(Originally feature in the Arizona City Independent Edition, May 1, 2002)
As I explained in the first part of this series on the Bible's view of the role of women in society, when we criticize the way women are treated in other parts of the world, we should be willing to support the rights of women in our own country. Everyone must be encouraged and allowed to develop his or her own talents, skills and interests, rather than being forced into a narrow role imposed by a narrow-minded dogma.
People often point to the last chapter of Proverbs, which contains a description of the "virtuous" woman, the "good wife" in some translations, as the example women should follow. Does the virtuous woman of Proverbs, Chapter 31, confine her duties to staying home, cooking, cleaning, taking care of her children without help, keeping her opinions to herself--especially those which don't conform to her husband's--and letting her husband make all her decisions? Hardly!
A thorough study of the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs shows that the virtuous woman of Biblical times was the superwoman of her day. But unlike many of today's overachievers, she had household help at her beck and call. She didn't have to do it all on her own, as some men expect their wives to do now. In fact, Deborah was the personification of the Biblical Good Wife, and she was a judge and a prophet.
Let's examine the description of this virtuous woman of Proverbs, keeping in mind the differences between ancient Hebrew society and our modern world. This difference is most evident in verses 10 and 11. They indicate a woman's value to her husband was enhanced by her virtues as a good wife. Some translations call the man her "owner," demonstrating the role of married women as property in ancient patriarchal society.
A woman certainly can't be viewed by this measure now, even by Christians who follow the principles of the Bible, since slavery, even in marriage, is no longer even legal. Nevertheless, a woman's good work still reflects well on her husband, just as his accomplishments make her look good. (And well they might, since it is likely that she contributes more toward his accomplishments than he does toward hers.)
The text from verse 13 to the end of the chapter contains an exhaustive description of the many tasks a virtuous woman performs. Several of these duties fall into the limited role women have been forced into in recent times, but other details demonstrate that a good wife in ancient Israel was comparable to a working wife and mother of today.
Israel in Biblical times was an agrarian society, the chief product being the fruit of the land. Without factories as we know them today, small cottage industries produced handmade goods, clothing, jewelry, etc., some of which was used in the household and the rest sold to individuals, merchants, and traders for the extra income it brought into the household. Far from being an affront to the pride of her man, the wife who produced and sold these products was called virtuous (verses 13, 16, 18, 19, 22, 24). Besides being adept at purchasing food (verse 14), she also bought wool and linen for making clothing for her household, as well as for sale or trade (verses 13, 18, 21, 22, 24). She even bought land herself and grew a crop on it (verse 16). And she is involved in charitable works, because she does not forget those less fortunate than she (verse 20).
With all her career duties, the woman of Israel still turned a hand to the mundane tasks of running a household, but most women then did not bear the burden alone. The average household in ancient times was likely to include servants, slaves, and/or several members of an extended family. This arrangement provided a woman with a built-in support system. She always had others with whom to share her labors and responsibilities. (As a night owl who often sleeps during the morning, I have a hard time relating to the description in verse 15 of the "virtuous" woman getting up before sunrise to feed her household and her "maidens," essentially the other members of her household staff.)
The virtuous wife of Israel was also expected to use her brains. The word applied to her in verse 26 is "wisdom," and verse 11 tells of the "trust" her husband has in her. The women of ancient Israel were expected to think and even make important decisions. This quality was certainly necessary when, as Judges 4:5 notes, "the children of Israel came up to [Deborah] for judgment."
No one woman could have engaged in all these activities and survived for long, so it is reasonable to assume that the Proverbial description of the virtuous woman is a composite, an ideal which shows women what they can accomplish, according to their individual talents. Each woman has to choose the work for which she is best suited. And no woman should fail to ask for help from others to make her family's life run smoothly. Verse 27 shows that the woman is in charge of the household, but it can be in the job of overseer, rather than everyone else's maid, janitor, etc., if that is where her best talents lie.
In our society, women have been made to feel that, no matter what they've accomplished, they shouldn't brag because, many people claim, pride is unseemly in a female. This is likely a big reason that women try so hard to please, yet always feel inadequate to fulfill their perceived role. But in verse 28 the Bible tells both children and husbands that women not only need but deserve praise for their good work. Verse 18 even shows that a good wife is no less virtuous for feeling good about her own accomplishments.
In recent tradition, teaching children in the family has been left completely to the wife/mother, while leaving the husband/father free to do whatever he wants with most of his free time, even as he takes credit for the family's accomplishments. However, as related in Deuteronomy 11:19, Moses placed an equal amount of responsibility for the children, especially their religious training, in the father's hands.
When applying the lessons of the Bible and other historical religious writings, it is important to keep in mind the social context of the times in which the literature was produced. Besides the agrarian nature of ancient Israel, the Jewish people arose out of a tradition that considered women and children to be chattel, little more than slaves who existed for the benefit of their male masters. Only the young boys had any hope of growing beyond this limited social status, and even their choices were still constrained by family, class, and tradition.
The founders of all the world's religions, including Abraham and Moses, taught principles that helped raise the status of women from the level it had been in the tribes and national groups that inhabited their part of the world during their lifetimes. These men were not carving rules in stone on how women were to perform for the benefit of others, they were teaching principles by which women were to be revered for their contributions to their families and to society at large.
The time has come for even pious women to realize that God never intended for them to limit their lives to suit another person's demands, while subduing their own talents and desires. Rather, women must use all their God-given talents to be partners with their husbands and good citizens of the world--and this is their service to God.