Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Sun-Ah Kang: Culture and Interpreting the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs 31:10-31

Today's post is by Rev. Sun-Ah Kang. Rev. Kang is a doctoral student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a GBHEM Angella P. Current-Felder Woman of Color Scholar, and an elder in the UMC.

“I am not a faithful Christian woman. I know I am called to be a good mom and wife, but I love my work. I can’t pick one. And this gives me guilt.” A friend of mine shared her struggle after participating in a woman’s bible study group, mainly learning from Proverbs 31:10-31.

Proverbs 31:10-31 is one of the most widely loved scriptures—it has been used to recognize mothers and wives during Mother’s Day sermons, to celebrate women in Jewish weddings, and in Jewish and Protestant funerals. Indeed, Proverbs 31:10-31 is a female lead scripture, a rare case compared to well-known biblical stories and heroes.

In my doctoral work, I study the dynamic hermeneutical relationship of culture and scripture through a cross-cultural reading of scripture, specifically how certain cultures and traditions influence reading the Bible. I raise the case of Proverbs 31:10-31 to examine how Korean Confucianism and Christian churches impact the reading of Proverbs 31 and how this reading affects women’s identity. Because of the centrality of gender in this passage and in the process of cultural reproduction, it can provide us with key insights into the relationship between culture and the Bible.

The main character is translated into English variously, such as a “virtuous woman” (KJV) or a “capable wife” (NRSV). The Korean Bible (Korean Revised Bible, revised in 1998) translates the Proverbs 31 woman as a virtuous woman, an equivalent to the virtuous woman of Confucianism. Due to the cultural value of virtue, this translation fits well in the Korean Confucian context. In Korean Confucianism, a virtuous woman is a woman of the feminine virtues who sacrifices and devotes herself as a housewife and a mother.

Accordingly, based on the translation, which supports the Confucian ideal of virtuous wife and mother, predominant preaching and bible studies reproduce a Christian ideal of virtuous wife and mother. By complimenting sacrificial women and using them as a pedagogical tool, male leaders often create a norm to judge and criticize women. The norm naturally became internalized in Christian women’s lives deeply, and women are cultivated to fit their behaviors to be Proverbs 31 wannabes.

Indeed, Proverbs 31:10-31 becomes the standard to evaluate faithful and praiseworthy women. The primary knowledge of the Bible comes from preaching, bible studies, or devotional reading that predominantly transmits the patriarchal ideal of women from Confucian culture that is read into the text.

In my doctoral work, I problematize the reproduction of the patriarchal ideal of woman in Christianity, deeply influenced by Confucianism and conservative Protestant theology, which affects women’s identity formation in a harmful and toxic way.

Even today, Korean churches legitimate women’s sacrificial service for granted limiting women’s leadership within churches as teacher and babysitter at Sunday school, server, cook of the meal, or greeter. This hierarchical and patriarchal church culture phenomenon is easily found in churches of Korea and Korean churches in the United States. Accordingly, such culture forms the reading of scripture and identity. I problematize the church cultures/customs to legitimize women’s service, using scripture as a reference that eventually benefits men.

A thorough examination of Confucian understanding of human beings provides a different picture of womanhood. Specifically, one of the Confucian textbooks for women in the Joseon dynasty, Naehun—Instructions for the Inner Quarter (1475), proposes that a virtuous Confucian ideal is a woman of wisdom and intelligence who can advise and guide and even rebuke her husband for pursuing the sagehood.

Stereotypical assumptions of Confucian women are rooted in the practices and publications of late Joseon and the byproduct of the western missionary movement in the late nineteenth century—Joseon women are passive, oppressed victims of patriarchal Confucian cultures. These assumptions must be counteracted by bringing other Confucian voices to the reading of the text.

The conventional understanding of a woman as a housewife and a mother hinders Christians from revealing the true identity of the Prov 31 woman. However, the rediscovery of the Confucian virtuous woman provides an alternative way to encounter Prov 31 woman: “She is a professional who finds success in her field of work. She is an artisan of textiles (vv. 13, 19, 22), an international merchant (vv. 14, 17, 24), an entrepreneur (vv. 15, 18, 21, 24–25, 27), an adventurous investor (v. 16), euergetes and philanthropist (vv. 20–21), a human resource administrator for her husband (vv. 23, 27–29), a professor or guru (v. 26), an educator (v. 28), a deaconess (v. 30), and a celebrity (vv. 28–31).”[1]

A Prov 31 woman is a professional woman, exerting full abilities and wisdom, better than her husband and any person. A Prov 31 woman does not limit her domain to the household but expands herself internationally.

What Michel Foucault said about power represents the dynamic relationship between culture, scriptural reading, and the formation of one’s identity. Foucault said, “In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”[2]

Patriarchal culture in Korean society continually affects the way of reading scripture. Prov 31:10-31 is an obvious example of how this dynamic relationship is utilized and benefits patriarchal interests that deprive nurturing women to develop potential and establish positive woman’s selfhood in Christianity.

However, there is redemption. When women read the scripture differently, as I propose, it can produce power to impact reversely. To do so, readers need to stay out of their comfort zone and listen to the Bible, other cultures, and traditions.

We, Wesleyans, are privileged to have a tremendous hermeneutical tool of the quadrilateral. Reason must be considered when we read the scripture to ask, for instance, will my reading empower and promote other people’s image of God, especially their self-image and dignity?

May God bless us to discern God’s voice in scripture and use us to promote other people’s well-being!

[1] Sun-Ah Kang, “REREADING “A VIRTUOUS WOMAN” (’ĒŠET HAYIL) IN PROVERBS 31:10–31” in Landscapes of Korean and Korean American Biblical Interpretation, ed. John Ahn (SBL Press, 2019), 139.

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. I (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 94.

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