Ruth, Esther, and Proverbs 31
I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with Proverbs 31:10-31, the passage about the wife of noble character. Primarily I am uneasy about me, as a man, interpreting a passage for women. Who am I to tell them what this means? Secondly the overall passage strikes me as the Biblical version of the “super mom” that is debated so much in modern society. I mean, I feel exhausted reading about her duties, let alone doing them. Is that long list what it actually takes to be a “wife of noble character” or, in a better translation, a “woman of valor?”
But just this week Time magazine, with its provocative cover story “Are you mom enough?,” triggered a firestorm of debate and recriminations between the sides on the “mommy wars” and triggered once again a furious discussion on the “right” way to be a wife and mom. And it would appear that a number of Christian ministries run by women for women use Proverbs 31 to stake out a “Christian” perspective on this war. If we adapt the task list from Proverbs 31 to modern times it would appear that the champions of this side of the debate are trying to claim the cherished title of “Biblical.”
My problem is this: If this list of tasks (again adapted for modern times) is what gives this woman noble character than it would appear that, at least in the case of moms, works are the determining factor for nobility; the woman is made noble by her works. While, in the end, nobody would admit to teaching that, in reality they set the task list out there and, overtly or subtly, declare those who don’t pick them up as inferior.
But Ruth and Esther give the answer to this. Ruth is specifically called by the same term used for the woman in Proverbs 31. She has this nobility/valor before she marries Boaz, before she is a mom, while she is an outcast foreign widow doing the lowly task of gleaning. She doesn’t get it through her tasks, through Boaz or through motherhood. She gets it through her character.
While the term for valor/nobility is not used specifically in Esther, we see the same thing. She is a woman in the most dire of circumstances, having been dragged into the harem of a pagan King, acting with courage and wisdom to save her people. Again, her character is the issue that recommends her.
So we see three women in three settings, all of which would be foreign and horrifying to modern Americans, acting with grace and virtue in very different ways under very different circumstances. They are women of noble character not by virtue of their works. They are not following a list of “must do” and “can’t do” items. They are noble and valorous not because of what they do but because they are doing the best they know how to live godly and virtuous lives under the circumstances they face.
And that is all we can ask of modern women too; or for that matter modern men. Let’s not give them any lists. Let’s not imply their choices are wrong or even second best if we’d make different ones. Let’s be peacemakers in the mommy wars and a people willing to call the question “Are you mom enough?” evil and offensive.