A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.
I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.
If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?
And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.
Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.
How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.
But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.
Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.
Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.
This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.
I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.
Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.
The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?
Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).
In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.
Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).
Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.
Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.
We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.
In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem. Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.
Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields. Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel.
And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11: “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).
Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength. In other words, she lived her life with valour.
In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.
The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”
We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank? We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.
So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty? On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that
This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.
Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”
In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.
When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.
Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).
The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”
According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look. It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.
If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.
For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.