I’ve been thinking a lot about True Womanhood lately. What defines the essence of womanhood, and what ideal should we hold up to our daughters of how their lives should look?
There seems to be a lot of confusion in our world, and even among Christian circles, about what True Womanhood is. Many people, a lot of them men, have defined their ideals and held them up highly as qualifications for the great title of True Woman, everything from woman as a flawless beauty whose character is defined solely by her sensuality to woman as a meek and mild home-body whose greatest calling is to her husband and children. Just as the secular culture demands that true women either over-emphasize their sexuality or their professional achievements, conservative circles often fail to see a woman’s value outside of her roles as wife and mother. And yet, in both of these extremes, I see woman being defined by how she meets someone else’s needs, as if she has no identity or calling outside of that.
It’s clear that there are many, many women wandering through life confused by the polarizing definitions often flung at them. How does one become a True Woman? Our daughters need a target, as do we.
Christian leaders often hold up the passages of Paul as prescriptions of True Womanhood, insisting that a True Woman is a wife and mother, busy at home. This, as an exclusive definition, does not sit well with me. It misses women like Mother Teresa and Condaleeza Rice, and so many in between.
Many of the women we find in the Bible, women held up as praise-worthy and honorable, are not “busy at home.” If they had been, they would have missed their calling. One thinks of Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite, Deborah the Judge of Israel, Esther the Queen. And in the New Testament there’s Anna, the prophetess who lived and worshiped in the temple, and Mary Magdalene, and the women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry: Joanna and Susanna, and the women who were active leaders in the early church: Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, and others. And of course, Dorcas who cared for the poor, and Lydia, the business woman who used her influence for Christ’s kingdom. All of these women should be called True Women, even though we don’t think of them as wives and mothers.
But then there are the wives and mothers, the homemakers of the Bible, who used their lives at home as a vehicle to serve their Lord. We think of Noah’s wife, and of Sarah and Leah, of Jael, who killed Israel’s enemy in her home with a tent peg, and of course of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth, and Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.
In considering all of these women, I think we must agree that we cannot fit True Womanhood into a box or define it by a set of jobs. I love my roles of wife and mother, but I don’t believe they are what made me pleasing to God. They are two of the ways God has asked me to serve Him, but not the definition He has given me. And I think of my beautiful single friend, well-accomplished in her professional field. I do not feel that she has missed her calling; I believe she is exactly where God wants her to be. So professional or stay-at-home-mom, Secretary of State or soccer mom, it’s clear that we cannot qualify a True Woman by her accomplishments, nor by whether or not she is a wife and mother. So what else does the Bible say about womanhood?
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. I really enjoyed Rachel’s perspective throughout the book, but I most appreciated what she had to share about Proverbs 31.
One can’t search the Bible for True Womanhood without bumping into, or being run-over by, the Proverbs 31 Woman. Christians don’t quite know what to do with this elusive woman. She straddles domestic and professional life, and does it so stinkin’ well, that the rest of us are left baffled in her wake. Who is this mysterious woman, and how do we emulate her? Or are we even supposed to?
As Rachel points out, Christian women often study Proverbs 31 as a prescriptive text, making a to-do list out of her many accomplishments and then chastising themselves for not measuring up. This led Rachel to remark that, “most women walk around with the sense that they are disappointing someone.” During her research, Rachel discovered new insight into the Proverbs 31 Woman that turns this interpretation on its head. It seems that in the Jewish culture (the culture that has had the Old Testament for 2,000 years longer than us), Proverbs 31 is seen as an ode to women, instead of a command. Jewish husbands sing Proverbs 31 over their wives every Sabbath as a way of praising them. It’s a blessing to be given, rather than a title to be earned.
Jewish believers translate the Hebrew of the first line as, “A valorous woman, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.” A valorous woman. What does that even mean? The Hebrew word for valor, “chayil,” is defined as strength, might, and ability in wealth or war. The word is often used in the Old Testament to describe the mighty army of Israel or warriors that are particularly brave or skillful. In fact, in the original Hebrew, the structure of the poem mimics the structure of the heroic poems that were popular in that day. As one writer notes, “the valorous wife is a heroic figure, used by God to do good for His people.” This is the definition of True Womanhood that rings truest to me: “a heroic figure, used by God to do good for His people.”
Because of this, Jewish people use the term “Eshet Chayil” (woman of valor) as highest praise for a woman who has used her strength and skill to bless others and to serve her God. Women don’t achieve this, they are this. It’s a praise that celebrates both the mundane and the exceptional.
• Make a Christmas Tree on a wall out of a paper chain and tinsel? Eshet Chayil!
• Chase a rat out of your house with a broom? Eshet Chayil!
• Stretch a meal to feed those extra guests? Woman of Valor!
• Work full-time while your husband finishes school? Eshet Chayil!
• Pack a family of five for vacation, including arranging the trunk space “just right?” Eshet Chayil!
• Teach a classroom of first-graders to read and write? Eshet Chayil!
• Make straight A’s in grad school while mothering three children? Woman of Valor!
• Spend hours studying the Word so that you can teach and encourage others? Woman of Valor!
• Stay on bed rest for three months to keep your baby from arriving early? Eshet Chayil!
• Drive a school bus to put your kids through college? Eshet Chayil!
• Start a non-profit to aid orphans and widows? Woman of Valor!
• Minister to the oppressed and needy who cross your path? Eshet Chayil!
Whether mopping her floor, counseling a friend, or performing heart surgery, a Woman of Valor tackles the task before her with confidence and capability.
And while Proverbs 31 celebrates the ways God uses women to bless others on a daily basis, it also reminds us that God clothes woman with strength and dignity, a strength that surfaces when it is most needed, and when others fall silent. A Woman of Valor rises to the occasion in the darkest moments. Death, destruction, and tragedy do not intimidate her because she stands firm in her Lord. We remember that it was women, on the darkest day of history, who stayed at the cross. And, because of that, it was women who first heard and shared the joy of the Resurrection.
A Woman of Valor steps into catastrophe with calmness and dignity. She reaches out to the hurting, and invites the grieving into her home. She does not wring her hands in despair, but acts with confidence. Eshet Chayil!
A Woman of Valor stays patient through life’s long trials. She does not give in or give up. Her confidence is in the Lord, not in her circumstances. She clings to hope, even when hope seems hidden. She knows that great pain births great joy. Eshet Chayil!
A Woman of Valor laughs at the days to come, because she knows Who holds her future. She knows that in the end, joy triumphs, so she will not be anxious or despair. What can man do to her? Eshet Chayil!
A Woman of Valor instructs those around her with kindness and wisdom. The words of her mouth are encouraging and uplifting. She brings out the best in those that love her. Eshet Chayil!
A Woman of Valor is God’s vessel of grace to the hurting world around her. She has the balm for every injury because she knows the Great Physician. She is friend to the stranger, mother to the orphan, nurse to the afflicted, and comforter to the hurting. She serves her husband, her children, her neighbors, her coworkers, her friends, her brothers and sisters, and even her enemies because she knows that as she serves them she is really serving her Lord. She is His good and faithful servant. Eshet Chayil!
I want to raise my sweet daughter to be a Woman of Valor. Today she says she wants to be a wife and mother, and I hope that those blessings are in her future, but I also know that God has a vital role for her to play in His Kingdom, regardless of whether she marries and births children. I also know that my time of mothering children in my home is limited, as one wise woman once reminded me. God still has a great work for me to do even after I “retire” from my current one.