When you hear Proverbs 31, most likely the idea of the “Proverbs 31 Woman” comes to mind. But who is this woman? The woman who does and has it all? The ultimate woman?
For many women, the Proverbs 31 woman is the ideal woman few can live up to.
But is that really what the passage is about? Elizabeth Ahlman, author of Demystifying the Proverbs 31 Woman, opens up about her approach to writing this women’s study on one of the most misunderstood passages in Scripture.
In your introduction, you mention how the thought of writing this study on Proverbs 31 was a bit intimidating. Why was that? How did you overcome those fears?
There were several varying reasons why I was nervous about tackling Proverbs 31:10–31. First of all, there are SO MANY books written about this passage, or using ideas from this passage toward other themes (like how to be a good Christian wife). I knew some people might react with skepticism, wondering why another book about this passage, and assuming that it was just another in a long line of how-to manuals full of law. Then, I knew there would be those who were influenced by those types of interpretations that say it's really all about how we should live up to some ideal woman. They might be very tied to that way of thinking about the passage, and my book, which challenges the reader to think about this passage in Christ-centered ways, might be difficult to read. I really wanted to appeal to both the women who might be feeling "over" the Proverbs 31 woman and all the trappings, as well as those who loved the passage, but maybe had not had the opportunity to think about it in new ways. I also felt personally inadequate. I hadn't studied the passage itself in great detail before, and with three children at home and living overseas, I just wasn't sure how well I'd be able to tackle it.
My editor at CPH, Peggy Kuethe, really encouraged me. She believed in me and that I was the right person to tackle the study. Her encouragement, as well as my desire to present a Gospel-centered, Christ-focused approach to the passage, which drew from all of the Scriptures in order to better understand its themes, helped me push on despite my fears and agree to write the study.
You wrote this study for both groups and individuals. What are the benefits of going through this book with at least one other sister in Christ?
I am a person who loves to talk things over with others. I feel that discussion really brings out more meaning and helps a person appreciate a topic or a book that they are reading in new ways. So, I would really encourage doing this study with a friend or in a group if it is at all possible. We can learn so much from one another and see things in new ways with the perspective of others. It also allows us to correct our own errors or hear good counsel from others, which helps us to grow. We might also be able to offer sound counsel to others in a given situation. A sister in Christ might have new insights or thoughts that help to bring out more meaning. Additionally, it allows the chance to walk together and encourage one another in everyday life matters as well.
Have you ever struggled with trying to be a “Proverbs 31 woman”? How so? How has writing this book changed your understanding of the Proverbs 31 passage?
I think we have all struggled with wanting to be perfect in our vocations at different times and have felt the pressure of feeling as if we have to do everything. The temptation is to think our list of items accomplished that day is what defines us and makes us perfect women, more like the Proverbs 31 woman, more deserving of love, and so on. I have often come to the end of a day feeling like a complete failure because I tried to do too much in sinful arrogance or purely out of panic that nothing will ever get done without me. Either way, it's prideful, and it breaks the First Commandment because I am putting trust in myself and my works rather than in God. And I have certainly sat and heard this passage used on Mother's Day and felt that I was being beaten with a hammer rather than uplifted. Understanding the context of the passage, as well as its function (descriptive rather than prescriptive) really went a long way to digging underneath the mind-set that Proverbs 31:10–31 is a how-to manual for women, and seeing it instead as a beautiful portrait of our Savior, the Church, and ourselves as we are in Christ.
How do you hope this study will encourage women in their daily living?
I hope this study will help them to seek Jesus and His comfort, rather than a perfectly checked-off to-do list. I hope it encourages women to see Jesus active on their behalf, gathering them into His family, serving them His holy body and blood, clothing them in His righteousness, and speaking His Word of life to them. Living in the knowledge and truth that Christ is working in and through them in their vocations, I hope that they will be encouraged in their daily tasks, assured of His forgiveness when they fall short, and strengthened to continue serving their families, friends, and co-workers—the people who are their neighbors in their vocations. This study will not give you a how-to or ten steps for becoming a "Proverbs 31 Woman." Rather, it will hopefully show you how God in Christ is for you, so that in each and every day, you know that you are God's dear child, forgiven, free, and declared already to be a woman who fears the Lord.
With all of Scripture, context is incredibly important to our understanding of God’s Word. Talk about your approach to writing this book and why it is so important to study this passage alongside all of Scripture.
One of the reasons why I think this passage is often misunderstood is because people tend to read it as if it is a stand-alone passage, completely without any other texts that inform how one understands it. So when I got started, I knew I wanted first and foremost to look at the closest context to the poem: Proverbs 31:1–9, and then the Book of Proverbs as a whole. Then, I wanted to move outward in degrees. In what was like a rippling outward, I wanted to deal with closely related texts starting with those closest to the poem and work my way outward, so Ruth was one of the next contexts because Proverbs 31 flows directly into Ruth in the ordering of the Hebrew Bible (we order things differently in our English Bibles). I also searched the cross-references in the margins of the poem to see what verses were being connected to the poem. Additionally, I conducted word studies, which is taking a word or phrase used in the poem and seeing how it is used elsewhere in the Scriptures. For this, you really have to look at the Hebrew words and phrases. In doing this, we follow God's story, rather than the one we want to see. We see how the passage shows us our Savior and His work on our behalf.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of writing this study? What did you enjoy most about writing this study?
Writing this study was challenging for me in several different ways. First, it was the first book I had written entirely starting from ground zero. With Ruth: More Than a Love Story, I had a very detailed teaching outline from my deaconess internship, which itself had been updated twice. With Demystifying the Proverbs 31 Woman, I was starting from absolute scratch. I had to do all the research (I did do some additional research on Ruth, but not as much as I had to do with this one), I had to work through the text bit by bit, and I had to organize the research, decide on my thesis, figure out how to organize it, and so on.
Another challenging aspect was the chapter on Song of Songs and the Proverbs 31 woman. Song of Songs is not an easy book of the Bible to tackle. There is so much happening in it, and so much to learn and understand about the type of writing and how to interpret it. I ended up spending quite a bit of time reading through portions of Dr. Christopher Mitchell's Concordia Commentary on Songs of Songs, and he was even gracious enough to offer me guidance, help, and feedback on the final chapter.
But even with the challenges, I really loved watching how the meaning of the passage unfolded as I worked through the research and the other Scriptures I was studying. I found connections where I never thought there would be any. To me, one of the most exciting things about God's Word is how it all holds together in Jesus. Such seemingly little things from seemingly disparate parts of Scripture work together to give us yet another glimpse of God at work for us in Jesus. From the shock of finding incredible parallels to Psalms 111 and 112, to the way the theme of wisdom runs right into the New Testament where you find it in the mouth of Jesus, to the seemingly mundane or unimportant words that you find in other passages that suddenly illuminate a whole new meaning, God's Word has never ceased to work together to show us Jesus in all things. In genealogy lists, in what seems like a list of domestic responsibilities, in enumerated laws, in descriptions of people or events—Jesus and His atoning sacrifice are written into every page of the Scriptures.
Tell us a little bit about yourself—your family and your life. Did writing this study change your perspective about yourself and perhaps your role in your family?
I was trained as a deaconess but have primarily been a stay-at-home mom since giving birth to our first son in 2008. I have been married to my husband, Rev. Dr. Christopher Ahlman, since 2007. We lived overseas for four years, serving as missionaries with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Leipzig, Germany. It sounds like something really interesting, but most of my days were filled just as they are now that we are back in the United States with tending to my children, trying to keep up with laundry and cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, and the like (with some fun side adventures we otherwise wouldn't have had). We moved back to the US just recently, and are living in Houston, TX, where my husband serves as associate pastor and director of parish music at Memorial Lutheran Church and School in Houston. We have four children. Thomas was born in April 2008, Matthias in January 2013, Helene in March 2015 (in Germany!), and Clara in June 2017. I hate cleaning, but I love baking and cooking. Like many people, I often get caught up in the never-ending list of things to do, and I beat myself up when something just doesn't get "done" that I had on that day's list, so writing this study has also been a reminder to me that life isn't about the to-do list. It has also helped me to remember that I am a forgiven child of God, who is the faithful woman in His sight because I have been covered with the blood of Jesus. This reminder of who I am and of the fact that I have forgiveness and life strengthens me for those times when, as a wife and mother, I fail more seriously than leaving a few dirty dishes in the sink. When I lose my temper with my children or feel jealous of my husband's different role, I can run to Jesus for forgiveness and and rest in the knowledge that He is working in and through me to fulfill my vocations.
What are three of your favorite things about being a wife and a mother?
I love watching each of my four children's different personalities develop, I love when both my husband and I set aside things that still need doing after the kids are in bed and just sit together and talk, and I love our new tradition of a family read-aloud book before bed.
What do you think is one of the biggest misunderstandings of the Proverbs 31 passage? What words of encouragement would you give to women who struggle with striving to be a Proverbs 31 woman?
I think the biggest misunderstanding of this passage is that it is somehow primarily about us. Whether that be understanding it as a how-to guide for being a better wife and mother (which, by the way, also excludes single women, men, and children from having anything to do with this passage), or seeing it as a condemnation of all that we are not doing. Either way, it often sends us striving to be more like the Proverbs 31 woman, which often means doing more, more, more. But this passage is about Jesus and His loving work on our behalf. In it, we see our Savior at work for and in and through us. Now, when we read this passage, we can see not a prescription for better living, but a description of our Savior, His one holy and true Church, and ourselves as God the Father sees us in Christ. Wife, mother, single woman, daughter, and so on, we are all faithful children of God by virtue of our Baptism. Stop striving. Rest in Him.