This is part 2 of a blog series on Biblical Gender. Part 1 of the series, a review of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, can be found here: http://olgaproverbs31.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/a-year-of-biblical-womanhood-by-rachel-held-evans-review/
This blog is a response to my friend, Christina Gibson’s recent blog, The Lie of the Model Woman: http://christinagibson.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/the-lie-of-the-model-woman/
There is no shame in being a “P31 chick” because Proverbs 31 is not praise of an individual woman, but of Women collectively. Being a “P31 chick” means joining Women across time, space, & culture, contributing to the well-being of society, home, & self. Christina picks up on the impossibility of 1 woman fulfilling all of the praises on Proverbs 31. I choose to give the benefit of the doubt that the interpretation of Proverbs 31 as an outline for “Biblical Womanhood” for each individual woman comes from well-meaning people trying to encourage women. However, a Google image search for Proverbs 31 will bring up enough poorly appropriated interpretations, flowers, & happy care-free looking women to make nearly anyone puke & indicates concerning re-appropriation of ancient Hebrew poetry.
Proverbs 31 womEn become utilitarian & comparable to “the best dishwasher, microwave, vacuum and washing machine you’d ever find in a store” when the passage is read prescriptively, as a command. However, nowhere in the chapter is a command. The perceived commands come from women comparing themselves to one another, competition among women, [hello, Pinterest] and pressure from men to be what they consider to be a perfect wife, mother, & woman. Many interpretations of Proverbs 31 are concerning because it puts women on a pedestal. This pedestal leads to unhelpful expectations & poor interpretations of the actual text.
One note- statistically, women as a collective group are not happier [report a high life satisfaction] working in the home & they are not happier working outside the home. Women are happiest when they are doing what they want/choose to do. Conservative agendas tend to push women toward the home, sometimes in response to progressive agendas pushing women toward working outside the home. A truly Christian Feminist position empowers & encourages women [and men!] to do what they sense a calling toward- in the home, out of the home, part-time employment, stay at home fathers, etc.
Every “small moment” [as Christina calls the chapter of Proverbs 31] in Scripture is worthy of close reading & attention, & hermeneutically/theologically responsible Bible studies. How many times as seminarians & ministers have we sat in class or done research/reading to find that something we always considered insignificant was actually monumental or deeply meaningful? Don’t underestimate ‘just’ one chapter or verse or person in the Bible. They are there for a reason, perhaps for such a time as this when we read them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit & the Church community. Even though “small moments” & isolated passages can be meaningful, they must not be used isolated from the canon to make definitions or prescriptions such as the appropriate role of women, sexuality ethics, Second Coming, etc. This prescriptive approach is particularly tempting with hot topics. Avoid!
The identity of [the Proverbs 31] woman is NOT strictly based on what she produces. Though the chapter centers mainly on what she produces, there are verses & phrases in the chapter praising her for her attitude. See verses 11, 17, 25-26:
Her husband can trust her, and she will greatly enrich his life.
She is energetic and strong, a hard worker.
She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness.
I am concerned about Christina’s overgeneralization of “esteemed” women in the Bible. There are plenty of women in the Bible who are esteemed & are not prostitutes or former ones, as Christina argues. Many women in the Bible who are not esteemed, but should be are as a result of generations of patriarchal & misogynistic interpretations. For example, Michal. [see 1 & 2 Samuel, especially 2 Samuel 6] Rather than viewing Michal as an unsupportive wife, Michal could also be a holy woman condemned for confronting David’s [her husband] shameful nakedness, & donning priestly attire & impersonating a priest though he was not a priest. Michal is 1 of many women in the Bible who are condemned, but should be esteemed.
Another example is Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was most likely NOT A PROSTITUE, as Christina [and many other Christians] erroneously identify her. The teaching of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute comes from Pope Gregory I’s sermon series in the 6th century and possibly Ephraim the Syrian in the 4th century. There are disagreements about Mary Magdalene & Mary of Bethany being the same woman or different women. It makes most sense that these are 2 different women. The “sinful woman” in Luke 7 who anoints Jesus’ feet is not named & there is not enough substantial evidence or reasoning to identify her as Mary Magdalene. Centuries of art depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. The current position of the Catholic Church on Mary Magdalene is that she was not a prostitute. Pope Paul VI in 1969 [this is still hot off the press!] rejected Mary Magdalene’s identity as a prostitute & separates Mary Magdalene & Mary of Bethany as 2 different women. One reason [though there are probably many] that Mary Magdalene has been identified as a prostitute may come from fear of identifying her as a disciple. If Mary Magdalene was a close disciple of Jesus, then her example may give authority to women called to Christian leadership- a role for women originally accepted, then eventually rejected by the Church, but then later revived among Protestants. Bible interpretation must be based on more than art, overzealous attempts to put together a biography, or personal agendas.
Mary Magdalene is sometimes held up as an example of holiness based on a false understanding of her story & testimony as a converted prostitute. Yes, Mary Magdalene was healed, but from 7 demons. [see Luke 8:1-3] Mary Magdalene is an example of holiness because she was a close disciple & was a part of the group of women who were the first apostles to the apostles, as Augustine called the women. [see Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, & John 20] Mary Magdalene is mentioned specifically by name in the Gospels more than most of the 12 Disciples.
Christina’s devaluement of the Proverbs 31 woman [who is intended to be women in the plural] partly comes from an argument of silence. “The Proverbs 31 lady” is not included in Jesus’ ancestry because she is not a literal woman & does not contribute to the Davidic line. In Jewish tradition, the Matriarchs are highly esteemed- Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, & Leah. None of which are perfect, but none of which are prostitutes, & none of which make it in to Matthew or Luke’s genealogies. [See Matthew 1 & Luke 3] In fact, there is only 1 reference to 1 of the Matriarchs in the Gospels- Rachel weeping in Matthew 2. The Matriarchs are still highly esteemed & very important.
Rather than asking what does it mean to be a godly woman, a better question to ask is what does it mean to be a godly person? Scriptures on holiness are rarely gendered. This is holiness:
“Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” [Deuteronomy 6:4-7]
“Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.” [Psalm 97:10]
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:8; see also Deuteronomy 10:12-13]
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:40]
“And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” [2 John 1:6]
Rather than feeling a burden from Proverbs 31, recognize the chapter as a praise for the amazing work Women do- near & far, now & past, private & public. How do you as a man or woman contribute to the work of the world, the work of the home, & the work of yourself?
“Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.” [Judy Garland]