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 Shul? Eshet 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 WomanhoodI 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.