverbs 31 ideal?"
"Here's the thing. Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don't do this. Even though we take the Torah literally (all 613 commandments!), the rest is seen differently, as a way of understanding our Creator, rather that direct commands. Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an eshet chayil (a valorous woman) all the time. Make your own challah instead of buying? Eshet chayil! Work to earn some extra money for the family? Eshet chayil! Make balloon animals for the kids a ShulEshet chayil! Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It's special because I know that no matter what I do or don't do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity." - Ahava, from A Year of Biblical Womanhood
I know that no matter what I do or don't do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. I love this. This something I can accomplish. And not just accomplish, but be encouraged to apply in a way that isn't overwhelming and debilitating.

While I loved this new-to-me interpretation of Proverbs 31, I also was hesitant to fully embrace it. I felt Evans, at times, spun information to her advantage in her book, so I ran this insight by my friend Aria, who is Messianic (a believer in Jesus as the Messiah who also follows Jewish traditions). She confirmed that in Jewish culture this passage is not viewed as a checklist. Rather, it is a poetic way to honor the many different attributes that an excellent wife - a woman of valor - may have.

Any other Christian ladies out there releasing a huge sign of relief right about now?

Not only is the poem used by husbands in Jewish culture to praise their wives, it is also used by Jewish women to encourage and praise other women. Which I think is amazing and something that is often lacking in our communities. Women tend to try to one-up each other, presenting a facade of perfection all the while judging other women (either to elevate themselves or to compare themselves in a self-depircating way). But the discovery that Proverbs 31's eshet chayil - woman of valor - is something woman can encourage each other with was beautiful to me.
"As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way, we surrendered it to the same people who invented airbrushing and Auto-Tune and Rachel Ray. We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, and poem into a job description." - A Year of Biblical Womanhood (emphasis mine).
Despite the overwhelming "to do list" that shadowed my previous understanding of this passage of Scripture, and my relief that it doesn't have be viewed that way, there are things which, as a wife, mother, and believer, I still hold tightly to as ideals that should be emulated. The bit about "her husband is praised at the city gates" and "she brings [her husband] good and not harm, all the days of her life" and "her children arise and call her blessed" and "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (verses 23, 12, 28, and 30).

These attributes - I feel - are not just poetic, but incredibly important to a healthy and happy family and faith. I want to bless my husband with good throughout our marriage. I want my husband to be respected by others because of the way I treat him. I find hope in the idea that one day my kids may call me blessed (and that doesn't happen through passive parenting). And I want to grow in my love for and trust in the Lord. These are excellent things and ones I hope to cultivate in my marriage, parenting, and faith.

As far as the task-oriented parts on "the list"? I'll say this: Proverbs 31 is full of awesome examples of "acts of valor" that can be inspiring. It's got really, really good stuff in it. But to find all of these qualities in one women? Well, as King Lemuel's mother told him from the beginning of the poem, "who can find [her]?"

Let us be encouraged by the knowledge that while we may never be the Proverbs 31 Woman, little pieces of her can shine though all of us as we serve our families, our God, and our communities - in many different ways - with excellence and valor.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Will the Ideal, Biblical Woman Please Stand Up?

I decided to read Rachel Held Evans' book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, mainly because of the controversy. My "liberal" friends (read: female pastors who, though I don't always agree with, I admire greatly) had nothing but abounding praise for the book. While some of my deeply respected "conservative" friends (and many main-stream conservative leaders) thought the book was heretical and dangerous. And since I tend to fall somewhere in-between these two groups, and I like a good controversy now-and-then, I figured I'd pick myself up a copy.

Another reason I wanted to read this book is because while I am currently living the Westernize version of "biblical womanhood" (full time stay-at-home mom and wife), I have long struggled with the prominent, conservative viewpoint that the greatest way in which a woman brings glory to God is by being a good wife and mother who submits to her husband completely.

My struggle with this teaching doesn't exist because I think being a good wife and mother isn't a godly calling, or because I think wives shouldn't submit to their husbands - I think both are things that bring great glory to God. But when this type of role is elevated as the best, holiest, ideal position for a woman, it leaves out a huge population of faithful, God-loving women: The widowed or abandoned wife, the single mom, women who can't have children, women living in poverty who have no choice but to work to support their families, and single women like Katie Davis who moved to Uganda and adopted a whole houseful of orphans (thirteen to be more precise). And let's not forget that rather famous saint, Mother Teresa. Heard of her? Yeah. Unmarried and no kids.

Are these women unable to fully please God simply because they aren't married or don't have children? Are they "less-than" the ideal, biblical woman?

That just doesn't seem right. God uses all kinds of people in different ways, and a woman's ability to please God isn't on hold until she gets herself a husband and some kids. If the so-called, "biblical role of women" can't be applied universally to all women of faith, why is it being taught as such a rigid truth in so many Christian churches?

I felt Evans' book was, for the most part, an honest exploration of what the Bible says about women and their roles in the family and in faith. The book contained a few unflattering quotes from John Piper and Glen Beck that would probably have my conservative friends shaking their fists, and there were times that Evans approached these (and other) conservative leaders with a little too much snark. There were things about the book that I appreciated and learned from, questions I've always wrestled with that she addressed, and some things I took offense to. But overall, Evans' journey of trying to apply all of the Bible's instructions for women was a well-researched, respectful search for truth.

Reading about Evans' year-long exploration was at times humorous and at other times painful as I was confronted with some of my own judgmental attitudes towards woman who don't fit the traditional mold for a "biblical woman." And I learned that the Bible is full of stories of women who don't fit the mold either, yet are called righteous and faithful.

"The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman is a myth.
"Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister-wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women's stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we long for the simplicity of a single definition of "biblical womanhood," there is no one right way to be a woman, not mold into which we must each cram ourselves - not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it." - Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

The kind of marriage relationship I witnessed growing up was one of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), and yet I never doubted that my dad was the respected head of our household (Ephesians 5:23). My parents worked through decisions, disagreements, and life as a team. My dad had the option to give the final say on decisions, but he always took my mom's perceptive and opinion into account. He supported her dreams and she supported his. While my mom did chose to stay home with us kids (working part-time as a nurse) and my dad worked full-time, there was still a mutual love and respect between them. There was no "greater" or "lesser" partner in the marriage. They shared the decisions of life the same way they shared the burdens and joys - equally. And they now have nearly 37 years of marriage to show for it. (Love you Mom and Dad!)

I believe that the Bible's admonition for a husband to love his wife and a wife to respect her husband is a model that works beautifully when applied with the betterment of both spouses in mind - and one that can help strengthen marriages and personal faith even if only applied from one side (the wife who chooses to respect her husband and the husband who chooses to love his wife, even when he/she doesn't "deserve" it). And I believe that, if it is possible, having a mother at home with her young children is a very beneficial thing. But due to the fact that people, marriages, and families are made up of all kinds of different personalities and talents, who live in different cultures, financial situations, and realities, it is unlikely that there is only one biblical way for a woman and her family to bring glory to God.

This post is not an attack of the traditional family any more than it is a feminist battle cry for women to rebel and do whatever the heck they want. The Bible does have a lot to say on what a godly woman looks like, but let us not pick-and-choose which standards to universally apply and which to conveniently ignore in order to fit our ideals. Rather, let's acknowledge that there are a lot of different examples of faithful women in the Bible and how a woman of God brings Him glory can take many different forms.

Would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives in the comments section!

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If all goes according to plan (but let's be real, when does that ever happen), I'll be writing more about this book soon. I'll be sharing something very enlightening that I learned about the Proverbs 31 woman...