A Pepper Grinder Post

Strong Women

RosieThe idea for this post came when I was reading Proverbs chapter 31 in Hebrew.  I had heard this passage quoted and preached on before and have read English translations of it many times.  In fact, in the first church my wife and I were part of after we got married, it was a popular passage.  However, when I read verse 10 in the original language, something jumped out at me that I had never seen before.  Where most translations say something like an excellent, or virtuous woman or wife, or a wife of noble character, the Hebrew actually said: a woman of “chayil.” (the ch is pronounced like the ch in “l’chaim” in Fiddler on the Roof.)

Maybe I should back up a bit.  How about if we start off with my translation of the whole passage about this super-woman from verse 10 to verse 31?

Who can find a strong woman?  She’s worth much more than jewels.  Her husband has confidence in her, and lacks nothing.  She does good things for him all the days of her life.  She finds wool and flax, and works with her hands with delight.  She’s like a ship, bringing food from far away.  She gets up while it’s still dark, and gives food to her household, and pays her servant girls.  She looks at a field and buys it; she plants a vineyard from her own earnings.  She wears strength like clothes, and works with a will.  She checks on her trading to be sure it’s profitable.  She burns the midnight oil.  She holds the distaff in her hands, and grasps the spindle with her fingers.  She is open-handed toward those in need, and reaches out to help the poor.  She isn’t worried about her family when it snows—they are all dressed well.  She makes fine linen bed-coverings and wears nice clothes. 

Her husband is well-known in the city and takes his place among the important people of the land. 

She makes linen clothing and sells it and supplies sashes to merchants.  She clothes herself with strength and honor, and isn’t worried about the future.  She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.  She keeps track of the comings and goings of people in her household, and she isn’t lazy. 

Her children think the world of her; so does her husband, and he brags about her: “Many women do great things, but you’re better than any of them!”  Charm is deceptive, and beauty is a lie, but a woman who fears Yahweh is worth praising.  Give her the reward she has earned, and let her deeds bring her public recognition.

As you may have guessed, the word that I translated as “strong” at the start of the above passage is the Hebrew word that I have transliterated as “chayil.”  It caught my eye because it is quite a common word in the Old Testament, but it is hardly ever used to describe a woman.  By contrast, it is frequently found with one of the Hebrew words for men.  Remember King David’s mighty men?  They were men of chayil.  When the angel appeared to Gideon and astonished him by saying, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior,” he was calling him a man of chayil.  When people were encouraged to let their hearts be chayil, they were being called to bravery. 

LoomIt is true that this word can have some other meanings as well.  It often simply means an army.  It can also refer to wealth or property or fortifications or even to special skills.  What do all these things have in common?  They all represent some kind of power.  If you were someone with lots of livestock in the Old Testament culture, you were a powerful person.  You had a different kind of power if you had a skill few others had.  You were obviously powerful if you were a strong, accomplished fighter, or if you had an army or a fortified city.

So where do these translations get off, calling this woman of chayil a virtuous woman or a woman of noble character?  Well, there is a little bit of support for this type of meaning.  When Solomon becomes king, and his older brother Adonijah (who had been trying to get the kingship) is afraid for his life, Solomon states that he will not be harmed if he shows himself to be a worthy man (a man of chayil).  Here the strength is not physical or financial or related to a skill, but is a strength of character.  Maybe this is the kind of strength the author of this part of Proverbs had in mind.

What I find suspicious is that the three places I am aware of where a woman is described as being a woman of chayil (In Proverbs 31, Proverbs 12:4, and in Ruth 3:11), the English translations go for something like “virtuous” or “of noble character,” even though this translation is very rare when referring to a man.  I even found a book discussing Hebrew words which specifically said that the word should be translated differently if it referred to a woman than it would normally be.

In part, this is understandable, because women in the Old Testament world had certain spheres closed to them.  They were not going to be mighty warriors, and were rarely rulers.  On the other hand, I think that part of what is going on is sexism, pure and simple (and I say this as someone who is NOT a lover of political correctness).

So how are we supposed to know what this word means when it describes the Proverbs 31 woman?  Happily for us, the passage paints a detailed picture of this woman and what she does, so we can get a pretty good idea of what kind of meaning the author had in mind.  There are two things that stand out to me when I read this portrait of an idealized woman.

  • She is like the Energizer Bunny—she just keeps going and going.  Just reading about what she does is exhausting.  She sounds like someone who spends her entire long day energetically jumping from one undertaking to the next.  If you have ever read Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Proverbs 31 woman sounds like Almanzo Wilder’s mother on steroids.
  • She is very good at what she does.  She doesn’t just thaw something from the frozen food aisle in the microwave, she brings food from far away.  She earns money and uses it in a savvy way.  She knows how to weave, makes beautiful clothes and home decorations, and even sells some of what she makes.  She keeps track of all that goes on in her household and speaks wisely.

Vegetable MarketWhat do these two things tell us about the meaning of chayil in our passage?  Although the Proverbs 31 woman is certainly honorable, her virtue or excellent character isn’t what stands out when I read this description.  She is skillful, and she is strong.  Not only does she possess great amounts of physical energy, but she is strong in the sense of being decisive and self-confident.  If there were a word that meant skillful, strong, AND confident, all rolled into one, I would choose that word for the translation of chayil.  Since I couldn’t think of an English word that meant all that, I went with strong, because that was the predominant impression I got of this wonder woman, and because the word is so often translated as strong or mighty when it refers to a man.

The funny thing is that the people my wife and I used to hear talk about the Proverbs 31 woman often seemed to be the opposite of feminists.  One of the things that disturbed me about that group of believers is that the women seemed to do a much better job of encouraging each other to submit to their husbands than the men did of encouraging each other to sacrificially love and lay their lives down for their wives.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that if a crazed killer came to their door, most of those men would have given their own lives to protect their wives and children, but they sometimes seemed a little weak on daily putting their wives’ needs and desires above their own.

The Proverbs 31 woman, however, sounds kind of like a feminist.  Look at what she is doing:

  • She takes the initiative.  Although it is nowhere hinted that she goes against her husband’s wishes, she certainly does not sound like someone who is waiting passively for him to tell her what to do.
  • She is controlling much, if not all, of the household finances.  She pays the servants, and she buys parcels of land and directs their management.
  • She sounds as though she is bringing in some nice supplemental income through things she makes and through proceeds from the land she has bought.
  • Overall, she comes across much more like an energetic, hands-on CEO of her household, rather than a glorified servant.

On the other hand, there are ways she does not seem to fit with feminism as it is often understood in modern America.

  • She is not selfish.  Okay, I could really get into trouble here.  Let me just say that sometimes the feminist message (and the message of advertisers piggy-backing on feminism) seems to be, “Men are selfish jerks.  We women need to watch out for ourselves.” I will not contest the first point—men ARE often selfish, and that is NOT okay.  However, I don’t think the answer is for women to be selfish, too.  I am sure the Proverbs 31 woman finds pleasure in what she is doing, but almost everything she does also benefits other people.  She is doing things for her husband, her kids, and even her servants.  If that weren’t enough, she also helps the poor.
  • She is not fighting to move beyond her sphere in the society where she finds herself.  Her husband is seated with the important people at the city gate (the Old Testament equivalent of Town Hall), largely because of the success brought to him by his wife, but the Proverbs 31 woman isn’t fighting to be allowed to sit at the city gate herself.  She also isn’t trying to become something like a warrior.  Instead of chafing at her position, she flourishes in it.

VineyardSo, although the Proverbs 31 woman is much more independent and capable than conservative Christians might picture the ideal wife being, she does not really fit with the modern feminist ideal either.

There’s one other thing I want to point out about the Proverbs 31 woman.  She is an idealized, composite woman.  I am not convinced that there has ever been a woman who did all the things the Proverbs 31 woman does.  I think of her almost as a catalog of possibilities.  Here are all the things that a woman in a culture which we might see as repressive can do.  More important than what she did is how she did them.  She did them wholeheartedly, decisively, and without reserve.  I do not think that a woman who gets tired easily should feel lousy when she reads Proverbs 31.  Nor should a woman who is lousy at crafts or has no interest in business.  I think the message to be taken from this chapter is to find what you are gifted at and what God has called you to do, and to do that with enthusiasm.

The Proverbs 31 woman probably was virtuous, and she probably had an excellent character, but I can guarantee that she was strong.  She was a woman of chayil.  Christian men should not be afraid of strong women.  Christian women should not be afraid to be strong women. 

Our society, for all its lip-service to feminism, often seems to define the worth of a woman by how good she looks.  Sure, the ideal woman in our society is smart and capable, but she HAS to be good-looking. 

But what does Proverbs 31 say?  Charm is deceptive and beauty is a lie, but a woman who fears Yahweh is worth praising.  That is a strong woman.  That is a woman who is worth far more than jewels or than the currently popular super-model.

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*Photo Credits: Rosie the Riveter from Wikipedia, loom by , vegetable market by , vineyard by