Monday, September 20, 2021

Woman of strength


Yesterday, I preached on Proverbs 31:10-31.

I spoke about how the role of the often contradictory conventional wisdom of Proverbs and raw wisdom of Job and subversive wisdom of Ecclesiastes is not to provide us with simple answers but to lead us into wonder.

I spoke of how the wisdom of the Proverbs culminates in an acrostic poem on the theme of the woman of strength. And of how in many Jewish families, this poem is said or sung at the Friday night meal at which they celebrate the arrival of the Sabbath. Of how these verses are understood, allegorically, to speak of the Sabbath—the Queen of days—and of the feminine expression of the divine presence; and that they are sung as a recognition of the Sabbath itself, but also as a hymn of thanksgiving in honour of the female head of the house, in appreciation.

I spoke of the redemption of relationship between woman and man, and human and work (both these things being somewhat lost in translation). Of light in the darkness, and warmth in the cold, and confidence in doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

I reflected on the relationship between Jewish and Christian tradition; on the Holy Spirit as divine presence, sometimes associated with the feminine expression of God in whose likeness male and female were created; and on the Church as both Bride of Christ and Body of Christ; and what the Spirit might be saying to the Church through this text on this, our holy day of rest and worship.

I pondered the invitation to honour the women of our congregation; and to renew our sense of the specialness of this day as the weekly arrival of Christ among us; and to participate in the task of bringing our cosmos—the world as it is—more closely aligned to our ethos—the world as it should be.

And afterwards, someone came up to me and said, “I am going home to tell my wife about Proverbs, and that she should obey them.”


Lest we judge, he is hardly alone. And lest we are tempted to believe that this is precisely the dangerous problem with religious texts, we would be wise to recognise that the same issues face scientific texts, or histories. If we reject one category, we should probably reject all texts; which is, of course, the logical end of hyper individualism.

I believe in the role of texts and of study and of sermons (and other forms of public speaking in general). But what shapes us is embodied practices, repeated over and over. A shared meal. A shared song. Family traditions, that cultivate wonder and thankfulness. Traditions we will push against, but find our way back to.

Such traditions are hard to maintain, in an age of digitally enhanced separation, an age in which cosmos and ethos pull apart. They are hard, also, to invent from scratch. But build them, we must.

Here’s to the women of strength! And to all who are strengthened through being graced with such presence in our lives.

Photos: Proverbs 31:10-31, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter


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