In praise of the contentious wife…

Everything in the Bible was written about 2000-3000 years ago. And so it’s not surprising there’s no mention of social media, global warming – or even Islam.

It’s also not surprising that there is plenty of misogyny and patriarchy in the Bible. Women had about the same status and rights in those times as a herd of cattle.

The book of Proverbs, for example, is clearly written by men for men, especially for young men starting out in life, and has many warnings about women – and their capacity to lead these young ingenues astray.

Furthermore, it exhorts marrying a submissive wife, as ‘a contentious wife’ is an insufferable burden. Proverbs 21.9 says, ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.’ Only ten verses later, it says, ‘It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful wife.’ Four chapters later, we hear again, ‘It is better to live in the corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.’ Finally, in 27.15 the contentious wife is described as being as irritating as a leaking roof (or in some translations as a dripping tap), ‘A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike.’

All this makes me feel very much on the contentious wife’s side – rather than being against her.

Perhaps, however, the final chapter of the book attempts to redress matters by giving us, in contrast, an ‘Ode to the Capable Wife.’

Unlike the poor old contentious wife, the capable wife is ‘more precious than jewels.’ ‘She does her husband good, and not harm, all the days of her life.’ ‘She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household.’ ‘She puts her hand to the distaff and her hands hold the spindle.’

Strangely, however, although the capable wife is portrayed as a woman of strength and enterprise, it almost feels as patronising to read this as it does to read about the contentious wife.

It seems that not only do women need to be submissive but they need to be useful too.

And, of course, there’s no mention of the perils of a contentious husband or the blessings of a capable husband.

But, as I say, this book was written in a culture steeped in patriarchy and we must see it in that context.

One thing, however, I find helpful in doing this is to substitute the word ‘wife’ in these passages with the word ‘Church’ or ‘disciples.’ Because Jesus often spoke of himself as being the bridegroom and of the Church, or his disciples, as being the bride.

When we do this, we have ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with contentious disciples’ and ‘capable disciples are more precious than jewels.’

And the passages then cease to grate and become quite inspiring.

Here it is the Ode to the Capable Wife in its (substituted) entirety:

Ode to Capable Disciples
Capable disciples who can find?
They are far more precious than jewels.
The heart of their husband, Christ, trusts in them,
and he will have no lack of gain.
They do him good, and not harm,
all the days of their lives.
They seek wool and flax,
and work with willing hands.
They are like the ships of the merchant,
They bring their food from far away.
They rise while it is still night
and provide food for their households
and tasks for other disciples.
They consider a field and buy it;
with the fruit of their hands
They plant a vineyard.
They gird themselves with strength,
and make their arms strong.
They perceive that their merchandise is profitable.
Their lamps do not go out at night.
They put their hands to the distaff,
and their hands hold the spindle.
They open their hands to the poor,
and reach out their hands to the needy.
They are not afraid for their households when it snows,
for all their households are clothed in crimson.
They make themselves coverings;
their clothing is fine linen and purple.
Their husband, Christ, is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
They make linen garments and sell them;
They supply the merchant with sashes
Strength and dignity are their clothing,
and they laugh at the time to come.
They open their mouths with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on their tongues.
They look well to the ways of their households,
and do not eat the bread of idleness.
Their children rise up and call them happy;
their husband, Christ, too - and he praises them:
‘Many disciples have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.’
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but disciples who fear the Lord are to be praised.
Give them a share in the fruit of their hands,
and let their works praise them in the city gates.