“An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above Jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.”
“She looks for wool and flax and works with her hands in delight.
She is like merchant ships; she brings her food from afar.
She arises also while it is still night and give food to her household and portions to her maidens.
She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard.”
A proverb has a dual meaning, or purpose. They are written to convey both literal and figurative aspects of truth at the same time. As we go through this section of the Proverbs 31 Woman, I want to look at both the literal and figurative meanings of each line.
“She looks for wool and flax…”. It is a talented woman who weaves, but there is a significance in this verse that can be easily overlooked. Wool and flax were the two most common fibers for clothing in Bible times, (http://ww2.odu.edu/~lmusselm/plant/bible/flax.php,). Turning wool and flax into thread is long and difficult project. To make wool thread the wool of the sheep must be pulled apart, carded (like combing), washed and then spun. Flax is actually a flower (see link) whose plant grows in the winter in the Middle East and blossoms in early spring. It is a beautiful blue flower. The flax must be picked, and the fiber comes from long, strong fibers on the stem which separate with dew and are then bleached in the sun before being made into linen. The fact that this verse begins with, “She looks” strongly implies that she goes and picks the flowers herself, like Rehab in the book of Joshua, chapter 2. And yet, to all this, it adds that she does this work with “delight” or “pleasure”. This is the literal meaning. The figurative meaning comes from the reference to flax which is the fiber used to make linen. Linen, in the Bible, is the garb of righteousness and holiness, it signifies that the wearer is in the state of being able to approach God. In Genesis 41 Pharaoh clothes Joseph in linen to honor him, along with gold. Exodus 26 tells us that God commanded that the Tabernacle itself be made with linen cloths. Another name for a priest is “one who wears a linen ephod” (http://ww2.odu.edu/~lmusselm/plant/bible/flax.php), and when Jesus was taken from the cross by Joseph of Aremathea, he was wrapped in a linen garment. The writer is making a point of stating the holiness and righteousness of both this woman AND her family, (see Proverbs 31:21-22).
“She is like merchant ships; she brings her food from afar”. Many things come on merchant ships but depending on where you live in the Middle East, the most common thing for someone to buy from a merchant ship is grain. Bread, or some other carb, is a staple item in every country and culture. The figurative meaning of this verse is in the simile, “She is LIKE a merchant ship” and then the simile is explained, but she is also literally the bread winner of the family. This woman provides the food. The currency, or where it came from, is not important.
“She rises while it is still night…” This is intuitive to any mother. We often don’t have a choice, but I know that some of my favorite memories are rising early to get a pot of coffee on and handing fresh hot food to my family as they wander into the kitchen. This is the time where we share scriptures and pray together, where we discuss our day and give it to the LORD as a family. I don’t suppose that this woman is much different than me and many other wives and mothers. She quite literally cooks the food for her entire household and her maidens, and it is in this act that the strong figurative message is found. Even with everything this woman has, she rises herself, and makes food for the house, even, it is implied, to her servants. (servants would also be a potential part of the “household” should they have them, and “maiden” most likely means unmarried serving girls, but it could also refer to the woman’s virgin daughters who would be learning to run the household). This woman is most definitely not lazy, but she is also not puffed up by any riches or wealth that the family may gain (evident in verse 11 and later in the chapter). She still has the heart of service that comes from living with nothing, and understands the hard work needed to become wealthy and self-sustaining as a family.
“She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard.” This verse says a lot with very few words. If we lived in this culture and time we would probably understand this proverb intuitively as well, and if you have ever lived in a farming community you may grasp this much easier. Literally, this woman has money and is making an intelligent decision with it. She does not go out and purchase a vineyard right off the bat, which would be very expensive and unwise considering that it may not produce. No, she considers a mere field. This word “consider” means to plan. In modern day terms she made a business plan and budgeted! The field was evidently both a good purchase AND well managed because it made enough profit for the woman to plant her own vineyard. It says that the earnings were hers and therefore it was she who managed the field, the workers, and the produce. So what is the figurative meaning of this proverb? This woman represents wisdom and industry. Grapes are a difficult but valuable crop and the manner in which this woman approaches such a business endeavor is one we can all learn from. Read up about vineyards in Bible times, http://ww2.odu.edu/~lmusselm/plant/bible/grape.php.
Personal reflection: As a full time wife and mother, I have often wanted to be useful outside of our home, providing for our family in some unique way that I could steward in the same manner as this woman illustrated above. As I thought through these verses I realize that I didn’t have to be a farmer or make clothes or learn to can vegetables to sell (all things I might do for fun). What is most unique to me is dance, and some years ago I began teaching ballet at a very low cost to families who could not afford the large studio fees. The summer Samuel was born was when I first thought of my teaching as the foundation for an actual business. My ballet school needed some changes, and I was torn about whether to make a business plan and consider this as the Proverbs 31 woman considered her field, or to quit. My husband and I chose that we would put the effort into keeping the school running and setting it up as a viable business that could grow. And it has 🙂 It isn’t easy, but I am convinced that when God is sought in family and business decisions that the two can work together and even benefit each other. This little school has brought so much joy to my heart, it has helped me feel that I am still a unique individual, something that mothers can often feel that they lose with the adorable but consuming needs of children. The time away from Samuel, as he is still too young to dance too 😀 makes all my time with him so much more meaningful and purposeful, I rarely feel like I have wasted a moment of my day in caring for my son. What can you do, married or single, parent or not, that you can consider with the wisdom of the Proverbs 31 Woman? And don’t forget that when God does make you successful that you need to re-sow the fruit of your labor into something that will produce more fruit. When you purchase your field, don’t take the profits and spend them on passing things, plant a vineyard that can last for hundreds of years.