Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The world has a helluva time imagining women as subjective beings apart from a relationship – or worse yet, their vaginas’ utility – to men. See: #metoo, rape culture, using women’s bodies/body parts to market all variety of products, marketing to women. Ironically, being in a relationship with a man while I was in college didn’t protect me from sexual assault by another man. And it’s a prejudice that I felt anew when I bought a house after I got divorced.
“What does your husband do?” – The first question a neighbor asked me after he introduced himself at the end of my driveway.
“Your husband will really enjoy using this.” – The guy who sold me a weedeater after we discussed, based on my research, the merits of it versus another model. I had already paid for it with a card in my name.
“Well, we just need to get you married so you can give your parents more grandkids.” – The butcher at Fresh Market. Seriously.
I imagine it’s this gross frame of reference, i.e. patriarchy, that rendered the translation, “a capable wife” in the first line of the Proverbs 31:10 poem. That is, a woman indistinguishable from and defined by attachment to a man. This framing is destructive in that it fails to honor this woman’s subjective, much less sacred, humanity. Accepting this framing plays out in interpretations that either:
1.Promote this description as the impossible-to-live-up-to prescriptive standard of “biblical womanhood,” which today is often reduced to focus solely on the woman’s mentioned-in-passing roles as wife and mother to the exclusion of her skilled labor, financial management of a business, sales acumen, care for the poor, land management and agricultural knowledge. In part this is because of the post-modern context we bring to the text.
Dorothy Sayers, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University and contemporary of C.S. Lewis, expands our vision, noting the breadth of skilled work produced out of the household before the Industrial Revolution. It might look familiar if you read Proverbs 31 first: The spinning, dyeing and weaving industries; the catering, brewing, distilling, preserving, pickling, bottling, and bacon-curing industries; “and…a very large share of management of landed estates.…It is all very well to say that woman’s place is the home – but modern civilization has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home…and handed them over to big industry” (Are Women Human? p. 31-32).
2.If you follow the logic of patriarchy reductio ad absurdum: this passage is about and wholly for the benefit of men. In The Wisdom Literature, Richard Clifford writes “the most likely interpretation…is as an illustration of what happens to the man who marries Woman Wisdom….he has found long life, health, repute, children, and domestic happiness” (p. 67). She completely disappears, reduced to a trope that still manages to produce conjectured, but tangible benefit to a flesh-and-blood man. In my estimation, Richard’s approach is most likely a Eucharistic perversion with an implicitly gendered connotation, i.e. your (female) body given for me. Gross.
Fortunately the text does us better. In the spirit of First Aid Kit, an aptly named Swedish duo who comes to our rescue, I’m not even going to ask you to consider the women in your life according to the roles they play or their relationship to you, because “we don’t need to be diminished to sisters or daughters or mothers. I am a human being, that is how you relate to me.”
Eset-hayil, commonly translated “a capable wife,” is more accurately rendered as “a valorous woman.” To support this translation, Ellen Davis notes in Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, that Boaz uses the same words to describe Ruth, at a time when she is neither a wife, mother, nor a householder or in any position of power. Boaz, himself, along with other men throughout the Old Testament are referred to gibbor hayil, “a mighty man of valor.” Ain’t nobody calling them capable husbands.
I argue that you can do everybody in your congregation a favor by going a step further and considering this woman a paradigm for humanity. Full stop. She’s an example for people of every gender, because through her work, she participates in, embodies, and extends further God’s nature as a creator. Made in the image of the maker and working skillfully with elements the God first splashed on the canvas of creation – land, plants, animal and their byproducts, her own strong body – she has positioned herself to be a creator/maker, a life-sustainer.
Sayers again offers a generous and inclusive view of creativity, all of which she argues approximates God’s nature. In other words, there are many different ways to embody the generative pattern upon which this world depends for its continued existence: “Building a house, typing a business letter, helping in the manufacture of well-designed and well-constructed objects for good purposes, teaching and healing and settling disputes and repairing machines are all creative functions when, through those activities, we participate in the processes which create and sustain societies and persons.” Alternatively, “they can be means of destruction if the result is to inhibit the healthy exchanges of life, the product is worthless or harmful, or the craftsmanship is unsound.” (p. 16).
This shift in translation to “a valorous woman” and re-framing away from the patriarchal invites you and your congregants to ask broader questions: questions that are generative, helpful and Eucharistic about the nature of humanity and the nature of work.
• Who are you as a particularly gifted individual (corporately as a particularly gifted body), and to what forms of generative creativity/good work are you called?
• How does your community facilitate people’s ability to discover who they are, so they can participate meaningfully in the ongoing becoming of creation?
• Is your chosen work Eucharistic? Do you give your body for others whom you are in relationship with (family or not), rather than expecting benefit to accrue to your body at the expense of another?
In addition to hoping for you – regardless of your gender – that people will rise up and pronounce you blessed because of the way you are in this world, I’ll close by extending a blessing offered by Jan Richardson (In the Sanctuary of Women, p. 265):
May you know the work
that is yours to do.
May you give yourself to the doing of it.
May the Spirit who has inhabited creation
Move through you with power
And with grace.