Women Workers in the Old Testament
From time immemorial men and women have worked together in whatever enterprise they've found themselves. In the early American colonies women worked at tasks ranging from attorneys to undertakers, from blacksmiths to gunsmiths, from jailers to shipbuilders, from butchers to loggers. Some historians tell us that women ran ferries and operated sawmills and gristmills. They ground eyeglasses and painted houses. Every kind of work done by men was done, at least occasionally, by women. Wives had a good knowledge of their husbands' work and often took over the business, running it successfully when the husband died.
But with the developing Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, “men's work” and “women's work” became increasingly separated to the point that the Doctrine of Separate Spheres became firmly entrenched in people's thinking. Men and women were considered so different from each other that there could be no overlap in their skills or occupations. Any thought of men and women working side-by-side was out of the question.
But that was not God's original design. In Genesis 1:26-28 we hear God speaking:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Note that God gave both the man and the woman two tasks: to create families (populating the earth) and to subdue the earth, or more accurately, to be stewards or caretakers of God's creation. Often people assume that the first command about the family was given only to the woman while the second command about stewarding the earth was given only to the man. But that misreads the text. God gave both commands to both the man and the woman. This implies that men should have family responsibilities as well as those in the workplace, and women should have responsibilities in the wider world as well as in the home.
It is in turning the page to Genesis 2:18 that we get a clearer picture of that original command. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Earlier in Genesis 2 the man had been placed in a beautiful garden with the assigned task of tilling it and keeping it. In Genesis 2:18 God creates a woman to work alongside the man in the same endeavor.
Bartkowski, John P.; Xu, Xiaohe (2010). "Religion and Family Values Reconsidered: Gender Traditionalism among Conservative Protestants". In Ellison, Christopher G.; Hummer, Robert A. Religion, families, and health: population-based research in the United States. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. pp. 106–125. ISBN 978-0-8135-4945-3.
Many opinions of working women have been shaped by the word in Genesis 2:18, "helper." This word therefore merits some greater attention. Was the woman to be merely a helpful assistant to the man? In our day we use the word “helper” in the sense of a plumber's assistant, handing the boss the right wrench for the job. But that is far from the meaning of the Hebrew word used to describe the first woman.
God created the woman as an ezer. The word ezer occurs twenty-one times in the Old Testament. In two cases it refers to the first woman, Eve, in Genesis 2. Three times it refers to powerful nations Israel called on for help when besieged. In the sixteen remaining cases the word refers to God as our help. He is the one who comes alongside us in our helplessness. That's the meaning of ezer. Because God is not subordinate to his creatures, any idea that an ezer-helper is inferior is untenable. In his book Man and Woman: One in Christ, Philip Payne puts it this way: "The noun used here [ezer] throughout the Old Testament does not suggest 'helper' as in 'servant,' but help, savior, rescuer, protector as in 'God is our help.' In no other occurrence in the Old Testament does this refer to an inferior, but always to a superior or an equal...'help' expresses that the woman is a help/strength who rescues or saves man."
While many devout Christians see a woman's function as a subordinate to a man, the word ezer in the original Hebrew overturns that idea. The woman was not created to serve the man, but to serve with the man. Without the woman, the man was only half the story. She was not an afterthought or an optional adjunct to an independent, self-sufficient man. God said in Genesis 2:18 that without her, the man's condition was "not good." God's intention in creating the woman for the man was for the two to be partners in the many tasks involved in stewarding God's creation.
While Genesis 1 and 2 show us how God intended human beings to be, Genesis 3 shows us what the man and woman chose to become. You probably know the story about a forbidden tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and about a snake who persuaded the woman that eating its forbidden fruit would make her like God, knowing everything, both good and evil. She was persuaded, and the man standing next to her followed her example. In the instant that they both ate the fruit, everything changed for both of them. The man's work would remain that of tilling the ground, but now he would have to contend with harsh conditions. Part of the woman's punishment was that her desire would be for the man, but he would dominate her. Among the consequences of the Fall, patriarchy was born.
Patriarchy means male domination of the female. The word describes how societies have been structured from very early in human history. In Genesis 4 we see that polygamy also appeared early, as Lamech boasts to his two wives about his ability to best all opponents. After Adam and Eve left the Garden, wives became collectible property. The accumulation of obscenity and violence meant that, " The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. " (Genesis 6:5).
Sinful people treat others unjustly. This has been true almost from the beginning of time and it is true today. Both men and women may suffer unjust treatment in the workplace and feel powerless to change their circumstances. But God is aware of the evil that exists in human hearts. He routinely uses human instruments to challenge evil and its perpetrators.
One consequence of the woman's sin was an increased frequency of pregnancies and increased pain in delivering babies (Genesis 3:16). Enter midwives. Midwives have been part of human experience as long as we have historical records.  In Exodus 1 this particularly female vocation takes center stage in a political context. The setting is Egypt where the Hebrew people are mercilessly enslaved, forced to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses with poor materials. "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites." (Exodus 1:12).
The Pharaoh (king) ordered the midwives to kill all boy babies at birth, but the midwives "feared God" and let the boys live. Jonathan Magonet has called these two midwives "the earliest and in some ways the most powerful examples of resistance to an evil regime." Ordered to carry out genocide, these two brave women risked their lives by disobeying the Pharaoh. They were ezer women in the original meaning of the word, helping those who needed their help. Willing to stand bravely against evil, these women used their professional expertise to aid their people in a time of crisis.
Sometimes ezer women are called to stand against a powerful evil, or to aid those who are weaker, or both. One of the Hebrew babies saved by the midwives grew up to defy the Pharaoh and deliver the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. We honor Moses as one of the great heroes in Hebrew history, but he survived only because two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, risked their lives when they defied the king's order.
Sometimes women (and men) in the workplace today find themselves facing an order from a boss that they cannot ethically carry out. Knowing God's will and doing it in such circumstances may cost them their job. But just as God honored the Hebrew midwives, God honors those today who stand up and fight for what is right in the workplace.
Papyri from ancient Egypt recognize midwifery as an occupation with accumulated professional knowledge. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midwifery#Antiquity
Sometimes surprising women are called to show up as ezers in unusual situations. Rahab was one of these examples. Here's the back-story. God had used Moses to free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and Moses had led this huge band of people for forty years in the desert before they arrived east of Canaan, ready to conquer the Promised Land. By then Moses had died and Joshua took charge of around three million people camped on the east side of the Jordan River, across the water from their destination.
As the Israelites (the Hebrew people) prepared for battle, their first objective was the important walled city of Jericho. As a wise commander, Joshua sent two spies across the river to find out all they could about the city. Enter the ezer woman named Rahab. Most Bible translations tell us that she was a prostitute, though some think she was merely an innkeeper. Regardless of her profession, she owned a house spanning the double wall surrounding Jericho, a good location from which the two spies could carry out their mission. Joshua 2 recounts their experience there.
Jericho's king heard about the spies and sent a contingent of soldiers to arrest them. But Rahab hid the spies on her flat roof under stalks of flax drying there. She told the soldiers that the men had come to her, but that they had left, and if the soldiers hurried they would catch up with the spies on the road back to the river. When the coast was clear, Rahab went up on her roof and had a fascinating conversation with the two Israeli spies.
How is it that a pagan Canaanite prostitute could lie to authorities and still be an ezer woman? The answer lies in her conversation with the two spies in which she said:
I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond Jordan...whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family (Joshua 2:8-12).
Rahab had come to believe that the Israelites' Lord was indeed "God in heaven above and on earth below." Turning her back on the gods and goddesses of Canaan and on her loyalty to her own people, she sheltered the spies, saving their lives. She had become a believer in the Lord and was willing to risk her own life to further God's purposes. She used her ezer power to back her new allegiance. Letting the spies slide down a sturdy rope out a window on the outer wall, she sent them safely on their way. You can read the story of God's amazing deliverance of Jericho into Israeli hands in Joshua 6. In the end Rahab and all her family became one with God's people. Whatever she had done in the past became irrelevant as she cast her lot with the God of Israel. God didn't hold her accountable for her past but gave her a new beginning. This isn't the last we hear of Rahab in the Bible. In Matthew 1 we discover her name among the ancestors of Jesus Christ.
This ezer woman stands before us, witnessing to the possibilities within each of us. Whatever you are, whatever may haunt you from your past, know that God looks, not at that, but at what you can become by faith. God is the God of new beginnings.
Sometimes God calls a woman to the highest level of leadership in a crisis moment. As the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they often strayed from faith in the Lord. Human sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and other practices often replaced the worship of the Lord. When this happened, God allowed neighboring nations to conquer Israel. When someone would cry out to God for deliverance, the Lord would raise up a leader to organize a military campaign to throw off the oppressor. We meet Deborah in such a time, when the northern tribes in Israel were cruelly oppressed by King Jabin and his superior military might.
We first see Deborah in her day-job as judge over all the people of the land. The Bible tells us that Deborah was both a prophet and a judge, a wise woman: "she used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment" (Judges 4:4-5). But hearing about the oppression of the two tribes in the north, Deborah the prophet stepped into a different leadership role. In her hill country safety she could have ignored the plight of the Israelites in the northern flat lands under Jabin's conquest. But an ezer woman who has the ability to come to the aid of the helpless will do so.
She commanded Barak (a northerner) to raise an army of 10,000 armed men whom God would use to defeat the superior forces of King Jabin. It happened that Jabin had nine hundred iron chariots and Israel had none; Israel's soldiers were seriously outgunned. God had given Deborah the prophet a battle plan, but nervous Barak insisted that Deborah stand by his side during the battle or he wouldn't take on the assignment. Some Christians have the notion that men shouldn't work under a woman's direction, but here Barak and Deborah made a successful team with Deborah as his leader.
The ragtag Israeli army, camped on the flanks of Mount Tabor, looked down on all those iron chariots with well-equipped archers and swordsmen and knew such a battle was hopeless. But at the right moment, Deborah next to Barak shouted, "Up! The Lord is indeed going out before you!" (Judges 4:14). And as Barak's army moved down the mountain slopes God threw the enemy forces into a panic. The historian Josephus tells us that a sleet storm hit Jabin's army full in the face, blinding the archers, the chariot drivers, and their horses. The rain soon turned the plain into a muddy swamp, trapping the heavy iron chariot wheels in the mud. The nearby trickling brook Kishon overflowed its banks and flooded the land, carrying warriors out to sea in its turbulent waters. Witnessing God's deliverance, Deborah and Barak sang their praise to God: "March on, my soul, with might!" (Judges 5:21).
In the book of Judges, Deborah is the model leader, equal to the greatest leaders of Israel. No other judge was also called a prophet, indicating how closely Deborah resembles Moses and Joshua. As a prophet she had an unshakable faith in God, which gave her strength to lead her people. She knew that it was the Lord who overcame the enemy. She was merely God's instrument.
Not every man or woman is called to lead, but every woman is created by God to be an ezer, to come alongside those who are helpless without her aid. Like Deborah, our confidence is in God, not in ourselves. We too can "march on with might" because we do so in the strength of the Lord our God.
Women's work takes many forms. Among the women in the Old Testament, some served as midwives, some as either prostitutes or innkeepers, some as prophets, and one as the leader of the nation. But for many women today, as in biblical times, work is primarily within the home. In the sphere of domestic life women make choices every day about how they will carry out their necessary work. Sometimes those choices seem easy; other times they require a strong commitment to go beyond what anyone would normally expect. That was true of a Moabite woman named Ruth.
The back-story: In the Israeli town of Bethlehem a man named Elimelech inherited land, which he planned to pass on to his sons Mahlon and Kilion. (In the Ancient Near East, property nearly always passed from father to son, never to daughters - with one exception.) Life was good for this family until a famine in Bethlehem sent them fleeing to the neighbor nation, Moab, where food was plentiful. There the two sons married Moabite women. In time the father and both sons died, leaving three widows: Naomi (Elimelech's wife), Ruth, and Orpah. In that culture, Ruth and Orpah were expected to return to their father's house where arrangements for another marriage would be made. This was necessary because a woman could not survive without a man (father, husband, or son) to take care of her.
When Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem, she urged her two daughters-in-law to return to their fathers’ homes and seek other husbands. Orpah agreed to do so, but Ruth resisted. Instead, she insisted to Naomi: "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16). These are the words of an ezer woman. She had many reasons to follow Orpah's example, but she steadfastly insisted that she would go with Naomi. Israelis hated Moabites, and if she went to Bethlehem she would face prejudice as an immigrant. But Ruth knew that Naomi had no one else to care for her. So together Naomi and Ruth journeyed to an unknown future in Bethlehem.
Upon arrival, Ruth's first concern was to find food for the two of them. The barley harvest was in full swing, and Ruth became a "gleaner." Outsider or not, her work was cut out for her. Gleaning meant crawling on hands and knees down rows of grain, retrieving any kernels that the harvesters had missed. When the owner of the field (a man named Boaz) saw Ruth’s commitment and heard her story, he determined to add to her pickings. When Naomi heard about the Boaz’s generosity, she developed a daring plan: Ruth, a penniless immigrant, would eventually propose marriage to the rich Israelite owner of a barley plantation!
The little book of Ruth in the Old Testament can be read through in less than an hour. If you read it, you know that Naomi’s scheme succeeded. When Ruth asked Boaz to "spread your cloak over me, for you are next-of-kin" (Ruth 3:9), he knew a marriage proposal when he heard one. His response: "May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid. I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman."
The Hebrew word (chayil), here translated “worthy,” really has a much stronger meaning in the Bible. It's a common word, appearing 246 times in the Old Testament. In all but a very few cases it refers to soldiers or armies and is usually translated as “strength” or “valor.” A soldier who refuses to desert his post in the face of danger is a chayil soldier. This is the kind of strength that Ruth brought to her care for Naomi.
There was, however, a hitch before a wedding could take place: a nearer relative wanted Elimelech's land, and Boaz knew that the other man had the prior claim. But when that fellow found out that Ruth would go with the bargain, he backed out because of complicated inheritance laws which meant a son of his through Ruth could inherit the land for Naomi’s family, rather than for Elimelech’s. After a public arbitration session Boaz was free to marry Ruth. They did have a son, and that son did become Naomi's heir.
We may smile at these ancient customs, but they point to Ruth's integrity on the job. Her ethnic identity had become secondary to her faith in Naomi's God, which in turn spotlighted her loyalty to her mother-in-law and her willingness to work hard to support them both.
If you read the little book of Ruth to the end, you know that Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of Israel's greatest king, David. The ezer outsider was now part of God's people in Bethlehem, and like Rahab, this outsider woman also became an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3). Who could have guessed such an amazing outcome!
In today's work world, ezer women are sometimes called to cross ethnic barriers in order to do good for the community. That is never easy, but if God is honored, it can lead to unexpected blessing for the woman herself as well as for others touched by ethnic insensitivity.
Refusing to be hampered by patriarchal strictures, Abigail defied gender roles in order to keep a workplace dispute from escalating to murder and genocide.
Here's the back-story (found in 1 Samuel 25): The rich rancher Nabal pastured sheep and cattle on unfenced lands. David, on the run from King Saul, voluntarily employed his large band of men to protect Nabal's livestock. The expected reward for this year-long service would be a large gift of food at harvest time. But Nabal scorned David's work and refused to give him anything. In response, David armed four hundred of his men and set out to annihilate Nabal's entire household. When Nabal's wife, Abigail, heard about this, she felt she had to act, even though as a woman and as Nabal’s wife in a patriarchal society, this was beyond the scope permitted her. What could she do?
Tossing patriarchal structures to the wind and risking her life in the process, Abigail loaded vast amounts of food on donkeys and set out to meet David and his band of warriors. She bowed low to the ground and presented her gifts, hoping that David would accept her apology on behalf of her husband. David was pacified by Abigail’s gifts and judicious words. He and his men accepted the gifts and returned to their mountain lair.
But on her return home Abigail still faced Nabal's wrath at her disloyalty. Nabal could have disowned her or worse, he could have her killed. But when the rancher heard of David's intention to murder him and all his household, he had a stroke, and ten days later he died.
As soon as David heard that Nabal was dead, he immediately proposed marriage to Abigail. With her five maids in tow, Abigail mounted her donkey and rode off to become David's wife. That may sound like a fairy-tale ending to Abigail's life, but David already had two other wives, and in time he would marry five more. Patriarchy in some form or another would still rule Abigail's life.
In today's world, a plucky woman like Abigail could have returned home, taken charge of the ranch, and run it effectively. We don't live in the patriarchal world of the Ancient Near East. But we still deal with patriarchal notions in the workplace, at home, and in all spheres of life. How is an ezer woman to negotiate such an environment? Like Abigail, we can make decisions about how much we're willing to accept and what we choose to change. We work to overturn patriarchy at work and in the larger society, yet know that we might not see the demise of sexism in our lifetime.
One of the most important but sometimes under-valued professions is that of teacher. We may prosper or fail, depending on the quality of the teachers we've had. For some people everything hangs on the quality of education they receive. In 2 Kings we meet a teacher who had this level of impact not only for one student but for an entire nation.
To pick up the thread of Old Testament history, David's nemesis, King Saul, died and David succeeded him to the throne. After a long and successful rule, David was followed by his son Solomon. But after Solomon's death, the kingdom began to unravel with fighting between rival kings in the north (Israel) and in the south (Judah). While some of the kings in the next two centuries were faithful to the Lord, most kings forsook Israel's God in favor of pagan worship. As a result the northern kingdom had become so evil that God brought in the Assyrian forces to conquer and disperse the people. In the south, things were only marginally better. Many of Judah’s rulers acted evilly, until one young king with a heart for God came to the throne. His name was Josiah.
By Josiah’s time God's temple in Jerusalem had been trashed with idol worship, and Josiah ordered a thorough clean-up project in order to return the temple to God. In the process of this renovation, a workman found an ancient manuscript, which he turned over to Hilkiah, the high priest. The king's courtiers couldn't understand this document, but when a part of it was read to the king, he recognized that. God's wrath was about to descend on Judah for all its evil practices. But was there more? Josiah ordered his staff to locate a reliable prophet to explain the complete contents of the scroll.
Jeremiah was prophesying in Jerusalem at that time (Jeremiah 1:2), as was Zephaniah (Zephaniah 1:1). But the high priest turned not to these male prophets, but to a woman named Huldah living in the Second District, the university district. Scholars believe she was a teacher, and we know from the Bible that she was also a prophet.
Does it surprise you that the high priest and the king's secretary chose a woman to interpret the manuscript for them? As we listen to her speech to the king and his court (2 Kings 22:14-20), we hear a straight-shooter speaking. She did not mince words. Yes, the nation was headed to destruction. No, this would not happen during Josiah's reign because he honored the Lord God. But his successors would be evil men, and eventually the nation would go into captivity in Babylon.
Huldah was a true helper (ezer) in that she came to the aid of her king and nation, using her intellectual and spiritual gifts. She helped these leaders understand the Word of the Lord, and as a result Josiah instituted a massive purge of idols from every part of Judah's territory. On the basis of Huldah’s teaching, all those living in Judah were saved from imminent destruction.
At times women may find their work routine interrupted by a request to step into a different role, one that pushes them to speak for God in a public arena. Huldah's experience challenges women to accept these new opportunities without shying away from them. In the process, they may discover that God uses their gifts in a new way, or gives them new gifts altogether.
Esther was a woman who thought she had no influence over her husband or over matters of importance. Yet a desperate situation forced her to into the spotlight, where she realized she had more power than she thought, indeed the power to change the political climate for all the Jews in Persia.
The conquest of Judah by the Babylonians was soon followed by conquest of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. The biblical book of Esther opens with Jews in the seventy-year exile under the rule of a capricious and despotic Persian king known to historians as Xerxes. The king's right-hand man was Haman, a man more evil even than the king. He hated the Jews and especially a particular Jew named Mordecai. Mordecai's business location was just outside the palace gates, and whenever Haman entered the palace, he had to pass a man who refused to bow to him. Anxious to get rid of this unruly Jew, he concocted plan to rid the kingdom of all Hebrews.
Meanwhile the king had another problem: his queen, Vashti, had refused his request to display her beauty before a raucous, drunken crowd of men feasting with the king. Such impertinence must be punished, and Vashti was deposed as queen. But who would succeed her? A beauty contest was held to locate the most beautiful virgins in all 127 provinces of Persia, and Mordecai's niece, Esther, was among those brought to the palace to undergo the year-long beauty treatment required before presentation to the king. At the end, Esther finished first in the pageant and was crowned queen of the realm. The one fact about her that remained hidden was that she was a Jew.
Meanwhile Haman succeeded in convincing Xerxes that every Jew in the Persian Empire should be killed. Due to the intractability of the Law of the Medes and Persians, once Xerxes signed that edict (not knowing that his queen was one of the hated Jews), nothing could overturn it.
When Esther heard about the decree, she sent word to Mordecai, who responded, " Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14)
This frightened harem-girl-become-queen could not imagine that she could do anything about the decree, but she finally agreed to go to the king, asserting to Mordecai, "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). Esther had to make a choice. She could continue to conceal her Jewishness and spend the rest of her days as first lady of Xerxes' harem. Or she could take her life in her hands and do what she could to save her people. She came to understand that her high position was not just a privilege to be enjoyed, but a high responsibility to be used to save others. Her people were in peril, and their problem became her problem because she was in the best position to do something about it.
Even though she trained to be a submissive harem girl, Esther, the ezer woman, found inner strength to take a stand for the sake of others.
In the short book of Esther you can read the risky actions Esther took to persuade the king to issue a decree giving Jews the right to defend themselves. In the process, the harem queen became a powerful woman. From Chapter 4 through the end of the book, we see a strong ezer woman taking on a villain and dealing politically in ways unprecedented for women in that culture.
Sometimes as women we deplore the smallness of our challenges and the limits of our influence. We may feel we have limited usefulness to God. But we can remind ourselves that the sovereign God has his hand on our lives and knows what we are able to do. Whatever God is putting into your hands to do today, tomorrow, or next week is never without meaning, never without significance. God has brought you to your present position and place in life: " Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
We may be familiar with the real women and real situations of the Old Testament. But the Bible also calls us to pattern our lives on the values of an "ideal" woman who we meet as soon as we open the book of Proverbs. She is called Lady Wisdom and she "cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice, at the busiest corner she cries out...'the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and live at ease, without dread of disaster" (Proverbs 1:20-21, 32-33).
The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs contrast Lady Wisdom to a foolish woman. If we want to be wise in the way we live, we're told to listen to Lady Wisdom, not to the woman without maturity or sense.
Throughout the Bible the concept of wisdom is described as insight that leads to living life well. A wise person uses this combination of acquired knowledge and life experience to make good decisions that lead to positive outcomes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as "the capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct." Here wisdom is more than knowledge; it's a prerequisite for a successful life.
Proverbs 9:10 tells us that to gain wisdom, there is a starting point we can't ignore. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and a knowledge of the Holy One is insight." In order to see how a "fear" of God leads to wisdom, we must first defang the word "fear." The “fear of the Lord” in the Bible is never "fright." It always means living in awe, not only of God's sovereignty, but also of his goodness and mercy. When we live in awe of God, we learn how to be wise. We begin to see life from the vantage point of the eternities. We focus on the long game, not just on the next play.
The Old Testament gives us many examples of women who made wise decisions because they feared God. Shiphrah and Puah feared God, and that gave them both the wisdom and the courage to defy the Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21). Rahab took a risk in siding with an opposing army because she became convinced that "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below" (Joshua 2:11). Deborah knew that it was God who sent a storm that destroyed the enemy’s army (Judges 5:4). Ruth, a pagan Moabite, left her people and emigrated to a foreign land because she embraced the God of her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:16). Abigail won over David by reminding him that through her intervention, "the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance" (1 Samuel 25:26). Huldah spoke fearlessly to the king and his courtiers, beginning four times with the words, "Thus says the Lord!" (2 Kings 22:14-20). Esther negotiated peace for her people when she grasped that God had brought her to her royal position "for just such a time as this" (Esther 4:13-14).
Knowing God is the gateway to a perspective on life that changes our thoughts, our actions and our goals. Indeed, when we know God our whole orientation to life changes. So how do we get to know God? We were not left to guess about this. Jesus came from God, taking on human flesh and blood, to reveal God to us. When Philip asked Jesus to show him and the other disciples "the Father" (God), Jesus replied, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Colossae, noted that Jesus "is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). The letter to the Hebrews opens with the statement that Jesus "is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3).
The invisible God has become visible in Jesus. So if we want to know God we can read the four Gospels and listen to Jesus carefully. From his teachings we learn that God is infinitely patient with us. From his actions we learn that God has a heart for people on the fringes of life. From his life, we learn that God loves us so much he was willing to die for us. Somehow as we see God's mercy and grace acted out before our eyes in the four New Testament gospels, it changes us. We get glimpses of what really matters in life. We become wise.
Lady Wisdom still cries out in the streets of our cities, calling us to follow a different drummer. That drummer is Jesus, God-in-the-flesh who gives us a different perspective on life, a different drumbeat. When we fall in behind him, his example will reshape our thoughts and actions. If we make paying attention to Jesus a serious pursuit, it will change us completely.
We met Lady Wisdom in the opening chapters of the book of Proverbs. We also find her in the closing verses of that same book. Proverbs 31:10 asks, "A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels." Has Lady Wisdom been demoted to merely a "capable wife"? Unfortunately most translations from Hebrew into English obscure the implications of the original text. The word translated as "capable" is the Hebrew word chayil, which, as we have seen, means mighty, strong, valiant, and is used in the Old Testament 242 times, usually to describe soldiers or armies. In 2 Samuel 23 we learn that David's "mighty men" were chayil for their courage and strength. Here in Proverbs 31:10 it should read, "A valiant woman who can find? She is far more precious than jewels."
So what does wisdom look like in the life of this valiant woman? "She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong" (Proverbs 31:17). As an ezer woman, she knows it takes strength to act in wise ways, so she "exercises" her moral and compassionate muscles. Those moral muscles cause five things about her to stand out:
First, as an ezer chayil woman, she is trustworthy (Prov 31:11-12). Her husband trusts her because he knows that she has his best interests at heart. This extends to women in the workplace today. Do colleagues and bosses know that we have their best interests at heart? If we're not trustworthy, then little else really matters.
Second, as an ezer chayil woman, she is shrewd (Prov 31:13-18). She chooses her tasks and materials carefully. She thinks ahead, not acting impulsively or at the last minute. She's thoughtful about her work, considering that field carefully, then turning it into a profitable vineyard. She produces "merchandise that is profitable" - items she knows she can sell because they are well made.
Third, as an ezer chayil woman, she is generous (Prov 31:19-20). While English translations make these two verses look unrelated, the Hebrew language ties them together grammatically, telling us that this woman works (in this case, spinning and weaving) so that she has the means to help the poor and needy.
Fourth, as an ezer chayil woman, she is diligent (Prov 31:21-25). She provides fully for those in her care (even warm clothes in case of snow in the Middle East!). And she operates a successful cottage industry, making linen garments and sashes to sell.
Fifth, as an ezer chayil woman, she guards her tongue (Prov 31:26). The text tells us that "she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."
This is Lady Wisdom in action. In her we see that a wise person is trustworthy, shrewd, generous, diligent, and guards his or her tongue. While wisdom is personified as a woman throughout the book of Proverbs, her wise sayings are for men as well as for women. And though the translators in 31:10 refer to her as a “wife” (probably because the next verses refer to her husband), the Hebrew word is simply the one for “woman.” The conclusion of the book of Proverbs makes the concept of wisdom concrete so that we can see what wisdom looks like in action.
Our trustworthiness, shrewdness, generosity, diligence, and care in speaking are evidences of wisdom. They result from wisdom but they do not replace it. The root cause of wisdom can be found in Proverbs 31:30: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." The baseline for wisdom lies in our "knowledge of the Holy One," our "fear of the Lord." We stand in awe not only of God's power as sovereign over the cosmos, but also of God's amazing unending love for us. We cannot fathom that God really cares about us. But he does. In his very essence God is love. That love extends to each of us, no matter who we are or what we might have done. This is the gift of the fear of the Lord.
Our relationship with God gives us a different perspective on life. We know what matters. We know what lasts and what passes away. And we choose to live for what is eternal. We bring that perspective to every choice we make - whether or not to be trustworthy, to plan ahead and work with care, to show compassion, to pursue our goals with diligence, and to control our tongues. We choose whether or not to be wise.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox in her 1916 poem put it this way:
One ship sails East, and another West,
By the self-same winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales
That tell the way we go.
Like the winds of the sea are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life.
'Tis the set of the soul that determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
It's the "set of the soul that determines the goal." Men and women, single or married, can all learn from Proverbs 31. In every part of your life, including your workplace, make it your goal to live wisely in light of what lasts forever. If you do, you will choose to be trustworthy, shrewd, generous, diligent, and in control of your tongue. But even more, you'll know the difference between what passes away and what lasts, and you'll choose to give yourself to what lasts for eternity. That's God's formula for living life with skill.
When we look back over the women at work in the Old Testament, we see all of them taking the long view, choosing to live for what ultimately matters. That's the choice God also gives each of us every day.