The final 22 verses of chapter 31 in the book of Proverbs present an acrostic poem in which each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This poem contains the sage advice of a mother to her son, a king named Lemuel. She outlines for him what he should be looking for in a prospective wife. Lemuel’s mother describes a capable woman, one any mother would be delighted to see her son marry.
This woman is a jewel. She can be trusted (verse 11) to do the right thing, whether in evaluating and purchasing real estate (verse 16), buying and selling merchandise (verses 14 and 24), managing the household staff (verses 15 and 27), providing for the needs of her family (verses 15 and 21), or helping the poor and needy (verse 20). She is an industrious individual (verses 13, 15, 17–19, 22). She is a person of inner strength (verse 25), wisdom and compassion (verse 26).
Though this portrayal describes an idealized woman whose characteristics would be hard for anyone, woman or man, to live up to, it says a lot about the biblical ideal for society. Caring for her family and supporting her husband is her primary focus, but neither her husband nor the society in which she lives constrains her from using her many skills. She is able to serve her family and others because the cultural and legal standards of her society give her freedom to function in areas that many societies, even to this day, prohibit women from entering.
While few individuals can measure up to this idealized standard, even fewer societies throughout history have accorded women the opportunities and freedom to do so. The biblical ideal portrayed in Proverbs 31 indicates that the cultural standards the Creator set for His people were far more progressive than many would believe.
The Bible relates that God created man and woman in His image (Genesis 1:27). The first woman, Eve, is pictured as having been created from Adam’s rib, not as some subspecies but as a person of comparable talents and abilities (Genesis 2:18). In marriage, a woman is instructed to submit to her husband’s authority (1 Peter 3:1), but in the next breath the husband is commanded to treat her with understanding and to honor her as one having the same potential for eternal life—“heirs together of the grace of life,” as the apostle Peter expressed it (verse 7).
The biblical model for society is patriarchal in structure, but it has little in common with the selfish, uncaring, male-dominated patriarchies this world has produced throughout history. Rather, the biblical model reflects God’s own loving character. A husband is to love his wife as much as he does himself, and the wife is to respect her husband (Ephesians 5:33). A society with this at its foundation doesn’t establish a multitude of rules restricting women at every point of the compass.
Some fortunate couples have succeeded in working together in the kind of loving harmony and respect implied by Proverbs 31, but sadly it has never become the societal norm that the Bible directs us to follow.