My good friend Margaret suggested this quip:
A wife of noble character, who can find? Maybe she is difficult to find because most churches won’t let her do the things listed here.
We shared a series of texts that grew into a reel, you can view it here. I wanted to take some time to expound on the ideas in this reel and give you resources to consider how robust, inclusive and radical the woman King Lemuel describes.
In this passage, King Lemuel says “She sets about her work vigorously, her arms are strong for her tasks” Proverbs 31:17 NIV
When we look into the context of this passage, it’s important to note the culture and the source.
In this period of time we don’t have a robust view the way women were viewed from Scripture. Proverbs 31 probably illuminates the household and economic power of women more than any other passage. I recommend reading this article that explains what we can glean from Old Testament passages, archaeology and the history of grain production in that time period.
The author of this passage is King Lemuel, but he is repeating the sayings of his mother. This message is authored by a woman. Included in the canon of scripture, and has such it holds authority for believers, I think it’s important to note that this passage is not a man’s observation of women, but a woman’s observation of women. This became an internalized beliefs by her son, a king.
Let’s Start by Defining some important terms.
Those things being said it’s important to review the terms “noble” and “virtuous” sometimes it’s also translated “excellent” the word transliterated is “chayil” pronounced khah'-yil. Other translations use this same word to mean
This is important because when someone does good translation work, they hold an understanding of the culture of the original language and the culture of the new language. There are many words that cannot directly translate, and then translators have the work of choosing the best cultural understanding for a word.
The problem is that not all translation work is good translation
The problem is that not all translation work is good translation work, so when we see that chayil is translated “valiantly” for men and “virtuous” for women we ought to ask questions. Is there a cultural assumption that these words must have different meanings when feeding to men and when referring to women?
- distinguished by rank or title.
- pertaining to persons so distinguished.
- of, belonging to, or constituting a hereditary class that has special social or political status in a country or state; of or pertaining to the aristocracy.
- of an exalted moral or mental character or excellence: a noble thought.
- conforming to moral and ethical principles; morally excellent; upright: Lead a virtuous life.
- chaste: a virtuous young person
Yet, these words do not reflect the original language.
So for our purposes, I think it’s clear that “noble” or “virtuous” hold more of a meaning of capability and strength
So, What is Strength?
- the quality or state of being strong; bodily or muscular power.
- mental power, force, or vigor.
- moral power, firmness, or courage.
- power by reason of influence, authority, resources, numbers, etc.
- number, as of personnel or ships in a force or body:
- a regiment with a strength of 3000.
- effective force, potency, or cogency, as of inducements or arguments: the strength of his plea.
In English, strength holds many meanings and physical strength isn’t the only meanings mental power, moral power, courage, influence, authority, resources, force are also part of it.
Doesn’t the Bible Teach that Women are the Weaker Sex?
Peter did not say women are the weaker sex, Peter said women are the weaker vessel. “Vessel” literally means a container, object, likely clay. This was a common Greek metaphor for the physical body. While this word vessel can also mean morally weak, physically weak or sick. I think it’s clear Peter is referring to a woman’s physical body based on the text and context. Generally speaking, this is accurate. Though I am fairly confident Aneta Florczyk is stronger than any of the men in my family.
It’s also helpful to note the time period of writing is at the close of the Hellenistic Period, a Greek influenced society with philosophers such as Aristotle influencing many thoughts and beliefs about women. We know Aristotle was wrong about women having fewer teeth, so it’s possible that he is wrong that women are deformed and inferior. It’s also possible Peter was raised with these beliefs about women of time period. This is probably why he specifically calls men to respect women, to honor women, that they are co-heirs in Christ. The message of Jesus is very often counter cultural to the power structures humans have created.
The culture of the first central Roman Empire had specific expectations for women and men held much more power than women. American culture is moving away from hierarchy based on gender.
If strength isn’t merely physical what are we talking about?
When reading the entire passage, verse 17 is literally saying she is strong for her tasks, physically strong. There are also other references to emotional strength and physical strength verses 22 and 25. The whole of the passage though is a encompassing of chayil which holds many nuances of strength.
I really enjoyed this piece from Mike Frost, I recommend you read it, about women’s strength and I love this quote:
I know it’s not a competition. Men protest oppression and injustice too. But there’s often something particular about female resistance. Where male protesters can be provoked into violence, women seem more able to harness their strength to remain genuinely resistant in the face of cruelty or hatred.
Somehow, Christian teaching has taken a handful of scriptures and created doctrines about women that do not reflect the whole of scripture. These teachings rarely account for cultural practices becoming enmeshed with spiritual practices, almost never acknowledge that every person brings bias to their reading of their translated scriptures.
Getting to the whole of Scripture, I think Leslie Johnson says it well in the face of Christian rhetoric that women are clearly inferior because of their bodies, hormones and emotions.
Scripture does not depict women as mindless, emotional wrecks unable to serve on the frontline. The Bible is full of strong, capable women—women like Deborah who judged the nation of Israel, Esther who saved her people from annihilation, Phoebe who served as a beloved deacon to New Testament churches, Priscilla a respected teacher and leader among the saints, and Junia an apostle whom Paul said was “outstanding among the apostles.”
So what is the point here?
When we look at the whole of Scripture, snippets across cultures and history: women are strong.
Strength encompasses much more than physical strength. Proverbs 31 is a powerful text, but to use it as proof that “a woman’s highest calling is in her home” is detached from a literal reading of the text, from a contextual reading of the text and using other scriptures out of context to support human ideas.
When we look to Scripture and use it as an excuse to oppose or limit women, we can usually only do so by accepting that patriarchal culture (as The Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does) is desired by God; by cutting and pasting our scriptures to reflect cultural beliefs; and unfaithfully interpreting the Scripture.
Are you deconstructing concepts of biblical womanhood? I’d love to have you join me in this conversation.
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