I have known the Proverbs 31 woman since I was a child. Introduced to her early in my evangelical tradition I have known all the tireless ways a woman is to serve her man, her family, her community and her God. And now as a mother and wife, only a small "stones throw" from the same evangelical influence, I am consistently reminded of my list of to do's as a real woman of God. We've ignored the fact that Proverbs 31 was written about a woman who did not actually exist. It was an acrostic, a Hebrew poem, about a woman of valor of which, "who can find?" 

I don't do a whole lot with firm consistency, but one thing I am trying to be steadfast in is my honesty on this blog. And if I am being honest about the P31 woman I have to tell you, I hate her. She has always, and still to this day, makes me feel less than. I have never lived up to her and feel that I never will. A couple years ago I wanted to attend a conference for women speakers and I told my husband of my desire to be there. But as I looked at it more, the more I was intimidated into not attending. Why? Well first of all, because I couldn't afford it. But second, it was put on by a group that calls themselves Proverbs 31 Ministries. I knew (or at least I told myself) that I wouldn't belong. I had this idea of being critiqued by these "Proverbs 31 women" and it had me breaking out in a sweat just thinking of it. 

It took me 8 years into being a mother to figure out that I may actually have a shred of motherly instincts.  I was the girl who never wanted to hold a baby because I made them cry. If I am being honest, I didn't enjoy being a mom until my kids could wipe their own butts. I couldn't cook (something I actually do love now - but I hate cleaning it up). I don't sew. The only thing I know that I do well that the P31 woman does is rise before dawn. I am a morning person. But see, that in itself is a curse because as a morning person I am not a night person. I am useless at night. My friends know not to call me after 8 unless it's an emergency. So then I have to wonder if my inability to keep my "lamp lit at night" (v. 18) negates my enthusiasm for rising before dawn, because for the life of me I cannot do both. I think that is what some women would call balance. I have ADD. Balance is not in my vocabulary. And my children do not "rise and call me blessed." They walk into the kitchen after I have spent 4 hours preparing a homemade meal and they ask for a hotdog. 

But, right now I am reading A Year in Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans and for the first time in my life I feel like a Proverb 31 woman. I feel like I may actually make the cut.

Rachel's book is just what it sounds like. For a year Rachel studied Biblical womanhood and set out to literally follow as much as she possibly could. The first couple of chapters amused me as she made her way through a Martha Stewart cookbook, called her husband master and practiced what it meant to have a "gentle spirit." But then she took on the P31 woman my ears perked up and I may be forever changed. 

It's not long before Rachel finds herself admitting that she was nothing but discouraged by her attempts to become the literal P31 woman; "I had to hand it to her. In less than 14 days the Proverbs 31 woman made me feel guilty, inadequate, and poor." 

A woman of valor who can find?

Just as Rachel is feeling discouraged and ready to quit her attempts at being a P31 woman (and has quit some), she gets an email from a woman who is a Rabbi's wife and Orthodox Jew that lives in Israel, whom she has been corresponding with. The woman reveals to Rachel that in the Jewish tradition it is not the woman who remembers and recites Proverbs 31, but the man

The Jewish woman tells Rachel that Proverbs 31 is sung to her each Sabbath by her husband. Ok, can you picture this? Her husband sings to her, to honor her, a woman of valor, each Sabbath as they sit down to eat. It's odd and beautiful all at the same time. And only odd because I couldn't get my evangelical guilt out of the way long enough to hear my husband even if he did break into song at the dinner table. 

I've been steeped in a tradition of checking off a list of things I needed to do to be this woman, when all the while she made me sick. Why? Because she didn't jive with my God. Since when are we to perform for God? 

Eshet Chayil = woman of valor

When thinking of the empire that has been built in books, Bible studies, and even conventions, pointed at attaining this Proverbs 31 ideal Rachel notes, "No longer presented as a song through which a man offers his wife praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns it." 

But after learning from her Jewish friend Rachel finds that, "Eshet chayil is at its core a blessing - one that was never meant to be earned, but to be given, unconditionally." Now that is the God I know!

Rachel decides, "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 airbrush, Auto-Tune and Rachel Ray. We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description." Why do we have to measure everything? Why?

She adds, "...the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor." 

Rachel's husband Dan, who has been front and center for her attempts at becoming this ideal woman, begins to point out to her each time she does something he would want to praise her for, and he does it with an enthusiastic, "Woman of valor!" or "Eshet chayil!" Rachel comes home with pizza, "Eshet chayil!" Rachel gets paid for advertising on her blog, "Eshet chayil!"

I love it! 

I looked up the meaning of valor according to Merriam-Webster; "strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness; personal bravery." I know so many women who fit this description. When I think woman of valor I see a woman fighting cancer with strength of mind and spirit. Eshet chayil! I see a friend, or sister, or mother, sitting with that woman with cancer while her laundry piles up at home. Eshet chayil! I see a single mom working 3 jobs, and no, she cannot check off everything on that list from Proverbs 31, but she embodies personal bravery. Eshet chayil! I see a woman fighting her addiction she picked up as a child to band-aid hurt from a trusted family member. Eshet chayil! I see Glennon Melton. 

Glennon, a recovering bulimic and alcoholic, is one of the most broken women I can think of who is kicking some ass in the world. Glennon is the founder of a blog called Momastery, and a non-profit called Monkee See - Monkee Do. She started as a blogger who wanted to make a difference in the world and today, as I type, Glennon's love has reached to a school of special needs kids who are getting a school makeover from Monkee See - Monkee Do and Microsoft. Meanwhile, she is doing all she can to keep it together personally. Eshet chayil! Glennon has a book coming out soon called Carry On, Warrior. Carry on eshet chayil...carry on woman of valor. 

I see Proverbs 31 women all the time. I don't see her checking off boxes on a list of to do's to gain the praise of her man, or her God, or her friends. I see her loving. I see her allowing the dishes to pile up to sit with a friend and cry or laugh...or both. I see her getting behind on cleaning the bathrooms to make cupcakes for the soccer team. I see my friends who give up free time to sit with the homeless, addicted, and hurt to follow Jesus into uncomfortable places. And my list goes on an on. 

I agree with Rachel, it's time to take back the Proverbs 31 woman because she is present in each of us when we do even the smallest things with valor. 

Carry on, eshet chayil!


10/29/2012 12:10:36

I love this post and now I gotta get that book. I was reading this psalm just yesterday and it made me feel crappy. And I'm a "pastor's wife," okay? I'm supposed to rally behind that psalm but I felt like it perpetuates the bullshit that other Christians moms I meet put out there. We get consumed with living up to an ideal that we lose our individual authenticity--and then what do we have to offer each other in friendship and fellowship? Not much. Anyway, I'm really glad and relieved to know what that Jewish friend said. PS: I came via Glennon's FB page and I'll be back!

10/29/2012 13:07:40

Thank you so much for your honesty, it's much needed. I loved what you said, "We get consumed with living up to an ideal that we lose our individual authenticity--and then what do we have to offer each other in friendship and fellowship?" So true and I think that is a great conversation starter.
Thank you!

10/30/2012 18:08:16

My copy downloaded today and I can't wait. Thank you for encouraging us to be real! Carry on, warrior!

10/31/2012 14:43:14

I, too, was moved by her writing on Proverbs 31. The fact that the husband sings it to the wife is powerfully moving, and changes so much how I view it! Would you mind helping us get Rachel Held Evans on The Colbert Report? Join our movement! @RACHELonREPORT. Thanks so much!

Nan Alvarez-Gray
11/5/2012 16:56:52

thank you. thank you. thank you.

11/7/2012 07:59:46

One of the first things my fiance ever did (long before he was my fiance...we were just talking then!) is sit down with me and explain the translation for the Proverbs 31 woman. He's been calling me "Lady of Valor" long before I read "Biblical Womanhood!" What a man!

11/7/2012 08:11:39

MariJean that is so cool!

Thank you for sharing. That is hopeful and inspiring!

11/7/2012 15:02:30

amen and a thank you! I broke up with the Prov 31 lady months back (http://morningstarr.typepad.com/aworthylife/2012/01/retiring-the-proverbs-31-woman.html) and have never felt more light and free! these days I do the tasks before me and pursue the joys one day at at time without worrying about how I measure up on any given day. because Jesus is so much more concerned with our heart than with our doing... enjoyed your post!!

6/22/2013 00:17:07

I'm reading a great new book by Dr. Tony Evans and his daughter, Chrystal Evans Hurst called "Kingdom Woman" with some great perspectives on Proverbs 31 as well as to “challenge women to look higher than where you are to whose you are, and to be transformed by the truth of being a Kingdom Woman.” The book encourages women to set their eyes on Christ and to pursue what God has created them to be. It is true to that goal. I am thoroughly enjoying it! I also found they have free devotional downloads for the book at www.kindgdomwomanbook.com. I hope it blesses you as it has me!

9/22/2014 14:42:06

No one should have dominion over another. Women are equal to men, and should never feel ashamed to be independent, and I personally could never take the Bible literally. It's an ancient text that has brought much comfort to people, but has also been used as an abusive tool. It's just a book.


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