Some scholars find the poetic description in Proverbs 31:10-31 of the so-called “Proverbs 31 woman” demeaning to women. Joseph Blenkinsopp says the biblical passage is “the petit bourgeois portrait of the ideal wife…, or perhaps…an unattainable, male fantasy of the perfect spouse, who does her husband proud and brings up a clutch of perfectly adorable children while engaged in a daunting range of managerial tasks.”
But I don’t think it’s the description in Proverbs that is demeaning; the problem is the ultra-conservative interpretation of it used so often by Christian men to enforce control in the home.
Ellen F. Davis, a professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, helped me see this. In her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Davis an extraordinary chapter that profoundly reinterprets Proverbs 31 through an agrarian lens, showing us just how radical it was…and can still be.
Proverbs 31, writes Davis, set an ideal “before a whole people living on the edge of subsistence: women householders deprived of the benefit of adult male labor, perhaps for months; men conscripted for [military] service away from home.” The Proverbs 31 woman possesses an “intelligence bred through generations of work done in particular places, with particular materials, in response to concrete and immediate problems.” These practical skills are protective of the life of the community. They are also deeply subversive of the claims of the imperial economy, which dominated Israel in the post-exilic period and dominate our society today. Thus the “capable wife” of my conservative upbringing becomes the “valorous woman” (a more accurate translation) undermining empire and the economic status quo.
My own beloved embodies this tradition. “She plans a field and takes it; by the fruit of her palms she plants a vineyard.”
While Kate and Libby were away last week – Kate in Denver, Libby in L.A. – I spent some time with Molly in the garden. We’ve expanded the garden this year; it now extends along the entire western side of the house. We planted lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and some other herbs and things I can’t remember because it’s getting late. We worked with our landlord to construct a pea trellis that is at least three times the size of last year. (We also moved the peas across the driveway. They were too close to the house last year. They were hard to reach and we think the heat radiating from the brick walls reduced the quality and quantity of the harvest.) The squash we planted in front, and we have twelve strawberry plants blossoming beneath the fir trees out back.
Walking with Molly through the garden, spraying her with the hose as I watered the plants, watching her smell all twenty marigolds and tweak the nose of the gargoyle our landlord installed in the garden for good luck, watching the peas wrap their tendrils around the trellis as if in real time – I thanked God for the sun and rain, the air and the wind and the bee. I sang with St. Francis, “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”
I thanked God also for Kate who helped transform concrete and Oregon clay into a prosperous patch of life. Kate has put the most time, energy, and creativity into the garden. Earlier this year she recycled an old bookshelf and an antique window to create a cold frame so we could prepare our own starters. She planted most of the garden while I was on a business trip. She is out there most every day weeding, watering, and some days I think just playing in the dirt like she is seven years old again and back on her parents’ Northern California homestead.
Kate is equipped with the skills of practical and sustainable living. (My talents are more cerebral and, let’s face it, less useful.) If we ever have a chance to escape urban life, Kate will really thrive. We’ll all thrive. When Kate was in the garden with Molly today, Molly reached out and picked a bunch of broccoli, which is just beginning to flower, and she ate it. Later in the evening, the three of us sat down to dinner, a salad made from lettuce that had been growing on the stalk just minutes before. Molly looked skeptically at the lettuce. We told her it was fresh from the garden. She ate it then and she loved it.