A Virtuous Wife – Proverbs 31: 10-31 – NKJV
10 Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
She brings her food from afar.
15 She also rises while it is yet night,
And provides food for her household,
And a portion for her maidservants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
From her profits she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
19 She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle.
20 She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet.
22 She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
25 Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.
Growing up in a mainstream/evangelical Christian culture I was very familiar with the Proverbs 31 woman. I heard many perspectives, translations and interpretations of this beautiful and challenging poem. It’s a poem that I’ve come to love more and more as I’ve grown and try to grow as a Godly woman, a woman made in His image, serving His Kingdom. I want to be a woman of valour, a virtuous woman – but like many women I’ve wrestled with this text, struggling to understand what this really means.
The text is an acrostic poem in Hebrew; each successive line beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. It is the conclusion to the book of Proverbs, a collection of wise writings and sayings from various Hebrew writers, including many from wise King Solomon. The 31st chapter is attributed to King Lemuel, and it’s noted that it was passed on to him from his mother. Many traditions hold that Lemuel (a name that appears nowhere else in Scripture) was another name for Solomon, making the mother Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite (who King David had killed so that he could take Bathsheba as his own wife). Solomon had many wives and concubines and certainly made some foolish decisions in his marriages, so it is interesting to see this piece of wisdom his mother may have urged him to heed.
In some modern evangelical circles, Proverbs 31 has become a to-do list, a check list, a way to weigh whether or not you are TRULY a Godly woman. But as Rachel Held Evans (rachelheldevans.com) discovered in her journey while writing A Year of Biblical Womanhood, the poem was never meant to be used that way. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. The words translated as ‘virtuous woman’ are in the Hebrew words of praise: ‘Eshet Chayil’ – woman of valour! They appear one other place in Scripture, in the story of Ruth: “And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you request, for all the people of my town know that you are a virtuous woman.” Ruth 3:11, NKJV. Ruth was a childless widow who left her native Moab and followed her widowed Jewish mother-in-law home to Bethlehem where she gleaned wheat in the fields of Boaz, who took notice of her and after her bold request that he marry her offered these words of praise. The details of Proverbs 31 – the tasks the woman performs, her position in society and even her family – did not describe Ruth. But the character of the Proverbs 31 woman – a woman of valour, worthy of praise! – that describes Ruth perfectly.
It is not what the woman of Proverbs 31 does that makes her a woman of valour; it is how she does it. Rachel Held Evans describes her Jewish friend’s reaction to the evangelical perspective on this passage:
“So do Jewish women struggle with this passage as much as Christian women?” I asked.
Ahava seemed a bit bewildered.
“Not at all!” she said. “In my culture, Proverbs 31 is a blessing.”
Ahava repeated what I’d discovered in my research, that the first line of the Proverbs 31 poem—“a virtuous woman who can find?”—is best translated, “a woman of valor who can find?” And in fact, the structure and diction employed in the poem more closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior than a domestic to-do list. Like all good poems, it was intended to highlight the glory of the everyday; it was never meant to be used prescriptively as a to-do list or a command.
“Every week at the Sabbath table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me,” Ahava explained. “It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way. I bet you do as well.”
In addition, she said, “eshet chayil” – woman of valor! – is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture, Ahava said. Think of it as the Hebrew equivalent of “you go girl,” or perhaps even better, “Carry on, Warrior.”
– Rachel Held Evans, “Carry On Warrior”
After learning this, Held Evans encouraged her readers to praise one another, celebrating accomplishments, triumphs and daily life with these words. As a new year begins, I’d like to offer these words of praise, encouragement and affirmation to you, my New Church sisters, for your love and courage, for your community spirit and kindness, for your diligence in your calling and devotion to the Lord: Esher Chayil! Well done, women of valour!
I wonder… what women of valour you know in your life, who the Proverbs 31 woman reminds you of? How do you respond to this poem, the description of this woman? Do you see your self as a woman of valour, worthy of praise?