Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31
This poem is an acrostic, an a-b-c’s of a “good woman.” As I will suggest below, the poem valorizes daily life and the real economic contributions of women in the ancient world. This ideal woman does good “all the days of her life,” putting the focus, as wisdom literature often does, on the lived experiences of normal people. What is of value? Labor, diligence, skill, and provision.
But first, note that this text is tricky to preach on. Proverbs 31 has been used to perpetuate culturally specific gendered ideals, and to shore up purity culture, to the detriment of women (and people of all genders). There are several things to avoid:
- Treating the text as though there is one, singular ideal of femininity
- Using the imagery of hard work to perpetuate impossible standards of other-oriented labor
- Or, using the imagery of hard work to say that success is always a result of effort, and poverty or lack of success are the result of individual, moral failure
- Ignoring the myriad differences between ancient households and modern ones
- Assuming women in the ancient world were universally oppressed, or that modern women are universally “liberated”
- Not acknowledging that this is a text written from a male perspective.
The poem opens with a rhetorical question: “A capable wife who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10). The word translated “capable” here and “excellently” in verse 29 is Hebrew chayil, a word otherwise denoting strength and valor, especially in military contexts. She comports herself with fortitude, and “girds herself with strength” (literally “girds her loins,” a phrase used of men preparing for battle, verse 17). For such reasons, we might appropriately translate chayil “courage.”1
From the outset, then, the poem establishes and argues for a vision of virtue defined by active, powerful engagement in the world. The rhetorical question suggests that such a woman is rare, but the poem’s ending turns to address “you”: “Many women have done excellently / but you surpass them all” (verse 29). The ideal exists only in reference to the personal. The beloved is peerless.
While this opens as a poem about a person, the individual in many ways fades into the background. The thriving of the functioning—elite—household is the central value. The purpose of the virtuous person’s labor is economic, and it loops all members together into a stable social unit, in which the household is both the provisioner for and beneficiary of extended kin and children (verses 15, 21, 27, 28), husband (verses 11, 23, 28), servants (verse 15), and productive agricultural fields (verse 16).
The poem foregrounds the real economic contributions of a woman to her household. “She considers a field and buys it” (verse 16). She “works with willing hands” (verse 13). Her arms are strong (verse 17), and her hands are busy at spindle and distaff (weaving and textile production being crucial dimensions of women’s labor in ancient Israel; verse 19).2 Her hands are also open in generosity to the poor (verse 20). The final lines circle back again to her hands: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, / and let her works praise her in the city gates” (verse 31). The emphasis on the woman’s arms and hands reminds the reader of the value and dignity of manual labor, often despised in the contemporary world.
To take this idea a step further, note that the poem emphasizes the quality of her work: “with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (verse 16), “she perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (verse 18), “her clothing is fine linen and purple” (verse 22). The final assessment, then, that “her works praise her in the city gates” suggests that what is made is happy to have been made. The made things—her works—praise her. There is a fusion of purpose and pleasure in the materials themselves that offers a counter-vision to a culture of waste in the modern West. Those of us in North America are the most prolific trash-makers on the planet, filling landfills and oceans with single-use plastics, fast fashion, and disposable consumer goods. Do these works praise us? You might preach about the virtue and dignity of human hands that produce well-made, durable goods that honor both their material and their maker and provide for a community’s survival and flourishing.
- Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe, This Courageous Woman: A Socio-Rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31: 10-31. PhD thesis (2012), Murdoch University.
- Christine Roy Yoder, “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10–31,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 427–447.