Saturday, August 31, 2019

Creating Space for Community - Rethinking the Proverbs 31 Woman

I've begun speaking on a monthly basis for a non-traditional church service through the United Methodist Church.  The service, called Discover Depth, has committed itself to finding God in every aspect of life, especially the matters that affect us everyday.  We know that many churches are not discussing the burdens that afflict us, modern culture/politics and controversy or even the mundane, but we believe that God's word has something to say whether it is directly stated or not. We might not have all the answers, but we are willing to ask the hard questions, search scripture together, ask experts in the field and rest in the mystery of God if the evidence is inconclusive. 

I thought I would start sharing some of my rough notes to help others with understanding scripture or sermon prep.  Here is my introduction from our April service where I interviewed the owner of a local coffee shop that is making huge waves in our community by creating a safe and welcoming place that loves its neighbors well...

We have begun the evening a bit different.  Instead of our call to worship being a reading and response I wanted to share with you a song called, Eshet Ḥayil, that is traditionally sung in almost every Jewish community before the Friday night Shabbat meal to the woman of the house. (Search YouTube to find some amazing renditions.)  One Jewish woman describes it as a sign of respect and thanks for blessing their families with “energy and creativity”.  Before this week I had never heard this particular format of this very famous Bible passage, most likely because I’m not fluent in traditional Hebrew and I’m not Jewish.  I’m guessing that some of you here this evening are very familiar with it as well.  In the Western Christian church it is known as the Proverbs 31 woman and the Hebrew translation of Eshet Hayil is Woman of Valor.  Let me read it for you:

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?
She is more precious than rubies.
Her husband can trust her,
and she will greatly enrich his life.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She finds wool and flax
and busily spins it.
She is like a merchant’s ship,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up before dawn to prepare breakfast for her household
and plan the day’s work for her servant girls.
She goes to inspect a field and buys it;
with her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She is energetic and strong,
a hard worker.
She makes sure her dealings are profitable;
her lamp burns late into the night.
Her hands are busy spinning thread,
her fingers twisting fiber.
She extends a helping hand to the poor
and opens her arms to the needy.
She has no fear of winter for her household,
for everyone has warm clothes.
She makes her own bedspreads.
She dresses in fine linen and purple gowns.
Her husband is well known at the city gates,
where he sits with the other civic leaders.
She makes belted linen garments
and sashes to sell to the merchants.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.
When she speaks, her words are wise,
and she gives instructions with kindness.
She carefully watches everything in her household
and suffers nothing from laziness.
Her children stand and bless her.
Her husband praises her:
“There are many virtuous and capable women in the world,
but you surpass them all!”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last;
but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.
Reward her for all she has done.
Let her deeds publicly declare her praise.
In all honesty I do not know this evening’s guest very well.  We have met in person and have spoken a hand full of times and although just an acquaintance, she has such a hospitable personality that even after a brief encounter you leave feeling warm and as if you have a friend, someone to be on your side.  When I was thinking about how to introduce her, the thought of Proverbs 31 popped into my head because this woman is a Rockstar.  She seems to balance life well and if Proverbs 31 was a checklist, she seemingly would have every box checked.  Even though the passage was correct about her, I couldn’t figure out how to tie in this evening’s topic of Creating Space for Community or how to make it relevant to everyone else here tonight.  That was until I started looking into the meaning and context of Proverbs 31.  It then was no longer about a woman who was phenomenal and has her stuff together but was about the characteristic of valor. Valor is defined by as “boldness or determination in facing great danger, especially in battle; heroic courage; bravery”.  Valor.  That we could all strive for—male or female.  The byproduct of living a brave life is community!  It seemed like a win-win so bear with me for a few while I give you some insight on how I came to this conclusion.

You are going to need to be familiar with the book of the Bible that this passage comes from.  It’s obviously from the book of Proverbs.  It is considered a wisdom book of the Bible.  It’s main author is King Solomon with two other authors mentioned. The passage we have read tonight is attributed to King Lemuel whom some scholars believe was a pen name used by Solomon.  The purpose of this particular book Solomon says is to gain wisdom and to behave in ways that are just, right and fair. He writes it to his sons. In Chapter 1 and throughout the first part of the book a woman is spoken about.  Wisdom.  Was this an actual woman? No.  Solomon personified wisdom as a woman, most likely because the Hebrew language has grammatical gender unlike English.  So we are introduced to this woman, Wisdom, and according to King Solomon we should want to be around and she wants to be around us too, she is actually calling for us.  But then this other woman is introduced, the Adulterous Woman and she is calling to us as well, we are to avoid her because she is going to ruin our life, make no doubt about it.  The father instructs his son to cling instead to his Wife. Is the Adulterous Woman a real woman? No, she is meant to represent the pursuit of idolatry and sin. So then what does the Wife represent?  I believe that is answered at the end of the book. Proverbs takes a turn from its poetic prose and gives us some great chapters of pithy wisdom before ending in Chapter 31.  This chapter is claimed to be written by King Lemuel and is inspired by his mother words.  He starts off with warning against the woman who will derail you from your job and will only destroy you.  His mama-inspired words instead give great advice about staying the course and living a life that is just, right and fair like we heard in the first chapter.  She tells him to find a Woman of Valor and here we are…. Proverbs 31:10-31.  Although it doesn’t read like poetry in our English translations Eshet Ḥayil was in fact written as a poem.  In its original Hebrew it is written in the form of an acrostic, the twenty-two verses composing it each start with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The passage also contains the poetic device of chiasm, meaning it uses parallel lines that have corresponding themes.  The website Glory Books explains it this way: “The parallels are not one after the other; instead, the top line and the bottom line are parallel, then the second line and the next to last line are parallel, and so on.  The very middle line is the emphasis — the main focus of the poem.”  If you were to diagram this out with indentations it would look something like an arrowhead with the tip being the main takeaway.

So what is the main takeaway? I will have you wait a minute for the reveal. For years I have sat in a pew and heard this passage preached as an ideal goal for womanhood. I heard it read like an ancient Tinder profile for Christian men to seek out.  It boiled down in my mind: women, be the infamous Proverbs 31 woman; and men, go get chu one.  What I discovered is that some commentators do not believe that this woman of Valor was and actual person rather the personification of Valor.  Given what we just learned about Proverbs this makes sense!  Now I see this passage as a Word for all of us, female and male, to be and get. The ancient Torah reader would have immediately drawn parallels between the woman of Valor that Proverbs 31 is about and the female personification of wisdom and immorality in the beginning of the book.  Valor although personified as a wife and mother, is neither, rather it is a character trait to be clung to and loved as if it were one of these dear relationships.  The real-life practical example of a Woman of Valor would appear in another part of the Old Testament in the book of Ruth.  Ruth was a Moabite woman who lost it all; her husband died, her brother-in-law died, her father-in-law died. So in ancient culture they were pretty much doomed. It was just Ruth and a severely depressed Jewish mother-in-law that weren’t sure how they were going to survive.  Thankfully they did given their wisdom and valor.  Ruth greatly lacked the prestige and wealth of the proverbs 31 woman’s luxurious life, yet she is the only real-life woman ascribed this title in scripture--woman of valor. She cements the central lesson of Proverbs 31 with her story and exemplary character.  Interestingly enough, her future man Boaz is described as a Man of Valor as well in the book of Ruth.  If you have never read their love story take a look at the Book of Ruth.

Still with me?  Here is where I get a little Bible nerdy on you, okay, maybe a lit bit more Bible nerdy. The word valor or Chayil  in Hebrew is formed by three individual characters the first means "under strong leadership"; the second "performing a mighty work"; the third "providing a place of protection".  We as women and men are to ascribe to the virtues personified in the book of Proverbs, both wisdom and valor.  Wise protectors doing mighty works under the authority of God.
So going back to the chiastic takeaway of Proverbs 31? To bring honor to her husband.  Before anyone gets upset over this main point, I want to remind you that this was written in and to a man dominated paternalistic culture.  I believe the Bible time and time again gives validity and approval to the work, gifts and contributions of women.  The Bible is a book that when read properly, demands a mutual respect of everyone to include and especially when it comes to marriage.  And as much as I love my husband Brian, and believe that together we are better, I do not believe that worth comes from marriage; after all Paul wrote that he wishes we all had the gift of celibacy.  So what to make of it? As a Christian with access to both Old and New Testaments and a knowledge of Jesus, when reading this my mind immediately goes to the symbolism Paul uses for the relationship between the church and Jesus which is marriage.  The ancient church was not a building, rather a strong interconnected community of individuals that believed in Christ and serving others.  Today, we here at Discover Depth, hold tightly to the belief that this building where we sit is just a facility and the church is each person individually and collectively serving and loving others from the overflow of God’s love for us.  So, If we use the symbolism of being married to Christ, then the main point of Proverbs 31, the tip of the Chiastic arrow for everyone, is to honor God.

Our guest tonight is an amazing Woman of Valor.  She has created a space for community within our town that I believe is a needed and mighty work.  Those that sit in the coziness of the café created by her family feel at home and protected.  Her kindness and concern for others radiates Jesus.  And her wisdom and discernment have helped her to create the number one coffee shop in all of Cecil County.  Please help me welcome wife, mama, entrepreneur and Rise n’ Grind owner Angelina Vanderhoef.

Angie and Erica

Want to read more on Biblical womanhood?  Read this by the late Rachel Held Evan's: A Year of Biblical Womanhood
(The above is an affiliate link for Amazon, meaning I will receive a small percentage of the sale if you purchase through that link.  Rather just order it without an affiliate link? That's cool, click here.)

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