I have something to confess. Although I'm supposed to revere the Proverbs 31 Woman as the paragon of my sex, I've always felt a bit disgruntled toward her. Not because of her for her own sake. But for how she has been used, and I would say misused, over the years to prove whatever the current cultural norm of femininity is.
There are many misuses I can think of, but I'll start with one: Cooking. P31 has long been used as proof that cooking is women's work.
Perhaps it will sound absurd to some to still be prattling on about this in 2010, but prattle I do. In many places where I travel this is still the uncontested Truth and in many American homes as well. Once on a weekend vacation with a group of people, I questioned why the men went out and hiked during the day while the women stayed home and cooked for the hungry men's return. Why, P31, of course, was the reply. She has mapped out what is proper for a woman:
"10 A wife of noble character who can find? ...
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard."
So, based on verse 15, many have reasoned that it is a woman's responsibility to cook. Is this passage strong enough support to make such a claim? Some say the passage is the writer's praise of his wife. Others say it isn't based on an actual woman, but is a poem for what a woman of noble character would look like.
In either case, the passage is not a Ten Commandments for women. It does not say: "A woman must be the one who buys the sewing materials. A woman must be the one to provide food for her family and servants. A woman must be the one to make all real estate decisions. A woman must be the one to hire agricultural laborers."
When you hear the first two, perhaps you prickle a little bit and say, "Yes, but it does imply it." If so, then why have we not extended the same logic to the second two examples? The wife of noble character considers a field and buys it. She has money at her disposal (money she has made working, as the context of the entire passage makes clear), and she makes choices about what real estate to buy. She then takes charge of the land and plants a vineyard. Based on the rest of the passage, we know she is also involved in trade and managing a large estate and staff, so she is not the one planting herself, but is employing field hands. (Similarly, she is most likely not the one doing the actual cooking to provide food for her servant girls, but managing someone else to ensure everyone on the estate is fed.)
Why do we naturally embrace the first examples of "women's work" and offhandedly reject the second? Why do we so freely use this passage to support the idea that women should provide food but ignore the logical addition that women should also be the ones to buy real estate and hire argicultural laborers? Aren't these also "women's work" according to the passage? If we cannot apply the logic in one case, then why do we pass it off as indisputable in the other?
Often, it's good to look for the original intent of what was written in order to determine the purpose of the passage. Jesus repeatedly looked to the heart/purpose of a passage in helping others to understand it. Regardless of whether it was written by a husband admiring his actual wife or as an example of what a noble woman should be like, the overall gist is clear: This is a hard-working woman. She is not lazy or idle, but industrious and productive.
People will often pair Proverbs 31 with 1 Timothy 5:8 to say, "See, men should work, women should stay home and cook." 1 Tim goes like this: "Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." The context of this verse is actually saying that a widow's own household, "children and grandchildren," ought to provide for her, rather than having the church provide for her. (The original intent was not to say that stay-at-home dads are worse than pagans, as modern preachers would have it.)
The original intent of this pasasge is to say, "Hey, if you have a widow in your family who has no way of providing for herself, take care of her! Don't knock on the church's door and say it's their responsibility - take personal responsibility." In other words, don't be cheap and lazy - men or women.
Titus 2:3-5 is the third in the trifecta used to support the Men-Work-Women-Cook paradigm, which states, "Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God." So, this does clearly state that women should be "busy at home." The next verse states, "Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled."
Is the purpose of this passage to state (as many would have it), "Women should stay in the home, and not go out to work"? To my eyes, the focus seems to be, not on a specific line of work suitable for women, but on character: Be reverent. Don't be a lush. Be self-controlled. Be busy. The desired trait in a woman (or a man for that matter) is that she be busy, productive, industritous, and self-controlled. It's clear from many passages that laziness is wrong in either sex. Was the purpose to say, "women, stay at home" or "women, don't be lazy"? From the context it's clear that the problem wasn't women trying to work, but women having poor character - drinking and gossiping. So of course Paul said to be busy at home, because that is where the woman's world was at the time.
But it is always easier for humans to remember the letter of the law, rather than the heart of it. Thus, you find in modern times households where both male and female work. (This could be easy to question in our country where we could conceivably live on one income, but is much less easy to question in countries where the woman's income is necessary to have more than one meal for the children in a day. And the latter outnumber the former significantly.) So, you have two people working hard all day. And then they both come home and the man sits on the couch while the woman puts in another 4 hours of work cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. It's women's work. The man couldn't possibly do it. Or, worse yet, in some cultures you have the women working all day and night while the men play cards and drink and don't work at all.
People get so stuck on the "women's work" thing that we miss the wider purpose: It is wrong to be lazy, whether you are a man or a woman. Sometimes, men are allowed to be lazy because of legalism. They don't do any work around the home because it's "women's work," even when they don't have any work outside the home. This gets me really angry, as it is the life of many of my coworkers worldwide. The point of all these verses is not, "Women should cook. Men should work." The point is, each of us should strive to be hard-working and self-controlled in the situation in which you are put. If that is in the home, then by all means, work hard! Clean, cook, and wash. If it is outside the home, then be similarly disciplined and productive. God isn't concerned with your adherence to the right rituals and proper practices; God cares about your character, your heart.