Today’s post comes from Esther Zarifi and focuses on the use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman. Esther completed her MA in Religions and Theology (Distinction) at the University of Manchester in 2020 and was awarded the department’s Leonard Hassé Memorial Prize for her MA Dissertation, from which this blog is drawn. Esther, formerly a Religious Studies teacher, is now Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies for the examination board, AQA.
The book of Proverbs – a collection of age-old wisdom, compiled circa the 8th – 5th centuries BCE – closes its 31 chapters with a striking poem in praise of a woman, the ʾēšet ḥayil. It is debated by biblical scholars whether this woman is ‘real’ or an allegory, with some suggesting she is a metaphorical wisdom figure or composite. Either way, the woman of this ancient text has had (and is still having) a very real impact on actual women.
Fast-forward 2500 years from the scribes’ writings… and on entering ‘Proverbs 31’ into a search engine you’ll find mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, shopping bags… – ancient verses printed on to 21st century merchandise.
Rachel Held Evans describes how growing up in an evangelical subculture she got to know this ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ well. Presented as God’s ideal for women, she is a mainstay of women’s conferences and Christian bookstores. While biblical ‘merch’ may not be an uncommon sight growing up in church circles, it is still rather niche to see women wearing t-shirts bearing phrases such as ‘clothed in strength and dignity,’ or ‘more precious than rubies.’ At first glance, it all seems very empowering and liberative.
Arguably though, there is far more going on here. I’d suggest that these supposedly positive affirmations are working within the paradigm of an unmistakeably patriarchal structure.
The twenty-one verses, an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, present something of an A-Z of the ʾēšet ḥayil; she is the total package!The poem opens by asking, ‘A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).
On the one hand, we could read this as saying she is precious and to be valued. On the other, is the woman here being given a price-tag? Is it actually rare to find a capable woman with ḥayil? Throughout the Hebrew Bible many men are afforded ḥayil for reasons such as having courage, physical strength and wealth. Christine Yoder encapsulates these descriptions by calling them ‘persons of substance’ and so translates ʾēšet ḥayil as ‘Woman of Substance.’ Despite the abundance of these men of substance, only thrice is ḥayil used in relation to female characters (alongside Proverbs 31, see Ruth 3:11 and Proverbs 12:4). Perhaps in the minds of the ancient sages, women with ḥayil were indeed rarer than jewels.
Following the rhetorical opening verse, the Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31 is praised for an incredible list of achievements and attributes including: hard work (v.13), buying land (v.16), strength (v.17), helping those in need (v.20), making and selling clothing (v.24), wisdom (v.26) and being God-fearing (v.30). In contrast to the frequently seen wife and/or mother motifs of ancient texts, the ʾēšet ḥayil really stands out as an industrious over-achiever.
This woman has it all – career, family, wealth – and it is easy to see why this enigmatic figure has become an inspirational and aspirational emblem for ‘biblical womanhood.’
But, while she may be an aspirational role model, she is also perhaps an unrealistic ‘gold standard’ for women to attain and for men to seek. Proverbs’ foremost focus is, after all, cultivating wisdom in men, so this chapter still has male concerns uppermost in its mind’s eye. Notwithstanding all her activities and achievements, her husband appears in no fewer than five verses of the poem and is the only character to speak (v.29). What he does say, however, is in praise of his wife (hurrah!). But … in this praise he compares her to other women who have also ‘done excellently’ – if he said this today, he may find himself the subject of a social media storm for his ‘backhanded compliment’!
Nevertheless, this woman is active and has agency, demonstrating that women could/can hold power and authority in some spaces. The Hebrew bêtah (‘household’) in verses 21 and 27 has a feminine pronominal suffix, thus designating the house as hers. Yet, she remains anonymous with no name and no direct voice, framed in reference to her husband from the outset (vv.10-11). The woman at the heart of this biblical poem could easily be viewed as a mixed blessing; she may be a tribute to the lives and work of actual women but is still, ultimately, an objectification. Hence, her role is complicit with a male-dominated system – she holds a prominent place but conveys and promotes male interests and fulfils a traditional heteronormative role.
The ʾēšet ḥayil has agency as a woman, but she is also a symbol of ‘Woman.’ These two categories – women, who are real people with varying degrees of agency within different social situations, and Woman, a symbolic construction of sex, gender and sexuality, comprised of allegory and male fantasy – can be used to examine a variety of sources. Here the symbolic wise Woman of Proverbs 31 is divinely legitimated and eternal through her place in the scriptures, but she can also shape the lives of actual women up until today. Through cultural understandings of Woman, lived realities can be shaped (and vice versa), therefore the symbolic Woman can/should be reimagined and critiqued. This approach could certainly problematise not only the Proverbs 31 Woman image, but also the ways she is presented as an agent when viewed as a symbol for female empowerment.
As a popular passage of scripture, the ‘mixed blessing’ of Proverbs 31 begins to outwork itself in contemporary lives, not only in the positive affirmations of t-shirt slogans, but at times in the form of complementarianism. This theology of patriarchal subordination can be said to misuse the biblical text to fulfil its traditionalist, heteronormative aims. The wise and industrious woman here becomes a symbol of a model wife and ‘biblical Woman.’ This symbolic treatment of Woman could also manifest itself in the furthering of rape culture and its very real outworking.
It may be surprising however, that our Proverbs 31 woman is used in this way not just by Christian men seeking ideal wives, but is advocated by women themselves. Contemporary postfeminist appropriations of her are made by women using their agency to adhere, in some sense, to the patriarchal construction of Woman. On to women’s bodies, here the ideal Christian ‘capable wife’ is mapped, via the symbol of the ʾēšet ḥayil.
Evangelical celebrity pastors, such as Priscilla Shirer, guide thousands of women through the study of scripture in their books, videos, and conferences. Shirer is an example of a prominent church leader who advocates a complementarian position and does not identify as ‘feminist.’ In her aptly titled book, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence (2004), Shirer writes, ‘Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes …. He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that wewill begin to usurp it. … Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit ofsubmission in their hearts.’
Through blogs, books and sermons, some Christian women are encouraging a complementarian theology by their appropriation of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here they can be found to advocate a new traditionalist postfeminist ideology – caught between a contemporary, liberal rhetoric of empowerment and a neo-conservative narrative of traditional gender roles, these women exemplify the same double-entanglement found within the biblical text itself. Praised and honoured, hardworking and influential – the Woman of Substance presents an empowering image of domestic life that is called upon by women’s ministries to illustrate the liberating choice of ‘biblical womanhood.’ Thus, women agents in the end seem to conform to the male psyche’s Woman symbol. This ‘double entanglement’ means that although these female agents are free of the symbolic construction of Woman, they are also controlled by it, perhaps unconsciously, through the paradigmatic patriarchal forces of history and tradition. It seems that there is a need to continue interrogating the gender ideologies present in the biblical text and their ongoing influence on the construction of societal norms.
Readers, we must ask, what does the ‘mixed blessing’ of the Woman of Substance mean for actual women today?
Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
Sered, Susan Starr. “Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.” In Revisioning Gender, edited by Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth B. Hess, 193-221.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1999.
Shirer, Priscilla. A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence. Chicago: Moody, 2004.
Woods, Robert H., ed. Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing, 2013.
Yoder, Christine. “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 3 (2003): 427-447.
Yoder, Christine. Proverbs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
 The word pairing ʾēšet ḥayil is translated ‘capable wife’ in the NRSV, but in various other ways elsewhere: such as, ‘virtuous woman’ (KJV), ‘wife of noble character’ (NIV), ‘virtuous and capable wife’ (NLT), and ‘good woman’ (The Message)).
 Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p.74.
 Christine Yoder, Proverbs, p.292.
 Christine Yoder, ‘The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.’ Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.
 Susan Starr Sered, ‘Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.’ In Revisioning Gender, ed. Myra Marx Ferree et al. (1999), p.194.
 Kathleen Sindorf, ‘Evangelical Women’s Movements and Leaders.’ In Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Robert H. Woods Jnr (2013). (See also: Mary Worthen, ‘Housewives of God,’ New York Times Magazine. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html; Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (2019).)
 Priscilla Shirer, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence, 74