The Wisdom Ideal

Arthur Kolnik
Woman Blessing Sabbath Candles

Lectionary Passage: Proverbs 31: 10-31
To read this passage online, go to

We often don’t know what to do with this passage.  It’s just so odd.  I mean, here we’ve had thirty chapters of these little snippets of wisdom, a veritable checklist of the characters to which we should aspire and now, in the last chapter of Proverbs, they start talking about “a capable wife”.  What is that about?  I suppose it would be easy to dismiss it as some sort of archaic remnant of another time, when women stayed locked in their domesticated, caring roles and almost never ventured beyond, when the ideal was the perfect wife and the perfect household and the perfectly well-manicured children.  And in doing that, we’ve set up an ideal that when set against our lives, we would surely fall miserably short.  But I’m not so sure that was the intent at all.  I mean, really, do you think things were all that easy for women when this was written?  Do you think that living in a culture where women were subordinate if not meaningless really made it easy for them to get to the “ideal” described here?  In fact, do you really honestly think ANYONE in the thousands upon thousands of years of humanity ever really got to this?  Doubtful, very doubtful… (I mean don’t you think those cave-dwelling women had just as much trouble keeping their abode clean as we do?  And they didn’t even have the advantage of a Swiffer or Pledge All-Surface Cleaner!)

So what if we thought about it another way?  What if rather than wondering what in the world this odd little passage laying out an impossible ideal has to do with all the depictions of Wisdom that came before it, we looked at it in light of it all.  I mean, think about it, Wisdom literature by its very nature is not random.  It’s very intentional and very all-encompassing.  Perhaps rather than some sort of odd little tag on, this passage was meant to be the climax of the whole Proverbs collection, a sort of all-encompassing depiction of what it all means.  In fact, maybe it’s not really meant to be gender-specific at all!  Yes, before you men dismiss this as having nothing to do with you, what if you think of it as a metaphor for the composite that IS Wisdom, that IS the ideal to which we should all aspire?  I mean, there are numerous places in Scripture that carry feminine imagery–Lady Wisdom, Bride of Christ, the mothering, nurturing God.  They are not talking about women!  Why, then, would this particular one be limited to females (and wives and mothers besides)?  I guess I just don’t think that the Scriptures were intended to be gender-specific or even that life-situation-specific. 

Maybe it’s a metaphor of who we are all called to be—trustworthy, of strong character, and deep and abiding faith.  The “capable wife” is meant to convey the full significance of the wise, well-run household, the household that is run within the wisdom of God.  It is the household that is a powerful emblem to teach and guide future generations.  It IS the Household of God, our very lives.  And Wisdom calls us to follow in her ways.  It is a portrayal of faithful living, a depiction of the ideal believer to which we can all aspire.  It is not meant to set us up for failure.  I mean, have you read the Bible?  Stuff just keeps getting in the way.  (Thank God that Grace stuff also continues to show her lovely face!)  But this is an image of a different way.  That’s what our faith journey is about–finding that different way to relate to others, to live, to love.  It’s about finding the way to become Wisdom, to become the very image of God in which you were created.  It’s about letting go of the “ideal” that this world has fabricated and journeying into the Wisdom of God.

Don’t think of the Scriptures as a perfect “plan” laid out by God.  Think of it as the story of a journey that sometimes takes us through wonder and beauty, and sometimes through muck and crud.  We experience joy and grief in the same lifetime or we just aren’t human.  And sometimes we don’t make our beds every morning.  Thanks be to God!  But always, always there is more to come.  The journey is not about perfection; it is about longing–longing to be with God, longing to be the one who God envisions you to be.

When all work is brought to a standstill, the candles are lit.  Just as creation began with the word, “Let there be light!” so does the celebration of creation begin with the kindling of lights.  It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol, light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.  And the world becomes a place of rest.  An hour arrives like a guide, and raises our minds above accustomed thoughts.  People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, which the Sabbath sends out is presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts.  It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls.  (Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 66)

Grace and Peace,


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