Saturday, April 10, 2010

What Makes a Woman Virtuous?

Alice C. Linsley

The Proverbs 31 Woman is presented as a model of the virtuous or godly woman. She was the wife of a city elder (like Ruth) and a respected figure in her own right (like Deborah and Anna, the Prophetess). Her responsibilities include buying and selling merchandise, which means that she was a business woman (like Phoebe). The Proverbs 31 Woman “makes herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple” (like Lydia). [1]

In other words, the Virtuous Woman is a composite of the industrious, self-disciplined and faithful woman. Such a woman would have been a great asset to her husband. The King James Bible expresses her worth in these words: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” We wonder if this image of the woman is from the husband’s perspective more than from the woman’s perspective. From the woman’s perspective, this life was one of constant duty to family, household and community. And while her husband and children respect and honor her, this image doesn’t portray much warmth or intimacy.

For thousands of years, Jewish women recited Proverbs 31 when they lighted the Sabbath candles at dusk on Friday. Jesus’ mother would have had this poem about the Virtuous Woman in mind from earliest childhood.

Although Proverbs 31 is held up as a model of the virtuous woman, what we actually have is a general template of faithfulness to God. The same qualities would be expected of a godly man. The woman described in Proverbs is a portrait of ideal womanhood, but the focus of this portrait is a woman’s relationship with God, not her abilities or her efficiency as a homemaker. The Proverbs 31 woman realizes that her strength and her value come from God. [2]

Many faithful woman don't fit the good homemaker model of Proverbs 31. The Prophetess Anna was married for only 7 years. The rest of her years were spent as a “monastic” living in the temple.

Some of the women are remembered for unladylike acts, such as when Zipporah acted as a priest in circumcising her son. In doing so, she sacrificed her femininity to save her husband’s life. She also made it clear to Moses that she wasn’t happy about it, thus dismissing the idea that women must sweetly sacrifice themselves for their husbands. This is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. St Paul reminds Christian men that they are to love their wives and to be ready to lay down their lives for their wives, as Christ loved and gave His life for the Church.

Jael, wife of a tent-making descendent of Kain, can hardly be praised for her hospitality and gentleness. She killed her houseguest Sisera while he slept by driving a tent peg through his temple. And the Bible praises her for disposing of an enemy of Israel!

In fact, there is no single model of godly womanhood in the Bible. Some were judges who waged war, some were influential prophets, some were rulers’ wives, some were virgin daughters of priests, and some were barren and troubled women. The only thing they have in common is their reliance on God.

None fit the stereotype of the housewife overwhelmed by dirty dishes, laundry and the demands of husband and children. None seem to be oppressed women, though Feminists insist that their condition under Patriarchy was one of subjugation.[3]

Instead we find strong, dignified, multitalented, caring women who make a mark for themselves in the world by putting their trust in God. They invest wisely, oversee servants, and manage real estate. They are listed in the lines of descendent, sometimes even called “chief”, as in the case of Anah, Oholibamah’s mother. They are consulted by priests and kings as in the case of Huldah, and by the heads of tribes, as was Deborah. They are responsible for running large households and often save their husband’s estates from destruction, as did Abigail. They were recognized in their communities for their wisdom, such as the Wise Woman of Abel Beth-Macaah. They were respected in their communities for their kindness and generosity, such as the seamstress, Dorcus.


1. The extraction of the purple dye from the Tola mollusk was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. That’s why only royalty and the very wealthy could afford the colored garments. To took about 250,000 mollusks to make one ounce of the dye.

2. This is an important message for women today, especially for those who consider that their value comes from being married or from achieving success in a career.

3. Feminists accuse St Paul of hating women and of attempting to impose a hierarchical order that oppresses them. This is a misrepresentation of the Apostle's teachings.  In the ancient Tradition which St. Paul knew very well, the binary distinctions of male and female meant that both sexes gained meaning for their lives from their differences and from the distinction between them as creatures and God as Creator.


Lynn Wallace said...

What you say about virtuous woman is true. This teaching overlaps with the material in my book, Our Lifeship: A Study in Proverbs for Women. I wrote this book to help women sail calmly on life's seas. I mention several Bible women, as well as using modern day examples.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thanks, Lynn. Which press published your book? I'm exploring possible publishers for my Genesis research.

I see that you served among the Na-Dene. You would find this interesting:

Lynn Wallace said...

Alice, Ambassador International published my book. It is available from my website, and other places. Thanks for your interest.

Jonathan said...

Was Job's wife a virtuous woman? Did Job have more than one wife?

Alice C. Linsley said...

The only wife we know about told Job to "curse God and die." That doesn't sound like a righteous wife!

The evidence of Scripture indicates that Job was a Horite ruler. This suggests that he had 2 wives. One would have been a half-sister (as was Sarah to Abraham) and the other would have been a patrilineal niece or cousin bride (as was Keturah to Abraham).

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thanks, Lynn. I might try this publisher for my book on Abraham's Ancestors. Do you think they might be interested?