When Christians mention the “Proverbs 31 Woman” we typically think of the idealised woman mentioned in Proverbs 31:10ff. Myriads of messages, books, and website articles have been devoted to extolling, and sometimes sentimentalising, the virtues of this woman, and she is put forward as a role model for all godly women to follow.
I’d love to have the stamina of this woman and be able to get up before dawn every morning (Prov. 31:15). I’d love to be as industrious and productive as she seems to be (Prov. 31:18, 24). And I think we’d all like to be as rich as she is, and be able to buy our own piece of real estate and plant a vineyard (Prov. 31:16-18). But we must never forget: this woman is not real. She is an idealised fabrication.
There is another woman mentioned in Proverbs 31, a real woman who is often overlooked but who also serves as a model for women. This other Proverbs 31 woman serves as a biblical precedent for a woman teaching a man.
King Lemuel’s Mother
A woman who taught inspired and wise sayings
King Lemuel’s mother is mentioned in Proverbs 31:1. This woman taught, or admonished, her son with an inspired message that is contained in Proverbs 31:2-9. Lemuel was a grown man and he was a king, but this didn’t stop him from receiving and appreciating instruction from a woman. He recognised and respected the wisdom of his mother’s words.
Her words were even recorded and included in the canon of Holy Scripture. This means that the teaching of King Lemuel’s mother has the authority of Scripture. (Many Christians believe Scripture has the highest level of spiritual authority.) Furthermore, by being part of Scripture, the sayings of this woman continue to authoritatively instruct men and women, and even kings. Her admonition remains relevant and much-needed today! Read it here.
Other Bible women also spoke inspired, informative, and influential words to men.
Anna the Prophetess
A woman who spoke about Jesus in the temple
Anna was a prophetess. In Luke 2:37b-38 it says she never left the temple and was “worshipping with fasting and prayer, night and day.” She was in the temple when Mary and Joseph went there with the infant Jesus. When Anna saw Jesus, she recognised who he was and what he would accomplish. So she gave thanks to God and continually spoke about him “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Surely this “all” included men.
Did the men have a problem with the fact that a woman was speaking to them about God and about theology to do with the redemption of Jerusalem? Apparently not. As a pious and respected prophetess, one who had seen the Messiah with her own eyes, Anna and her words were influential and significant. Otherwise, Luke would not have mentioned her and her speaking ministry in his Gospel. [More on Anna here.]
A woman who explained theology to Apollos
Another Bible woman who spoke about theology to men was Priscilla. Priscilla and her husband Aquila explained “the way of God” (i.e. theology) to a Christian minister named Apollos. Apollos was an educated and well-spoken teacher, a scholar, but he did not know about Christian baptism. Priscilla and Aquila, seeing this lack, invited him into their home, which was where the couple’s church met. There they explained to him the doctrine of Christian baptism.
Neither Aquila, Apollos, or Luke (who records this event in Acts) seem to be in any way concerned that Priscilla corrected a male teacher and explained “the way of God more accurately” to him. (See Acts 18:24-26.)
Priscilla and Aquila led a house church in their home Ephesus, and later in Rome. Priscilla would have had many opportunities to minister and teach in this setting where, presumably, both men and women gathered (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:19).
Faithful Instruction from Wise Women
Many Christians who restrict women to certain roles and functions within the Christian community overlook the Proverbs 31 woman mentioned in verse 1 and concentrate instead on the second woman mentioned in the latter half of the chapter. One thing these two Proverbs 31 women have in common, however, is that they both spoke and taught with wisdom and faithfulness: “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction (torah) is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26 NIV).
Many women have worthwhile and wise words to share and to teach—practical, spiritual, and theological words—and their instruction and advice is trustworthy and faithful. Despite what some people have presumed, the Protestant Bible does not say that women are more easily deceived, or more deceptive, than men.
Moreover, the consensus of what the Bible says about women speaking to men, and instructing men, does not support the idea that wise and godly women cannot teach men. Yet many Christian men seem content to miss out on wise and faithful instruction from their sisters. Sadly, many Christian women, too, seem intent on keeping their fellow sisters from teaching and leadership within the church community.
King Lemuel valued, respected, and trusted the teachings of his mother. My hope is that the church will respect and trust her women and their abilities, including their ability to teach inspired and theological messages.
 King Lemuel’s mother’s inspired message is variously referred to in English translations as an oracle (NASB, HSCB, ESV), an inspired utterance (NIV), a vision (WYC), a declaration (YLT), a prophecy (KJV), etc, translated from the Hebrew word massa (Septuagint: chrēmatismos). Massa is used frequently for Isaiah’s prophecies (e.g. Isa. 13:1). The same word is also used for Nahum’s, Habakkuk’s and Malachi’s prophecies (Nah. 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Mal. 1:1).
The Septuagint (LXX) adds that the words in Proverbs 31:2-9 are words “spoken by God” and taught (paideuō) by the king’s mother. (In the LXX, Proverbs 31:1-9 is inserted after Proverbs 24:33, and Lemuel’s name is omitted altogether.)
A few English Bibles translate massa as a place name: “The words of King Lemuel of Massa, which his mother taught him” (Prov. 31:1a CEB; cf. CEV & NAB).
 Some believe that Proverbs 31:10–31, written as an acrostic, is another inspired message of King Lemuel’s mother.
 According to Jewish tradition, Lemuel was King Solomon, but this is unlikely. Gemler states that both Agur (Prov. 30:1ff) and King Lemuel have Minaean-Sabaean names and that this and other details suggest the men are of an Arabian tribe. W.F. Albright, however, suggests they belonged to an Aramean tribe in the Syrian desert. (Source: TDNT 7:480-481.) See also endnote 1 about Massa as a place name. Professor Claude Mariottini further discusses King Lemuel’s identity here.
 Solomon also respected the teaching of mothers (Prov. 1:8-9; 6:20). It may have been Bathsheba who instilled in Solomon his love for wisdom and knowledge. “Mother” is mentioned fifteen times in Proverbs, always with some sense that mothers deserve respect.
 The inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Deborah (Judg. 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov. 31:1–9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff), and perhaps Miriam’s song (Exod. 15:20-21), are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture. According to the stance of many churches, women cannot even teach or preach about these words from women. I’ve written about every prophetess in the Bible here.
 Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husband’s name in Acts 18:26. In fact, her name appears first in four of the six mentions of this couple (Acts 18:2-3; 18-19; 26; Rom. 16:3-5a; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:9). Luke is careful in how he orders names in Acts. For instance, in his account of the joint ministry of the Paul and Barnabas, Luke switches the order of the names of Paul and Barnabas, listing first whoever was more well-known or more active in ministry at that particular time. (See Acts 13:7, 42-50; 14:1, 3, 12, 14, 23; 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35-36.) In the last chapter of his letter to the Romans, when Paul lists the twenty-eight Christians in Rome who he wants greeted, he lists Priscilla first! (Rom. 16:3ff).
 The Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translates Proverbs 31:26b as, “the law [torah] of kindness [chesed] is on her tongue.” In the Hebrew Bible, chesed often refers to God’s covenantal loving kindness.
 There is only one verse in the entire Bible that says a woman is not allowed to teach—one verse. I have written about this verse here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2012
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Postscript: January 15 2022
“Woman of Valour” (eshet chayil)
The passage—acrostic poem—about the idealised wife begins with the rhetorical question, “Who can find an eshet chayil? The Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society translates eshet chayil in Proverbs 31:10 as “a woman of valour.” “A woman/ wife of noble character” or “a woman/ wife of strength” are also good translations.
The Hebrew words eshet chayil also occur in Proverbs 12:4 and in Ruth 3:11. Chayil is translated in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, as andreia in Proverbs 31:10 and 12:4, but not in Ruth 3:11. (Ruth 3:11 has dynamis “strong, capable.”)
The Greek adjective andreia often means “courageous” but can also refer to virtuous self-control. The author of 1 Clement 55:3-6 says that many women were andreia and gives Judith and Esther as two examples. Few women were, and are, given the opportunity to exhibit courage in the way Judith and Esther did. The ideal wife in Proverbs 31:10ff and the virtuous wife in Proverbs 12:4 displayed their strength without defeating powerful enemies and shedding blood. (The related verb andrizomai is used in 1 Corinthians 16:13 for all Christians.)
As an added note, some women in the early church who were virtuous and self-controlled are described as andreia.
The term is associated with virgins from very early on in the tradition; one of Hermas’ similitudes in the Shepherd includes a description of virgins whose delicacy was contrasted with their andreia. The term is most often used in relation to particular exceptional women: Macrina teaches her mother patience and andreia; John Chrysostom speaks many times of the andreia of Olympias, and the word also appears once in her biography, and Paulinus describes Melania the Elder’s andreia on the occasion of her son’s death. Palladius describes all of the virgins of whom he will speak as possessing andreia and there is a chapter of the Historia Lausiaca dedicated particularly to gynaikes andreiai. The important question here is the nuance of this word, andreia, which refers to one of the Stoic virtues, and which also is related to the Greek root, aner, meaning “man/ male.”
Elizabeth Castelli, “Virginity and Its Meaning for Women’s Sexuality in Early Christianity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2.1 (Spring, 1986): 61-88, 77.
Every Female Prophet in the Bible
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
1 Timothy 2:12, the created order, and Bible men who were guided by godly women
Women, Teaching and Deception
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Lois and Eunice’s Faith and Family
A Sympathetic Look at Bathsheba
Leading Together in the Home (Honour your Mother and your Father)