10 A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
As a preacher in the twenty-first century, I might choose to pass by this passage that closes out the Book of Proverbs. Here is a woman who works from sun up to sun down so her husband can sit at the city gates and talk politics with the other men in town. A wife like the one described here is truly worth far more than precious jewels. She is indispensable. She gets up early, does all the work of the family, is a business woman, and a purveyor of wisdom. As she engages in all this work, her husband enjoys a life of leisure. I know that the passage has been used as the basis of many a Mother’s Day sermon. The preacher probably thinks he (it will be a he) is honoring the mothers in the room for their hard work. All I can say is that if you use this on Mother’s Day, be careful, because the message conveyed might be that to be a good wife and mother, one must be Superwoman. As a man, I’d rather not have that message returned to me—that is, I hope I don’t have to be a superhero to be a good husband and father.
The NRSV opens with the words “a capable wife who can find?” The message here might be one of usefulness. When we read through the passage, it’s clear that it emphasizes the capable wife’s industriousness and her leadership abilities. This allows her husband to put his trust in her. That is all well and good, and yet it may hold up an impossible ideal, especially if in a patriarchal context a wife/woman is expected to be someone no man would be expected to be. I can imagine many a woman looking at this list, perhaps feeling inspired (at first) but then overwhelmed by the expectations.
So, maybe there is a different message inherent in this passage. Maybe the utilitarianism of the NRSV translation leads us astray. Kathleen O’Connor suggests that the NRSV translation isn’t strong enough. Better is the translation a “strong woman;” or even better is “warriorlike woman.” Now we are moving in a new direction. This warrior-like woman could be, and I think is, Lady Wisdom (Gk. Sophia
). O’Connor writes that “she is a mysterious figure who greatly rewards anyone who settles down to live in her household” [Feasting on the Word,
p. 75]. Since this is the closing chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which personifies Wisdom as a woman, it makes sense that this passage would have wisdom in mind. Thus, O’Connor writes that “her behavior summarizes the virtues of wise living promulgated by the book and enjoyed by anyone who follows her call” [p. 75]. In other words, this “capable wife” is a model not just for mothers and wives, but for all of us. This is the ideal of wisdom personified.
If we adopt the translation here “warrior-like woman,” then perhaps we can discern the power of Wisdom to form our lives as we live in the world. The path of Wisdom does good, not harm. It is industrious. It is productive. It is discerning. As we have seen before, for the writer of Proverbs, Wisdom is concerned about those who are poor and living on the margins. It is not self-serving.
Yes, the “ode” is written in a patriarchal culture and expresses patriarchal elements, but the point here is not whether marriage is egalitarian or inegalitarian, concepts likely unknown to the culture that produced this word. While this is true, I do think we can take something important from the passage regarding the role of women in society. At the very least the writer of this song recognizes and acknowledges that women can be wise, industrious, and capable. In other words, it counters the lie that has been told, often in Christian circles that women are inferior to men, can’t engage in business, or serve as leaders. That the author could conceive of women operating in these roles should be the final nail in the coffin that limits women’s place in church and society. We need not expect any woman or any person to embody all these traits. We simply need to affirm the possibility that women are as capable as men to live a life of wisdom.
If we can affirm the place of women in society, and acknowledge that women can be powerful persons, that is “warrior-like” then we can better envision Wisdom as our path of life. As Kenneth Carter puts it:
Wisdom maybe defined as a life well lived, a life that matters. Wisdom in the Bible is not enlightenment. Rather, wisdom is a lifetime of obedience to God, discipline honed in daily decisions. . .. In scripture wisdom is a way of life that includes justice, righteousness, humility, compassion and fairness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 76].
The woman portrayed here embodies these traits, and we are encouraged to follow in her footsteps. It may be more aspirational than descriptive, but it is a goal toward which we might move.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.