A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).
Lemuel’s mother’s question is a good one: who can find a woman like this?
The book of Proverbs ends with the description of the worthy, or virtuous, woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). Lemuel’s mother provides the following characteristics of such a woman: her husband’s heart trusts in her, she provides profit through her efforts, spinning wool and linen, shops in the marketplace, makes sure the house is properly organized, staffed, and provisioned, buys a field and plants a vineyard, strengthens herself for labor, makes clothing goods deep into the night, provides benevolence to the needy, has fully clothed her household, maintains great carpets and clothes, is married to a notable man of the city, makes linen clothes as well and sells them, maintains strength, dignity, wisdom, kindness, industrious, receives commendation from husband and family, and fears YHWH (Proverbs 31:10-31). That is quite the résumé! Her worth would be far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).
We have presented here the ideal élite woman of ancient Israel, handling her responsibilities well, wonderful in every way. When we recognize her as an idealized portrait from which we can derive many good principles, all is well. But when we expect women to use this portrait as a yardstick by which they are to measure their value, worth, or effectiveness, we not only abuse the passage but also cause great grief, distress, and suffering for women. This is especially true today in America, where this idealized portrait is merged with an idealized portrait of the “good Christian wife” and thereby setting a level of expectations which very few, if any, women could reasonably satisfy.
Therefore, before we attempt to derive applications from the description of the “worthy woman,” we do well to consider such a portrait in context. Israel during the monarchical period was a very stratified society featuring a wealthy élite and a large number of poor people living at subsistence level. The “worthy woman” is very much a part of the wealthy élite: she can occupy herself primarily with spinning and clothes manufacturing, she has enough wealth to buy a field, she is clothed in fine linen and purple, and she has servants (Proverbs 31:13-16, 18-19, 21-22). She is in a position to provide benevolence to the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20). Her husband has high social standing, known in the gates where he sits among the elders, indicating his privileged status (Proverbs 31:23). The “worthy woman” is enterprising because she has the opportunity to be enterprising. Far more women are doing all they can, with their husbands, to keep their family fed and a roof over their heads. Most Israelite families would not have enjoyed the privilege of having servants; poorer Israelite women would still need to make clothing, but would rarely be able to provide clothing for any beyond their family. Notable in its omission is any discussion of childcare; such is likely one of the tasks of some of the female servants (Proverbs 31:15). It goes without saying that female servants, of whom there would be many in Israel at this time, could never fit the portrait of the “worthy woman.” The same is true of most poor Israelite women. If Lemuel’s mother is setting the standard for how a good Israelite woman will function, then she has already set up well over 90% of Israelite women for utter failure.
Lemuel’s mother, therefore, is not setting up expectations for the average Israelite woman; she is talking about the way a woman of the élite class should compose herself. In that sense, in its historical context, there is great value in considering what she has to say. The picture painted of élite Israelite women in the Old Testament is less than ideal. Amos calls them “cows of Bashan,” and they are described as constantly demanding drink (and, we imagine, other dainties; Amos 4:1). Isaiah castigates such women for their lustfulness, softness, and excessive jewelry (Isaiah 3:16-24). While we ought to remember that the prophets have no interest in attempting to speak commendably about such women, and these condemnations may not be representative of the whole, they still demonstrate how many of the élite Israelite women behaved. They were not very industrious unto profitable or productive ends, but enjoyed the high life and desired to spend their time in satisfying their desires. Lemuel’s mother warns Lemuel, and all other men of means, away from such women. Instead, they ought to find wives who will not treat their husbands poorly, but instead will manage the household well. In the ancient world, women ran the household, which involved far more people than just the husband and children, but many slaves and perhaps relatives as well. The husbands would manage the land as well as maintaining social connections and prestige in the gates and in the royal court. A wife who not only maintained a good house but also provided more income through effective resource management and cloth production would have been most excellent for the élite men of Israelite society. They sure beat the “gold-digger” who is nothing but a drain on resources!
Yet even then it would be hard to find many women who would attain to the standard of the “worthy woman.” In the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament, Ruth comes directly after Proverbs, and many have seen Ruth as an example of the “worthy woman.” She certainly is a virtuous woman, fearing YHWH, industrious, trying to make the best of her situation, marries a man known in the gates, bears a son, yet even then, we do not have any evidence that Ruth did absolutely everything the “worthy woman” was doing (Ruth 1:1-4:22). Esther was a woman of abiding faith in YHWH who sought the welfare of her people and acted wisely, prudently, and shrewdly, but was expected to maintain a high standard of external beauty and would not have manually labored at all (Esther 1:1-10:3). These are good women, godly women, yet even they do not reach the lofty standard of the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31:10-31.
Therefore, the “worthy woman,” even in context, is an idealized portrait. We do well to derive from it the principles and types of behaviors which made the woman worthy: enterprising, a competent manager of her own and her family’s affairs, benevolent, and reverent toward God. These are great attributes to which all women should aspire. In contrast, an unworthy woman is one who is lazy, a drain on the family’s resources, one who mismanages her own and her family’s affairs so that her husband cannot trust her with any responsibility, selfish, uncharitable, and irreverent toward God. Sadly, such all too frequently define many women of wealth as manifest on celebrity television shows; therefore, even the contextual wisdom is good for men of means to take into consideration as they search for a wife. Nevertheless, the principles of the “worthy woman” remain important for all women regardless of wealth, and women can manifest those principles in their lives and be reckoned as “worthy” women.
Men who find worthy women as wives do well. Women are virtuous when they revere God, prove enterprising, faithfully execute their responsibilities, thus engendering trustworthiness, and are benevolent. We do well to encourage women to manifest these principles and commend them when they do so. Let us all honor and revere God, maintain our responsibilities, and glorify God!
Ethan R. Longhenry