Chapter 3 A Consistent But Multifaceted Pattern . for Biblical Womanhood
The Woman of Strength in Proverbs 31:10-31
No passage in the Old Testament is touted to be any more pertinent for describing the essence of biblical femininity than Proverbs 31: 10-31.
These verses are set apart stylistically not only in poetic form but also as a literary acrostic, with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the initial letter of the first word in each verse.
Included are characteristics describing the ways a wife relates to her husband and household: trustworthy, productive, creative, gathering and preparing food, supervising the household, investing resources and maintaining those investments, sensitive to the poor and needy, selecting clothing for her household and herself, even propelling her husband into far-reaching influence. The passage also speaks of the woman’s demeanor – she models strength, dignity, confidence, wisdom, kindness; and, of course, most of all, she « fears the Lord. » This woman is not only busy in pursuit of her responsibilities, but she is also efficient and productive, exemplifying the competence and energy required for managing the domestic scene and caring for her family’s needs as well as maintaining her own spiritual excellence (Carmody 1988:72-73).
Proverbs 31 presents a different view of the ideal woman than some would expect. This « woman of strength » (?•n-il~N) is capable and is in fact noted for prodigious achievements. Her ministries extend beyond the boundaries of her private dwelling. The message of this passage seems to be that the woman possessing these personal qualities is much more valuable (Prov. 31: 10), even in financial terms, than one with a rich dowry (Westbrook 1991: 147).
A Critical Evaluation of the Proverbs Woman
Swidler argues that the value of a woman, as portrayed in Scripture, 1s seen only in conceiving a son or in the labor she contributes to the household. To affirm the latter, he cites Proverbs 31. He summarizes that « women are praised only in their roles as related beneficially to men, that 1s, as mothers and wives, » commenting that women are lauded as good wives but men are not praised as good husbands. He argues from silence that the orientation of the biblical setting is totally male. He also summarizes rather disparagingly that the woman is the model for the « Perfect Servant » (Swidler 1979: 119, 125-126), and his emphasis implies that voluntary servanthood is to be spurned.
Swidler’s comments are in contradistinction to the example of Jesus who willingly assumed the role of servant in relation to His disciples and who delighted to do the will of His Father (Mark 10:43; John 4:34).1 Swidler’s view is also in opposition to the very reason stated for the creation of the woman, i.e., that she is to be a helper to the man (Gen. 2:18).
The evidence in Proverbs 31 alone indicates, at least implicitly, that there is no intrinsic inferiority in the woman; yet still there is no effort in these verses to refute the situational subordination set forth in Genesis (Gen. 2:15-18) and affirmed in many passages in the New Testament (Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-7). The husband of the Proverbs woman was the one sitting in the gates, while the woman described in the ext 1s explicitly praised for her faithfulness to the mundane
responsibilities of the household.
Carmody clearly sets forth what the text of Scripture says but then proceeds to say why she rejects the words and message. Her final admonition is thus, So give us fewer paeans to good wives, fewer dutiful acknowledgments of women’s important and special gifts, fewer tortured defenses of policies simply wrong and dumb . . . . Indeed charm can be deceitful and beauty vain, but both also can be gifts of God . Let us start judging and promoting all of the people of God, men and women alike, only by their fruits (Carmody 1988:76).
In contrast to Carmody’s textual comments on what the words of Scripture are saying on the one hand and her response to those words on the other hand, is the actual crux of the matter for every woman seeking an understanding of biblical womanhood. First, one must decide if what God says is normative and pure. If the answer is affirmative, then one must attempt to read God’s Word by trying to think His thoughts and understand His ways and by seeking to be one-minded with His Son (Is. 55:8-9; Phil. 2:5).
For example, m Carmody’s previously quoted statement, she begins with criticism of the message of Proverbs 31, as it is commonly understood to be, i.e., an affirmation of women in their responsibilities within the home.2 Though Carmody acknowledges that charm and beauty in a woman can be « gifts of God, » she seems offended that women would possess any gifts that are woven into their lives to accentuate the umqueness of their womanhood. However, a careful study of the words in this text, even according to the interpretation of rabbinical commentators, reveals that the author of Proverbs sees beauty and charm as feminine traits. However, these assets are put into perspective as not being the essential or even most important qualifications in a woman (Cohen 1965:215).
Charm, a pleasing manner that has been developed by painstaking practice and punctilious discipline, is in itself an outward varnish or veneer. It covers an individual as a cloak and can be tossed off and on at will. Physical beauty is similar since its transitory nature is affected by the passing of years, the ravages of suffering, and the inevitable neglect that comes from preoccupation with other tasks. Also charm and beauty, as external and temporal devices, are more defined by personal preference and cultural venues than by any absolute and universal criterion.
According to Scripture, every woman who stands before the Lord God is on an equal playing field with all other women, and men as well. A woman is set apart by the possibility of grasping the unique gifts of her feminine nature; yet her ultimate success, and especially her standing with God, is based on godly character that is fashioned within (Prov. 31 :30; 1 Pet. 3:4; see also Prov. 23:7). Nevertheless, the « fear of the Lord » is distributed abroad most effectively by the adornment of genuine charm and beauty (Patterson 1991 :889).
Carmody further calls for judgment by what is termed in the vernacular as « fruit inspection » (Carmody 1988:76). The author of Proverbs affirms this principle in expressing that the « woman of strength » in Proverbs 31 elicits « blessings from her children, devotion from her husband, praise from the beneficent labors of her own hands, and commendation from God Himself » (see Prov. 31:29, 31; l Pet. 3:4) (Patterson 1991 :889, 1769).
Archer, who considers the Book of Proverbs to be post-exilic in date, affirms that the book presents the woman’s role as being clearly in the private sphere of the family and home as wife, mother, and homemaker; whereas the man, though husband and father, was assigned to the public sphere as worker, provider of support for the family, and active participant in the affairs of society. She alludes to Proverbs 31 as presenting the woman tending to the needs of her husband and children day and night ( v. 27), while contrasting the man as out in the community (v. 23) (Archer 1990:85-86).
Delitzsch also affirms that the housewife or homemaker3 is here depicted as governing and increasing the wealth of the household as well as advancing the position of her husband – and all as virtues with the « fear of the Lord » as their root (Delitzsch [s a] :326).
The Fear of the Lord: The Woman’s Distinction
« The fear of the Lord » is the fundamental principle of biblical wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10). Though the phrase has various shades of meaning, primarily it implies a rightness of one’s heart toward God rather than the alienation of heart characteristic of one who is unconverted. To « fear the Lord » begins with forsaking oneself and looking to God (Matt. 10:39; 16:24; 19:21, 29; Luke 14:33). In so doing, one welcomes God’s rebuke and receives His counsel.
… To fear God is to rely on him rather than on one’s own unaided intelligence, to avoid wrongdoing, and to accept misfortune as a Godsent discipline . . . knowledge of God which is the fruit of belief, trust, and humble sμbmission to him (Scott 1965:37).
Who God is and what He does should inspire awe and awaken serious responsibility before Him in view of the consequences of living outside His will and approval. This sense of awe implies serious responsibility before Him, i.e., understanding the consequences from one’s choices. This « fear of the Lord » becomes the watershed between the wise and the foolish (House 1992:22-23). One cannot think herself too wise when she 1s aware that she is nothing, and God is everything (Arnot 1978:19-22).
True humility is the awareness of God as the source for whatever abilities one may have received and developed (Jensen 1971 :43). Such « fear » is reverence or awe for the Creator, resulting in personal piety and righteousness. Acknowledging God’s sovereignty in every realm is a positive attitude toward God that presupposes a connection between ethical behavior and spiritual commitment (Berry 1995:20-21, 124-125). To fear the Lord is to submit to the reproof of His instruction as presented in Scripture (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17), willing to turn from the evil ways prompted
by the inclinations of one’s human nature in order to walk in the way of the Lord (Oehler 1978:546).
The phrase « fear of the Lord » implies more than a healthy respect for the Almighty. Barth alludes to a tradition in the Early Church « to conceive Him in His incomprehensibility » (Barth 11 1 1964: 192). In Proverbs 2:5 and 9:10, « fear » is synonymous with intimate « knowledge » of the Lord. That knowledge goes beyond a method of thought to include a relationship.
Kidner expresses it this way: « Knowledge, then, in its full sense, is a relationship, dependent on revelation and inseparable from character » (Kidner 1973:59).
The Hebrew word il~,, means « to fear from an apprehension of danger and a sense of our own weakness joined with trembling. » Thus, one who « fears » in the spiritual sphere has been denominated as one who would « religiously reverence » another. Such represents the essence of religious character « as fear is put for the whole of the doctrine which teaches the fear of God » (Wilson 1978: 159). In other words, « to fear God » 1s the heart of one’s commitment to Him. The word « fear » includes in its meaning two ideas: shrinking back in apprehension and drawing close in awe. Ultimately « to fear the Lord » demands reverential submission to the Lord’s will and is prerequisite to understanding His will (Zuck 1995:175).
One commentator has defined « fear » in this way:
. . . affectionate reverence, by which the child of God bends himself humbly and carefully to his Father’s law …. His wrath is so bitter, and his love so sweet; that hence springs an earnest desire to please him … (Bridges 1959:3-4).
Oehler cautions that « the fear of the Lord » is not « a blind, gloomy, passive religious emotion, produced merely by the idea of an absolute power which utterly negatives [sic] human nature as such » (Oehler 1978:546-547). Rather this « fear » presupposes the covenant relationship between God and His people. Those who « fear the Lord » share in the obligations and restraints imposed upon the servants of the Lord, so that they want to please and obey the Lord (i.e., heeding His Word), while also being sure that they do not displease or disobey Him (i.e., being sensitive even to the spirit of His commands). The « fear of the Lord » is « reverence for the divine authority, fear of the divine displeasure » (Brown 1975:543).
Chapter 1: Womanhood: A Biblical Pattern or a Cultural Norm?
1.1 The Question of Male and Female
1.2 How Do Theology and Gender Relate?
Chapter 2: The Gender Paradox – Equal But Different
2. 1 A General Overview of the Creation Account 9
2. 2 Some General Reflections on the Meaning of the Phrase « in the Image of God » 9
2.3 The Creator’s Plan: Unity in Plurality
2. 4 The Origin of the Woman
2. 6 Theological Considerations Relating to Headship and Subordination
2. 7 The Divine Plan: Both the Same and Different
2. 8 Chapter Conclusion
Chapter 3: A Consistent but Multifaceted Pattern for Biblical Womanhood
3.1 The Woman of Strength in Proverbs 31:10-31
3.2 The Mark of an Ideal Woman in 1 Peter 3: 1-7
3.3 A Discussion of Biblical Submission
Chapter 4: Women and Ministries Within the Kingdom
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT
ASPECTS OF A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF WOMANHOOD