An ancient ‘to-do’ list for women
The modern view of women in the ancient Near East is that they were down-trodden, subservient to their husbands and burdened by many children. This could not be further from the truth. The home was important in Jewish religion. In our society, people associate prayer with a church. In the Jewish religion, both the home and the synagogue were places of prayer. A rabbi or scholar was in charge of prayer in the synagogue, but in the home, each individual woman in charge of a household was responsible for the prayer-services held in that home.
Women regarded the house as their kingdom. They ruled it. Men came and went from the house, but it was essentially the domain of the women. It is true that they worked hard – but then so did the men. Moreover, judging by the list of tasks performed by the ‘Woman of Worth’ described in Proverbs 31:10-31, they had aspirations we would regard as ‘non-traditional’.
This is what they aimed for in their lives – their ‘to-do’ list:
- find a well-educated and well-to-do man as a husband – someone who could give them a comfortable life, and their children a good start in life
- spin and weave cloth, to make the family’s clothing and (in earlier times) the tents they lived in
- make and sell finished items of clothing; this meant skill in weaving and embroidery
- design and make suitable clothing for all members of the household
- dress well and attractively, so that she was confident and her family was proud of her
- keeping physically and mentally strong and fit; no lolling on silken cushions for the Woman of Worth
- give religious instruction to the children: a mother was their first teacher, and the great influence on her children’s lives
- gather food and assemble a varied and healthy diet for the members of the household; the Jewish dietary laws supported this
- administer the finances of the family and oversee the family business, with all the necessary skills this involved
- buy investment property wisely
- supervise investments and make a profit from them, then re-invest the profits
- perform charitable work and care for the poor; this was seen as one of the main duties of a Jewish woman
- oversee the emotional and physical well-being of members of the household; she was the ‘go-to’ person in the household
- be available at all times to anyone who needed her.
The list hardly mentions children – but not because children were unimportant. They were the center of a woman’s life, her crowning achievement and a great blessing given by God. Not having children was counted as a very great misfortune. The household that a woman governed was centered on the maintenance of a healthy and happy extended family.
The status of mothers and motherhood has been so down-graded in the modern world that it is hard to appreciate the honor given to biblical women who gave birth to children and raised a family. But such was the case in the ancient world, at least in the part of the world where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth.
Women’s greatest achievement was to give birth, preferably to a boy. Their second achievement was to raise a child
- who believed and trusted in God
- who respected tradition, and
- who lived a good life.