Proverbs 31 Woman
The last chapter of Proverbs, Proverbs 31: 10-31, describes a clever woman who practices what she preaches by living her role as a “capable wife”. The verses describe a “woman of worth”, translated as “eshet hayyil” who is praised for her virtuous deeds. The Proverbs’ valiant woman was empowered and not inferior. I will compare Proverbs 31 based on the virtuous woman’s function as a pious example, an ideal spouse, and as a linguistic love letter from God that personifies the woman as wisdom. The book of Proverbs serves as a how-to guide for achieving wealth and affluence by centering on achievable, practical life choices and how one can form wise, good behavior and enjoy a balanced, joyful life. The structure of Proverbs 31 is an acrostic poem (a poem is a type of poetry where the first, last or other letters in a line spell out a particular word or phrase) in twenty-two verses, as the initial letter of each verse starts with a following letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Midrashic sources think that God gave the Torah to Israel through using twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so He praises Jewish women through Proverbs 31 by using all the twenty-two letters. How beautiful!
Proverbs 31 articulates a woman of worth, but her worthiness is centered on being professional, realistic and economical. Her capability and constant resourcefulness in the private sphere (household), and the public sphere (business sales) speak for themselves. She runs a prosperous home where her husband is free to discuss local affairs because of her dependability and concern for her spouse’s welfare. The valiant woman’s main feature is her constant strength; false values and external appearance are dismissed as vain and fleeting. The valiant woman takes on a “superwoman” status as her character makes her “more precious than jewels”. She is not superficial, but makes clothes, constantly works hard, turns skills into revenue, provides charity, and capably provides for her family. That’s quite a high standard to live up to! The good wife’s dedication and guidance blesses her husband and family with honour and, in turn, she creates the identity of her household. Bringing honour to one’s family is also tied to feminine purity and chastity which continue to be the primary signifier of virtue in women.There is a universal human tension between virtue and vice but the devout women in Proverbs 31 displays the victory of spirit over flesh. Chastity is not identified only with virginity, as it also represents self-control and temperance, which allows a valiant woman to achieve the highest quantity of honour in her individual, familial and public relations which also extend to her relationship with God.
In Jewish sources, Raymond Apple states that there are three main views of the virtuous woman:
Firstly, Jewish womanhood encapsulates maternal, pious, capable characteristics that deem her as a righteous and intelligent woman. She demonstrates wisdom by equating the fear of the Lord with wisdom and virtue, which is shown through her actions not through sermonizing.
Secondly, she embodies Genesis’ idea of the ideal wife and her husband’s “helper” by following in the role of Eve. However, she was not just a “housewife” since eshet (woman) hayyil (virtuous) is not merely a “domestic” term for a woman, but a badge of honour that showcases her valor and strength. When hayyil describes men, the terms means valiant or warrior in battle, but when used for women, it signifies “exceptional and virtuous character” or “to do excellently” which demonstrates the gendered meaning of the term that rightly demonstrates the uniquely beautiful characteristics of both genders. In the time of David, a devout woman is described as a rare, epic heroine when she battles the flesh by using “strength and dignity” as her clothing.
Thirdly, the capable wife is also an elevated symbol of Wisdom and the Torah as the Hebrew words for all these are feminine. Apple states that later spiritual narratives use eshet hayyil as a prestigious “symbol for the Divine Presence” as she reflects the image of God. This view liberates Jewish women and legitimizes their social role by relating their gender with God, Holy Scripture, and the highest virtue, wisdom.
Proverbs offers a theme that one’s happiness is connected to the decisions they make. Proverbs 31: 10-31 discusses the life choices of choosing a spouse and having a happy marriage. There is a sense of wonder at the outcome of virtuous decisions, and the wisdom in practicing prudence and piety.
Women were typically seen as either good or evil, as Biblical women are also used as binaries with the obedient Virgin Mary as opposed to the fallen Eve. Women’s lowliness in creation was traced to their lineage from Eve, but in Proverbs, women were portrayed as both powerful and submissive, and included and excluded. One thing I particularly admire about Proverbs 31 is that the writings display the valiant woman as a real person and not as an allegorical figure. Women are no longer seen as either evil or good or frail or strong. By giving women the power to hold wisdom and strength, the scripture demonstrates the capacity of all women to love and to live virtuously if they choose this lifestyle. In such a broken and wounded world, women are viewed as the restorative embodiment of virtue, as we are able to redeem humankind through our joy, maternity, kindness and compassion.
Many feminists argue that the worst type of patriarchy happens when men decide what virtues their wives should have. But, this also means that if men AND women redeem positive individual powers or virtues, together bother genders canreclaim the feminine genius and dignity that comes with the fairer sex. Although women like Mother Mary were historically and culturally stereotyped as silent and weak, women like her hold a spiritual strength, a steadfast endurance which is associated with wisdom and attaining virtuous perfection. We desire to be perfect externally but do we try to perfect ourselves internally as well? Mary’s spirit and acceptance of suffering does not weaken her but crowns her with virtue. Chaucer, writer of Canterbury Tales, states that the feminine which is typically deemed as inferior is actually superior as feminine “weakness, passivity, defeat…or death, emerges victorious through its perfect alliance with God’s will” and is ultimately empowering.The virtue of women becomes a redemptive force that enables women to transform their husbands through virtue which is linked to their rise to autonomy. This proves that living a virtuous life does not restrict a woman’s life but liberates her to fully love.
Proverbs 31:10-31 cannot be reduced to only being about “the ideal wife” as the passage presents common literary virtues in action such as hard work and wise speech. The passage also offers insightful thoughts on a practical personification of wisdom and as instruction to live a fulfilling life. Apple discusses the woman as representing Jewish womanhood, as Genesis’ spouse and helper and as a symbol of wisdom and the Divine Presence. The valiant woman is not described as dim-witted or as a sexual object, but her prestige comes from her role as a mother, wife, business woman, counselor and manager which denotes her familial and communal role as a valuable asset to everyone, especially her spouse. Proverbs 31:10-31 liberates women and is not a submissive example of patriarchy in the Bible and can be used by feminists to validate feminine autonomy. This Biblical woman sounds perfect but she too got tired, felt the need for God and was compared to others. So take time to do what you love: read a good book, take a walk, go out for coffee with friends. Feeding your soul is restorative and is part of cultivating virtue. I know Proverbs 31:10-31 is a big list for us women to follow but striving for virtue is beautiful and does not require you to be perfect. Aiming to please God is beautiful and God knows your heart! Every woman’s journey is different, so do your thing, and let God in. We are praying for you.
Check out the following sources used if you are interested in the topic:
Minetti Biscoglio, Frances. The Wives of the Canterbury Tales and the Tradition of the Valiant Woman of Proverbs 31: 10-31. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.