You’ve probably heard about the “Proverbs 31 woman”—this icon of Christian womanhood—but how much do you really know about her? The more I’ve studied her, the more I’ve discovered that many people don’t really understand this intriguing passage of scripture. Have you believed any of these myths?

“We’re all living in the shadow of that infamous icon, “The Proverbs 31 Woman,” whose life is so busy I wonder, when does she have time for friendships, for taking walks, or reading good books? Her light never goes out at night? When does she have sex? Somehow she has sanctified the shame most women live under biblical proof that yet again we don’t measure up. Is that supposed to be godly—that sense that you are a failure as a woman?” — John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, p. 6. Oh, the “Proverbs 31 woman.” I have a bit of a fascination with her, and so do others. Ministries and businesses are named after her. Some women love her. Many aspire to be her. Others feel guilt and worthlessness; some despise her. Do we really understand her? Captivating by John and Staci Eldredge, is all about women living to their full potential, the way God created them to be. It’s worth reading if you want to explore the heart of biblical femininity. The quote pretty much slams the near-goddess status of Mrs. 31. It says, “she has sanctified the shame.” But has she? Or have we? I don’t think the Eldredges’ intent was to pick apart the woman herself (this is in the Bible, after all), but rather to pick apart the common way she is perceived. And I agree that this idea of a woman who is too good for the rest of us to imitate is a false understanding of biblical womanhood. The more I’ve dug into Proverbs 31, I’ve discovered that I was missing much of what it communicates. It is difficult to understand at face value, which is why I think so many of us have a knee-jerk response when we read it. Want to understand this passage better, and ditch the guilt and shame? Throw out some of the following myths.

1. Proverbs 31 was written for young wives Who do you think this passage was originally written for? You might be in for a shock. It was written for a young man. It is not an instruction manual for wives; its purpose is to provide a young man a vision for what he should look for in a wife. It makes a lot more sense when you view Proverbs 31 as what it was intended to be—an epilogue, a conclusion—rather than a stand-alone passage. Proverbs is a collection of sayings that contrast wisdom with folly; many of them are written as warnings to young men to let wisdom and godliness guide them instead of their lusts. That’s not to say that there aren’t applications for women; why shouldn’t we aspire to the godly characteristics displayed here? But the purpose of the passage isn’t to provide an impossible standard; it’s to provide inspiration for the possibilities.

2. She was a real person (wasn’t she?) Wouldn’t we like to know whether the person portrayed here was a flesh-and-blood being? I think it’s possible that someone, or more than one person, was the real-life inspiration for these words—otherwise, why would you instruct a man to marry an ideal woman who couldn’t exist? But on the other hand, the Proverbs 31 woman is the fourth somewhat allegorical female personage in the book of Proverbs (following Wisdom, Folly and the Adulteress). So there may have been some creative liberties in describing her, even if she was real. If you’re wrestling with this question of whether or not she was real, my question to you is, does it matter? Sometimes the Bible uses real people to communicate truth and sometimes it uses symbols and parables. That doesn’t change the core principles of the message being communicated, which we’ll explore.

3. She has always had her act together When I was a newlywed I barely knew how cook. But I wanted to be great at it because I knew it would make my husband happy. One time I made blueberry muffins—my husband’s favorite—and left out the baking powder. Ewwww. Rookie mistake. I was devastated and he was bewildered as to why his wife was crying over something so trivial. Fortunately, I rarely (not never!) make that same mistake anymore. Being a competent wife/mother/homemaker/whatever takes time. It doesn’t matter how hard you try or even how naturally talented you are; you will only learn through experience. Proverbs 31 is not a snapshot of a newlywed. This woman has been married long enough to have multiple children and run a couple of side businesses while skillfully managing her household. In other words, she’s older. Remember, if this was written to a young man, he probably wasn’t going to go out looking for a forty-year-old with lots of life experience. He was going to be looking for someone young who had the potential to grow into that mature, godly wife. Keep that in mind as we continue.

4. She rarely sleeps How in the world can someone get up while it is still dark to make everyone breakfast (v. 15), and yet “her lamp does not go out at night” (v. 18)? Certainly every mom has some sleepless nights like that, but the passage seems to imply an ongoing state. This is where cultural insight is useful. How would you get around at night if you didn’t have electricity? An oil lamp would come in handy if you had to use the latrine. It’s common in societies without electricity to leave a lamp burning at night, even while you sleep, so people don’t have to fumble around in complete blackness. So why is it significant that her lamp does not go out? Consider verse 18 in its entirety: “She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” Her side hustles are making enough money to keep everyone comfortable! She is also wise enough to ration the oil so it doesn’t run out (see the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25). Read more…