I like to have snazzy introductory stories for sermons. Something to really hook y’all in. But I didn’t like what I came up with for this sermon. So instead I’m just going to preach. Consider this the “insert intro here” part. Just know that if I’d done this well, you would have laughed and were hooked immediately.
Mandi inspired me last week to take a deep dive into Proverbs, and I think Proverbs has a lot to say (and say by not saying) about something near and dear to my heart: the influence of the patriarchy on how we interpret and understand Scripture.
I’d like to focus this discussion on an often misunderstood and misinterpreted phrase: biblical womanhood.
There are certain words or phrases that we can say that evoke images and feelings; visceral feelings for some of us. For me, and many who have spent time in a conservative church, the phrase “biblical womanhood” is one such phrase.
Readings such as the one with have from Proverbs from today have been used to shape the idea of what is biblical womanhood for centuries. Centuries where the only ones who were given permission to read, interpret and teach Scripture were cis-gendered men.
For those who don’t know, cisgender refers to identifying with the gender assigned to you at birth.
Biblical womanhood. I don’t know about you all, but what comes into my mind is a 1950’s housewife with perfect hair who does everything in the house, makes it so her husband never has to do anything but work and sleep, and never complains.
Honestly, I have no idea where this came from.
Because when I read the Bible, I see the bond of Naomi and Ruth; I see how Mary’s brave was bigger than her fear in having Jesus as an unwed teenager; I hear the voice of Mariam writing poetry and singing hymns that her brothers (Moses and Aaron) get credit for; I see Jael and her ability to save her entire people by drugging and then driving a tent peg through a conquering general’s skull.
I see how Mary Magdalene was made to be a sex worker to discredit her, rather than venerated as the disciple to the disciples and a woman who helped love Christianity into existence.
And this Proverbs reading.
When I read this reading this week I thought two things to myself:
- This was clearly written by a man; and,
- This is who we should ALL strive to be.
I’d like to point out that this reading is actually an acrostic poem, meaning the first letter of each line is an alphabetical list of the Hebrew alaf-bet. So, this is the “a,b,c’s of” biblical womanhood.
This is also a highly privileged woman. We don’t have it in this portion of the reading, but these words are being said by a queen to her son as he looks for his queen.
And the queen should have courage and valor. She should be trustworthy. She should be fierce. Honest. Strong. Capable. Intelligent. Skilled. Able to support herself but with her husband out of choice. She provides for the family and herself. She speaks her mind and will quite literally gird her loins for battle. A battle she is perfectly capable of winning.
But she is not necessarily a person who meets an artificially decided standard of beauty, nor is she described as being an obedient, well dressed, person who’s job is to make children and dinner without ever saying a word in disagreement to her husband.
There are some places where I think we can really see in this reading that it was written by a man. The woman literally never rests. She props up her husband and never herself. While she does things for herself, she only does them after caring for everyone else.
There are places where the Bible is written as though it is prescriptive of how people should live, when in reality it is descriptive of how people are living. And I think this reading is one of those descriptive places.
What this reading shows me is not that women must be dutiful housewives, but that the can be if they choose. That women can be fierce and incredible, and are capable of an incredible amount of live.
Since before history was being recorded, women’s tendency to love has made us seem weak to some. When in reality, what patriarchal societies have deemed weakness (love, compassion, self-sacrifice), is in reality a strength that allows the bravest among us to accomplish what is impossible. To care beyond ourselves. And to sacrifice when needed.
That sacrifice comes at a cost though. Readings like this miss that cost. They miss that at times even the strongest around us need to rest and recharge.
I wasn’t raised in a way that taught me to sacrifice myself for a man. But I was raised in a way that said the things we love are worth the sacrifice. I was also raised to be one of those tent peg women, but it has never come to that.
I think, and this is important, that love goes both ways. You give to love and love gives back.
While I was out recovering I watched several documentary shows about different English Football clubs. The fans of those clubs love them with a passion I’ve not seen equaled in American sports. Though love of Boston area fans for the Red Sox and Patriots comes close.
These clubs break their fans hearts on a regular basis. And they also give them moments of unbridled joy.
Children take a lot, but they find ways of giving joy and love back to their care providers.
Romantic relationships SHOULD be places where everyone can thrive, and where someone picks up extra slack with another or others within the relationship need help. Everyone should have the opportunity to grow, and to be supported in their growth.
Relationships that don’t do that, ones where one person is expected to just give all of themselves, to lose or diminish themselves, those are not healthy.
I think there’s a difference between the ideal woman as presented in this reading, the one who gives all of herself, but is still fierce and as able to go in to battle as she is able to weave and knit – there’s a difference between this woman and the ideal wife that has been passed down throughout the centuries as what a Christian woman should be.
Jesus told us to live like him. And he was strong, fierce, kind, compassionate, loving, giving, and also knew when it was time for self-care.
I think all of us should be like Jesus. I think this reading from Proverbs says that we should all be like Lady Wisdom. I think they both are lofty and difficult goals, but things we are perfectly capable of achieving.
This is the part where I would tie in that introduction that I didn’t write. So I’m going to skip that part and say: our homework for this week is to read from the book of Sirach. It’s in the Old Testament. It’s great. And one of my favorites. Go have some fun!