Mother’s Day and the Myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman

[This originally appeared at Think Christian, whose editor is gracious and generous in allowing me to write for occasionally. While originally focusing on parenthood generally, I thought it appropriate for a Mother’s Day re-run.]

***

A recent Pew Research survey about modern parenthood revealed some interesting societal shifts. According to NPR’s story on the survey:

… fathers spend three times as many hours a week on child care, and twice as much on housework, as they did in the 1960s. Sounds like a major shift, although — amazingly — the report notes that today’s moms actually spend more time on child care than their own mothers did in the ’60s, and it’s still double what fathers spend.

The Pew survey found that now an equal percentage (48%) of fathers and mothers state a desire to be home with their children rather than work. Something I thought more significant, though, is that “the number of working mothers who say they prefer a full-time job shot up since 2007, from 21 percent to 37 percent.”

What does this tell me about mothers and fathers and their roles with each other and their children? It tells me that someone – perhaps NPR, perhaps the researchers, perhaps the parents who took the quiz offered as part of the research – sees the word “job” in a narrowly defined way.

There is a lot of wisdom literature in the Bible about work and families and parents caring for children. But when it comes to working mothers, the person who gets the most attention is the Proverbs 31 woman. If you give the passage even a cursory glance, you can see why some people mistakenly look at her as the ideal for all women. “Biblical womanhood” some call it. There she is, the Proverbs 31 Woman: now go forth and do likewise! (Or you could just watch Rachel Held Evans give it the old college try.)

What a load of hogwash. Some people seem to read Proverbs 31 as a biography of the woman every woman should emulate. I have some news for you: The Proverbs 31 woman never existed. She’s not a real person. She’s a personification.

The Book of Proverbs begins with a call to Wisdom, personified as a woman. It then goes back and forth in comparing this woman Wisdom with another woman, Folly. After this there are a few chapters of wise sayings and insights on life and faith. Chapter 31 comes along and the wise sayings and insights come to an abrupt halt. The first 10 chapters and the last chapter are like bookends to Proverbs, and (like other parts of Scripture) constitute a chiasm. This chiastic structure demands that we read the last chapter in light of the opening chapters.

Proverbs starts with a call to follow the woman Wisdom and avoid the woman Folly, and ends with warnings against foolish behavior. It then provides an example – through the person of the Proverbs 31 woman – of what wisdom in action looks like. That personification is a literary device to give us an idea of how someone can live out the wide range of wisdom found in the middle portion of the Book of Proverbs, wisdom that includes work and families and parents caring for children.

Working mothers and working fathers certainly need wisdom in caring for their children. We can look to God’s word, of course. Even more, we who belong to Christ have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

So whether you are a parent who works in the home or whose job takes you out of the home, you can rest in knowing that God cares about your work, your family and how you care for your children. And He is with you always.

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9 Responses to Mother’s Day and the Myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman

  1. Adriana says:

    Thank you, Tim, for helping me like Proverbs 31.

    And Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms who come by the Train Wreck today! Blessings!

  2. I always found it humorous when people try to exegete Proverbs 31 to defend the case for at-home motherhood (the unspoken ideal in my faith tradition–a cause of much angst for me years ago), when the passage mentions about half a dozen careers outside the home in which this mythical woman engages. (textile importer, real estate developer, seamstress, retailer, vineyard owner, etc.) I found great freedom when I studied, after years of avoiding, and realized that smart people could interpret this passage to be a description of any number of possible careers a woman might have, or things she might do in various seasons of her life. To do them all at the same time would be impossible. But that was another interpretation that I grew up with as well: be an over-achiever, be perfect, and make everyone happy. Again, glad to be free of that.

    • Tim says:

      Free of that, so true because as Jesus said the one the Son sets free is free indeed and as Paul said it is for freedom that we have been set free, Keri.

      And as for the Proverbs 31 Woman’s perfection, I wonder how many men who say women are restricted in what they are allowed to do – while men aren’t likewise Scripturally limited – I wonder how many of those men would fall short in achieving all that the Woman in Proverbs 31 achieved? But when we see her as the personification of Wisdom, then we can see that this is nothing to shrink from but to rest in as the Spirit of Wisdom lives in and through us.

  3. Beth M says:

    Thanks Tim, for speaking up for mothers. I read RHE’s book and enjoyed it (I thought, very humorous), and yes, she does present the information that the P31 woman is a personification. The more people who de-bunk the Proverbs 31 woman, the better. But, all those previously written books about how to emulate her will probably still be with us for a long time.

    I’m interested in hearing more about that sentence “perhaps NPR, perhaps the researchers…sees the word “job” in a narrowly defined way.”

    What way do you think they are defining it that most people don’t? When I hear the words “full time job” I think – “paid work that amounts to 35 or more hours of my weekly time, which involves being away from my family, friends, and private endeavors.”

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Beth. I agree that it will take a while for the myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman to fade, but I think that is the way things are going as the church gets a better understanding of how Wisdom is portrayed in Proverbs as a whole.

      On “job”, I was looking at it as what people do whether paid or not. So a woman or man who is the homemaker has a job, as does someone delivering pizzas part time or a corporate executive working 60 hours per week. At least, that’s what i meant when I said their definition is narrower than mine.

      Cheers,
      Tim

  4. Pingback: Mother’s Day and the Myth of the Proverbs 31 Woman | akleslieprice

  5. Hi Tim. The Proverbs 31 archetype was in an agrarian society ruled by absolute monarchs where polygamy and (limited) slavery were accepted.

    Interesting to notice she was resourceful, honest (good reputation), and frugal. No mention of her measurements, complexion, hair, or cup size.

    Lots of guys in the Christian subculture go after minxes, morons, and parasites. Happened all the time in the Evangelical college I attended. So maybe they really don’t want the Proverbs 31 Lady after all.

    Then they grumble that women (their wives) are sneaky, silly spend thrifts. (Not ALL men–my dad thinks highly of my mom for her intelligence–but he’s unusual.)

    What do Christian men want?

    • Tim says:

      I think the real issue is that those men don’t realize that Proverbs 31 is a personification of wisdom for men and women both, not a guideline for being a good wife.

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