Was the Proverbs 31 Woman Her Family’s Breadwinner?

Was the Proverbs 31 Woman Her Family’s Breadwinner? November 19, 2018

Last year, Lori Alexander, an anti-feminist blogger, wrote a post about the Proverbs 31 woman. I came upon this post recently, and was struck by Alexander’s failure to take the passage at face value. For someone who claims to adhere to strict literalist interpretations of the Bible, this ain’t it.

She starts up like this:

Over and over again women use the Proverbs 31 woman to try to convince me that women are allowed to have careers.

They have a point. When Proverbs were written, home and work were one and the same. Few people (men included) left the home to work. They ran shops out of their homes, they ran farms that abutted their homes, they lived and worked in tandem. The Proverbs 31 woman is integrated into this cohesive work environment. Had it been written today, she almost certainly would have worked outside of the home—she was a woman who did it all.

Alexander, however, does not appear to have read the passage:

There is no way this made-up woman in the Bible who represents godliness would leave her children every day for many hours a day for mammon (money).

Alexander makes this claim not because anything the text says, but rather because of her preconceived notions about what a godly woman is like. The only mention the passage makes of the woman’s children comes at the end: “Her children arise and call her blessed.” There is nothing about her being with them all the time, nothing about them never being left with servants, etc.

God wants mothers to raise their children. He has made this very clear in His Word. God spoke mostly negatively about money in His Word and positively about children. He loves and values children. They are gifts and blessings from Him.

This is odd, because Proverbs 31 spends more time talking about money than about children. Check it out:

16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.

28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:

31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

That one verse—verse 28—is the only mention of either children or motherhood. In comparison, she uses her “earnings” to plant a vineyard, she “sees that her trading is profitable,” she makes and sells linen garments, and it is her “works”—“all that her hands have done”—that bring her praise at the city gates. This is pretty clearly a reference to the things discussed in the passage—her financial earnings, investments, business acumen, and profits.

Alexander, of course, doesn’t see it this way:

A woman with a career is making her boss the one she is in submission under. The Proverbs 31 woman was only under submission to her husband. It doesn’t speak about a boss or coworker rising up to praise her.

Say what now? She was a businesswoman. She was at the top, managing her own enterprise. She didn’t have a boss; she was the boss. In fact, she had employees. 

15 She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.

If women aren’t supposed to work outside of the home, why does the Proverbs 31 woman employ female servants? Alexander says that women aren’t supposed to have a boss other than their husband—but isn’t the Provers 31 woman these women’s boss? Why yes, yes she is.

And then there’s this fail:

No, it is her husband and children [who rise up to praise her] because these are who she has invested her life into, certainly not a career. She looks well to the ways of her household, not her career.

Actually we know why the woman’s husband and children praise her, because the passage says why. 

28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

They praise her not for “investing her life into” them, but for the works her hands have done—the weaving and buying and selling and trading. In other words, they praise her for her career. Even if you want to argue that those things weren’t a career, that they were just her “managing her household,” her children and husband still praise her for specific works and financial enterprises, not for some sort of nebulous “investing her life into” them.

Alexander, of course, isn’t done:

When a woman has a career, she must give her best for it. Her children get the leftovers and her husband gets little to nothing.

Here, I’m just going to refer to the above—see what her children and husband actually praise her for.

Is it any surprise that divorces have skyrocketed since the feminist movement which convinced women that it was imperative for them to leave their homes and get out of the bondage of being home with their children and a wife to their husband? A wife’s first responsibility is to be a help meet to her husband. This is why God created her in the beginning.

Oddly, the Proverbs 31 woman actually seems pretty financially independent. She seems like the sort of woman who could have left her husband, if she’d felt she had to. Her husband doesn’t seem to get in the way of her entrepreneurial endeavors, either. The Proverbs 31 woman has more financial freedom than American women did in the 1950s—she can buy and sell property.

Perhaps we need to talk about the Proverbs 31 man—the husband who makes all of this possible. (If we did that, we’d also need to talk about the Proverbs 31 servants, of course—this family seems rather wealthy, the kind of family that could afford extra help with the kids, the cleaning, etc.)

Anyway, back to Alexander:

The Proverbs 31 woman’s entire life revolved around her home and family. Everything she did was for them. The best thing she did was being there with them.

None of this is in the passage. 

Everything the Proverbs 31 woman did was for her family in the same way everything a working mother does is for her family. You think that salary is just for her? Nope! It goes into the common pot and is used for things like the mortgage, the kids’ piano lessons, car insurance, groceries, and, if she’s lucky, a family vacation and the kids’ college savings accounts!

You can’t be the best for your family if you are rarely with them. She most likely (although remember she is a made up woman) did most everything with her children at her side teaching and training them in the ways of the Lord.

Let me just note that Alexander isn’t drawing from the text here. She’s drawing from thin air.

She taught them to work hard and to live simply (since they had to sew their own clothes and plant their own garden).

Okay, that’s it. Alexander really and truly does not give a crap about what the Bible actually says. There’s no pretense to even caring. This almost feels like parody, but it isn’t.

Here’s what the exact actually says:

19 In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

Alexander says they “lived simply” because “they had to sew their own clothes.” That is not what the text says. Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman made her household’s clothes, but this was not because they “lived simply.” Making your own clothes was standard before fabric was mass produced, and besides, she makes really nice clothes. They’re “clothed in scarlet.” This is not living simply!

What about planting their own garden?

16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

Yes, that’s right—this is the only mention of anything that could be interrupted as “planting their own garden.” A vineyard isn’t a garden, though—and this is an economic venture. It isn’t about living simply. It’s about making an investment and earning money.

Since we’re talking about living simply, let me note not only that the Proverbs 31 woman had servants, but also this line here:

22 She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.

The passage goes out of it sway to make it clear that the Proverbs 31 woman does not live simply. She displays her wealth. Not crassly, surely, and she is far more interested in growing her wealth than she is in showing it off—but this isn’t someone living hand to mouth, or sewing her own clothes and planting a garden in some sort of display of “living simply.”

At the end fo her piece, Alexander addresses the servants:

Yes, she had servants but technology has given us an abundance of things that make our lives easier. Flip a switch and light, heat, and air conditioning comes on. Turn a knob and fresh hot, warm, or cold water flows freely.

That isn’t the point. 

This was a woman who was doing well for herself and for her family for her time period. She had servants, she wore purple. She was a successful businesswoman. You can’t waive away this reality by noting that we have electricity today. Yes, our standard of living is different today. And?

Alexander finishes with this bit:

Yes, we are blessed with many things that make our lives easier but has it made many lazier, too. Probably since lives don’t demand hard work in order to survive in wealthy states.

Actually, the vibe I get from Proverbs 31 is not that the Proverbs 31 woman works because she has to, but rather than she is being praised because she is such a good businesswoman, providing for her household and then some. Are some people lazy today? Certainly! But so were some people then! In fact, that’s one of the things Proverbs 31 seems to be meant to address:

27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Laziness is not a modern phenomenon. It’s a human phenomenon. Alexander’s suggestion that we’re lazier now, and that people back then weren’t because they had to work to survive flies in the face of the text. But then, that’s par for the course for Alexander’s piece.

For what it’s worth, I have a complicated relationship with Proverbs 31.

If it were written today, Proverbs 31 would be an ode to the businesswoman who carries out a successful career while singlehandedly making sure that her family has food on the table, her kids have the clothes they need for school, the laundry is done, piano lessons are scheduled, and the cat has seen the vet, even when it means she gets no sleep. This seams not ideal.

And it raises a question: What exactly is her husband doing? We’re told that the Proverbs 31 woman’s husband is known among the elders at the city gate—but is that a paying position?

While this is not my area of expertise, I’d like to raise a question. Today, in some Orthodox Jewish communities, the men study the Torah and the women hold jobs. Is something similar happening in Proverbs 31? Is the Proverbs 31 woman handling the economic work of the household and providing financially for the family so that her husband can join the elders at the gate, doing whatever it is elders do at the gate? This seems possible, even likely.

In this case, whatever Alexander wants to claim Proverbs 31 is and means is blown completely out of the water, and then some. It is the Proverbs 31 woman who is the breadwinner.

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