Finding a Woman of Noble Character

As Mother’s Day passes I think of Kathleen, my wife of 72 years, my daughter Carolyn, daughters-in-law June and Jan, and the younger mothers in the family seeking to follow in their train. I pay them all tribute with these words of wisdom from the passage behind this week’s blog.

Proverbs 31:10-31: Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all (verses 28-29).

This chapter is entitled in the New International Version “The Wife of Noble Character.” It is cast in the form of Hebrew poetry and is lodged in the ancient wisdom literature of the Bible.

There is nothing in this poem about faith or salvation or the life to come. Only once “the fear of the Lord” is mentioned. There is not even a word about romance. It focuses instead on the character and traits of the many noble women who are out there to be sought out.

Proverbs 31 was written well over two thousand years ago and yet appears to extol what I taught my children to look for in their life partners, whether husband or wife — strengths of head, heart, and hand. That is, look for someone who has a thoughtful grasp on life, who at the same time has deep moral and relational principles, and who is energetic and not afraid of hard work.

And in the case of this passage, when she is found she will bring blessings on her husband and family in their work and relationships. (The same could be said for seeking out a husband of noble character.)

I have read this wisdom poem many times across a lifetime, but my most recent reading left me at first perplexed: Where is the young woman who meets all these qualifications: She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family … (15). She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard (16). She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26). And so on. The demands on her are overwhelming. Can such specific qualifications be met?

But looking deeper into these many fine qualities sheds more light. I look more clearly and see that the issue is not the specific actions but the traits they represent: she is to be energetic, wise, resourceful, noble, and so forth. She has much to bring to a marriage, family, the work world, and society: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet (21).

The composer of this wisdom poem closes with a knife-sharp cautionary word plus a generous commendation.

The knife-sharp warning: Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting (30a). That is, as enticing as charm or beauty may be, don’t let them be primary goals in your search. Look rather for the deeper strengths of head, heart, and hand. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26).

The poet’s commendation follows: But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (30b). Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate (31). And don’t overlook the central requirement that she have a heart that fears the Lord.

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Photo credit: Vaughan Leiberum (via flickr.com)

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