The poem in 31:10-31 is an acrostic, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Beyond reflecting the intricacy of beautiful design, this suggests a stylized discourse conveying a climactic point. The ode surely works at a literal level, and therefore—influenced as it is by Lemuel’s mother, no less—it has profound implications for assessing the portrayal of women in Proverbs.
Many a fundamentalist patriarch runs aground here—or should, anyway—when setting forth a simplistic vision of the postindustrial nuclear family, with no woman working outside the home as the exclusively biblical paradigm. To the contrary, the “Prov. 31 woman” is industrious in multiple senses, even as this household does not neglect care for children.
At the same time, the superlatives-with-acrostic character of the ode suggests another level of meaning beyond the literal. While it is important to see the possibility of embodying Lady Wisdom’s teachings in flesh and blood, her foil, Dame Folly, promoted not only literal license but also spiritual adultery. Likewise, it seems probable that in Prov. 31 we get a portrait of the ideal partner for the divine husband. The conclusion, regarding works that manifest the fear of the Lord, reinforces this.
Thus the person who learns the wisdom of Proverbs will be a boon to others—industrious, taking clever initiative, strong, caring for the needy, planning and preparing, enjoying a good reputation and results, teaching wisdom to others—as well as, ultimately, one who through these works expresses devotion to God. The spiritual interpretation calls God’s covenant people to render tangible service.
©2011 by Daniel J. Treier. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.