The virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 is a true entrepreneur, displaying many remarkable characteristics. Today she is a particular source of inspiration to black Christian businesswomen.
The final section of the book of Proverbs (31:10-31) is a paean of praise to a ‘capable wife’ or ‘virtuous woman’. She is in fact so impressive and multi-talented that one may wonder whether she is modelled on a real person; more likely, perhaps, is that she is a composite picture of ideal womanhood. She is a wife and mother, but the main focus of the writer’s attention falls on her economic productivity. Indeed, it is precisely through her business acumen that she serves her family and extended household so well.
Technical skill and manual dexterity: ‘She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands’ (31:13); ‘She puts her hand to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle’ (31:19).
Capacity to trade with the wider community: ‘She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away’ (31:14); ‘She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes’ (31:24).
Indefatigable hard work and ability to delegate: ‘She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls’ (31:15); ‘She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness’ (31:27).
Wisdom in investment decisions, agriculture and general interactions with others: ‘She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard’ (31:16); ‘She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue’ (31:26).
Physical and mental strength, which gives her confidence about the future: ‘She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong’ (31:17); ‘Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come’ (31:25).
Capacity to clothe her family and equip her house: ‘She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson’ (31:21; the crimson refers to dyed wool, but it may be that a similar Hebrew word is the correct translation, ’double-clothed’ for extra warmth; ‘She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple’ (31:22).
Generosity in the community: ‘She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy’ (31:20).
No wonder that this woman’s husband praises her: ‘”Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (31:29-30).
Inspiration to Black Women
It is interesting that this idealised woman who combines business virtuosity with family commitment seems to be of particular inspiration to black Christian women, both in Afro-American communities in the USA and the developing world. There are frequent references to Proverbs 31 in such networks as Sisters in Business and the Enterprising Business Woman Institute for Entrepreneurial Learning. This reflects the fact that, while women may still be under-represented on the big corporate scene, they are playing an increasingly prominent role in the small business sector of the global economy. The overwhelming majority of loans made by micro-finance organisations – worldwide 75% – go to women, most of them running micro-enterprises from their own home. This is because women are much less likely to waste the loans; they are better at providing moral support for each other in groups of loanees; and their repayment rates are higher than those of men.
While the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 appears to have had a rather more prosperous and privileged position than most of the recipients of these loans (her husband, after all, was ‘known in the city gate, taking his seat among the elders of the land’, 31:23), the home-based business that she ran bears some similarities with theirs. It is not surprising that she inspires their attempts to climb out of poverty.
Excerpt from Faith, Hope & the Global Economy, pp.91-93