This Sunday we are invited to explore a passage from the Book of Proverbs that presents Wisdom in the guise of a capable woman. I tackle this passage with some trepidation as it raises a lot of issues for many around the way women are treated and placed in very particular roles that have very often confined women to a second class status. How does this passage deal with these issues of gender? Our reading is part of a poem that describes a very capable woman who seems to be good at just about everything. If she’s a model to aspire to then she sets a very high standard, and one that could very easily make a lot of people (men as well as women) feel completely inadequate. She’s a shrewd and astute business woman, a capable farmer and vintner who grows her own grapes and makes her own wine. She’s described as physically strong who gets up early and goes to bed late after working assiduously all day making garments, buying and selling as well as raising a family and making a profit from her labours. As you read this you could be excused for feeling a bit weary just to hear about it all.
We often read the Bible through the lens of our life experience, and I am conscious that I grew up in a family that was somewhat different from many. My mother was not a house wife, or even a ‘Domestic Engineer’, as some have redefined this role in a more positive light. My mother was a doctor, who managed a large family of seven children as well as her medical practice, enjoyed tennis, golf or croquet on the weekends, and throughout her life was a prodigious artist with a love for water colour painting as well as creating leadlight windows, patchwork quilts, mosaic tiles to name just a few. I have often described her as a ‘Amazon’, and am constantly amazed at her level of energy even in her mid 90’s. In our large family boys weren’t favoured over girls, on the contrary we were all treated equally, loved, encouraged to be independent and to follow our dreams. My parents shared the cooking – we got Irish Stew from Dad – and I learnt to cook at an early age as both our parents were often busy working. There was no sense that the women in my family were treated differently to the men, so I bring all this life-experience to reading this passage about the capable wife.
What I notice in this passage from Proverbs is that the woman isn’t defined in relation to her husband, nor is she described in terms of her body image, or her hairstyle, or the way she dresses. There is no mention of cosmetics and nor is there an attempt to confine her to the kitchen or the sewing machine. We need to remember that this poem is written in a very patriarchal society where women were often confined to the kitchen in a very subservient role to their husband. So in that sense this passage was deeply counter-cultural when it was written and remains so today. One of the words used to describe this woman is the word ‘strong’ – a word that is often used in the Bible to describe warriors. However, because she is a woman the word is altered a little to speak of her as ‘capable’. The Hebrew word means, ‘a woman of might or strength of character’.
What this ancient passage is saying is that being a woman is not about how you look on the outside, but about who you are in on the inside – it all about substance and character. Luke’s gospel in particular goes to some lengths to show Jesus treating women as equal to men, and it is on the lips of women that we first hear of Jesus’ resurrection.
In this passage we see a woman praised for physical, financial, moral and mental strength.
I hope rather than seeing the detail in this reading as prescriptive we can look for, acknowledge and support these strengths in women in our own time. (for further reading on Gender equality see www.unwomen.org )