As much as ever in history, women today are told who they are and what to become. For women, and for all of us, there are really only two choices. The Tale of Two Women tells the story.
By Mark D. Harris
Yesterday a friend and I were driving to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Our conversation ranged from memories of school to challenges at work, and in this election season, included a little politics. America has fielded its first major party female candidate, Hillary Clinton, and if current polls are correct and persistent, she will be the next president. Her supporters boast that such a victory would shatter the final “glass ceiling” in America, bringing at least one major part of feminism’s 50-year quest for women’s equality to fruition.
The New Testament in the Bible speaks a little about politics, and speaks a lot about personal conduct. God is far less interested in how states conduct themselves than how people conduct themselves, knowing that the latter directs the former. His word gives guidance to men and women on how to live in this world that He has created. Most of the Lord’s commands, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), apply equally to both sexes. But God provides sex-specific guidance as well. The classic passages on how men should conduct themselves are found in 1st Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6:9. While these teachings originally applied to church leaders, in the context of all of Scripture, they are also applicable to other men in the congregation.
The classic passage on a woman of greatness, the Excellent Wife, is Proverbs 31:10-31. A perennial Mother’s Day favorite, this teaching describes the character to which all women who follow the God of the Bible aspire. Another passage, Proverbs 7:10-27, portrays the character of another woman, the Harlot. The primary focus of Proverbs 7 is on the foolish man who falls for the Harlot and pays with his life, but there is also much to learn from the wanton woman herself. This article will compare and contrast the Excellent Wife and the Harlot. Please also see Mother’s Day – Revisiting Proverbs 31.
Comparison of the Women
Let us first examine key characteristics of the Excellent Wife and the Harlot. We can learn from both, and decide how we wish to order our own lives.
The Excellent Wife (31:11) is trustworthy. Her husband, her children, her servants, her business partners, and the poor can rely on her to do what is good for them all; what will produce gain. The virtue of the Excellent Wife is consistent; lasting all of her days (31:12). Her husband (31:11) and family (31:15) are first priority, servants second (31:15), business partners third (31:16, 18, 24), and the poor fourth (31:20). Everyone trusts the Excellent Wife.
The Harlot, by contrast, cannot be trusted. While her husband is on a long journey, she is seducing a passerby (7:18-19). Given the social setting of the time, it is almost certain that she had children, but the kids are never mentioned. Neither is there talk of household servants, business partners, or the poor. Every suggestion is that she lives for herself, and only for herself. There is no trust.
Note that even the object of her seduction cannot trust her. The Harlot tells her young lover “I came to meet you” and “I have found you” (7:15) implying that he was someone special to her. The context suggests, however, that she was in public often and each time was looking for no one in particular. She flatters him, deceiving him about her person and her affection (7:5, 21 – חָלַק chalaq). The Harlot makes him feel that he is the only one, but she has laid waste many strong men (7:26). Samson is a wonderful example (Judges 16:4-21). No one can trust the Harlot.
The Excellent Wife is content with her life. Her husband is honored in the community and they both provide well for their family and others. She understands that her work is good (31:18) and is not afraid of hardship to come (31:21, 25). But the Excellent Wife is content in something far more important than her work; she is content in her relationships. Due in part to her own efforts, she enjoys a good marriage, a loving family, a supportive household, and fulfilling community relationships. Most important, the Excellent Wife is a child of God (31:30). It is these relationships, not flashy fame, prodigious power, mountains of money, or sensual sex, that gives the Excellent Wife confidence in herself and in her life.
The Harlot always wants something more. She refuses to stay at home physically, mentally, or emotionally (7:11). She seems wealthy enough (7:20), but her heart is restless, and her husband, her children, her family, and her servants cannot satisfy. In fact, her husband is betrayed and her children are neglected. She does not praise the Lord; in fact, there is no mention of God at all. As a result, the Harlot seeks excitement, affirmation, and fulfillment in the open square and at every street corner (7:12). She draws attention to herself by dressing provocatively (7:10), scheming (7:10 – נָצַר natsar), and being unrestrained in voice and action (7:11).
Why does the Harlot throw herself at this young man (7:13, 18)? There is no mention of money changing hands, and she cannot be seeking another husband – adultery was a capital offense in ancient Israel. It seems that the Harlot is giving herself away for free. Something is missing within her, and so she risks shame, pregnancy, disease, divorce, and even destitution to fill the void. Perhaps she wants an evening of excitement. Perhaps she feels unloved or wants to reclaim earlier, happier days. Regardless of the reason, when the glow of one evening fades away, she will seek another. The Harlot is not content.
The Excellent Wife is a diligent worker; rejecting the bread of idleness morning and night (31:15, 18, 27). Her sights are not on herself but are on the needs and wants of others, and she works to bless them. When she is not providing food, buying a field, making textiles for trade, or giving to the needy, she is teaching the ways of God to those around her. When the Excellent Wife feels weak, she encourages herself, remembering that her work is good (31:17-18). Her husband and children also bless her (31:28-30), her community praises her (31:31), and she takes her ultimate strength in her relationship to her Lord (31:30-31). Work more than words are the tools of her trade, and she has an abundance of good things to show for her efforts.
The Harlot does not work at home but spends her time in the square, the roadsides, and other public places. Rather than weaving tapestries and fine linens, she spreads her bed with them (7:16). Rather than growing herbs and making money to buy spices, she perfumes her couch with them (7:17). The Harlot does not create things for herself and others but uses things that others have created to please herself, regardless of the effect on others. She deals in illusion, not reality. Words more than work are the tools of her trade and she has little to show for her efforts.
The good character of the Excellent Wife is self-evident. Her words, her works, and an overflow of good things are irrefutable testimony of her righteousness. Her husband, her family, her friends, her community, and God Himself proclaim her excellence (31:28-31). The Excellent Wife need not breathe a whisper in her own defense. She does most of her work in the day, with others and under their scrutiny. Even when she fails, she demonstrates self-control.
The Harlot has few good works and no one to speak for her value. Instead her own lips must lift her up. She says “I have peace offerings and have today paid my vows” to convince the young fool of her virtue. The reader cannot know if she speaks the truth, but given the legion of lies already spoken, he cannot help but believe that this is another falsehood. Perhaps she actually performed the religious ritual in the vain hope of justifying the sin that she was planning; dimly realizing that righteousness, not ritual, is the only hope of genuine virtue. The Harlot does her work at night, far from probing eyes and waging tongues. If she has godly self-control, which is dubious, she does not display it here.
People abound in Proverbs 31 – husband, children, servants, merchants, the needy, and the rest of the community. The Excellent Wife is surrounded by others who like her, love her, and are committed to her. The text brims with energy and movement; people working together to accomplish good things. The Excellent Wife is surrounded by a wide diversity of people: children, adults, seniors, rich merchants, poor laborers, and powerful community leaders.
Only three people, the Harlot, the young fool, and the distant husband, are in Proverbs 7. There is energy, to be sure, but primarily the sexual tension of temptation, surrender, and betrayal. The liaison will last a night, or a little while, until she becomes bored with him, he with her, or until her husband returns. There is no permanence, no commitment, and no lasting affection. “Til death do us part” is nowhere to be found. Neither children, extended family, business partners, nor communities are mentioned. One suspects that the Harlot’s social circle is limited.
Notice that physical beauty is not mentioned in the profile of either woman. The Excellent Wife could have been pretty or ugly, but the verse 30 (“charm is deceitful and beauty is vain”) raises the possibility that she was not gorgeous. Her clothes were rich and high quality (31:21-22). The image is not of a frumpy, grumpy prude, but of a modest and elegant lady. The Excellent Wife does not spend excessive time on herself and on her appearance, but cares to please others.
The prostitute was undoubtedly attractive and was dressed to attract the attention of men. She probably cared for her appearance with the same intense concern that she used to adorn her bed (7:16-17). The Harlot was her own “Number 1”; her own top priority.
The texts exclude more information than they include. For example, the author chooses to summarize the entire life of the excellent wife but only includes a single evening, and some background information, on the Harlot. Therefore some assumptions in this article are based on silence rather than on explicit text. Some of the statements may be “sanctified speculation” but are still worthy of careful thought, especially in light of the testimony of Hosea and other information in Scripture. Further, the author choses to reveal the most pertinent characteristics of the two women for his purposes, and there is much that we can profitably compare.
Another limitation is that it is difficult to know the direction of causation. Did the Excellent Wife become excellent because she was prosperous and well treated? Did the Harlot become wanton because she was poorly treated? The answer is, likely, a combination of both. However, while external factors contribute to a person’s character, they do not determine it. As a poor man can choose to gain wealth and a wicked man can choose to become virtuous, so a rich man can waste his wealth and good man squander his virtue. Ultimately we are responsible for our own lives.
A critic may object that a woman can be an Excellent Wife by day and a Harlot by night; some may consider Olympic runner turned prostitute Suzy Favor Hamilton to be an example. I don’t know Mrs. Hamilton personally and cannot speak of her character, but there are many examples of good people who betray their goodness. In truth, we are all a mix of virtue and vice. The difference is that the Excellent Wife loves virtue and strives to improve hers. The Harlot prefers vice.
A final concern is that many of these principles apply to men just as they do to women. This is true, as men also need to demonstrate trust, contentment, industry, virtue, moral (but not necessarily physical) beauty, and community. Proverbs 31 and Proverbs 7 have much to say to both sexes.
Christians, especially women, often study Proverbs 31. The Excellent Wife, however, is rarely juxtaposed with the Harlot of Proverbs 7. This is unfortunate, as many Christian women feel overwhelmed by Proverbs 31 and stumble along living mediocre lives. Some Christian women slide unnoticed into Proverbs 7. Does our society have too many Proverbs 31 women or too many Proverbs 7 women?
Trust, contentment, industry, virtue, community, and beauty are all present in abundance in the Excellent Wife. Proverbs 31 and Proverbs 7 suggest that, contrary to the bland portrayal of virtue in popular media, a life of righteousness is the most vibrant and meaningful life of all. Having reviewed the Tale of Two Women, we can dedicate ourselves to more excellent times ahead.