What If Proverbs 31 Were About a Man?
Growing up in church, I heard a lot about the "Proverbs 31 woman". If you're unfamiliar with the concept, there's a lengthy passage in the book of Proverbs that details the characteristics of a God-honoring woman.
Often, this passage is used as an unobtainable measuring stick for women; a list of qualities that should be cultivated in the life of Christian (married) women.
What I always found interesting about the Proverbs 31 passage was that it was surprisingly gender neutral in its content. Yes, it clearly is speaking about a woman, but everything that is listed could just as easily be said about a man. Consider this list of virtues I pulled from the text:
6) Good steward
Many of these descriptors defy stereotypical/traditional gender norms, especially when it comes to women. And that's part of the reason why I love Proverbs 31 so much. Yes, I realize it can seem like a bar that is set too high, but I prefer to look at it as a set of ideals that challenge pre-conceived notions about womanhood, manhood, and gender.
The woman in the passage is described as strong, entrepreneurial, managerial, trust-worthy, hard-working, resourceful, and well-known. She is also described as a teacher: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and loving instruction is on her tongue."
The Proverbs 31 woman is not a quiet, submissive house wife who lets her husband do the leading. Rather, she is on the forefront of leadership in and outside of the home.
Not Just For Women
Proverbs 31 is always thought to be a passage directed at women, but I believe it has a lot it can teach men too, especially if we get a little creative with it.
At the beginning of this post, I said that Proverbs 31 was surprisingly gender neutral, and I believe men can be challenged by reading it with this in mind.
So, let's do just that. Let's read Proverbs 31, but let's swap the gender pronouns to make it as if it were written about a man:
The Proverbs 31 Man
10 An excellent husband who can find?
He is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of his wife trusts in him,
and she will have no lack of gain.
12 He does her good, and not harm,
all the days of his life.
13 He seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 He is like the ships of the merchant;
He brings his food from afar.
15 He rises while it is yet night
and provides food for his household
and portions for his servants.
16 He considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of his hands he plants a vineyard.
17 He dresses himself[e] with strength
and makes his arms strong.
18 He perceives that his merchandise is profitable.
His lamp does not go out at night.
19 He puts his hands to the distaff,
and his hands hold the spindle.
20 He opens his hand to the poor
and reaches out his hands to the needy.
21 He is not afraid of snow for his household,
for all his household are clothed in scarlet.[f]
22 He makes bed coverings for himself;
His clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 His wife is known in the gates
when she sits among the elders of the land.
24 He makes linen garments and sells them;
He delivers sashes to the merchant.
25 Strength and dignity are his clothing,
and he laughs at the time to come.
26 He opens his mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on his tongue.
27 He looks well to the ways of his household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 His children rise up and call him blessed;
His wife also, and she praises him:
29 “Many men have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a man who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give him the fruit of his hands,
and let his works praise him in the gates.
How did it feel reading it in this way? Was it strange? Did it make you feel uncomfortable? Or, did it seem like a perfectly normal description of an honorable man?
Ultimately, the qualities referenced in Proverbs 31 should be present in the lives of all Christians. These are not gender-based qualities. Rather, they are gender-neutral fruits of the spirit.
Far too often, our society and our churches want to make strong distinctions between what men and women are like: "women are from Venus, men are from Mars" or "men are like waffles, women are like spaghetti".
I firmly believe that distinctions like these are anti-Gospel. Why? Because they simply aren't good news. They breed division and marginalize the people who don't fit narrow categories.
As I said on Twitter yesterday, men and woman are not set-apart entities that are "like" separate things. Both are like God because they were created in God's image.
Are men and women identical without any differences whatsoever? Of course not. However, much of what is taught on the subject of "biblical" manhood and womanhood is actually cultural teaching. No more, no less.
Gender norms and stereotypes are different all over the world and all throughout history.
The diversity we see within humanity surely reflects our creative and complex God. And remember, God also displays attributes that our society would deem feminine and masculine.
But, that's another subject for another time.