When I’m in a group of church ladies and someone mentions the Proverbs 31 woman, there’s often a collective groan. She’s such a high standard of Biblical womanhood that she seems intimidating–like we’ll never measure up to something like her and even suggesting we should is a scary thought. But is that really why she’s here at the end of Proverbs? To make us feel bad about ourselves or to show us exactly what a godly woman looks like? Maybe there’s a way that we can find her encouraging rather than threatening.
I will be addressing this post mostly to the women reading, and using words like “we” throughout. I apologize to the guys this leaves out. I hope you might still find some value in reading this, though. Perhaps you’ll think of it next time you read Proverbs, or the Proverbs 31 woman comes up in conversation, or one of the women in your life is feeling discouraged.
When we first start reading about the Proverbs 31 woman, we see a question. In the familiar King James it reads, “Who can find a virtuous woman?” (Prov. 31:10, KJV). I wrote about the translation choice here years ago in a post called “Mighty Women.” The Hebrew word translated “virtuous” is chayil (Strongs H2428). According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, this word basically means “strength,” which leads to translations like “power,” “might,” “valiant,” “army,” and “wealth” depending on how the word is used in context. Chayil is used of God’s power about 20 times, and of “valiant men,” “able men,” or “mighty men of valor” about 85 times (TWOT, 624a). Now look at how the word is translated in the KJV when used of women:
And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.Ruth 3:11, KJV
A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband: but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones.Proverbs 12:4, KJV
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies … Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.Proverbs 31:10, 29, KJV
Now, to be fair, “virtue” originally meant “force; strength; vigor; moral strength” (Online Etymology Dictionary). However, by the 1590s (before the 1611 release of the KJV), it had taken on the meaning of “especially (in women) ‘chastity, sexual purity.'” The KJV translators only used “virtue” for chayil when it’s used for women. Modern translations often opt to soften the sex-based translation choice by using “worthy,” “noble,” and occasionally “valiant” in these verses (see Ruth 3:11; Prov. 12:4; 31:10, 29 in WEB and NET).
Fixing the translation probably doesn’t make her any less intimidating of a role model, though. “Virtuous” carries some historical baggage, but noble, worthy, and valiant are still high standards to live up to. I find the more accurate translation a little more inspiring, though. And maybe clarifying how to translate chayil is a good starting point for approaching the whole Proverbs 31 passage differently than we may have in the past.
A Mother’s Advice
It had been a while since I’d read through Proverbs, but not long ago I found myself back there reading Proverbs 31. (I think it was for one of the scripture writing studies our ladies’ group is doing at church.) This was the first time I’d read it since I’d started thinking about planning a wedding. I was also reading it, I think for the first time, in the NET translation. I’ll just quote the whole passage here so we can look at it together:
1 The words of King Lemuel, an oracle that his mother taught him: …
10 Who can find a wife of noble character?Proverbs 31:1, 10-31, NET
For her value is far more than rubies.
11 Her husband’s heart has trusted her,
and he does not lack the dividends.
12 She has rewarded him with good and not harm
all the days of her life.
13 She sought out wool and flax,
then worked happily with her hands.
14 She was like the merchant ships;
she would bring in her food from afar.
15 Then she rose while it was still night,
and provided food for her household and a portion to her female servants.
16 She considered a field and bought it;
from her own income she planted a vineyard.
17 She clothed herself in might,
and she strengthened her arms.
18 She perceived that her merchandise was good.
Her lamp would not go out in the night.
19 She extended her hands to the spool,
and her hands grasped the spindle.
20 She opened her hand to the poor,
and extended her hands to the needy.
21 She would not fear for her household in winter,
because all her household were clothed with scarlet,
22 because she had made coverings for herself;
and because her clothing was fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is well-known in the city gate
when he sits with the elders of the land.
24 She made linen garments then sold them,
and traded belts to the merchants;
25 her clothing was strong and splendid;
and she laughed at the time to come.
26 She has opened her mouth with wisdom,
with loving instruction on her tongue.
27 Watching over the ways of her household,
she would not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children have risen and called her blessed;
her husband also has praised her:
29 “Many daughters have done valiantly,
but you have surpassed them all!”
30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting.
A woman who fears the Lord—she makes herself praiseworthy.
31 Give her credit for what she has accomplished,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
I like starting with the beginning of chapter 31 because that clarifies the context for this passage. This whole chapter is advice from a mother to her son. It’s about the type of woman he should want to marry and how highly he ought to value that woman.
That’s an important piece of information. It clarifies that the stated purpose of this passage is not to say, “Here’s the type of woman that all women should be.” We can use Proverbs 31:10-31 as an example of a good woman who follows the Lord, but it’s not a prescriptive list for everyone. It’s also specifically about married women; there are aspects which can relate to singles but not the whole thing.
Qualities of the Proverbs 31 Wife
As I read through the description of the Proverbs 31 wife, it seems like many of the specific descriptions could be summed up in general character traits. For example, “She perceived that her merchandise was good … She made linen garments then sold them, and traded belts to the merchants” shows us that she makes quality things and sells them. If we’re going to model her behavior, we don’t need to craft clothing; we need to do something productive with our time and make sure the things we’re producing are good quality. Here are the other qualities that stand out to me while reading:
- Chayil–noble, strong, valiant
- Industrious and hardworking
- A provider for her family and those working for her
- Creator of quality goods, which she sells
- Generous to the poor and needy
- Fearless because she’s prepared
- Wise and able to instruct
- Accomplished, and given credit and praise for those accomplishments
Depending on when and where you grew up, you might have been told women shouldn’t work a job or get an education. You might have felt like your accomplishments should be hidden lest you appear too intelligent, too proud, or too intimidating. But the exact opposite is happening here.
King Lemuel’s mother supports the idea of a wife who works a job (specifically, her own business that she runs from her house while also caring for her family), manages and invests her own money, has wisdom and knowledge that she teaches to others, and who is publicly praised for her accomplishments. And that’s the kind of woman that she tells her son he should hope to find in a wife. (Perhaps the person who said no Christian guy would marry me after I got my bachelor’s degree should reread this chapter.)
We’re All Still Growing
When I read the Proverbs 31 woman passage most recently, I realized I didn’t find her all that intimidating. I wanted to mimic her, but in a good way rather than like I was under a weight of pressure. I want to be a wife for my soon-to-be husband who improves his life by being with him. And this passage reassures me I can do that with my talents, gifts, accomplishments, and knowledge.
Also, as I read this passage, I remember that God calls people “perfect” as long as they’re following Him and working toward perfection. Maybe the same is true here. If you’re working on following the Lord and growing as a woman of noble character, then perhaps you too can be described in the glowing terms of praise used here. I know many women–my mother, ladies at church, friends–who I’d say line up with this description of the Proverbs 31 woman pretty much exactly even though I know they’d say they’re far from perfect.
Reading passages like this, where we’re given an ideal to strive toward, should inspire us to keep doing our best and keep growing. Remember, our goal is “to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.” (Eph. 4:12-13, NET). That doesn’t all happen at once, and that’s okay. There’s a reason the Christian life is described as one of growing and building. It’s a process, and becoming a valiant woman of strength, virtue, and courage is no exception to that rule. So maybe next time you read Proverbs 31, think of her not as a standard to judge you against, but as a friend you can imitate as you grow.
Featured image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Overcomer” by Mandisa