If you read books or articles about how to read the Bible, one thing that is always mentioned is “the plain reading of the text”. A plain reading is just what you think it is- the text means what it says.We take the text at face value. For example, “Jesus wept” means Jesus wept. On the other hand, a plain reading may not work as well for when the psalmist writes that the trees clap their hands. Trees don’t have hands, a literal reading doesn’t make sense. We know that poetry requires a different sort of reading and interpretation.
None of this is news. The church has always held that there may be a variety of faithful ways to read a particular portion of the Bible. Actually this idea doesn’t begin with the church; Judaism has long embraced the idea that there are various ways of reading scripture.
It makes sense to me that we ought to, from time to time, reassess the texts that often receive a plain reading. Might there be another faithful way to read?
This brings us to Proverbs 31: 10-31. Take a moment and read it. What is it about?
If you clicked on the link, you received some interpretive “help” from the editors of the NRSV. They give these verses a title- Ode to a Capable Wife. If you looked at some other translation your probably also received some interpretive “help”. Such as “The Competent Wife”, or “The Woman who Fears the Lord”, or “In Praise of a Capable Wife”. Perhaps the editors of your particular version offered these titles. Description of a Worthy Woman”. The Wife of Noble Character”.”The Virtuous Wife”. “Hymn to a Good Wife”. These titles are additions by the editors of the particular Bible you use. They were not, ever, part of the original text. They have been added to be helpful. The goal is to give the reader some orientation to what they are about to read.
These titles reflect a literal reading of the text but is a literal reading the only or the most helpful way to read this text? Perhaps these titles actually don’t help us think more deeply about the text.
So what do you think? What questions do you bring to these verses?
The first question we might have is, does this text define what women must be? Or is it meant to describe the reality of women? Or is it meant to open up possibilities for women? Are women being held to impossible standards or are they offered the opportunity to flourish?
Is it significant that the person in these verses is a women? Does the use of female nouns and pronouns mean this text only for women? Consider texts that have male nouns and pronouns. Are women automatically excluded from them? How do we decide who a text is written for?
Earlier in Proverbs (see chapters 1, 8 and 9), Wisdom is personified as a woman. Is it possible that the woman of Proverbs 31 is also wisdom? Could this be a text that describes the life of a wise person?
The Hebrew word used in these verses can be translated as “wife”, “woman” or “female”. Since the Hebrew word is less precise and more flexible than English, the translators have to make some decisions about which English word is more appropriate. Does using “wife” instead of “woman” or “woman” rather than “wife” make a difference to you? Does it significantly change the meaning of these verses?
There is a way in which asking these questions makes reading Proverbs 31 more difficult. But it also makes the text much more interesting. At least, that’s what I think. I’d like to know, what do you think?
Edited on November 12 in response to the helpful comments of a reader.