Proverbs 31 Man: What I Discovered by Switching Genders in the Bible

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog,

This last summer I co-taught a few classes for The Marin Foundation covering–among other things–the progressive and conservative interpretations of “The Big Six,” those half-dozen verses throughout the Old and New Testaments referencing homosexuality. Genesis 19 was, of course, one of them. It tells the story of Lot, who meets the angels of God at the city gates of Sodom and insists that they take shelter in his home. The men of the Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that he send his guests out so that they might “know” these angelic men. That’s a pretty generous euphemism for their intentions, actually–they wanted to “know” Lot’s guests the same way some college football team might want to “know” a tipsy sorority girl.

Of course, we all know how the story ends. The men of Sodom are thwarted as the angels help Lot’s household escape before God turns Sodom to barbecue and Lot’s wife to seasoning.

But the part of the story that most surprised and disturbed each class I taught was actually a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that Lot makes in negotiation with his soon-to-be-inflamed neighbors: “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof” (Gen 19:8).

“I don’t get it,” said one woman in class, memorably. “This whole chapter is about how Lot was worthy of God’s favor and salvation, and yet look at how he treats his daughters!” She’s right. It’s almost comical how differently Lot regards the males and females within his household. He maintains the dignity and humanity of his guests while simultaneously objectifying his own daughters, whose primary value is apparently in their virginity.

I wish this misogyny was unique to the account of Lot. It’s not. The Bible is full of patriarchs treating women like property. As much as I hate this, I hear the voices of my Sunday school teachers and college professors hastening to remind me that the Bible is a text very much of it’s time, and that it is often reporting without supporting–descriptive, but not always prescriptive.

Still, I wondered, what about those times when Scripture actually does appear to support and prescribe?  What about when we encounter guidance, laws and wisdom about gender relations in the Bible?

Here’s the question I wanted to answer (a familiar iteration of the query I always seem to bring to Scripture): Do God’s instructions transcend the cultural contexts in which they were originally issued, or simply further illustrate the foreignness of those contexts from my own modern sensibilities?

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes to both. That’s the challenge of posing blunt questions to a subtle book.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Below is a little experiment: a compilation of these didactic verses with their genders switched; husband for wife, woman for man, him for her. A little subversive perhaps, but also (I hope you’ll agree) pretty interesting.

Here’s what I found…

1. There were many passages where switching the genders made no real difference:

Exodus 20:17

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband, or her male or female servant, her ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Leviticus 18:8

Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s husband; that would dishonor your mother.

Psalm 128:3

Your husband will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.

Proverbs 5:18

May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the husband of your youth.

Proverbs 5:20

Why, my daughter, be intoxicated with another woman’s husband?

Proverbs 18:22

She who finds a husband finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.

Proverbs 21:9

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome husband.

Ephesians 5:33

However, each one of you also must love her husband as she loves herself, and the husband must respect his wife.

These verses mostly averted gender stereotypes; substituting males for females (and vise-versa) really didn’t have any obvious consequences. The biggest surprise, to me, is just hearing women being addressed directly. Reading these made me more aware of how dominant men seem to be as the intended audience of these ancient texts.

2. There were other times when switching the genders seemed to make more sense of the verses:

Proverbs 31:10-31

A husband of noble character who can find?

   He is worth far more than rubies.

His wife has full confidence in him

   and lacks nothing of value.

He brings her good, not harm,

   all the days of his life.

He selects wool and flax

   and works with eager hands.

He is like the merchant ships,

   bringing her food from afar.

He gets up while it is still night;

   he provides food for his family

   and portions for his servants.

He considers a field and buys it;

   out of his earnings he plants a vineyard.

He sets about his work vigorously;

   his arms are strong for his tasks.

He sees that his trading is profitable,

   and his lamp does not go out at night.

In his hand he holds the distaff

   and grasps the spindle with his fingers.

He opens his arms to the poor

   and extends his hands to the needy.

When it snows, he has no fear for his household;

   for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

He makes coverings for his bed;

   he is clothed in fine linen and purple.

His wife is respected at the city gate,

   where she takes her seat among the elders of the land.

He makes linen garments and sells them,

   and supplies the merchants with sashes.

He is clothed with strength and dignity;

   he can laugh at the days to come.

He speaks with wisdom,

   and faithful instruction is on his tongue.

He watches over the affairs of his household

   and does not eat the bread of idleness.

His children arise and call him blessed;

   his wife also, and she praises him:

“Many men do noble things,

   but you surpass them all.”

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

   but a man who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Honor him for all that his hands have done,

   and let his works bring him praise at the city gate.

These verses actually take gender egalitarianism a step further by speaking of women the way the bible typically speaks about men. The person characterized here in Proverbs 31 exhibits industriousness, discernment, strength, charity, autonomy. She’s a provider and protector. This passage subverts many gender stereotypes, so I find that rendering it with the genders switched makes for a surprisingly natural read.

3. Finally, here are those verses where switching the genders was glaringly and deplorably obvious:

Deut. 21:10-14

When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful man and are attracted to him, you may take him as your husband. Bring him into your home and have him shave his head, trim his nails and put aside the clothes he was wearing when captured. After he has lived in your house and mourned his father and mother for a full month, then you may go to him and be his wife and he shall be your husband. If you are not pleased with him, let him go wherever he wishes. You must not sell him or treat him as a slave, since you have dishonored him.

Numbers 30:9

Any vow or obligation taken by a widower or divorced man will be binding on him.

Deut. 22:13-19

If a woman takes a husband and, after sleeping with him, dislikes him and slanders him and gives him a bad name, saying, “I married this man, but when I approached him, I did not find proof of his virginity,” then the young man’s mother and father shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that he was a virgin. His mother will say to the elders, “I gave my son in marriage to this woman, but she dislikes him. Now she has slandered him and said, ‘I did not find your son to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my son’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.

Isaiah 54:6

The Lord will call you back as if you were a husband deserted and distressed in spirit— a husband who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

Matthew 5:31-33

It has been said, “Anyone who divorces her husband must give him a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces her husband, except for sexual immorality, makes him the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced man commits adultery.

Ephesians 5:21-24

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Husbands, submit yourselves to your own wives as you do to the Lord. For the wife is the head of the husband as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also husbands should submit to their wives in everything.

Reading these verses with the genders switched paints the picture of a surreal, matriarchal society. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. These are the verses that highlight just how disenfranchised women are throughout so much of the biblical record.

So what should we make of all this? (It’s a question I’ll happily throw out to you all in the comments section. What do you see here in this collection of twisted text?) I came to these verses and conducted this little experiment because I wanted to learn about the Bible’s view of gender. But I ended up learning much more about the Bible itself. How it seems to be archaic and progressive in turns. How it frustrates my every attempt to project this modern sensibility onto it. How it defies tidy exegesis.

How it leads me to questions I wasn’t asking. 

Much love.

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