Eshet chayil

I recently read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans, and I cannot tell you how special this book was to me, nearly instantly.

For as long as I can recall, I have been confronted with the Proverbs 31 Woman. The Wonder Woman of the Bible. For those not familiar, in the Bible, it's the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the last verses of a book of wise sayings and warnings from a father to his son. For those of you not familiar, I've included the text (verses 10-31)

A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

I'm nearly 35 years old, and I have spent so much time trying to be like this woman. There are lots of Protestant groups who hold these verses up as a list of what a "virtuous" woman should aspire to be. And don't get me wrong, it's a great ideal, but for most of us it's not always realistic.

What I learned from Rachel's book is that Eshet Chayil (the Hebrew phrase "woman of valor" that begins this section) is something a Jewish husband would recite to his wife on Friday evenings, before the Sabbath (Shabbat) begins. It's a husband acknowledging his wife, and all that she does for him and for their household. 

You cannot imagine what it felt like, in that moment. It was like a million strings of weight were cut, and this Wonder Woman was suddenly not someone held over my head as an example of all the things I should be and weren't, but a song of something more loving. It wasn't meant to make me feel less, but meant to make women feel loved, respected, and their work acknowledged. Once a week. 

Rachel has done a series on her blog about Women of Valor, and I've read through them, amazed at the power of women to change their world. Reading her book, and thinking about all the stories in a different way (which actually fits really well into my Disciple I study now that I think about it) makes me reconsider all those women of the Bible. The Disciples and their need to actually go and see that Mary Magdalene and the other women were not engaging in a little hyperbole on that first Easter morning. Jephthah's daughter, sacrificed to God when Isaac was spared. Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin on the road, loved and childless while Leah was unloved and fertile, buried next to the husband who worked fourteen years to marry her sister. 

I don't know if it's the different vision of an adult, now being a mother and thinking on all these stories I've heard since I was a little girl, or simply reading someone else's thoughts - someone not trying to sell me on the idea that it's something I do that makes me Eshet Chayil - someone who shares another culture with me, the Jewish tradition of the words. It just affected me in a deep way. 

I'm grateful for reading this book. I have a lot to mull over. But it's made me realize a few things I'm grateful for as we enter this new year - belonging to a church that allows anyone, male or female, sons or daughters, who feels the call of God to preach and teach to anyone else - a husband who doesn't hold me to some unattainable standard of what someone else thinks a woman ought to be - a daughter to teach in a whole new world of opportunity, freedom, and clarity, without the guilt I experienced as a younger woman - and an open mind seeking out more truth and more about my faith and my relationship with God. God who does not expect me to be just like everyone else - who made me different so I could share in my own way with the world.