by Libby Anne cross posted from her blog Love Joy Feminism
Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 114-116
Proverbs 31 defines the virtuous woman. She is NOT a mousy, voiceless prude. She is confident, hardworking, creative, and resourceful.
In this section, Debi examines Proverbs 31. For those who may not know, Proverbs 31 is a poem about a virtuous woman whose “price is far above rubies.” Evangelicals are quick to hold the Proverbs 31 woman up as a model for women to emulate.
Debi begins her discussion of the Proverbs 31 woman as follows:
Her first virtue is that the heart of her husband is safe with her. That is, he can trust her with his thoughts and feelings, never fearing that he might use the private knowledge she has of him to hurt him in any way.
This is actually really good relationship advice for people of both genders.
A man whose heart is not safe with his wife will never tell her what he intends to do or how he feels, because on previous occasions she has assumed the role of overseer by taking it upon herself to be his conscience and the manager of his time. She reminds him of what he has said he was going to do in a manner that says, “I am holding you to it, What is wrong with you? Are you a sloth or something?” He finds it more peaceful to keep his own counsel. Wives, never use your special knowledge of your husband as leverage to get your way.
Wait. Knowing, say, your husband’s plans for the weekend—to clean out the garage or get the next section of the garden started—counts as “special knowledge”? Also, it’s patently false that reminding your husband of something he said he was going to do is going to make him withdraw and stop telling you his plans—and if it is, that’s something to work out, because that’s not healthy.
But I think there’s a bigger point to be made here. Debi is reading an awful lot into the Biblical text. Here is the actual section she draws from here:
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
Given that most of the text talks about what a good economic agent the virtuous woman is, I read this as saying that the virtuous woman’s husband trusts her in economic matters, not as saying that the virtuous virtuous woman’s husband trusts her to never reminds him that he said he was going to do the dishes. For all her talk of reading the Bible straightforwardly, Debi does it very badly.
Next Debi turns to discussing, once again, the problems with “spiritual” women.
If this passage in Proverbs had been written from our modern perspective, it would have extolled her for having a “quiet time” and being a “prayer warrior,” teacher, or counselor. In all the Scriptural profiles of righteous women, including Proverbs 31, no such concepts are ever mentioned. In our culture, we have lost a clear understanding of what constitutes a virtuous woman. We have accepted the modern idea of the “spiritual” woman circulating in the realm of religious power, and have forgotten that God does not see them in this same “glorious” light. What we think is spiritual, God labels “Jezebel.”
Debi talks about women being prayer warriors, reading the Bible, and serving as teachers or counselors and then says that “no such concepts are ever mentioned” in Proverbs 31. I don’t actually think that’s true, strictly speaking.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
Other translations say the “teaching of kindness” is in her tongue. Granted, there’s nothing in the text about prayer or about going to church or reading the Bible, but to say there’s nothing in it about instructing or advising others, or that the passages indicate that she is to be silent (as we shall see shortly), would be false.
Interestingly, nowhere in this passage does it say the virtuous woman is submissive to her husband. And given that Debi is quick to note that the passage doesn’t talk about prayer and Bible reading, this seems important and relevant. So let me say it again: Nowhere in Proverbs 31 does it say the virtuous woman is submissive to her husband. Not surprisingly, Debi chooses to ignore this.
At least we finally get to learn what Debi thinks true spirituality looks like:
A woman working beside her husband is a spiritual force for them both. A woman providing her husband good sex and fun company is offering her husband a spiritual benefit. A woman preparing healthy meals and cutting the grass so he can go fishing on Saturday is a spiritual woman, because she is placing him above herself.
At last we finally know what being “spiritual” is. It’s not having a prayer life or reading the Bible or having a close relationship with God. No! It’s serving the physical (and sexual) needs of your husband. How very convenient. Interestingly, this must mean that being spiritual is gendered—i.e., that it means something totally and completely different for a man to be spiritual than for a woman to be spiritual. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that men actually get to do that whole relationship with God thing. Women? They get to cook and clean up after their menfolk. Yay?
Outside of this single paragraph, Debi says literally nothing about the huge swaths of Proverbs 31 talking about the virtuous woman’s industry and economic prowess. Here is what I’m talking about:
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
. . .
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
. . .
She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
Interestingly, nowhere in there does it say the virtuous woman asks her husband’s permission to do any of this. In fact, it doesn’t discuss the whole “help meet” thing at all. Instead, it describes a strong and intelligent businesswoman who makes her own decisions and whose husband is proud of her. If Debi had written these lines of Proverbs 31, it would have read like this:
She buy fabric after checking with her husband, and works willingly with her hands on all his projects.
She has her children go without veggies rather than getting a job when her husband is unemployed.
She cooks appealing meals and keeps them warm for her husband lest he go elsewhere for food.
When her husband considers buying a new house, she keeps silent so as not to influence his decision.
. . .
She is careful to be submissive: she works late into the night unless her husband wants sex.
She lays her hand to the quarter inch plumbing supply line, and her children learn to fear the sight of it.
. . .
With her husband’s permission, she starts an etsy account and sells decorative knickknacks.
The end of this passage makes an odd turn, focusing on how repelled men are by masculine traits in their women and how important it is to maintain femininity—”devoid of dominance or control.” What this has to do with Proverbs 31 I’m really not sure, because that passage seems to have little to do with the sort of femininity that is passive or submissive.
Dominance and control are always masculine characteristics. It is important for a woman to understand that she must be feminine (devoid of dominance and control) in order for her man to view her as his exact counterpart, and thus willingly respond to her protectively, with love and gentleness.
Look, a man is totally capable of relating to a wife as his equal rather than his submissive “counterpart.” And the idea that a man will only be protective of a woman and treat her with love and gentleness if she’s properly “feminine”? This is the sort of rhetoric that is used to show that having women in the army will destroy male-female relationships. Also, it’s bullshit. It only makes sense in a world where men treat other men with harshness and women with gentleness, and if that world exists it’s wrong. Is it so much to ask that people relate to each other as individuals and see each other as equals? But then, I don’t think Debi actually thinks that’s possible.
A woman who criticizes her husband for watching too much TV, playing too much golf, or indulging in any frivolous activity is expressing dishonor.
Part of the function of marriage as I see it is for the couple to help each other grow and become better people. If my husband was a lazy slob and I did nothing about it instead of trying to help him correct that, I would be being a bad partner. And vice versa! And sure, my husband could refuse to change—that’s his right. But that doesn’t mean that seeking to help him improve himself is, in and of itself, dishonoring him.
When the relationship is properly balanced, a wife can make an appeal at the right time and in the right manner, and it need not be a challenge to his authority. We will speak of how to make an appeal in due course. But know of a certainty that when a woman continually tries to assert her own will against her husband’s, throwing it up to him that he is wrong, she is usurping authority over him, lording over him, and dishonoring him. A woman who continues in this behavior blasphemes the Word of God and can expect God’s sure “reward.”
“Properly balanced”? Seriously, how is a relationship where a woman has to “make an appeal” and phrase it in such a way as to “not be a challenge to [her husband's] authority” properly balanced? And can you really see the Proverbs 31 woman “making an appeal”? I sure can’t. She seems like a woman who knows her mind and isn’t afraid to say it or act on it—and it strikes me that this is part of why her husband calls her blessed. Is this so hard for Debi to understand?
A man cannot cherish a strong woman who expresses her displeasure of him. You say that he should model Christ’s love regardless of how she acts. Is that what you want? Is that what Christ wants? Do you want your husband to be forced to seek supernatural power just to find a way to love you? Do you want to be another of his trials—his greatest example of overcoming adversity?
Those who endorse patriarchal or complementarian relationship formulas emphasize that a wife may be required to submit to her husband, and that a husband is required to love his wife. I’ve pointed out before that this isn’t even for a variety of reasons, including the fact that submission is an action while love is an emotion. It’s easy for a man to say he loves his wife even when it doesn’t look like it and that his actions and decisions are for her own good, but it’s not so easy for a woman to claim she’s submitting when she’s, well, not. Here Debi is suggesting that it’s unfair for a man to have to love an unsubmissive wife. Which is interesting, since she insists over and over that women should submit to unloving husbands. It’s conditional in one case and not in the other? Seriously?
And then there’s this, which is similarly centered around the man:
The homefront should not be a spiritual battlefield; it should be the place where a man relaxes and can be vulnerable with the woman he cherishes.
Really? Really? Here, let me fix it:
“The homefront should not be a spiritual battlefield; it should be the place where
a mana couple relaxes and can be vulnerable with the woman he cherisheseach other.”
Much better. But of course, Debi’s not through yet:
Men will always want to reclaim those times when love was fun and free, with no demands, like the times when she would smile at him with that sweet, girlish, “I think you are wonderful” expression. She was so feminine then, so much the woman. He wanted to hold her just because she was a bundle of delightful joy. He would do anything for her.
Debi seems stuck on the honeymoon jittery feelings sheep eyes sort of love. It’s not that none of that remains, but if it doesn’t become something more than that the relationship is probably not very mature. In a mature relationship between two adults, there is give and take, there is growth, there is cooperation, communication, and an ability to find compromises. And sometimes there are periods that suck, but ultimately the relationship grows and deepens through that (or ends, but that’s another post entirely). In Debi’s view of the proper relationship, though, there’s simply lots of batting of eyes.
Besides, why is this so gendered? I treasure all the times Sean has looked at me with his “I think you are wonderful” expression!
Debi finishes by making a final comparison:
- One who pities
Virtuous Woman Profile
- Help meet
- Prudent worker
The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is neither silent nor submissive. And what in the world is up with contrasting “religious” with “prudent worker”?! God doesn’t want women to be religious or spiritual, Debi says, God just wants them to work hard serving their men. Lovely.
In the end, I don’t feel like Debi actually read Proverbs 31. I mean, let’s think about what she actually says about the Proverbs 31 woman: She doesn’t criticize her husband or mention his faults, she doesn’t teach or counsel others, she labors in an effort to serve her husband, and she is properly feminine, lacking in masculine traits like control. Somehow, that’s not what I get when I read Proverbs 31. But then, what do I know? I’m only female, after all.
Comments open below
Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Libby Anne blogs at Love, Joy, Feminism
Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce