It seems odd to me that I’ve read the “virtuous woman” passage scores of times without bothering to look up the word “virtuous.” The Hebrew word, chayil, was mentioned in the first message given as my Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) site this year. I even had it in my notes, but forgot about it. God brought it to my attention again at the end of the Feast, when a man handed me a booklet titled “A Mighty Warrior: The Hebrew-Biblical View of A Woman” by Dr. Frank T. Seekins. I can take a hint — one Bible study/blog post coming right up!
Into The Hebrew
Chayil (H2428) carries the basic meaning of “‘strength,’ from which follow ‘army’ and ‘wealth'”(Theological Wordbook OT, entry 624). It’s used about 20 times of God’s might or power, and about 85 times to describe an attribute of people.
When chayil is used of people, there’s a marked difference in how it’s translated for men and women. For men, we find translations like “mighty man” or “mighty men of valor.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “The individual designated seems to be the elite warrior similar to the hero of the Homeric epic.” For women, however, “it is translated ‘virtuous’ (ASV, RSV ‘worthy’ or ‘good’), but it may well be that a woman of this caliber had all the attributes of her male counterpart.”
While Biblical women were not typically warriors and did not serve in the army, we do have the example of Deborah acting the part of a “mighty woman of valor.” We also know from passages like Ephesians 6:11-13 and 2 Timothy 2:3-4 that all Christians are spiritual warriors. God’s women must be just as valiant as His men!
Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an armory, on which hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men. (Song 4:4)
O my love, you are as beautiful as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners! (Song 6:4)
Both these passages from Song of Solomon are descriptions that the male lover, who represents Christ, uses toward the female lover, who represents the church. Great men aren’t frightened of strong women; they embrace them as allies.
A Little More History
You might wonder why English translators decided to use “virtuous” or “good”for chayil when the Hebrew leans more toward “strong” and “mighty.” I suspect there were two reasons. Firstly, the original meaning of “virtue” in English was closer to chayil. It arrived in English around 1200 from Old French with the meanings, “force; strength; vigor; moral strength.” Originally, the Latin virtatum meant “high character; goodness; manliness; valor; bravery” (Online Etymology Dictionary).
Secondly, with prevailing attitudes of gender around the time early Bibles like the 1611 King James Version were released, translators were probably hesitant to call women “mighty” or “powerful.” By the 1590s, “virtuous” was losing the more martial aspects of the meaning, shifting toward moral characteristics. In reference to women, “virtuous” became used as a synonym for “chastity.” In the King James Version you can still see this word used for “power” in the New Testament passages where dunamis (G1411) is translated “virtue” (Mark 5:30; Luke 6:19, 8:46). In the New King James, references to Christ were changed from “virtue” to “power,” but the “virtuous woman” in Proverbs 31 only changes to a “virtuous wife.”
The high moral standards are essential for godly women. Commands regarding modesty and chastity are recorded elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:9), and the character of the Proverbs 31 woman is beyond reproach. But being a “virtuous woman” with is more involved than we might assume from what we’ve grown up hearing about “traditional gender roles.” “Virtue” has suffered a similar fate as the word “meekness,” which our culture thinks of as synonymous with “doormat” while the original meaning carried the idea of strength submitted to God.
Allies in Battle
God created men and women to fight for Him together. They’re both supposed to be strong, and they’re both supposed to support each other.
Men and women were created by God to be allies. As a culture, we have lost the concept of powerful allies; the very thing that Proverbs 31 is telling men to value. …
When a woman’s power is undercut, a situation is created where men and women become enemies. Instead of supporting each other, we battle and undermine God’s call to reflect Jesus relationship with His bride, the church. …
The Biblical concept is clear — A woman of power is to be valued and supported. It is God’s call for women (and men) to become mighty and powerful. (Seekins, p. 2)
I think many women balk at the Proverbs 31 model because it seems so domestic and submissive. “I don’t want to be a stay-at-home barefoot-and-pregnant good little wife,” some protest. “Why would God ask for such an outdated model of femininity?” But when we look closer at Proverbs 31, I think we find that’s not actually what it’s saying.
The first two descriptions show a woman who does her husband “good and not evil,” and who has earned his complete trust (Prov. 31:11-12). Her husband is respected by all, and it’s implied this is in no small part owing to her support as his ally (Prov. 31:23). In addition, she cares for the poor and needy, practicing the command to “love your neighbor” (Prov. 31:20). She’s respected by her children, husband and the community, and her opinion is highly valued (Prov. 31:28-29, 31).
The Proverbs 31 woman is shown actively engaged in business. She works with her hands, engages in trade “like the merhcant’s ships,” and oversees workers in her household (Prov. 31:13-16, 19, 22, 24). She’s not full of anxiety because she has confidence in her ability to care for her business and family (Prov. 31:18, 21, 27).
Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness. (Prov. 31:25-26)
It’s still an intimidating picture to try and live up to, but there’s no reason to reject it as demeaning to women. If anything, this “outdated” model is far more powerful than anything modern women’s empowerment movements have come up with.
When a woman understands her calling to be a mighty warrior and a perfect ally, she will conquer and control life. She will remember that the men in her life are not the enemy; her weapons are not meant to be used against them. The weapons of her strength and power are to be used against their enemies (Seekins, p. 23).
God calls all of us to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Eph. 6:10). Both men and women need to recognize this, and embrace our roles as “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7), fighting as allies for and alongside the Captain of our Salvation, Jesus Christ.