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The Strong Woman of Proverbs 31

Impression of a woman's seal which reads
Impression of a woman’s seal. Plate 1B in Nahman Avigad

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.

  • meyers-carol

    Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita 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; an edited 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, 2013).