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The “Proverbs 31 Wife” is Not the “Virtuous Woman” but the “Daring Woman”

Still life of a beautiful old book and a rose in a wineglass

(Nothing in this excerpt will surprise my Jewish readers, but I wish more of my other readers knew! tl;dr: The Hebrew “eshet chayil” in Proverbs 31 does not mean “virtuous woman” in the modern sense, far from it. It means “woman of valor” or daring woman.)

Proverbs 31, from a Hebrew wisdom text, has been treated as one basis for defining “family values” in some Christian communities in the U.S., and has frequently been put to the purpose of subjugating women and validating rigid gender hierarchy. In most Christian translations of Proverbs 31, men are told to praise and admire “the virtuous woman” or “the good woman” (or, in a few versions, the “capable woman” or the “capable wife”). But the Hebrew eshet chayil does not mean “virtuous woman.” It means “woman of valor.” (Jewish translations into English, such as the JPS, get this right.)

In his annotations to The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter parses the word like this: “…vigor, strength, worth, substance. It is a martial term transferred to civic life.” He also notes the word shalal (“prize, loot”) in the line that follows: “The heart of her husband trusts her / and no prize does he lack” (Proverbs 31:11). It is as though the woman of valor is being compared to a victorious warrior returning home with spoils after war. (In fact, in this metaphor, the husband is the one awaiting the spoils-laden return of the warrior who has his heart; the gender roles a modern reader would expect are flipped.)

In our English Bibles, we often get “virtuous,” “good,” or other adjectives suggestive of moral character because the translation committee commissioned by King James I four centuries ago translated eshet chayil in this way. Because that Authorized Version became our sacred text, future committees have dutifully followed suit. But in the seventeenth century, the word “virtuous” made somewhat more sense; the Victorians hadn’t yet gotten their hands on the word (and wouldn’t for another 250 years). At the time, “virtuous” still suggested the Italian virtù, meaning manliness, purposeful action, and bravery—not moral purity or goodness. Vir is Latin for “man,” and we get from it not only the English word virtue but also virility. The “virtuous woman” in Proverbs 31 is the very same woman whom the King James translation tells us is clothed “in strength and honor,” like a warrior (Proverbs 31:25).

However, the Hebrew eshet chayil doesn’t suggest manliness or masculinity. It suggests valor. The woman of Proverbs 31 is brave, persistent, audacious, resourceful, and ready for anything. In that chapter, we find her running a business. We find her planning for the future, charting a course toward her dreams. A more apt translation of eshet chayil into contemporary English may well be “a daring woman.” Or at least, we could adopt the Jewish translation and go with “valorous woman”; it is far more accurate.

What I want us to notice is the wide gap between the “daring,” bold woman and the “virtuous,” well-behaved woman. This gap persists in our modern Bibles for two reasons. First, the fact that the meanings of many words have shifted dramatically over the past four hundred years, so that words that meant one thing to the readers of King James’ 1611 Authorized Version often convey something completely different to us now. Second, we bring with us into the Bible, eisegetically, a bias from our own culture and our religious tradition, an expectation that in those pages we will find meek, submissive women—and instructions for women to be subservient beings. In reality, little of that is in the text. That’s in us; we bring it with us when we translate or read the book. We insert it because we expect it. And once it’s there, it gets used within our religious communities to justify and reinforce a subjugation and marginalization of women that may be faithful to the nineteenth-century Victorian ideal of “the angel in the house” but that is unbiblical and anachronistic.

I wish to remind my fellow Christians: you and I, we did not become Christians to learn from the Victorians or to run our households in the Victorian way. That’s not why we’re here.

– Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible

You can find a related post here: The Misleading Translation of “Wives, Submit,” … and a Tale of Battle-Ready Women

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4 thoughts on “The “Proverbs 31 Wife” is Not the “Virtuous Woman” but the “Daring Woman”

  1. […] Related post: The “Proverbs 31 Wife” is Not the “Virtuous Woman” but the “Daring Woman” […]

  2. So are woman to be submissive to The Husband or not ?

    Is the Body of The Messiah to be submissive to The Messiah or not ?

  3. Why do you seem to set valor and moral goodness as opposed in some way or mutually exclusive? The historical Christian theology places a high value on the UNIVERSAL call to holiness, which is BOLD…or daring, if you prefer. Stop trying to make Christian values to be some sort of evil in the world, responsible for keeping women down. That is the LIE that has been sold to you by modern feminism and the libertine culture we’re living in.

    1. Hi Freni, I don’t see these as opposed at all. The Bible discusses a great many virtues of different kinds, but it’s important to be faithful in translation to which is being discussed, and when, and not to impose our own cultural perspectives on it.

      The NRSVue, published just this year and generally acknowledged to be the most accurate existing English translation, translates eschet chayil as “woman of strength.” JPS uses “woman of valor,” as I do here. (And I would note that JPS is translated by people for whom modern Hebrew is a spoken language.) NET, which bills itself as the most transparent translation (because of it’s many translator notes) does concede to our cultural prejudices and uses a more traditional compromise of “woman of noble character” to translate eshet chayil, but the translator’s footnote literally provides the correct translation: “woman of valor.”

      Nothing in my post suggests that Christian values are “some sort of evil in the world, responsible for keeping women down.” But our cultural prejudices are responsible in keeping both men and women down; our prejudices hinder our love for God and our love for others, and these prejudices are not Christlike. These cultural prejudices are modern and are not biblical. That’s why it is so important to correct mistranslations that are widely accepted but are recent and anachronistic.

      I might just as easily ask you, “Why do you object to finding out that the Bible encourages women to be daring?” After all, the Bible encourages men to be daring (as in the cases of Joshua and David) and the Bible encourages men to be meek too (as in the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline epistles). So, if you were to discover that, just as with men, some biblical passages encourage women to be meek and some biblical passages encourage women to be bold and daring, why should this alarm you? If our allegiance is to Christ who is heavenly and eternal and not to our cultural prejudices and our cultural tradition which is earthly and temporary, we should be ready to throw aside our cultural traditions the moment that they conflict with living as Christ would have us do. Otherwise, we become like the man in the gospels who wanted to follow Christ but wanted to turn aside first to bury his father; as in his case, our allegiance to our local past outweighs our allegiance to Christ. Christ told him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” In the same way, let your cultural prejudices and traditions look after themselves; it us for us to look toward Christ.

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