19.5.09

My (Proverbs 31) Wife

Some scholars find the poetic description in Proverbs 31:10-31 of the so-called "Proverbs 31 woman" demeaning to women. One scholar calls the passage "the petit bourgeois portrait of the ideal wife..., or perhaps...an unattainable, male fantasy of the perfect spouse..." But I don't think it's the description in Proverbs that is demeaning; I think the problem is the ultra-conservative interpretation of it used so often by Christian men to dominate their homes.

Ellen F. Davis, a professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, helped me see how wrong this analysis is. In her book "Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture" Davis has a great essay that profoundly reinterprets Proverbs 31 through the lens of agrarianism. Proverbs 31, writes Davis, set an ideal "before a whole people living on the edge of subsistence: women householders deprived of the benefit of adult male labor, perhaps for months; men conscripted for [military] service away from home." The Proverbs 31 woman possesses an "intelligence bred through generations of work done in particular places, with particular materials, in response to concrete and immediate problems." These practical skills are protective of the life of the community. They are also deeply subversive of the claims of the imperial economy, which dominated Israel in the post-exilic period and dominate our society today. Thus the "capable wife" of my conservative upbringing becomes the "valorous woman" (a more accurate translation) undermining empire and the economic status quo.

My own wife embodies this tradition. "She plans a field and takes it; by the fruit of her palms she plants a vineyard." Kate is equipped with the skills of practical and sustainable living. (My talents are more cerebral and, let's face it, less useful.)

I recently spent some time working in the garden with my 19 month-old daughter Molly. We've expanded our garden this year; it now extends along the entire western side of the house. We planted lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and some other herbs and things I can't remember. We worked with our landlord to construct a pea trellis that is at least three times the size of last year's. The squash we planted in front, and we have twelve strawberry plants blossoming beneath the fir trees out back.

Kate has put the most time, energy, and creativity into the garden. Earlier this year she recycled an old bookshelf and an antique window to create a cold frame so we could prepare our own starters. She planted most of the garden while I was on a business trip. She is out there most every day weeding, watering, and some days I think just playing in the dirt like she is seven years old again and back on her parents' Northern California homestead.

Walking with Molly through the garden, spraying her with the hose as I watered the plants, watching her smell all twenty marigolds and tweak the nose of the gargoyle our landlord installed in the garden for good luck, watching the peas wrap their tendrils around the trellis as if in real time - I thanked God for the sun and rain, the air and the wind and the bee. I sang with St. Francis, "Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs."

I thanked God also for Kate who helped transform concrete and Oregon clay into a prosperous patch of life.

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