“WHO CAN FIND A VALIANT WIFE?”

Proverbs 12:4 “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband; but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones.”

Proverbs 31:10 “A virtuous woman” is worth “far more than rubies” and that “the heart of her husband trusts in her. He will have no lack of gain.”

The Hebrew word here translated “virtuous” is used 243 times in the Old Testament. The word is transliterated “chayil,” and sit down, friend, because your understanding of this word is about to be adjusted.

Two hundred and forty-three times, the Spirit of God used this word, this lovely word “chayil.” Two hundred and forty times, it is not translated “virtuous.” It is translated “virtuous” only three times, less than 2% of the time!

(In what turned out to be a cosmic math epiphane, I just divided 240 by 243 to get the percentage of how often chayil is not translated virtuous. The answer: 0.987654320987654320987654320…it’s an endless, downhill slide, people.)

Yes, you guessed it: it is translated “virtuous” only when it is attached to women: Ruth, a hypothetical woman in Proverbs 12, and The Lady Herself—Mrs. Virtuous—in Proverbs 31.

Frankly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods on this one, because along with our mother’s milk, we’ve imbibed the idea that the “virtuous” woman is a sweetly able, softly efficient lady who glides through her day cheerfully busy about the household. Sadly, she did have to work outside her home, but if we can do without that icky part, we’ll be better off.

Instead of being invigorated by Mrs. V’s amazing qualities, we are guilted into getting up early to get the oatmeal going (we don’t have maidens to direct), and do a little hand sewing, because, after all, she made belts for the tradesmen.

Forget all that.

Two hundred and forty times the word is not translated virtuous. When it is not referring to women, it is translated (hold onto your hats): army (56 times), man of valour (37 times) host (29 times), forces (14 times), valiant (13 times), strength (12 times), riches (11 times), wealth (10 times), power (9 times), substance (8 times), might (6 times), strong (5 times), and 33 “miscellaneous” uses which include: activity, able, goods (as in substance), war, valour, worthily, a great train (as in entourage), company (again, entourage), soldiers.

Mostly, it is a military word. It is never a soft word. It is never sweet, never housebound. It is in-your-face, it is out-there-in-the-world.

When the word is used as an adjective describing a man or group of men: man of valour, men of wealth, men of might, men of power, worthy man, strong man, able men.

It is crystal clear that this word chayil indicates strength, power, might, wealth, substance, and valour. Instead of saying, “Look, here’s a military word, and God is clearly indicating that these three particular women had valour and strength in abundance,” our translators shrunk back in their Jerusalem-chamber chairs and said, “Oh no, it’s about women, let’s soften the connotation.”

We don’t have to ask ourselves why the 17th century translators translated as they did. We know. These were the same gentlemen who were crafting and developing the common law of England that gave a woman’s property to her husband to manage, did not allow her to testify in a court of law, kept her from education, and hindered her in independently considering fields and buying them, making profits and planting vineyards, selling garments and sashes to merchants, you get my meaning. Everything she is described as doing in Chapter 31 is softened out by use of the word “virtuous,” because the translators, good men that they no doubt were, had certain societal, traditional, and yes, religiously-motivated norms they wanted preserved.

Remember, 1611 is less than 100 years after The Hammering On The Door. Women weren’t highly valued, weren’t seen as equal image-bearers. These men were operating in their time, and their time was oppressive to women. Sure, we were slowly working our way to full personhood, but, honey, we weren’t there yet, not by a longbow-shot.

So, when these men got to Ruth and got to Proverbs, they had already translated this word a couple of hundred times, but they couldn’t bring themselves to translate the word with its full power. They weren’t going there. “Virtuous” worked. They went with it.

We understand their situation. We understand their hesitancy. I mean, if you give this woman the word “strength,” she’s probably going to want an education. She’s probably going to see herself as an equal. Maybe she’ll want to see if she can learn math, or physics, or surgery, or law…or translation.

Enter Mr. Strong (1890), and the jig is up. Now the ordinary inquisitive person can track the original God-breathed Hebrew word through the text and see the inconsistencies, the translation choices gone wrong. (When I was a little girl, I used to carry around the giant green Exhaustive Concordance and look up words by the hour. I was entranced by 8 or 10, and never recovered, but happily now it’s all online.)

Perhaps the translators knew we’d eventually realize that the lady they called Mrs. Virtuous is a powerful, able, efficient, strong, valiant woman! She is out there impacting her community. She is engaged in commerce. She has a voice and she speaks. Strength and honor cover her–she is all over strong, all over honorable. In a woman–hear me now–the words strong and honorable are linked: it is honorable to be strong.

Not only that, but her husband is not afraid of her or of her accomplishments. He happily goes about his business in the community. Nor are the kids intimidated or feeling abandoned. They rise up and bless her. They think it’s awesome that their mother commands servants, profits in her business, and speaks truth and kindness wherever needed.

She’s rich. Her household is clothed well. She has servants to direct. She even has enough money to give to the poor people she encounters.

No wonder her husband trusts her and has no fear of poverty. He knows she’s got everything under control. She’s not weeping in a corner begging her husband to lead her—she’s out there living her life in an active, productive way.

She’s not sitting home thinking of yet another craft to do, yet another home-arts class she can take, yet another way to fill her time because she “shouldn’t” get a job, teach a class, run a marathon, run a store, take a trip to Europe, join an investment club with money she’s earned, or whatever her heart desires to do.

(We’ll leave “plant a vineyard” for the Reformed Baptists.)

To be clear: they could have (and probably should have) said Worthy Woman, Valiant Woman, Strong Woman, Mighty Woman. They chose a soft word because they were afraid of what might happen if they said it out loud:

“A strong woman is worth more than rubies. Her husband can trust her, she’s going to bring him abundance.”

How she uses her strength, power, and might for the good of her family is her own business.

More to come, of course, because I can hear you: “But what about ‘Keepers at Home’?” Yeah, yeah, we’ll get there. Be patient. I’m a busy woman.

4 thoughts on ““WHO CAN FIND A VALIANT WIFE?””

  1. I enjoy reading the Proverbs 31 passage in the New Living Translation. While the word used in the NLT is still “virtuous”, the use of more mundane and relevant vocabulary rather than the esoteric verbiage of the KJV makes it very clear that The Woman is a multi-faceted, innovative, and non-shirking sort of grande dame. For my own purposes, I choose to refer to her as a Woman of Worth rather than The Virtuous Woman because of the inaccurate but ingrained connotations of “virtuous” (ie: meekness & docility).

    I have found the passage particularly striking as I struggle with balancing the full-time effort of caring for a young child with engaging in trade and commerce myself 🙂 The fact that there is very little reference to the children beyond their existence and their physical needs being efficiently met is intriguing to me. There is no verse “She transports patiently and graciously her offspring to playgroup; she researches imaginative-play options and considers how best to develop the intellect of her young.” (Not that I am criticizing that; this is my own cognitive dissonance talking, particularly since I intend to homeschool.)

  2. The inconsistencies in translation are because the word is difficult to translate straight into English. This is how I understand chayil– Imagine a king in shining armor on his horse coming back to his people in the town around his castle after having fought and won a war against a hideously evil empire. The king is good and righteous, and he loves God, his country, his people, truth, goodness, and beauty. He fought valiantly and honorably. Flags are waving among his troops. They round the hill and come in site of the town. With their first glimpse, the people drop what they’re doing to cheer. Their hearts are full as they stand in awe, taking in the scene of the majesty, nobility, virtue, grandeur, honor, worthiness, valor, strength, and might. That feeling and understanding deep in the hearts of each townsperson watching is the response to the chayil of the king and the scene.
    Now imagine the retiring college professor for whom his students throw a surprise party, inviting all his former students to attend. As he enters the room, cheers and applause explode from the hearts of students, overwhelmed, remembering their teacher’s care, nobility, honor, integrity, strength of character, capability, and worthiness. They too are responding to the teacher’s chayil (even though it is not a military setting). So, it is not so much that worthy or strong or valiant would be a better word to use in translation. Each of those ideas is involved, but none of them is the sum. Our fault and our parents fault and their parents fault in understanding this passage is not that “virtuous” was the wrong word, but that the meaning of “virtuous” was constricted to brownies in the oven, white frilled aprons, and sewing in the rocking chair while humming sweetly. Virtuous should mean full of all kinds of virtue–love, kindness, justice, service, strength, character, honor, nobility, valor, etc. It is hard to pick the right word in translation. Especially with a word like chayil, you have to look at context to provide a clue. The word was used in military settings so the translators used warrior terms in the translation. But in the settings of Ruth, the crown woman, and Mrs. V, the translators were actually allowed by context to use a more comprehensive term. And I think virtuous really fits the bill best. New translations have tried “noble character” (NIV), “excellent” (NASB, ESV), and “capable” (HCSB). Each of those, IMHO, is a cheapening of chayil because it leaves so much out. IOW, it is not the KJV translators or the word virtuous that did the disservice. We did it ourselves by ignoring both the word and the context and pasting our own medieval image of what a wife should be on top of Proverbs 31. We read “Proverbs 31” clearly, but then our eyes glaze as we mouth what’s on the page disconnectedly from the picture in our minds of the “sweetly able, softly efficient lady who glides through her day cheerfully busy about the household.”
    Thanks, Sharon, for making us engage our brains as we read the passage.

  3. I see that you are going to lots of movies, but not sharing much in the way of “Thoughts.” I find myself missing your “Thoughts” – they always challenge and encourage me! I feel somewhat like we are soul sisters in many ways theologically, and so I like reading about where your thoughts and your faith and your God take you….

    1. Thanks, Heidi. I’ve been in a writing funk since late July (see post about crying mother), and haven’t felt up to putting my heart on paper much. Your words encourage and inspire me. Thank you.

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