The Ideal Wife in Proverbs 31 by Claudia V. Camp

What’s a good wife good for? And what sort of dangers might she present? The male author of this androcentric acrostic poem describes the benefit of having a “capable wife” as shalal, translated “gain” in the NRSV (Prov 31:11), a word that elsewhere refers to the spoil or booty taken in war. Although this teacher urges his class of young men to “want one of those,” he also seems to say “Caution, boys!” The good wife’s value lies in her economic potential, not in her beauty and all that that implies.

In the ancient world, a woman’s contribution to the household involved more than cooking, cleaning, and childbearing. A capable wife, according to this poem, is a one-woman economic miracle. She works from dawn to dusk, not just at home but in the public economic arena as well: buying, selling, and producing.

But there is something a little bit fearsome about this paragon of productivity. How much control over her husband’s resources she seems to have! In fact, the Hebrew word chayil used to describe the wife often characterizes male warriors. The NRSV translates chayil as “capable,” but “valorous” or “strong” carries more of the sense. So, does the husband of such a capable wife feel like a warrior enjoying his booty or like a man at the mercy of a warrior woman? As if concerned with according the wife too much strength, the teacher-poet also says, “Control her.” Give her a share (but not all) of the fruit of her hands (Prov 31:31), and watch out for the deceptiveness of womanly charm (Prov 31:30).

Poems on two other female figures in Prov 1-9, Woman Wisdom and her negative counterpart Woman Folly, underline the obvious benefit and the implicit danger of finding a valorous wife. Wisdom is personified as a woman (Prov 1:20-33, Prov 4:5-9, Prov 7:4-5, Prov 8:1-36, Prov 9:1-6) who, like the capable wife, builds and provisions her house and has servants who invite men to partake of her food and drink (Prov 9:1-6). But Woman Wisdom one-ups even the idealized capable wife. She claims an origin with Yahweh before creation (Prov 8:22-31) and offers not just physical nourishment but also the life and favor that comes from Yahweh to the right-minded, innocent youth who follows and embraces her (Prov 4:8-9, Prov 8:35). Taken together, Woman Wisdom and the capable wife positively reinforce each other. The wise human wife is accorded profound value by association with her heavenly counterpart, whereas Woman Wisdom is grounded and humanized as part of daily life. 

But Woman Wisdom also has an evil twin, the directly contrasted Woman Folly (Prov 9:1-6) and the related figure of the “loose woman” or “adulteress” (in Hebrew, literally: female stranger, outsider) in Prov 2:16-19, Prov 5:20, Prov 7:6-27. Like Wisdom, Woman Folly also offers food and drink, but these are the comestibles of deceit for the foolish, served in her house of death. The Strange Woman brings sexual danger to the forefront: death will be the end of the young man who succumbs to her allure, betraying both his wife and Woman Wisdom The female figures in Prov 1-9 are archetypes, embodiments of good and evil, life and death. As such, they bring to full expression the subtle male anxiety that underlies the virtues extolled in the Strong Wife.

What would the young male student learn from such instruction? That women are a challenging mixture of desirability and danger. The right one will offer him the gain of material substance and social stature and perhaps even sexual pleasure (Prov 5:15-19). But this woman will be hard to find! And she will save him from the clutches of the Strange Woman only if she in turn suffers her husband’s control.


Claudia V. Camp, "Ideal Wife in Proverbs 31", n.p. [cited 20 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/ideal-wife

Contributors

Claudia V. Camp

Claudia V. Camp
Professor, Texas Christian University

Claudia V. Camp is the John F. Weatherly Professor of Religion at Texas Christian University. Her work in feminist biblical criticism includes two books that deal specifically with the female images in Proverbs: Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Almond/JSOT Press, 1985) and Wise, Strange, and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (T&T Clark, 2000).

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.

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

Prov 31:11

11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.

Prov 31:31

31Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Prov 31:30

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

Prov 1-9

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
Prologue
2For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,3for gaining inst ... View more

Prov 1:20-33

The Call of Wisdom
20Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.21At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gate ... View more

Prov 4:5-9

5Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away
from the words of my mouth.6Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.7 ... View more

Prov 7:4-5

4Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,5that they may keep you from the loose woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth wor ... View more

Prov 8:1-36

The Gifts of Wisdom
1Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?2On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;3be ... View more

Prov 9:1-6

Wisdom's Feast
1Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.2She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table. ... View more

Prov 9:1-6

Wisdom's Feast
1Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.2She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table. ... View more

Prov 8:22-31

Wisdom's Part in Creation
22The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before th ... View more

Prov 4:8-9

8Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.9She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful ... View more

Prov 8:35

35For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;

Prov 9:1-6

Wisdom's Feast
1Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.2She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table. ... View more

Prov 2:16-19

16You will be saved from the loose woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words,17who forsakes the partner of her youth
and forgets her sacred covenant;18fo ... View more

Prov 5:20

20Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

Prov 7:6-27

6For at the window of my house
I looked out through my lattice,7and I saw among the simple ones,
I observed among the youths,
a young man without sense,8passing ... View more

Prov 1-9

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
Prologue
2For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,3for gaining inst ... View more

Prov 5:15-19

15Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.16Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?17Let them be f ... View more

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