Monthly Archives: February 2015

Where in the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2 Picking the Right Approach

Recipre-for-a-perfect-wife-v3This is my second blog post on the Proverbs 31 woman and I haven’t started to really dig into the passage. I usually try to write shorter essays because most folks won’t read thousands of words just to get an answer. Easy answers are nice, but they are often incomplete. There’s always a temptation for pastors to shortcut and assign meaning to scripture rather than digging for the author’s intent. Understanding what the author meant to tell the reader means looking at it from their cultural perspective/historic perspective.

Interpretive Decisions: Allegory, Literal, or Something Else
There is a final matter that needs to be considered when deciding how to interpret the text properly, that is selecting the right interpretive approach. This basically means that we need to decide if the author intended the reader to see the passage as referring to something other than is being presented, if the reader is supposed to understand it in a word-for-word sense, or if it’s a combination of the two.

Proponents of taking an allegorical approach argue that the wife in the passage is symbolic of wisdom. Thus, the advice being offered is that young men keep wisdom as though it is their wife. This position has the benefit of being consistent with some of the rest of the book. Wisdom is repeatedly referred to as a woman. The advantage of this approach is that it can easily end the argument with folks who misuse this passage by making it about something else entirely. There are several problems with selecting the allegorical approach. For starters, the book of Proverbs does speak of women without doing so allegorically. Chapter 5 is a great example of this. The adulterous woman discussed in the passage isn’t indicated as a symbol for sexual behavior. Rather, the advice seems to be to avoid loose women, which is in harmony with the direction in 2:16-19, which advises the young man to avoid getting trapped in sexual sin, with no indication that is is an allegory. Later in chapter 5, advice is given about “drinking water from your own cistern” and the value of not spreading your streams of water into the street. These warnings about not being sexually loose are paired with an instruction to “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The wife in the passage is clearly a reference to an actual wife, who young men ought to confine their sexual behaviors to. There is no indication that she is anything but a wife. Further, it would be extremely weird to approach this passage allegorically, trying to make the talk of sex fit somehow with wisdom personified as a woman. It makes far more sense that the instruction is to enjoy sex with your wife, and only your wife. Beyond just being awkward, the text offers no hints that the passage ought to be read that way. Contrast this with passages like 7:4: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend…” The author tips his hand that he is speaking allegorically. The same practice is repeated in 8:1: “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” The author tells you that he has shifted into allegory. The same can be said of 1:20 and 9:1. The text tends to telegraph these ideas. The author tells the young man when he is instructing through allegory. The problem with ignoring this tendency is that it results in a book of advice for young men that in no way addresses their interaction with women in any capacity. It cripples the text by applying a template automatically without regard for contextual prompts.

Regarding the allegorical approach and Proverbs 31, there is no indicator that the wife mentioned is wisdom personified. Nowhere does the author telegraph his intent to shift into allegory. Further, if we are going to read it as an allegory then we have to ignore a rather awkward idea presented in 26, that she (Wisdom) opens her mouth with wisdom.  It’s a bit of a circular concept.

There is one other matter to consider when looking at whether or not the passage is allegorical: the context for the passage in terms of the surrounding verses and who is speaking. In this case, the mother of the king is speaking. She offers advice on how to rule wisely, specifically instructing her son: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” She then goes on to direct him to avoid strong drink. It seems clear that the women described are actual women, because there is no indication of allegorical intent. Further,  the advice about women is paired with a direction about liquor. If one is figurative, then the next line would be as well. It makes very little sense for allegory to be inserted randomly in this manner. For this woman to advise her son to avoid women that are destructive and to follow it up a few lines later with advice on how to properly select a wife makes sense. It fits the context. She is giving whole life advice.

prov 31Part of the temptation to read the wife in Proverbs 31 as wisdom personified is rooted in the fact that she is living out many of the tenets of wisdom presented in the book. She is demonstrating wise behaviors. They are the same types of behaviors that the young men are instructed to try to live out. It seems reasonable that a man ought to seek out a wife who is strong, intelligent, hard-working, independent, and compassionate. Really, as far as ideal wives go, this seems to be a very positive message regarding what is important to seek out in a wife.

The other extreme position sometimes taken when interpreting the passage is to read it with a strict literal understanding. This would be unusual in wisdom literature and poetry, which tend to describe concepts. Lines in poems ofter reflect qualities or ideas. Further, reading the text in a strictly literal manner makes finding the ideal wife nearly impossible because meeting all of the behavioral requirements is nearly impossible, particularly since many of them require that the couple already be married. If the son is seeking a wife who takes care of their kids, they have to be married. Further, the list is lofty and towering to the point of being impossible to meet. For example, if we summarize only some of the qualities we find that the ideal wife makes clothing from scratch, buys property, plants vineyards, she is strong enough to work the fields, and sells some of the clothing she produces. As a checklist for wives, it’d be silly to expect that every woman ought to be making her own thread or even sewing. In addition, not every family has need of a vineyard. Not every family has the financial wherewithal to purchase land, nor is land available for every family to purchase. I don’t even need to comment on bartering. If we are to read these lines from literal perspective, we have to force every 21st century woman into a wealthy family from 900 BC and the middle east. I am taking this to an extreme, but the point is that the list of behaviors is not reasonable for anyone to take on in our context. Even in the day the text was written, only a small percentage of families would have the servants necessary to fulfill verse 15. It’s easy to talk of taking the text literally without engaging the reality of the position properly. The premise falls apart quickly when we look more closely.

One might suggest that we should back off of the literal reading a little. I’ve read several essays that argue that we ought to interpret the text as pointing to a super housewife, that is subjected to her husband’s beck and call. She sews, cooks, plants a garden, stays up all night doing housework, and then gets up before dawn to make breakfast. The problem with this perspective is that the wife in the chapter takes on a number of tasks that are overtly masculine according to ancient standards. Beyond masculine, they are downright liberated, particularly when considering the standard social expectations for women in the ancient world. She makes financial decisions, is physically strong and demonstrates it through her participation in what would otherwise be seen as “man’s work.” She also produces income through her own work. Many of these activities were off-limits to women in the ancient world, particularly women of social stature. The “super housewife” perspective fails when the passage is considered according to the historical context. Though she takes on domestic responsibilities, this woman works outside the home and clothes herself with strength.

Good-Wives-01How then are we to properly interpret the text? The answer is a mixture of the literal and the figurative. It is typical of Hebrew poetry to offer examples that represent virtues. This is most easily seen in verses like 20: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Verse 20 can easily be read literally, but it represents more than a behavior. The wife described in verse 20 is compassionate to the needs of others. This is an attainable quality and is in harmony with the depiction of wise behavior discussed in the rest of the text. Apply the same approach to verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” I’ve already dealt with the problem with handling this literally. If instead we see it as representing a particular type of behavior, we quickly recognize that the passage describes a common sense business decision that she willingly follows up with hard work. Boil it down further and we have: She makes wise decisions and works hard. Neither of these is as unattainable as purchasing real estate and hand-planting a vineyard.

Much of the difficulty I have heard expressed in terms of this passage is connected directly with reading the passage overly literally, and ignoring the literary genre. This is often done in the name of forcing an interpretation on the text that is outside of the author’s intent. It is also done without viewing the additional meaning given to the text by the coming of Jesus and the new Covenant. If the poem is a to do list, it easily becomes law for a wife to obey. Paul tells us repeatedly that the law is impossible for us to attain. It is a crushing weight on us because of our imperfection through sin. In the next installment we will look at how understanding this passage is altered by the gospel.
Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Christianity’s Missing Ingredient

UnknownLast weekend, I baked chocolate chip cookies for a tea party I had with my kids. I don’t bake cookies particularly often and don’t have an old family recipe, so I went to the internet and followed the instructions on the first recipe I clicked on. Several hours later, when we sat down to eat the cookies, it was difficult to miss the fact that something had gone wrong. They didn’t taste bad, once you gnawed through the cookie to get a taste, that is. It was undeniable that my cookies could be used as rocks. My 19-month old spend over an hour gnawing on his cookie, and only managed to consume half of it. The next morning, I discussed the baking project with some ladies from church and quickly zeroed in on the problem: softened butter doesn’t refer to butter melted to liquid in the microwave. I didn’t want to wait a couple of hours for butter to soften naturally, so I sped up the process using a power tool at my disposal. As reasonable as it seemed at the time, my one ingredient mistake had rendered the cookies inedible. They looked pretty good. They smelled as good as fresh baked cookies ought to smell. They just weren’t right. It wasn’t even a wrong ingredient. It was a correct ingredient in the wrong state. I have seen a similar phenomena in my own life and in the lives of others during my 16+ years of ministry work. It is an ingredient that is wrongly added (or not added at all) in the lives of Christians, which results in something that looks and smells pretty good. However, it is associated with a hardness in the heart and life that is tough to miss.

wilberforceIf you spend time in a church or interacting with believers on the internet, you will encounter those whose words and deeds are not in harmony with what the Scriptures direct. Pettiness in interpersonal squabbles, judgmental attitudes toward others, a lack of self examination and dealing with personal sins, and all manner of other inconsistencies are symptoms of a missing or wrongly added ingredient.This ingredient is “discipleship.” Discipleship refers to a lifelong process of following Jesus and subordinating our lives to His teachings. Mind you, I am not talking about following the ten commandments or pointing out the sins of others wherever they turn up. I am referring to a lifelong training effort to live a life of service to God through application of the teachings of Jesus in faith. Mind you, this isn’t a “just do these things” type existence. Jesus does not disseminate a new collection of rules for believers to toil under. Discipleship is learning to live this way through following Jesus in gratitude for the grace we receive in salvation. It is conforming our hearts to Jesus, an intentional process that Christians commit to as a part of following. When the Lord invites believers are to take his “yoke,” he is using a figure of speech typical to ancient Israel. A rabbi’s yoke was their teachings. He is literally instructing his followers to take his teachings on themselves. The yoke of his teachings are light in contrast to the crushing legalism of the Mosaic laws. In Christ’s teachings, the teachings shift the believer from a focus on “thou shalt not…” to a directive to love God and love your neighbor. This is more than a sentiment or lips service. It’s something that needs to translate into new action and a new way of living that flows from a heart made new.

Going to church, reading the Bible, feeding hungry people, striving to not sin, taking care of the sick, sharing grace with folks who find themselves stuck as a result of destructive decisions, and all the other trappings of Christianity are not discipleship. They may be part of the picture, but they are not the whole thing. They can be the inviting smell and attractive appearance of the Christian life, but without discipleship, they are far less than the whole thing and can result in the sort of hardness of heart that folks often complain about in relation to Christians.

Discipleship involves prayer, studying the scriptures, submitting to accountability relationships, confession of sins, and all manner of other practices aimed at bringing the believer’s heart into conformity with that of Christ.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Ways to Show Your Wife You Love Her the 364 Days that Aren’t Valentines Day

10411953_10152500999866835_664088007240282336_nIf you haven’t noticed the excess of advertising yet, Valentines Day will soon be on us. It’s the one day a year everyone expects you to act romantic. Flowers, cards, candy, stuffed bears, and all manner of other romantic stuff are practically a requirement if you don’t want to get into trouble. The crazy thing is that I know guys who go out of their way to show their wives they care on that one day of the year, but otherwise live like roommates with their spouse. The reality is that February 14th is just another day. If husbands are to take seriously their vows to love their wives and follow the direction Paul gives in Ephesians 5, they have to take loving their wives seriously the other 364 days as well. Here are 5 suggestions to kick off a year of showing your wife how special she is.
  1. Compliment her. Compliments and praise are so easy during the courtship phase of the relationship. However, because men tend to be less verbal, they tend to compliment less often. I have spoken to women who treasure compliments given to them by their husbands literally years ago. Women need to feel affirmed as a part of feeling loved. Compliments are key. Please note, I am not talking about empty flattery. Further, it’s important to offer compliments and praises without strings attached. Many a man has gotten to the point that saying “You look great today” prompts the automatic response: “What do you want?” Offering praise without hidden motive makes the offered praise more believable.
  2. Give her a day to herself. After kids show up, it’s not unusual for wives to feel like there is no time for themselves. With little people constantly demanding her attention and the other demands of life that come with being a spouse, helping to care for a family, and maybe working, it’s easy to feel like there is no “me” time. A simple way to show her how much you care is by taking the kids for the day and letting her enjoy herself. This is a good time to give her the gift of a day spa trip, manicure, or a massage appointment. These aren’t definitive. Figure out what your wife likes to do by herself and gift it to her. The last time my wife did this, she went with a friend and spent the day out relaxing and not dealing with kids. I had a ball with kids, having a tea party, watching a movie, and playing all day.
  3. Deep clean the house. Every now and then, when my wife takes a Saturday afternoon nap or goes out for a doctor’s appointment, I take the opportunity to clean the house thoroughly. Vacuuming, scrubbing, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. Mind you, it’s important to pitch in and help with the chores all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to take it way beyond what she expects.
  4. Knock out the Honey-Do list immediately. This isn’t so much a special occasion “I love you.” When a honey-do item pops up, it’s easy to put it off until you feel like it or have a little more time on your hands. But, there is a message that is sent when you put off her requests. You might not notice, but she probably does. Taking care of “guy” tasks immediately shows her that she is a high priority to you. Conversely, when you put her in the position of having to nag you to get things done indirectly tells her that she isn’t a priority.
  5. Plan a surprise date night. Get the babysitter. Figure out where you are going and what you will be doing. Get dressed up. Buy flowers. Pull out all the stops and don’t let her know until it’s time to go. Surprise her. Give her enough time to feel prepared and comfortable, but surprise her. In doing so, you show her that you are still pursuing her as a romantic interest. You are showing her that she is special. You are essentially telling her that you still think about her.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Who Obeys Who In Marriage? Part 3 of 3 Understanding the Wife’s Role

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  Ephesians 5:22-33

Mariage19_300-F_ws52793512For many folks, the great stumbling block of the Ephesians household code is the first 3 verses. For this reason, I have saved it for last in the discussion. Not because I am avoiding controversy. Rather, because it is so often understood in terms of our own desires and demands rather than in the context of scripture. This results in all sorts of bad behavior in relation to the text, including willful ignoring of the passage, wielding it like a bat, interpretive gymnastics to make it more palatable, attempts to turn the passage into a prooftext for all sorts of marital arm-twisting, etc. This legacy of Bible believers behaving badly prompted my careful handling and intentional approach to the text. If you haven’t read the preceding posts, I suggest checking them out in advance of reading this one.

The major idea to bear in mind in terms of the larger thrust of the passage is that Paul is speaking of marriage in two senses. First and foremost, Paul is talking about the relationship between Jesus and the church. He emphasizes Christ’s unconditional, sacrificial love that cleanses the church and prepares her as a bride for himself, spotless and pure. This is the model for the man’s job in marriage. He is to love unconditionally, serve, give of himself, and aid his wife in her spiritual growth and maturing, in preparation for facing God on the day of judgement. This is the second sense in which Paul is focusing on the marital relationship: What is expected of men as they stand in the place of Christ in relationship to their wives, the church. Husbands are to pastor their families and lead as Christ leads the church. This concept is central to understanding the wife’s role.

The other bit of contextual information that is important to take into account in reference to the passage is the preceding verses. Paul did not write the household code in a vacuum, as a standalone text. It stands as a piece of a larger letter. The preceding passages deal with moral behavior. The closing clause of the last sentence tees up the discussion in the following verses: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This is not an unusual concept in scripture. The idea that believers are to submit to each other, love each other, give grace to each other, and behave with deference to the needs and wants of other believers is no small matter. It is the guiding principle for much of a Christian’s behaviors. We are to put on our towel and wash each other’s feet with our lives. The least in the church will be the greatest.

part 1Paul writes a line about mutual submission, then launches into an instructions about how the marital relationship is a mirror of Christ and the church. Specifically, beginning with wives submitting to husbands as unto Christ. There is a degree to which the direction to wives is a restatement of the preceding. Mutual submission needs to be a part of our understanding of this text based on the context. The problem is that the text is a little more complex than that. Simply calling it a pure mutual submission would be to ignore the rest of the passage, in the same manner as those who call for wives to live as slaves to their husbands, though perhaps less egregiously.

part 2As Paul continues, he includes a modifier to the “as unto the Lord” direction. In the previous article, we looked at the Lordship of Christ as a model for husbands that involves unconditional love and a servant’s attitude. There is a different dimension to this relationship presented in the direction for women. Christ is described as the head of His body, the church. This analogy could potentially carry two meanings. The first is that Jesus is the leader, while the church follows. In the modern context, this is the meaning we would tend to gravitate toward. The second meaning involves the head being the source for the body, which was not an unusual analogy for the ancient world. This understanding fits well based on the mention that Christ is the Savior of the church, which would mean that He is the source of life and salvation. Further, this understanding of the analogy suggests that the church is intended to emulate Him. Since the husband is charged with leading his wife spiritually and preparing her for eternity through his example and spiritual guidance, the direction for wives to learn from their husband’s spiritual direction works well with the head/source understanding. Simply put, Paul’s direction is for wives to come under their husband’s spiritual direction, learning from him in the same way that the church would in relation to Christ. In a larger sense, Paul’s major concern for believers, time and again, is that they grow in knowledge and relationship with Jesus. Paul’s marriage analogy proves no different. Though he acknowledges a hierarchy in the familial relationship, it is seen as purely a component of growing in Christlikeness. Though husbands are given a degree of authority, it is only understood properly in the relation to the   enormous responsibility of serving and preparing the family to be presented to God in eternity. This will always coincide with the mutual submission and service that should characterize the relationship between all believers.

This basically begs the question, How are wives to submit to their husbands? In the ideal world, husbands lead their families spiritually. Wives are to recognize, encourage, and participate in that process of spiritual preparation and growth.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,