Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Proverbs 31 woman

Some people turn to the last chapter in Proverbs looking for encouragement, a model they should follow. But I think a lot of women dislike this chapter. They feel intimidated, pressured. Our reaction is probably a bleed-over from the culture's pressure on us through photographs and discussions of "what women should be doing"--staying home, going to work, sleeping with baby, never sleeping with baby, being super sexy, being super modest, being thin, being okay with our bodies, working out...okay, you get the idea. Women are relational, and we pick up a lot of messages from our yelling culture.

So Proverbs 31 becomes just another picture of the "perfect woman." When I first started thinking about this blog entry, I considered this chapter from memory, not going back to read it. This is the Bible; shouldn't we be interested in what God has to say about womanhood?

Maybe Proverbs 31 is what God wants for us, not a list that He wants from us. My children are blossoming into adults, and my husband and I want things for them: a spouse who treasures them, financial peace, good health, a safe place to live, an education, a good work ethic. What if we read this chapter as God's heart for His daughters?

So I went back to read the chapter. It's always enlightening to me, when I am thinking about the Bible, to actually go and read the Bible. I hope that before speaking authoritatively on Scripture, my teachers are actually studying the Word itself. I hope.

The portion of Proverbs 31 that describes a noble wife doesn't begin until verse 10. I started with verse 2 (because in my Bible, it's written like poetry, and I figured I could skip the introduction): "Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!" And that's where I stopped.

Son of my womb? I am accustomed to thinking of Proverbs as a collection of Solomon's wisdom. And he wrote to his sons. All through the book, it says, "My son, my son, my son." But here is the phrase "son of my womb"--whoa! Solomon, pretty sure, did not have a womb.

So the intro verse that I skipped over, Proverbs 31:1, says, "The sayings of King Lemuel [which people often take as a pseudonym for Solomon]--an inspired utterance his mother taught him."

I know that the Bible is God's Word, and when I read it, I come seeking truth from an authority. These words are given to us by God.

That said, He used human writers, and Proverbs 31 came to us through a woman. In fact, it came from Bathsheba. You can read her story in 2 Samuel 11: the beautiful, bathing woman that King David summoned to himself and impregnated. The woman married to Uriah (a Hittite), one of David's valiant warriors (1 Chronicles 11:41), whom David ordered killed at the battle lines to cover for his sin. The child borne of that affair died, as God's judgement against David. Another child was given to David and Bathsheba, however: Solomon, the heir to David's throne and the builder of the temple.

Yeah, Bathsheba. We don't hear her voice in that story, but here, in Proverbs 31, Solomon tells us that he is going to give us an inspired utterance that he was taught by his mother.

Imagine that you, a very beautiful Jew, married a Hittite. Either her family was not all that strict in following the one true God, or she was stepping out a little. Uriah possibly joined David when he was fleeing from Saul, some of the "riff raff" that gathered around him: "All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander" (1 Samuel 22:2). If Uriah was with David in these early days, Bathsheba could have been abducted by a raiding party: "Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and everyone else in it, both young and old...When David and his men reached Zilag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive" (1 Samuel 30:2-3). When David's kingdom was finally established, all of his men would be elevated with him. She deserved a bath, a little relaxation. Right?

I like to listen to women who have scars, who have experienced something in this world and chosen to follow God anyway. If Bathsheba were a harlot in her heart, I don't know if God would have placed her as Solomon's mother--although he likes to use reformed harlots. We really don't know much about her. But to me, she seems like a woman who struggled, who messed up, and who just maybe found her footing in a marriage to a man after God's own heart. A marriage that should never have happened, but one that lasted decades.

Bathsheba taught her son about what kind of woman she wanted him to marry. We know that eventually, Solomon's wives led him astray, and the kingdom was ripped apart because of it. Bathsheba knew that kings could really mess up in this area. She knew.

She told him to find someone who worked really hard. Maybe, when she was bathing on the roof, she should have been attending to her household. I don't know. But the wife of noble character that she describes doesn't seem like a roof-bather--she is working all the time. Maybe Bathsheba had learned something. "She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness" (v.27). Even if life had been hard, and she really "deserved" to take it easy.

We put verse 30 in flowing calligraphy on plaques to hang in our homes: "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised." This isn't a pedantic harangue: Bathsheba had tried out charm, possessed great beauty. And she came to value the fear of the LORD. Her desire for her son to have a good wife came from experience.

Perhaps she overheard Nathan, when he accused David of his secret sin. Perhaps it was just reported to her: the story of a man with great wealth, who took the only lamb of his neighbor, a precious, cared for pet, to slaughter for a guest (2 Samuel 12).

She was the lamb. And her baby died.

The woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

The next time you read Proverbs 31, read it as advice from a sister who has been through much suffering, suffering as a result of her own sin. And when she tells you to mind your home, know that this is indeed God's heart for you, which He wrapped in a beautiful woman's wisdom. Wisdom that came from trials.