Biblical References: Proverbs 31
Leading Question: To what extent does the picture of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31 reinforce or undermine male chauvinism?
An ambivalent answer to the leading question is suggested at the end of this lesson. But first we must address the two key warnings at the beginning of the chapter. Our lesson title puts women before wine, even though the narrative of the noble wife dominates the chapter (31:10-31).
The first warning: women: Of the two threats/warnings discussed in the chapter, women are mentioned before wine (31:3). That passage is cited here in the NIV:
31:3 Do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings.
Except for David’s tragic experience with Bathsheba, the major threat that women posed to kings in the Old Testament was not adultery, but polygamy involving foreigners. That was surely Solomon’s problem. In Proverbs, however, the dominant concern is not polygamy but adultery. If the book is indeed a manual of instruction for upper class young men, as most scholars would see it, then its primary target is not royalty, but young men who might be tempted by another man’s wife. At the very end of the book, however, is a chapter that focuses on the threats to a king. From the perspective of the author of Nehemiah, it was the problem of foreign wives that caused the problem. Note Nehemiah’s passionate verbal attack on foreign wives as he berates his fellow Jews at the close of the book that carries his name:
Nehemiah 13:26 (NIV): Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.
Rank of sexual sins in the Old Testament in comparison with 21st century values: In the Old Testament, the hierarchy of sexual sins would appear to be:
Of these three, only adultery was considered irredeemable. Kings were assumed to have the right to take more than one wife and for that the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob paved the way. But foreign wives? Not good. Question: What would be the hierarchy of sexual sins in our culture?
The second warning: Alcohol. As much as teetotaling believers would like to see total abstinence as the standard in the Old Testament, it is difficult to make that case based on the examples in Scripture. Proverbs 20:1 reveals that alcohol abuse could be a problem: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (NIV). But even that does not get much press in Proverbs. Given the dangers of contaminated water, one could make the case that low-alcohol drinks might even be more healthful that water! When abstinence is mandated in the Old Testament, it is in connection with the Nazirite vow, an extreme vow that makes the health threat secondary: “As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins” (Num. 6:4, NIV).
But in Proverbs 31, alcohol appears in the role of a narcotic pain-killer for those in trouble:
It is not for kings, Lemuel— it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, 5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. 6 Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! 7 Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.
In terms of modern application, I tell my university students that they need every brain cell they can muster. If the temperance slogan is correct: “Brain damage starts with the first drink,” then the rule that applies to kings would certainly have an application to students! Note: A Google check for that “slogan” yielded a PDF article from the SDA temperance journal, Listen. The article cited research done by noted physiologist, Dr. Melvin Knisely. The Wikipedia entry for Knisely states: “One of the most cited Knisely works was his research which documented the fact that even one alcoholic drink kills brain cells, which are irreplaceable.”
The Noble Wife. The book of Proverbs concludes with strong words of praise to the noble wife. In the recording session for this lesson, Dave Thomas, dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, observed that he has seen this chapter affect women in radically different ways: Some are highly motivated by it; others find it depressing and discouraging. In Sabbath School discussions it might be fruitful to read the whole passage aloud and then discuss its potential usefulness (or harm) in a modern setting. Does it help or hurt the cause of equality for women? This good wife is noted for her “wisdom” and “instruction,” but the narrative neither affirms or denies her right to teach men. Paul, of course, had stronger convictions on the matter: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12, NIV). It should also be noted here that 31:30 affirms this woman as one who fears the Lord – yet no religious activities are included in her list of good deeds. That should inform our discussions of what it means to be God-fearing in our day.
31:10 (NIV) A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 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.