I’ve spent a lot of time in Proverbs 31 recently, and thought I’d share my unfinished thoughts. I don’t usually do that – I have reservations making this exception, but think I may gain from some wider input into this topic. We’ll see.
The Proverbs 31 biblical chapter is most cited in relation to women. Women’s ministry leaders everywhere breathe a sigh of relief at having a fall-back text while their children are feverishly teething. It forms a manual of sorts for Christian women wanting to be great wives. An important question to ask here I think is, great from whose perspective? I’ve always hated hearing this passage preached by women to other women. I’m married, but my husband has yet shown no desire for me to dress him in scarlet. Luckily, though, most use this text to bounce into talks on interesting and useful modern-day feminine realities. Although the verses remain a Christian wifely measurement of sorts, I’m yet to attend any women’s meeting that provides information on how to do the things featured in Proverbs 31; trade property, plant a vineyard or use a spindle.
As the preceding passage is addressed to King Lemuel, it suggests the instructions weren’t actually written for women to pore over, measuring each other’s capabilities – but were intended for men. Importantly, a king – i.e. a man with a significant amount of capital. (Just quietly, if you give me a lump sum, I’ll see what I can get out of a merchant ship). And it does seem the text is best-suited for this original use – to inform men seeking wives. Given that most married male preachers in Los Angeles are incapable of refraining from sex jokes, perhaps it’s now counter-cultural and better than the advice men currently offer men. Turn to the Word, fellas. I guarantee no man has read this passage and googled “flax”, or tried to assess a lady’s true potential to “rise while it is yet night”. However, if we are going to continue to go there, as King Lemuel’s mother was specific in advice to Lemuel about the traits to look for, I’m sure she was similarly clear with her daughters on how to make bed coverings. Unfortunately, as that information was lost, I think we should cut women a little more slack.
Most interesting to me is the preceding section addressed to Lemuel, the center of which concerns the use of wine. Here’s the text in context:
Proverbs 31: 1 – 9 The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.
Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.
It is not for kings, Lemuel—
it is not for kings to drink wine,
not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
There is a two-fold response to alcohol offered by the King’s mother in this passage. It advocates a “double standard” of sorts, one for Kings (as power holders), and another for oppressed peoples. This is interesting, as I am reviewing the role of religion in development, through outside eyes – for example, in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This classic text argues for different categories of churches – ones that maintain an oppressive status quo, and ‘prophetic churches’ which encourage people to transform. I’ve also researched the “Pentecostal uplift” within Pentecostal churches in the majority or developing world. Robert Brenneman in Homies + Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is one text that relates the economic uplift so many Pentecostals experience directly to church social norms that reduce, if not end alcohol consumption.
I’m struggling to know what to say as a researcher. I grew up in pretty conservative Pentecostal churches, where drinking was not OK under our denominational charter, so pastors and members drank secretly if they did at all. Then, our rules changed to allow for drinking in moderation. When I was twenty-three, I tried red wine. Mainly because I was in Italy, and it was culturally very normal. Plenty of verses include drinking wine, and indicate that in fact Jesus Himself drank (John 2; Matt 11:18-19; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:23; Luke 7:33-34). Wine “makes the heart glad” (Prov 104:15) but it’s drunkenness the Bible warns about (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; Peter 4:3). When I’m with people who don’t drink, I don’t. But I’m not a teetotaler.
This verse is different from most of the teaching I’ve received, however, because it acknowledges there is a social use for alcohol, in particular for those who are oppressed. Lemuel’s mother suggests wine is okay in the second instance, but isn’t great for Kings. She doesn’t say “Lemuel, as the King you have to get those peasants to stop downing the mead so their lives improve”. She sets a rule for how he is to think about himself, and how he is to think about others. There’s both restriction and permissiveness regarding alcohol in this chapter.
I know Pentecostals teach people to “think like kings”. But let’s be honest, most of them do not actually become kings. They become the middle class. Which is King-like, maybe, given our comparative wealth in this era of history. Statistically, in the end, we are talking kingly metaphors. It’s positive because there is measurable economic uplift, but I’m confused as to whether the approach we are using is maybe… anti-biblical. Either way, it works. And I’m all for ending poverty. I’m just confused.