Sunday, 1 September 2013

Needed: Paradigm Shift

In the last few weeks as the online site I'm using has continued to expand its fruitless search off into far corners of North America (against my wishes) I have noticed a small paradigm shift in the language used to describe an ideal mate. It makes me wish there was a way I could have access to all the evangelical or marginally evangelical profiles on online dating sites as a way of examining the more general language around dating being used in those areas. It seems the Northwest is deep in the throws of gender politics, with very direct (yet with superfluous wording) in their beliefs of the roles of men and women.

Now as the matches are coming from the Southwest I've noticed a slightly different trend. It seems that Proverbs 31 is the new catch phrase.

So on that note we're going to have a teeny tiny exegetical moment, limited in large part by the fact that I do not currently have access to a library (you are SO lucky) but don't worry we'll probably do a tango with this topic instead of this middle dance version.

Being poetry there is a little more flexibility in the translations (using Biblegateway you can set up multiple parallel translations for free if you want to see where the differences are) so instead of critiquing the translations or the context or really anything that you would in a close exegetical reading, I'm going to look at the general structure and what being a Proverbs 31 woman entails.

If you read the whole of Proverbs 31 you'll notice before the writer(s) come to discussing this archetype or ideal, they discuss the imperative behaviour of her husband and just like Ephesians, we seem to do a very quick skip and a jump over those verses.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice." 31:8-9 (NLT) 

This imperative is echoed throughout scripture and yet it seems that we are not throwing this around as looking for a Proverbs 31 man... true it is not an imperative limited to just men, it should be for all. However, I do in situations like online dating find it telling that piece of text is being proof-texted rather than understood and conveyed in other ways.  But I think that will be clearer if we actually look at the text.

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. (31:10-27 NRSV)

I've highlighted some passages to pull out some of the main themes, one organization and provision - "provides food for her household," "merchandise is profitable" "her lamp does not go out at night," which is to say she has a enough oil and is prepared to ensure that there is light, "not afraid for her household when it snows," these are just a few of the instances. It is clear that she is the one in control, ensuring that their household is fed through the work of her hands and that they are clothed through that as well. She is a woman with hustle, serious dawn to dusk hustle. And yes that is a exegetical declaration that I would have no problem declaring from a pulpit.

The problem? 

Well I feel like this passage is a double edged sword - for women we read it and feel inadequate - I know I cannot manage a home and a job and provide like this woman could. And for these men who cite it, it is a pastoral (in the other meaning of the word) vision of their happy little housewife canning and sewing to her heart's content with babies crawling all over her. And yet is should never have become a sword. This passage is located in Proverbs - we need to understand the environment of the text, it is not a checklist by which we, as women, or for future partners hold their wives to.

Instead it should be seen as speaking to the spirit of a woman who wherever she is, at home with the kids or without children or with children and job outside the home, that she seeks to do her best at whatever she does, seeking the best choices, making wise financial decisions and acting with grace and compassion.  It does not declare what our titles must be but the spirit by which we act and the same goes for our partners, as seen in the earlier verses.

At the end of all this if you're about ready to weep or drink consider this courtesy of Hey Christian Girl: