This Mother’s Day, there are likely many sermons being preached on Proverbs 31. Some sermons, perhaps, are taking the twenty-two-line acrostic poem at the end of Proverbs as simply a song of praise for wives and mothers, thanking them for their “energy and creativity” on behalf of their families, in whatever individual ways that energy and creativity is displayed.1 Some sermons are probably taking a more restrictive approach, either implicitly or explicitly, by dealing with the legendary Proverbs 31 woman as a normative (though unattainable) standard for women, one that reinforces limiting gender roles. That’s the way that the Proverbs 31 woman is so often used, which has made discussions of her more disheartening than affirming for many women.
Rachel Held Evans has pointed to the first approach to the Proverbs 31 woman as the better one, and one that, according to her, is more in consonance with the present-day use of Proverbs 31 by Orthodox Jews. Following Evans’s Year of Biblical Womanhood, the Hebrew phrase eshet chayil, “woman of valor,” which comes from Proverbs 31, has become more readily recognizable in Christian circles. It’s a phrase that can be applied in praise of women beyond the confines of traditional gender roles, taking the Proverbs 31 woman in a potentially more liberating direction.
But I want to look for a moment at the other woman of valor in Proverbs 31. She hasn’t received as much attention as the wife and mother of the poem, and she reminds me of something I deeply value in my own mother.
Proverbs 31 begins with the statement that what follows are “the sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him” (Prov. 31:1), and the next eight verses provide those sayings. There’s some debate over who King Lemuel might be. According to one Jewish tradition, Lemuel is another name for Solomon, which would make Bathsheba the teacher of the proverbs in this section. Others have argued that Lemuel may have been a king of Massa, in Arabia, or that the name may not refer to an individual at all.
Some think that we should take Proverbs 31:10-31, the (in)famous poem, as also being spoken by Lemuel’s mother. For me, that would make the hyperbolic perfection of the woman in the poem a bit humorous—I picture Bathsheba, or whoever Lemuel’s mother might be, sitting with her son and saying, “Yep. That’s me for sure. Staying up all the night, working all the flax, planting all the vineyards, not eating any of that bread of idleness. For sure. I am the best.” And her son just nods politely.
Whatever the case with Lemuel’s identity or with the connection between the sayings of Lemuel’s mother and the poem in praise of the woman of valor, the first nine verses of Proverbs 31 are noteworthy for providing one of many biblical examples of a woman with spiritual authority, as well as for constituting a female-composed section of the Bible. Though there are many misogynistic elements in Proverbs—and Lemuel’s mother herself provides one with her initial warning against wasting energy with women (Prov. 31:3)—Proverbs also features the pervasive presence of the strong, personified female figure of Wisdom. Coming at the end of Proverbs, both Lemuel’s mother and the woman in the poem reinforce this positive image of a woman who “speaks with wisdom” (Prov. 31:26).
To me, the element that most stands out in the wisdom this mother passes on to her child is found at the end of her oracle, immediately before the poem:
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (Prov. 31: 8-9).
That’s a teaching of my mother, too, by word and by example. I have seen her burning with anger at the mistreatment of others. I have heard her crying for the pain and injustice that others suffer. And I have watched her working in love to do what she can to help someone in need.
It’s a teaching that my mother’s mother instilled in her. And that, doubtless, her mother and other women taught to her, back and back and back.2
It’s a teaching that challenges me, that makes me wish I were more like my mother and my grandmother. I can only hope that someday I can become the kind of person whose example could teach the same lesson to my own child, should I have one.
And so, this Mother’s Day, I am grateful to my mother and my grandmother. I am thankful for all those women of valor and wisdom, those mothers and grandmothers, aunts and mentors, friends and pastors, who pass on this teaching of Lemuel’s mother.
To all of those women, but especially to my mother: eshet chayil!
[Image credit: Detail from Michelangelo, Libyan Sibyl | Public domain via Wikimedia]