As I’ve read and re-read this passage this week, one thought keeps popping into my head: Does her husband do anything? She rises before the dawn to provide for the household, she takes care of the servants, she brings the food from afar, she considers a field, buys it, and plants a vineyard, all the while weaving and sewing fine clothes for the household and to sell in the market. And she still finds time to volunteer and take care of the poor.
The NRSV translates that opening verse of this passage as “a capable wife who can find,” but she is obviously more than capable. A closer translation of the Hebrew for “capable wife” might be “woman of valor.” It has a military connotation, and so do a bunch other words in the passage, which makes this into a sort of heroic epic of a woman who gets things done. She is like the hero of a battle in the way she accomplishes her life. By the way, many of the things she does run counter to our ideas about “traditional women’s work.” She buys and owns property, and she works in the field. She runs her own business, makes deals, and manages employees. If we can make a distinction between Martha Stewart lifestyle magazine and Martha Stewart the business magnate, she’s more the latter than the former.
What is heroic about her is her lived, practical wisdom. The Book of Proverbs is all about wisdom. Where other wisdom books like Job and Ecclesiastes are more philosophical, Proverbs is practical. It was a teaching document, copied by scribes to teach them how to write and how to live at the same time. Job and Ecclesiastes ask questions about God and humanity in the universe. Proverbs tries to answer the question of how to build a life of dignity in the real world.
The woman valorized in Proverbs 31 is a personification of the traits of wisdom that Proverbs advocates. She embodies the practical thesis of the book: if you work hard and stay true to God, you will be rewarded with success. But of course success for her probably looked different from what it did for most other people. Assuming she’s a real person and not just an exemplar, she’s the wife of a noble. She has servants and international connections. She can get flax imported from Egypt. She has the money on hand to make an investment in a vineyard and wait until it starts to produce. She has a good education, she knows how to sew and dye and manage accounts. None of these things would have been possible or available for the slaves in her household. Or even for most of the people in the city where she lived. Simply put, she embodies valor, but she does so from the perspective of the 1%. And so when we try to translate this passage into God’s word for us, we have to translate not just from ancient times into modern, but into a different economic class. What does it look like to be a modern woman of valor? What does it meant to be a woman of valor who doesn’t have all these advantages?
As I’ve been thinking about this I’m reminded of some of the people in life who have passed on their own proverbs. My friend in Texas who taught me that baking bars of soap in the sun would make them last longer and how to stretch a meal’s worth of meat to a week. People online who shared that a gym membership can get you through a few weeks of homelessness without losing your job. My friends have taught me about navigating chronic illness and trying to get your school to recognize and address your child’s learning needs. They know how to succeed without stomping on someone to get there and how to make an omelet without breaking eggs. If you look in the true honest stories of every day people, you will find women of valor everywhere.
People who can negotiate debt better than any government.
People who have never held just one job.
People who know what an IEP is and exactly how many phone calls, threats, and cries it takes to get a plan put into action.
People who had no role models and so they became one.
People who have had to take kids to a work event and take work to a kid’s event.
People who fought for their own seat at the table, and then fought to let others join them.
Valiant heroes who have put their energy into making the best out of their life, without making anyone else’s life worse in order to do so.
Being a woman of valor (and really lets not limit this to people who identify as a woman, because in the modern world everyone is engaging in the work she does, and we all should emulate her model) is about learning what it takes to build a life of dignity for yourself and not others. If any of these are you, you are a person of valor, a hero in the book of life. It is not about making the perfect household. It is not about having it all. It is about figuring out the thing that you do and doing it with diligence and decency.
The reason I feel so confident saying all of these things about the woman of valor is because I know that only one woman outside of Proverbs is described as a woman of valor, and her life was far from perfect. And she did not have a household with servants and imported flax to weave and sell. Her husband got sick and died, and she moved in with her mother-in-law. She went on public assistance so they could have something to eat. Her children did not praise her, she was childless. Her name was Ruth. She was neither wife, nor mother, nor merchant. And yet, before he takes her as his wife, Boaz tells her, “the whole assembly knows you are a woman of valor.”
Children of God, your life does not be perfect to be honorable. Be brave. Be bold. Be unrepentant about who you are. Be ever willing to lend a helping hand, and never afraid to ask for one. But above all, live your life as if God cares about what you do with it, as if the people whose lives you touch matter, as if the mess of your daily life is a holy calling, because God does, they do, and it is. And someday the whole assembly, the whole community of saints will gather and proclaim that you lived a life of honor and valor, wherever your battlefield may have been.
 My take on this passage is heavily indebted to the work of Rachel Held Evans, especially here: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31