07 December 2017

Proverbs 31 Mysteries

In Bible school, they taught us to make observations about Scripture as the first step to correctly interpreting and applying it. Sometimes our observations take the form of fact-finding, and sometimes they lead us to simply ask questions. I have taken the wisdom of this process to heart, but it would seem that my observations about a particular passage -- the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs -- have led me in a slightly different direction than most others. Some of my observations are a little on the sillier side, some are made in earnest; but I believe they all deserve to be mentioned. Here, for your consideration, are five things you won't hear often, if at all, about Proverbs 31:

1. Men: You can't have the Proverbs 31 woman. She's already married. Funnily enough, this never occurred to me until a friend from my previous church pointed it out. He said, "What's with all these single men who say they want the Proverbs 31 woman as their wife? She's already taken!" What can I say? It's true. If Mrs. Proverbs 31 was in fact a real historical character, then like all of us, there was only one of her. (The fact that by now she would have been deceased for over 5,000 years is also a pertinent factor for consideration, I imagine.) This means, gentlemen, that you have no choice but to settle down with someone who is not the Proverbs 31 woman. Which also means she won't be exactly like her, because that's the nature of individuals. I'm terribly sorry.

2. Women: This list of virtues may have been composed by a woman. I know far too many Christian women who are starry-eyed over Proverbs 31 like it's a divinely inspired personals ad, the fondest hope of all good men everywhere. Ladies, there's a good chance this isn't a husband's (or future husband's) ideal picture of a woman, so you can stop obsessing over it that way. If the introduction in verse 1 is a prologue to the entire chapter, then this was a saying of King Lemuel's mother. If I may say this tongue-in-cheek, it's a list made by an older woman about what kind of young lady is good enough for her son. Basically, she's the girl of your mother-in-law's dreams. Does that give you a slightly different angle?

3. Why do we give men a pass on this chapter? The original audience of Proverbs 31, you'll recall, was a male. So why don't we see this chapter being taught at men's conferences and men's Bible studies? Why is this one supposedly "for women only?" For that matter, why is any Bible passage ever treated as if it's for women only? I'm looking at you, Titus 2 Housewives.

4. This woman is actually not the paragon of housewifery prattled on about in churches today. In all likelihood, she's not a real person at all, but rather the personification of wisdom using feminine imagery -- a literary technique consistent throughout the entire book of Proverbs. But just for the sake of argument, let's imagine she is a real person. My claim still holds:

She has business savvy (v. 14, 18). She doesn't seem to have asked her husband's permission before buying that field and turning it into a vineyard (v. 16) -- a very lucrative move, by the way -- or at least the author didn't think it warranted mention.

She receives accolades for her strength and fortitude (v. 17). I am speculating on this one, but she might even have had her own, independent, intelligently formed opinion about a lot of things (this one is a big no-no among "submissive homemakers" of today)! Her acts of charity extend far beyond her own household (v. 21), which would make her a pretty poor student of conservative Christianity's teaching that as long as a woman is a good wife and mother, nothing else she does with her life matters.

She treats herself to "fine linen and purple" (v. 22), which was basically the ancient equivalent of Chanel and Prada (i.e., you probably wouldn't find this lady shopping at Goodwill). And she's obviously quite capable of delegating, because she has servants.

Let me say that again.

This woman has servants.

She's not doing it all on her own! I think she probably would have raised her eyebrows at the guilt and obligation heaped on women in the church today who get the idea -- either directly or via insinuation --  that "living Biblically" entails:

(1) readiness to meet all of their family's physical and emotional needs at any time -- no holds barred,
(2) never feeling down, getting sick, or taking any time for themselves,
(3) cooking three gourmet, gluten-free/paleo/vegan meals from scratch every day,
(4) keeping their houses spotlessly clean and impeccably decorated,
(5) keeping their manifold numbers of children fed, clothed, entertained, educated, disciplined, healthy and happy, and
(6) running a business and/or church ministry

...with no outside help whatsoever. (And for some of them, doing all of this with limited or no access to their own personal financial resources.)

I can almost hear her laughing.

Ladies (and gentlemen), we were not made to live this way!

And don't give me for a minute that disingenuous argument that the "servants" of home managers today are household appliances, like dishwashers and washing machines. They do help, to be sure, but they aren't servants in the proper sense. There is no substitute for paid human help when that's what you need. Can an appliance take care of your children, for example? I think not. Unless you are one of those unscrupulous parents whose babysitter is the TV -- in which case, you need help of a sort that I am not qualified to give!

Lastly, the most pressing question of them all, the one I would most like an answer to:

5. Why don't we ever hear a sermon on the other part of Proverbs 31? Why do I hear so much noise in the church about "teaching the whole counsel of Scripture" and "every word of God is profitable", but I have never, ever heard anyone so much as breathe a word about Proverbs 31:1-9? I am dead serious. Why is this?

The Virtuous Woman might have the starring role in this chapter, but she's hardly the entire cast. There's also King Lemuel (whom some scholars think is really Solomon) and his mother, the perishing one who needs "strong drink", and the poor and needy ones to whom the reader is admonished to render aid. Do these have nothing of value to say to us?

I believe they do; else why would they be there? Look, God is not a struggling author trying to meet an editor's word limit. If we don't believe that any part of the Bible is "filler", then we need to stop neglecting the first part of Proverbs 31 as though it was.

I'd like to be among the first to take a step toward putting an end to the ignorance. So here, for what it's worth, is my commentary on the forgotten part of Proverbs 31.

1. The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

Members of the "women can't teach men because they're easily deceived" club need not read any further. King Lemuel's mother is a woman, after all.

2. No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows! 
3. Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.

"Women" in this verse is a euphemism for sexual indulgence, which kings of that time were wont to have in great plenty. It's not difficult to imagine just what kind of trouble this can cause. For the record, we have King David, well known for his philandering and the ensuing consequences of that (2 Samuel 11-12); also Solomon, whose many wives turned his heart away from the Lord (1 Kings 11).

4. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink;
5. or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

Alcohol can impair one's judgment rather quickly, a fact known to both the ancient and modern world alike. (In fact, this is Lesson #1 on Day 1 in every Driver's Ed course in pretty much every U.S. state.) Kings had both the finances and the leisure time for overindulgence in the substances of their choice, so this warning is especially relevant to them. It's also appropriate because of their position of power: if an ordinary person's drunkenness or sensuality wreaks havoc on their personal affairs, how much more is this true for a king, who holds the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in his hands?

6. Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress;
7. let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.

Lemuel is royalty and he has it good. He doesn't fit the two categories of people -- the dying and the distressed -- whose reality is so dismal that the deadening effect of "strong drink" would actually be an improvement. Let it be had by those who genuinely need it, his mother says, and don't allow it to make your decisions for you. Anyway, it's not necessary for him to try to forget poverty or misery, because compared to those other guys, he doesn't have any.

8. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.
9. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

In fact, not only is it unnecessary for the king to fall into self-induced forgetfulness, it would be a disaster. He occupies a position of high privilege, and with great privilege comes great responsibility: Who has more resources to help the poor and needy than the king? And who can doubt the importance of doing so, since there are so many Scriptures which tell of God's heart for the poor? So it's extra important to make sure nothing gets in the way of aligning himself with this, one of God's highest priorities.

So, "that's all I got to say about that." Next time you're invited to a women's class on Proverbs 31, go ahead and ask about who gets to have the strong drink. I dare you!

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