“This is frustrating!” quipped a female relative as she surveyed the Biblical book, Proverbs. We had been reading the Bible together in response to her desire to learn more about God’s ways. She loved the practical instruction of Proverbs, but she felt like women were under-represented in this Old Testament volume. From her first reading, the book seemed to have a lot about avoiding loose women but not as much about avoiding problem men. I tried to point out how there were plenty of proverbs decrying immoral and foolish guys, but still, the author(s) not including parallel instruction about how, for example, to find a good husband seemed unbalanced to her.
Then we started speaking about the purpose of the book (always good to do when interpreting Scripture). As far as we can determine, Proverbs was compiled during the golden era of the Israelite monarchy, the time of Solomon, to instruct the royal male youth of the Kingdom of God on important matters of their station.
The more I have read the book myself over decades, the more I have seen this directed purpose. It really is designed for young guys. Often read as “timeless truths of general wisdom,” we fail to appreciate the collection as the gendered book that it is. Proverbs has many signs of being directed towards young men in their particular interests. Hence, for example, the repeated and often ignored contextual addresses to “my son” (1:8, 1:10, 1:15, 2:1, 3:1, 3:11, 3:21, 4:10, 4:20, 5:1, 5:20, 6:1, 6:3, 6:20, 7:1, 19:27, 23:15, 23:19, 23:26, 24:13, 24:21, 27:11, 31:2). Not that many proverbs in the book cannot find application more generally, but it helps to know the primary audience and primary point of the writings.
And what do you find young men interested in finding? Good treasure and a good woman. Hence the emphases of the book. This is what the instructor knows will get their attention. And hence the bookends of the book, about women. Who is speaking to these young’uns? The first nine chapters (of this 31-chapter book) are a contrast between two enticing girls. One we could call “Woman Foolishness,” and the other, “Woman Wisdom.” They are both speaking, vying for the attention of the young man. So, whether the actual author of the words in different parts is Solomon (1:1, 10:1, 25:1), Agur (30:1), Lemuel (31:1), an Egyptian sage or others, the voice of the narrator coming through often seems to be that of a woman or mother (31:1). In fact, when I raised the question with my daughter, she told me she always assumed that the book’s narrative voice was simply Woman Wisdom speaking throughout.
Whether that is true or not, the mother’s words and place, right along with the father’s, are highly valued in the book (1:8, 4:3, 6:20, 10:1, 15:20, 19:26, 20:20, 23:22, 23:25, 28:24, 29:15, 30:11, 30:17). The last chapter finds the Mother of Lemuel as the source of the concluding oracle. As my relative and I read through that pregnant description of a woman of worth, we laughed together. Even if woman doesn’t get the same treatment in the book, she certainly gets the last word!