I've just finished preparing a lecture for my students which goes by the rather riveting title "OT Exegesis X - The Hebrew Verb": I can tell you are fascinated!!!
Just before you nod off, I want to pay tribute to my fellow-blogger, Joel Hart, for his recent, in-depth, stimulating piece on this important subject, last week - what I want to write is, I assure you, NOT by way of contradiction, BUT rather addition.
I fully concur with his well-founded concern both for guys and girls: if would-be wife-hunters or home-builders were to take Proverbs 31 TOO literally (with the exception, perhaps, of the odd superhuman, Wonder-Woman), it would invite breakdown, frustration, delusion, hypocrisy, self-deception or all of these, at very least. Imprecision here is, I suggest, a path to domestic heartbreak or headache!
Undoubtedly, also, the wisdom-woman word-play, which permeates the Book of Proverbs, does provide an important key to the manner in which such godliness is pursued (certainly all parts of Holy Writ are for the benefit of the male and female of the species). If Christ is wisdom incarnate, embodied, mediated and exalted, He has all the grace to empower such noble lives of Christian godliness.
Back to Hebrew
At this juncture, however, I do want to add a footnote, derived from my afternoon Hebrew studies on this text of Proverbs 31: if what seems to me a fairly robust proposal of another is correct, verb tense, aspect and kind (what German scholars call aktionsart) will diffuse much light and tension in our homes, and bode well for genuinely consistent, productive and wisdom-personified wives.
Some Key Features of this Text
There are, at least, 4 noteworthy points that, I think, we need to throw into the mix: they all concern the original text of Proverbs 31 - if you bear with me, readers, just a little longer (I'm going to attempt to be very brief), I suspect you may be helped to get a more realistic take on one facet of this text.
In what follows I claim no originality! Rather, I stand on the shoulders, and am in the debt, of Jason DeRouchie - I unearthed these gold nuggets in his slightly challenging text "How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament." What follows are remarks about the Hebrew (no prior knowledge is required!):
Proverbs 31 is certainly the IDEAL description, first and foremost, of the godly wife: each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew Alphabet - that is really Hebrew code, at least in this case, for "the Last Word on the Subject" of the Wise, Godly, Wife (at least from an Old Testament perspective)!
Another Old Testament Scholar, Duane Garrett, has noted that this whole passage is structured in a chiastic fashion: that is just fancy "scholar-speak" for where the subjects covered verse-by-verse in the passage are deliberately and carefully arranged into an ABCDEFGfedcba shaped-pattern. A diagram of an arrowhead with the letter G in bold at the tip, allows us, perhaps, to get a better picture in our minds, of what I'm trying to convey.
Now what I find fascinating about this suggested chiasm is this: that the G in bold is the only line that puts the focus on prospective husbands or public male admirers of this wisest of women; all the other statements in the poem relate to, or depict, the activity or effect of this ideal wife. In my judgment, if the ACROSTIC and CHIASMUS does not unite in a tidy pattern (often the case with these things), there does seem to be a thematic structure which places male observers at the heart of the poem. Whether or not the view of Garrett can be maintained, the next point is very substantial.
Almost all the verbs in this passage would, in normal contexts, be translated as an English past tense (28 out of 33): it does seem a little unusual, as DeRouchie points out, that the 5 outlying verbs (which can all be fairly translated as continual or habitual actions in the past - in a past-time context) are cast, instead, as continuous present tenses, and drive most printed translations to switch the other regular past tenses (very curiously and atypically indeed) as present tense verbs.
Complicated, I know - so let me simplify it a little: instead of saying this women did this or that at various points in the past, they strike terror into the hearts of exhausted wives by suggesting that this is what every good woman should be doing constantly in the present, day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month, without a break! It seems to be the case that, for the best of reasons no doubt, that what is portrayed as present should actually, if DeRouchie is correct, be recast, rather, as an extended period in the past!
In other words, if we take the Hebrew grammar strictly & seriously , we should (almost certainly) take this NOT as what this woman is to be every day throughout her married life, BUT rather as the track-record of what this woman was and has become, over the course of her life, as now well-recognized by her children and spouse. Or to put it another way, (ladies, at this point, can heave a sigh of relief), this is not a daily regime or schedule, but a lifetime recognition award, presented in public, by her husband and family - and all done through the wisdom of God. Or finally, this is NOT A DIARY BUT A MEMORY.
- This does NOT mean that any of us can take our foot ofF the gas, spiritually-speaking, or relax, for a moment, when it comes to godliness.
- This DOES mean that men have to be more realistic in their expectations - prospecting males are going to get exhausted in the search for such a bride (unless they are planning to marry an older widow), while unrealistic, ridiculously-over-expectant, unfairly-demanding, husbands are, in all likelihood, going to invite misery on their wives or drive them into the ground.
- This DOES mean that there will, by the grace of the Gospel, which makes us wise for salvation, be many, many, many godly homes throughout the world were children and husband taste the sweetness of maternal and marital love - with the passage of years, a few greying hairs, and anniversary celebrations they will become a family choir that is only too happy to confess the truth in public: that the mum who brought them into the world and reared and cared for them throughout their early years, and girl they married and with whom they shared their life, has become in Christ, a lovely, remarkable, model of womanly, godly, wisdom.
- This DOES mean that we should all confess, both male and female, the folly of our sinful and ignorant misjudgments and mistakes: we ought to pray fervently for all wise grace in Christ, for ourselves and our parents, children and spouses, that we would increasingly and historically model godliness to the world that reflects the love of Christ for His Church.
- Finally, this DOES mean that we should each give thanks to God for all the love we have known from godly women in our homes, family circles and in the Household of Faith. "Behind every good man" it is said "is a good woman."
10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. 15 She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Prov. 31:10-31 ESV)
Many of my readers will be only too happy, to the glory of God's grace, to pay tribute to grandmothers, moms, aunts and friends, along with wives and sisters, who have modelled godliness and lived the wisdom of Christ to us.