The Book of Proverbs seems to be a collection of wisdom-bytes, organized in a desultory manner. This is an illusion. In its overall shape, Proverbs is a romantic comedy.
In the first nine chapters, Solomon describes two women who compete for his son’s affection. Lady Wisdom urges simpletons to abandon their simplicity and warns them of the consequences if they refuse to listen (1:20–33). Lady Folly entices young men to dangerous liaisons. Lady Wisdom offers food, while Lady Folly plots to lead the prince to slaughter (7:22). Solomon tells his son to flee Lady Folly and embrace Lady Wisdom (5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:6–27; 9:13–18). It’s a classic rom-com setup: A young man chooses between two women, one seductively transgressive, the other the kind of girl you take home to meet Mom. At the same time, he decides whether to listen to Dad or pursue his own bliss.
Proverbs concludes with an acrostic poem about the “excellent wife,” which reaches back to the portrait of Wisdom. Like Lady Wisdom, the wife’s value is far above jewels (v. 10; cf. 3:15; 8:11). Like Lady Wisdom, she offers food (31:15; cf. 9:2, 5). The excellent wife brings gain (31:11), just like Wisdom (cf. 3:14). Wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh (1:7), which is what animates the excellent wife (31:30). The prince’s queen is Lady Wisdom incarnate, tabernacled in a domestic space. We close the book with a contented sigh: The prince has chosen well, and the couple will live happily ever after.
The excellent wife manages a household, but, as many scholars have noted, she’s portrayed in heroic terms. She’s “valiant” and “strong,” like Pharaoh (Exod. 14:4; 15:4) or Yahweh himself (Exod. 15:2, 13; Judg. 5:21). She girds herself as if for battle, plunders, gathers prey, ascends to victory, stretches out a hand. She laughs in triumph, like a warrior taunting defeated enemies. A Hebraic Homer, the poet “extolls” her by immortalizing her in epic poetry (cf. Judg. 5:10; 11:40).
Women throughout time have done almost everything ascribed to the excellent wife—working with their hands, preparing food, rising at night to feed family members, purchasing property, haggling for the best merchandise at the best price, spinning yarn or sewing clothes, helping the poor.
Yet the excellent wife also gathers up the archetypal women of the Bible. The phrase “good and evil” (31:12) takes us back to Eden and its forbidden tree. The excellent wife is no Eve, who became a fool, a woman who could not be trusted, wife to a man who could not be trusted either. Eve saw the fruit of the tree was delightful to the eyes, good for food, and able to make one wise. The excellent wife assesses the value of what she buys (v. 18; the word is “taste”), but unlike Eve, knows not only what is good but also when to take and eat.
She buys a field for wheat and bread, and plants a vineyard for wine (Prov. 31:16). In the Hebrew Bible, most uses of “lamp” refer to the lamps of the tabernacle and temple (e.g., Exod. 25:37; 27:20; 1 Sam. 3:3; 1 Kings 7:49). Like the priests, the strong wife keeps a light burning through the night. She clothes her house with scarlet and purple (Prov. 31:21–22), colors of the sanctuary and priestly garments (Exod 25:4; 28:5–8). With her bread, wine, lamp, and rich fabrics, she is Israel, a type of the church, the new Eve, heroic bride to the Last Adam.
Throughout the Bible, history is secretly determined by what happens in the realm of women and children. Israel’s patriarchal narratives contain war stories, but are primarily family dramas about fertility and infertility, rival wives, conception and birth. The seams of biblical history are marked by miracle births—Isaac, Moses, Samuel, John, Jesus. In Genesis, a serpent tempts Eve, and biblical history is interspersed with Satanic figures who assault women to seize or destroy their children— Pharaoh, Abimelech, Athaliah, Herod. In Revelation, John sees a laboring woman threatened by a dragon who intends to devour the child as soon as he’s born. Through it all, the people of God are buoyed by the confidence that the woman’s seed will crush the serpent’s head. In hope, they sing “Unto us a child is born.”
Proverbs’s epic poem throws our own cultural battles into high relief. Today, women are encouraged to view domesticity as demeaning, and to believe that heroism is found only outside the home. Christians fight for educational freedom to prevent some rough dragon from devouring our children. It’s no surprise that abortion generates our most intense political combat, because the future of humanity depends on conception, pregnancy, birth, and the rearing of children. Still today, history’s hidden mover operates among women and children. Still today, our future depends on heroic domesticity.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.