Passages

A Strong Woman (Prov 31:10-31) by Carol Meyers

The book of Proverbs has a surprise ending. Most of this book sets forth societal values, giving the ancient audience (probably elite young men) practical instruction about how to navigate the moral difficulties of daily life. Its poetic proverbs, like those found in other Near Eastern sources, are considered wisdom literature, a genre typically offering advice gained from experience. But then, after hundreds of pithy maxims and astute insights, the last 22 verses of Proverbs present the many attributes and accomplishments of an eshet-chayil, or “woman of strength.” This meaning of the term is obscured by translations that render it “capable wife” or “competent wife” or even “good wife” or “wife of noble character.” The basic meaning of the Hebrew word describing the woman is clearly “strength.” And while moral excellence is among her attributes, the dominant portrait is one of the physical and personal powers (e.g., Prov 31:17) that allow her to accomplish in exemplary fashion the myriad tasks of household life.

Does this really reflect the lives of women in the period of the Hebrew Bible?

This last section of Proverbs is an acrostic poem, each line beginning sequentially with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It thus takes on the quality of an A to Z compendium of all that a woman does. Yet it is not a complete catalogue of a woman’s activities in the largely self-sufficient households of Hebrew Bible times, for it focuses on some activities and omits others. For example, textile work is mentioned frequently (Prov 31:13, Prov 31:19, Prov 31:22, Prov 31:24), but there is only the vaguest allusion (Prov 31:15) to the many food-preparation tasks necessary for household life, and the religious rituals carried out by women are never mentioned.

In other ways too, this poem is detached from reality. For one thing, it hardly reflects the lives of all women. Note these details: the woman of the poem has servants (Prov 31:15); she and her family wear luxury garments (Prov 31:21-22); her husband is involved in civic matters rather than agricultural labor (Prov 31:23); she has access to imported food (Prov 31:14); and she has a surplus of resources that enables her to be charitable (Prov 31:20). These features indicate that she is a well-to-do urban woman, not at all representative of the roughly 90% of women who lived in peasant households. Also, the poem presents the woman as a paragon of virtue: flawless in her relationships with her husband (Prov 31:11-12), children (Prov 31:28), and servants (Prov 31:15); laudable in her charitable work (Prov 31:20); and unsurpassed in her wisdom and piety (Prov 31:26, Prov 31:29, Prov 31:30). Yet no woman is without some failings or occasional lapses!

What can this poem tell us about women’s lives?

Although this is an idealized portrait, many details of Prov 31:10-31 reflect aspects of elite women’s lives. Like much of wisdom literature, it is probably drawn from the experience and observations of the author. The woman of the poem is an industrious household manager (Prov 31:27). She not only performs many of the daily tasks essential for the well-being of her household; she also makes decisions about the allotment of human and economic resources. That is, she directs the labor of household members (Prov 31:15), engages in the production and sale of goods (Prov 31:13, Prov 31:18, Prov 31:24), and purchases property that she then puts to productive use (Prov 31:16). This autonomous ability of a woman to enact commercial transactions is actually reflected in archaeological discoveries: stamp seals used to “sign” business documents sometimes bear women’s names.

In depicting a strong woman who makes decisions about social and economic matters, Prov 31:10-31 conveys information that challenges common notions about women in the period of the Hebrew Bible’s composition—for example, that they were sequestered, subordinate, and “only wives and mothers.” To be sure, some aspects of the poem make it seem, from today’s perspective, like the portrait of an enabler—working hard for the benefit of others with little to gain for herself. However, in biblical days, when the household was the primary social and economic unit, women’s managerial roles and productive labor were arguably as important and rewarding as men’s activities in ordinary households as well as elite ones.

Carol Meyers, "Strong Woman ", n.p. [cited 27 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/strong-woman-prov-31

Contributors

Carol Meyers

Carol Meyers
Professor, Duke University

Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; a reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The concluding passage of Proverbs, which depicts a “woman of strength,” provides clues about women’s lives in biblical antiquity.

Did you know…?

  • The extensive series of action verbs in Prov 31 describe an elite woman’s activities; they suggest the dynamic nature of her life.
  • Chapter 31 is the last section of the book of Proverbs; it thus forms a bookend with the personified Woman Wisdom who dominates the first part of the book (chaps. 1-9). This framework suggests that women encompass the “wise” life set forth in intervening chapters.
  • In Iron Age society, the household was the workplace, in contrast to the separation of home and work in contemporary industrialized societies. Being a wife was not simply relational; it entailed major economic responsibilities.
  • Prov 31:10-31 directly follows a passage (Prov 31:1-9) containing the instructions of a royal mother to her son. Prov 31 as a whole thus includes pedagogy as an important component (alluded to in Prov 31:26), of a woman’s role.
  • In traditional Jewish households men chant Prov 31:10-31 at the beginning of the Sabbath; it is also sometimes recited at the funerals of Jewish women.
  • Prov 31:10-31 is often read in churches on Mother’s Day and at women’s funerals.
  • Feminists view Prov 31:10-31 both positively and negatively. Some take a present-day perspective, claiming that phrases like “more precious than jewels” (v. 10) objectifies the woman and commodifies her activities; and others emphasize that her independence in economic and other matters is important for countering stereotypes about female subservience in the period of the Hebrew Bible.

A category or type, often of literary work.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

Prov 31:17

17She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

Prov 31:13

13She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.

Prov 31:19

19She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.

Prov 31:22

22She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.

Prov 31:24

24She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.

Prov 31:15

15She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.

Prov 31:15

15She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.

Prov 31:21-22

21She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.22She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and ... View more

Prov 31:23

23Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.

Prov 31:14

14She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.

Prov 31:20

20She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.

Prov 31:11-12

11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.12She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.

Prov 31:28

28Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:

Prov 31:15

15She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.

Prov 31:20

20She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.

Prov 31:26

26She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

Prov 31:29

29“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”

Prov 31:30

30Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

Prov 31:27

27She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Prov 31:15

15She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.

Prov 31:13

13She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.

Prov 31:18

18She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.

Prov 31:24

24She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.

Prov 31:16

16She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

The personification of Wisdom as a woman in the book of Proverbs.

Prov 31

The Teaching of King Lemuel's Mother
1The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!3Do no ... View more

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

Prov 31:1-9

The Teaching of King Lemuel's Mother
1The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!3Do no ... View more

Prov 31

The Teaching of King Lemuel's Mother
1The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!3Do no ... View more

Prov 31:26

26She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

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