Up to the 1870s, when a woman married, all her possessions and money became the property of her husband; she had no rights over any of it anymore. And as recently as 1970, working women in England had to have their father’s or husband’s (or any suitable male’s) name on a loan agreement or mortgage as they weren’t allowed to buy a house or borrow money on their own.
In many cases a skewed understanding of the Old Testament could be blamed for this sorry state of affairs, which resulted in emotional and practical dependency. Instead of women standing side by side with men as equals, they were demoted to handmaidens, servants of men with little or no rights.
One passage of scripture that has been misused to relegate women to subservience is the parable of the good wife. These verses in Proverbs 31:10-31 have been invoked by religious men as a standard to which their wives should strive to attain, and have often been read by demoralised women as a job description that they can never hope to fulfil.
The good wife is not only virtuous, she works late into the night, she gets up early, she works willingly with her hands, she is not idle, she makes clothes, she buys fields and, as well, she is kind and wise.
I had mixed feelings about these verses. I wanted to be a disciple, but I didn’t see how I could be expected to be all that. It became a pressure; I felt like I was constantly failing. And yet the rest of God’s Word didn’t make me feel that way.
I found out two things that changed my perception completely, to the extent that I now find these verses some of the most inspiring for women in the whole Bible.
- This was never intended to be a job description for women, a list of things they should be like, or do, before they could attain the status of a “good wife.” It was a song of praise that husbands would sing to their wives to honour them.
- The word that was translated to “virtuous” is perhaps more accurately conveyed by “brave” – a woman of valour in fact. The Hebrew phrase that is used Eschet chayil, is used in the sense of standing as a soldier in battle.
There is only one other woman in the whole Bible referred to by this phrase, and that is Ruth.
“And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you request, for all the people of my town know that you are a virtuous woman.” Ruth 3:11.
And yes, the phrase Eschet chayil is used here. Nobody could describe Ruth as a successful business woman who bought fields and made expensive garments, and who had a prosperous husband; at the time she was described with the phrase Eschet chayil she was widowed, very poor and begging in order to survive. So, in what sense does the phrase describe her? In the sense that she was brave, she fought her own battles, and she was responsible for her own spirit.
I believe that this phrase is still used today by Jewish women as an encouragement to each other, in the sense of: You go, girl!
Just as this phrase was relevant to Ruth, it is relevant to women like us too – we who want to be disciples. So, we arm ourselves for war, fight our battles; we are watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem – we don’t just leave it to the men.
We live our life with courage and strength received from God to complete the path in life He has given us, and those tasks which He lays on our heart day to day. We stand firm at home when we sense spirits of discouragement and apathy – we take up a battle. We pray for other members of the body of Christ; we have our eyes and ears open when we meet together; we answer to God in the end for what we say and do.
And the “works” we accomplish are victories in the spirit, where we have had to overrule our natural sympathies and side with what is written in God’s Word. It does not refer to the fact that we got all the ironing done by Friday …
For me, when Jesus comes back, I don’t want to be weighed in the balances and found wanting. I want to have been brave and played my part and not hidden behind men in the battle. No, God says to me, “You go, girl!” And so, in the end, I can look forward to this:
“And let her own works praise her in the gates.” Proverbs 31:31.