A Poetic Appeal for Finding a Valiant Woman

The point that the great acrostic poem of Proverbs 31 is trying to make
Harold Copping
From the March-April 2023 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

Studying the depth of one Hebrew word is often akin to the work of an archaeologist. Sifting through the biblical record to see how it is used can open a whole vista of insights.

One word that does this is the Hebrew chayil. Some form of it is used 243 times in the Hebrew Bible—usually translated as “army,” “host,” “forces” or related phrases referring to military groupings; it can also refer simply to a large number of people. It is frequently translated into words relating to “power” or “strength,” and also words relating to “wealth” or “substance.”

It is used numerous times as “valiant” or “valor”—whether the valor of one (David facing Goliath) or a valiant group (soldiers serving King David). It can refer to one man with the “heart of a lion” (2 Samuel 17:7-10), and it certainly doesn’t have to refer to soldiers at all, as some priests and Levites were also described this way.

The word is also not just confined to men. One of the most remarkable uses of this word—given all the above usages—is found in Proverbs 31: “A woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above rubies” (verse 10).

What an amazing woman to be found—the poet uses the same word to describe her as is connected with militaries, valor and abundance.

Let the Stones Speak

Female Author, Male Audience

Consider how this verse appeals to the one searching and finding. It is not, Who can BE a woman of valor?, though any female reader might thusly receive it. Proverbs 31 is more directed at a man, as not only the poem but the setup bears out.

Harold Copping

Verse 1 attributes it to the mother of King Lemuel—the figures most likely being none other than Solomon and his mother, Bathsheba—who here “corrected him.”

Biblical chronology shows that Solomon married Naamah the Ammonitess and had Rehoboam before David died. Bathsheba was also still alive for this marriage (Songs 3:11 places her at one of his weddings). By the time he became king, Solomon was known for how much he heeded his mother’s advice (see 1 Kings 2:17-20).

Whenever Proverbs 31 was penned, Bathsheba felt her son needed some stern admonition when it came to finding a valiant woman. The verses that proceed the actual poem show some firm admonition: “Give not thy strength unto women, Nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings” (verse 3). Interestingly, the king is told not to give his chayil to a woman, but in verse 10 is told to find a woman of that caliber of strength.

Bathsheba could well have been pointing Solomon to another valiant woman of history—his great-great-grandmother Ruth. Though chayil is used in a few places throughout the Proverbs to describe great women in general, the only woman expressly named in connection with this word is Ruth (Ruth 3:11).

An Alphabetical Argument

To detail this kind of woman’s valor, Bathsheba frames her admonishment in the form of an alphabetical acrostic. This doesn’t translate well into English, but try to grasp this poetic device. If someone were making a case to you in this fashion—stating all the benefits of something in English by going A, B, C, etc, you would get the sense that their argument is 1) complete: that is, thorough and comprehensive, as well as 2) logical: meaning, it is speaking to an intrinsic order, rather than subjectivity and emotion. This proverb is appealing to a typical male rationale in approaching and considering major life decisions.

Additionally, an alphabetical acrostic also creates a cumulative heightening, progressing intensification of the argument. The recognizable order gives it a memorable nature, or it could be said that the first word of each verse—being in alphabetical order—is fundamental to the poem’s intent. This is lost in English, as the first word of most verses here is “She.” That has no mnemonic value. So consider the first word of each verse!

א The first Hebrew word of Proverbs 31:10 (the first verse of this acrostic) is womana word that starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet: “Woman of valor, who can find?” The question is followed up by “her price is far above rubies,” eliciting a monetary comparison.

A quote from the famous British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli comes to mind: “A female friend, amiable, clever and devoted, is a possession more valuable than parks or palaces; and without such a Muse few men can succeed, and none can be happy.”

In Proverbs 3:15, 8:11 and 20:15, rubies are said to barely compare with divine wisdom. So another layer to this verse is the implication that finding a woman like this is an act of great wisdom.

ב Husband is the first word of the next verse—which starts with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “Husband’s heart trusts her ….” Not only has he trusted her with his heart, her trustworthiness also means “he hath no lack of gain.” The Hebrew here implies spoil or plunder. Her valor exceeds the value of rubies and the spoils of war.

ג Reward is how the Hebrew for Proverbs 31:12 begins: “She doeth him good [i.e. she will recompense him with good] and not evil All the days of her life.” Here is yet another verse stressing her value to the man: After verses describing rubies and then great spoils of war, this verse underscores the return on the investment. In fact, the remaining verses expound in elaborate detail on that return.

An Invaluable Investment

ד Seeks is the first word of Proverbs 31:13: “She seeketh wool and flax, And worketh willingly with her hands.” Her industry is wielded with great delight!

ה Merchants or “trade ships” is the first word of verse 14: “She is like the merchant-ships; She bringeth her food from afar.” This would have resonated with Solomon, who had a massive navy collecting gold of Ophir from the far reaches of the known world (1 Kings 9:26-28).

ו Also begins Proverbs 31:15: “She riseth also while it is yet night, And giveth food to her household, And a portion to her maidens.” This verse begins with the idea, “Plus,” she is committed to being productive no matter the time of day.

ז Considers is the opening to verse 16: “She considereth a field, and buyeth it; With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.” That Hebrew word means she is logical, rational and sensible.

ח Girds opens the next verse: “She girdeth her loins with strength, And maketh strong her arms” (verse 17). She is physically strong and capable of hard work and industry.

ט Perceives is the first word of verse 18: “She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; Her lamp goeth not out by night.” The man reading the poem would do well to partner with such an informed consumer who knows how to put products to the test.

י Hand starts verse 19: “She layeth her hands to the distaff, And her hands hold the spindle.” The Proverbs 31 woman is creative and industrious, she is willing and able to make things by hand if something cannot be purchased.

כ Palm, as the Hebrew reads, begins the verse that says: “She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy” (verse 20). The image that palm gives shows that her hand is open. She is charitable. Her giving nature is a priceless asset to any household.

ל Verse 21 begins with a negative: Not afraid (“She is not afraid of the snow for her household; For all her household are clothed with scarlet”). She has worked hard to provide for her family (in this respect) and is confident in the work she has done.

מ The Hebrew for verse 22 begins: Coverings of tapestry (“She maketh for herself coverlets; Her clothing is fine linen and purple”). She is creative. The references to fine linen and purple evokes images of the tabernacle in ancient Israel. She is clothed in the same fabrics found in its composition, as well as on the elegantly dressed priests who served in that environment.

נ Known is the first word of verse 23—in the sense of being well known: “Her husband is known in the gates, When he sitteth among the elders of the land.” She is an asset to his reputation; she enables better public relations.

ס Verse 24 opens with fine linen: “She maketh linen garments and selleth them; And delivereth girdles unto the merchant.” In this instance of fine linen, we see that she can make it herself to the degree that it can be sold for a profit.

ע The English of verse 25 begins with the same word as the Hebrew: “Strength and dignity are her clothing; And she laugheth at the time to come.” The second half of that verse emphasizes the positive force she is in anyone’s life: Even “at the time to come”—a phrase carrying a meaning of uncertainty—she is known for her optimism.

פ Mouth is the first word of verse 26—her mouth, that is: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; And the law of kindness is on her tongue.” In the spirit of looking at the return on an “investment,” her mouth’s profit is wisdom and kindness, more attributes that far exceed monetary gain.

צ The Hebrew words beginning verse 27 are rendered in the English as looks wellwhich means to keep watch: “She looketh well to the ways of her household, And eateth not the bread of idleness.” This woman is capable of taking care of the home independently.

ק Rise begins verse 28—speaking of the respectful children she rears: “Her children rise up, and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Her whole family recognizes what a blessing she is.

ר The English of verse 29 begins with the same word as the Hebrew: “‘Many daughters have done valiantly, But thou excellest them all.’” “Valiantly” is the Hebrew chayil! This man can recognize chayil in a lot of admirable women, but the point of this proverb is the responsibility of the man to find the one who excels them all.

Let the Stones Speak

Timeless Traits

Reflect for a moment on what this Proverbs 31 “checklist” states about physical beauty. To this point, there is nothing about her appearance. There is also nothing in Ruth about her physical appearance, only her industriousness and loyalty. There is some in Proverbs 31 about her physical strength. But that too is largely about work ethic and wisdom. There is some about her wardrobe (more what it represents in her character). But the only body parts mentioned are the arms, hands, palms, mouth and tongue (the latter two in terms of speech), as well as a girding of the loins.

ש To put verse 30 in the correct word order, it would read: Deceitful is grace. “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; But a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” Here is more cautionary wisdom from Bathsheba—for the man to be on guard against things that are fake or temporary. This is the only verse in Proverbs 31 that addresses her beauty, and it says that beauty is like a vapor. Beauty did not factor in to the “cost-benefit analysis” that is Proverbs 31. Why? All the benefits—all the returns on the “investment”—are permanent characteristics. Beauty in the physical realm changes: it fades, sags and wrinkles. But our poetess says a godly woman is worthy of lasting praise.

ת The English of the final verse begins with the same word as the Hebrew: “Give her of the fruit of her hands; And let her works praise her in the gates” (verse 31). Again, this is directed to the man. He does not lack anything by giving to a woman like this! The end of the poem rings with a bit of a warning: You can praise her or not; either way, her own works will speak for themselves—“in the gates,” or the same place where she can make you well known, as verse 23 emphasized.

Let us conclude with one other use of this Hebrew word chayil. Though often used in the context of large military organizations, valiant soldiers and wealthy individuals, Ruth 4:11 uses it in the context of marriage itself—the very marriage Bathsheba was likely referencing in her acrostic masterpiece: “And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said: ‘We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come into thy house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel; and do thou worthily [chayil] in Ephrath, and be famous in Beth-lehem.”

This is a blessing on Boaz: May YOU do valiantly and be famous in Bethlehem. Though that word was used earlier in the account to describe Boaz’s valor (Ruth 2:1), and though it was used by Boaz to describe Ruth, here it describes what Boaz is now able to do because of this marriage. He could really act worthily (valiantly, with great substance, power and bravery) because he had found this woman of valor.

Through the above alphabetical argument, the addressee is shown both the tangible and intangible profit of finding, and by implication marrying, a valiant woman. By using this literary device, our poetess has established a complete, ordered, logical, progressing, intensifying argument that not only serves as one of the great acrostic poems of the biblical record, but also has put her argument beyond debate or dispute.