by Anne Edison-Albright
The Woman of Valor, a character from Proverbs can be read as a perpetuation of old stereotypes, an example of women’s equality and also as something in between.
Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates. (Proverbs 31:30-31)
The NRSV gives the end of Proverbs 31 the title, “Ode to a Capable Wife.” Julie Faith Parker, the teaching assistant for my Old Testament Interpretation class in seminary, translated it “Ode to a Woman of Valor.” Parker’s title seems apt because the woman described in this passage is a capable wife and much more: she’s a businesswoman, farmer, philanthropist, and teacher. Her “capableness” reflects boldness and a pragmatic, real-world wisdom: She is prepared for every contingency; she is practical and alert: “Her lamp does not go out at night” (v. 18).
My first thought when I met the Capable Wife was, “Oh great, another impossible ideal.”
She’s not just capable . . . she’s superwoman!
Whether she is called the Capable Wife or the Woman of Valor, the woman portrayed in Proverbs 31 seems too good to be real. Then and now, women are often characterized in terms of polar opposites: virgin or whore, Mary or Eve, saint or sinner. The “good woman” is an unattainable image of pure perfection; real women can’t measure up. The only alternative–the “bad woman”–demonizes female sexuality and represents infidelity, evil cunning and a threat to the patriarchal order.
The book of Proverbs offers such a dichotomy in the images of Woman Wisdom and the Loose Woman. Woman Wisdom, also called Sophia, is a divine figure present since creation: “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago” (8:22-23). The Loose Woman is described as an adulteress luring fools “down to death” (2:18). Proverbs takes the dichotomy a step further and pits these two women against each other: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend, that they may keep you from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words” (7:4-5).
Lutherans resist this kind of either/or thinking: we think in terms of both/and–ideas are not dichotomized, but in constant tension and conversation. After spending more time with the Woman of Valor, I find hints of both/and possibilities.
Near the end of the Proverbs passage we learn that “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30). Since “to fear the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7), the Woman of Valor may not have arrived at the pinnacle of wisdom, but she’s getting there. Not quite wisdom incarnate and not an adulteress, here is a woman bold enough to live in the real-world middle, in between the extremes.
Our Woman of Valor is defined both by what she is not (neither a Wise Woman nor a Loose Woman) and by what she is: a homemaker who takes care of business (“She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household,” v. 15) and an entrepreneur who takes care of business (“She makes linen garments and sells them,” v. 24).
I believe the Woman of Valor can be seen as an example of equality. I can see her as Katerina “Katie” Von Bora, wife of Martin Luther, “who considers a field and buys it” (31:16). She is a Women of the ELCA participant, raising grant money for women and children living in poverty: “She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy” (v. 20). She is my grandmother, whose strength and sewing I miss: “She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong,” and “she makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple” (vv. 17, 22).
Proverbs is generally a book of dichotomies–people are either good or wicked, rewarded or punished. As Parker, my teaching assistant, told our Old Testament class: “The real world isn’t so tidy.” Women aren’t either wise or loose, Sophia or Jezebel. When we find parallels to the Woman of Valor in the both/and women in the Bible and in our own lives, we realize that the Woman of Valor is a real woman, and a real model of biblical equality. May God bless our faithful attempts to live into our real-world, in-between, both/and, women-of-valor possibilities.
The Rev. Anne Edison-Albright is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, a writer and a mom in Stevens Point, Wisc.
Adapted from “Faith Reflections: Woman of Valor” by Anne Edison-Albright that first appeared in the August 2006 issue.
Photos by: Damian Zaleski and London Scout. Used with permission.