The stock market barely missed a beat after the tragedy of 9/11. In an industry with so little time for reflection, we must learn to pause and ask the important questions.
Many Christians find themselves a bit perplexed by the noble (or valiant) woman of Proverbs 31:10-31. Pastoral teaching has led them to believe the passage describes the ideal biblical wife and homemaker — essentially Donna Reed with a spiritual gloss. On attentive reading, though, they quickly see that this noble woman does much that Donna never imagined.
Maybe it’s not surprising then that when I come to this passage as a business scholar and supply chain professor, I see a portrayal of an outstanding business leader who happens to be a woman. This wise executive has exceptional character and all the practices of excellent supply chain management. In fact, Proverbs 31 portrays a particularly outstanding business leader — a woman of significance running a very profitable business. Not some small-scale hobby business, but one deeply involved in the global supply chain of her day. Moreover, the business is sufficiently profitable that it provides well for all its employees and other stakeholders, while allowing her to share its surplus with the poor and needy. Donna Reed? Hardly.
Wisdom literature in the Hebrew tradition originates with King Solomon, who received divine wisdom as a gift from God (1 Kings 2-3). The centerpiece of his writing, the book of Proverbs, is framed by literary bookends. The book opens with wisdom personified as a woman. Here we learn that lady wisdom was with God when he began the work of creation. She delighted in God’s creation and in its people (Proverbs 8:22-31). Solomon then closes Proverbs with wisdom embodied in the noble woman (often translated as wife).
Both lady wisdom and the noble woman:
Solomon clearly intends these opening and closing portions of Proverbs to provide a composite picture of wisdom. But it is notable that Solomon concludes his wisdom book with an elaborate A-Z acrostic description of wisdom in action — specifically, conducting business in the marketplace.
We can better understand Solomon’s noble woman if we realize that the word translated as ‘household’ is oikos (Prov. 31:21,27). The reference is not to the domestic nuclear family with which we are familiar. Rather, it principally refers to the basic unit of economic activity in the ancient world. Abraham, with all his servants, animals, and other forms of wealth, was head of an oikos. So was Job. In our modern parlance, therefore, oikos is better understood as a family business venture, not a domestic family unit.
Which makes it much less surprising, then, that Proverbs 31 mentions this noble woman’s children only once, her husband just three times. The entirety of the other verses are dedicated to her commercial activities. Which means Solomon intentionally personified wisdom as a particular sort of woman — one who is active in the public square, and pointedly successful in business and the marketplace.
Notably, though, she is not accumulating wealth for the purpose of selfish gain. Instead, all those with whom she deals — her immediate family, her servants (workers), and the poor and needy — are blessed through her profits and her generosity.
So let’s take a closer look at this exceptional woman, paying particular attention to her business activities, her business orientations, and her business outcomes.
The activities of the noble woman can largely be described as those characteristic of an excellent global supply chain. We see that:
In action, she operates a global supply chain. She buys raw materials (wool, flax, food, seed) and real estate (fields) and then transforms these raw materials into products. She produces food for her family and employees. As well, she makes linen garments and sashes for merchants who, perhaps traveling from nearby nations of Assyria and Egypt, purchase her products in the marketplace.
As she builds her business, she expands by buying land and planting vineyards with the profits from her textile/clothing trade (v16). She is skilled in accounting and knows that her merchandise is profitable (v18). In fact, we are told repeatedly that all her work is profitable. In verse 21, she has a plan for seasonality, so her whole enterprise is prepared for winter seasons. Finally, we see in verse 20 that she can open her hands to the poor and needy with the surplus of her products and profitability.
These various activities are not a hodgepodge of good business practices. Rather, they spring from particular business orientations. Reading more deeply, we see that this wise business woman is focused on sustainability, on quality, on stakeholders, on the entirety of her supply chain, and on the long-term. Not surprisingly, these are the same business orientations that characterize the most successful contemporary corporations.
Taken as a whole, Proverbs 31 teaches that the noble woman’s wisdom-infused business activities, and business orientations, all lead to the same outcome — blessing. Her husband, children, and employees are all blessed with material abundance. Her oikos has a reputation for excellence and expanding influence. Her buyers clearly prize her products, likely traveling considerable distances to make their purchases. Implicitly, she does business relationally, not transactionally — the continuing expansion of her business venture(s) over time suggests that both suppliers and customers want to do business with her repeatedly. And, as noted previously, her business success also blesses the poor.
Even on its own, Solomon’s choice to set wisdom’s blessings in a business context would be notable. It takes on even greater significance, though, in light of another Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 8:17-18. Here Moses tells us two striking things about the ability to create wealth:
Which means the noble woman of Proverbs 31 is not just a woman of exceptional wisdom and skill — she is something much more. In the way her business venture blesses everyone it touches, she embodies God’s covenantal ‘blessed to be a blessing’ intention for all of us. Would that many more business people, and their investor partners, took a similar approach.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.