|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 9, February 24 to March 1, 2008|
M. Phil. in Bible Interpretation
To Pnina Lizorkin, A humble sage, who has the courage and perseverance to be for me the mouthpiece of God's Chochmah.
It is nothing, but worthless religiosity when we concern ourselves with offering God worship but are unmindful of the sociopolitical implications of our religion". 1
a. Preliminary thoughts
a. Short intro into the ideological criticism
a. Integrity of the book
a. Strategy and methodology review
In order to better understand how the passage we are discussing fits the entire setting of Proverbs, we should look at what were the major themes covered in the previous sections 1 of the book
1:1-9:18 The Proverbs of Solomon, David's son, King of Israel
10:1-22:16 The proverbs of Solomon
22:17-24:22 The Words of the Wise
25:1-29:27 These also are proverbs of Solomon that the man of Hezekiah, king of Judah, transcribed.
30:1-14 The Words of Agur, son of Jakeh, the Massaite.
31:1-9 The Words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother instructed him.
There does not seem to be much structure or organization that can be clearly seen. "Williams, citing a comment by Pascal about the reason for the brevity and fragmentary character of his Pensees, suggested that the unsystematic form of proverb literature, with its fragmentary commentary on particular, very limited aspects of the world and society, is especially appropriate to a fragmented world…" 2 However, it would not be right to say that there is no structure at all, there is a clear progression centered on the ethical education of the royal son. It starts out from the paternal call to the royal son 3 , it then precedes with the large body of short sayings that are designed to impart wisdom to the lad, it then concludes by the maternal call (31:1-9), since ethical education of a child is the combined responsibility of both parents. "The original historical and social context was that of a young man leaving the parental house (1:8-19) to establish his own home. Building a household implies finding a wife, establishing a basic relationship for one's life. One must be faithful with one's wife… and so with Woman Wisdom. 4 " "The son should strive to acquire her among the first of all his possessions because, in the end, she will bring him even more wealth, property and good fortune (3:16-17)." 5
The book starts out with two women being juxtaposed to each other in the context of the paternal instruction to the royal son. It continues by giving him a body of diverse wisdom sayings to govern his life in his formative years and it concludes with a maternal call to the royal son (31:1-9) to which he responds 6 with poetic obedience by summarizing the results of his learning (31:10-31). David Blumenthal comments on the literary context of our text: "If Eshet Hayil is to be taken as part of its context of chapter 31, it constitutes the king's reply to his mother's rebuke and advice… It is a hymn to the ideal woman and, for precisely this reason, it is recited at the Friday evening table ritual still today and even interpreted by the mystics as applying to the feminine dimension of God. The king responds that he will not waste his seed on women who only want to sap his strength, nor waste his moral capacity on drink. He will choose a woman worthy to succeed his mother, a woman of vigor, a woman of valor." 7 The Woman of Valor is so prominent that even in the editorial reshuffling 8 of the material in MT and LXX both versions of the sacred text end with the Woman of Valor as the culmination of entire book.
Just as in any language, Hebrew writers over the centuries have developed poetic methods that are in many ways peculiar to their own language and literary culture. Acrostic structure is perhaps one of its most beautiful expressions. Not only the poetry is its characteristic, 9 but each line of the piece starts from a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet 10 It is important to keep in mind the general functions of this poetic device.
Alphabetic acrostic functions as the material, physical container of this poetry, literally holding each poem's component verses together and conveying a strong sense of closure through its clear structure and fixed length. Yet the acrostic conveys meaning symbolically as well. 11
First, this method conveys that what the reader is reading does not constitute historical prose. Indeed acrostic may have elements of history and correspondence to the real world, but it is in poetry that we most often see hyperbolic language, metaphors and exulted language that may or may not accurately reflect the literal facts.
Second, this method clearly establishes the limits of the text unit. In other words once all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet have been used, the pericope has been delineated. When acrostic 12 is used in the end of the book, the significance of the acrostic is that of culmination. The use of acrostic in our passage signifies several things: 1) The symbolic nature of the Woman, in spite of many historical and socio-economic similarities to the life in ANE, 2) The poem is self-contained, in spite of its being intricately connected with other parts of the book, 3) The poem is functioning as a crown, summary and fitting conclusion/completing part to the book as a whole. R.N. Whybray agrees with this outlook when he writes: "The choice of the alphabetic acrostic for this poem is significant. While there are different views about the function of the alphabetic acrostic as it appears in the OT…there is now a considerable agreement that a main purpose, if not the only one is to convey the notion of totality and completeness. This is especially plausible in the case of Prov. 31:10-31, which not only completes the book of proverbs but also comprises such a comprehensive list of virtues that it might be said to be intended to constitute in itself a compendium of all human wisdom." 13
There are two major bracketings or limits in this book. Not only is the unit consisting of chapters 1-9 bracketed within itself, but the whole book is also bracketed with the "Fear of the Lord" as the main theme that forms the enclusio. As is illustrated by the breakdown in the chiasm bellow, we see that the poem also is of great artistic value alongside of its great biblical studies value. Duanne A. Garrett understands Prov. 31:10-31 as chiastic structure as follows:
In the very center, the supreme benefit that the Woman brings is honor. Honor, losing it and gaining it back has to do with the major themes of the Bible (Kingdom and Covenant). There is a surprising connection between image of God and Wisdom in Psalm 8. This connection helps us to see that obtaining the Woman/Wisdom of Prov. 31:10-31 is tantamount to being recreated into God's image. 17
In the former Soviet Union, all women were expected to work as well as keep the house. My mother was a music professor at the Community College in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She worked very hard at her job and gave extra lessons to supplement her income. Besides that, she cooked virtually every day and managed to raise two children, giving them a good education and upbringing. "It is not difficult to write into the constitution articles 35 and 53 guaranteeing the equality of women; it is considerably more difficult to realize this in practice. It is a faulty conception of emancipation that gives our woman the right to do heavy dirty labor…beginning with her childhood she is told that she is emancipated and that she is fully equal with man. Yet she is not taught about her highest function: to give birth to the next generation." 18
One reading that is highly appealing to the post-soviet reader understands the Woman as Wisdom Personified. In spite of the fact that Christine Yoder does not agree with this interpretation in her highly detailed and yet strikingly simple work on the socio-economic reading of Eshet Hayil, she points out that Women Wisdom in early chapters of the book is unquestionably connected with the Woman of Valor herself in the end of the book.
According to Christine Roy Yoder, there are altogether five passages that speak of personification of the Woman Wisdom other than in Proverbs 31:10-31. These passages are sprinkled throughout the first eleven chapters: 1:20-33; 3:13-18; 4:1-9; 8:1-9:6; 11. 19
First, there are lexical parallels. Both women are involved with "merchant profiteering" (3:14, 31:18). Both Women are difficult to find/attain 1:28; 8:17; 31:10). Both have a high monetary value (3:15 (Q); 8:11; 31:10). Each has a house (9:1; 31:15, 21, 27). Both women are equipped with the staff of women servants (9:3; 31:15). They provide food for their companions (9:5; 31:14) and offer a life of security (1:33; 31:11). Both Women are known at the city gates (1;21; 8:3; 31:31). They stretch out their hands to the needy (1:24; 31:20) at the same time bringing prosperity to their husbands 1;21; 8:3; 31:31; 31:23). Their very fruit is profit itself (8:19; 31:16, 31). While one Woman does no evil (31:12), the second one hates it (8:13). Laughter is characteristic of their life (1:26; 8:30; 31:25). Children of the second Woman in Prov. 31 call her happy (31:28), while those who hold on to the first Woman are made happy (3:18). Secondly, there are thematic parallels. Reputation and honor are the constant companions of those who make both women their companions (3:4, 16; 31:11, 23). Both are engaged in teaching and their whole life is characterized by the Fear of the Lord (1:23, 25; 8:6-9, 14, 32, 34: 31:26. Both are women of strength (8:14; 31:17, 25) and as such they display their creative strength and govern the earth by their vineyard related actions (9:12; 31:16). These lexical and thematic parallels also show that both women are juxtaposed to the Women of Folly or the Strange Woman of Proverbs 1-9. 20
These two women are so similar that the conclusion is unavoidable. Naphtali Gutstein appropriately summed up the force of the conclusion in the following poem in which he provides his own rendering the Woman of Valor passage:
I will divide up the implications in several categories. 24 First, I will seek to address women readers with practical implications for them. I determined that I would write keeping several main types situations that women find themselves in, since the implications will in many case be very different. I will set forth some examples of implications concerning:
Secondly I will seek also to address the men reading this paper. What are the implications for them? Once again here I will keep in mind four main groups of men:
If they do not understand the implications of Prov.31:10-31 then there is no hope for any kind of serious reformation in the family, church and state. If it is true that Proverbs 31:10-31 is not a real woman or at least not primarily so, but is indeed Wisdom Personified then several major implications follow from this reading.
Second implication is that a woman may no longer think of herself as the only "helpmate", even though she remains such as all believers are to help/serve one another, with this outlook she is to be the helpmate as much as the husband needs to be the helpmate of his wife. She is not to be afraid to take on positions of authority, influence, stature and honor as long as they advance the cause of God's Kingdom.
Third implication is that a woman that has her children out of "the nest" should consider their newly available free time a trust from the Lord to be used for His work. 25 She should be encouraged to pursue more education and to engage in ministry or work that is more appropriate for her mature stage of life. There are things that are only learned by living longer. She has accomplished much for her family, now is the time to become a resource and a mentor for others beyond her family. However, plans need to be made ahead of time in order to be engaged in these activities after one's children are grown. Women should continue their education even during the time when they are raising children, so that when the children are grown, they will already have the credentials they need or be well on the way to attaining them.
The second implication is that the pivotal point of bestowing honor that we saw in the center of this chiastic structure applies not only to the man, but also to the woman. The implication of this reading is earthshaking: God calls a men to so live their lives in excellence, prudence, righteousness, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and the fear of the Lord, that their wives could be praised among the leadership of the city on the account of their husbands.
The third implication of this reading is that it is perfectly righteous for the husband, with the agreement of his wife, to assume the duties of the househusband, 26 who will only work inside of home. In this case, the wife will be the breadwinner in spite of how radical these claims may seem in today's society.
The fourth implication is that this passage should be transferred from seasonal employment for the "gentleman in waiting" 27 category to the everyday life of people who are either already married or have been married for a long time. Seeking to become more like wisdom in their everyday activities is the job of both men and women in marriage.
In the Russian Jewish community, one of the highest values for a man is that he would be a good businessman or a scholar, but for a woman it is that she would be a good mother and homemaker. The mothers of the Jewish community would often use a phrase in attempt to persuade their sons that the girl they hope to match make them with is "domashniaa devochka" or literally "a home girl." 30 The cultural viewpoint is considerably supported by a quote from Shulamit Valler. In his quote he seems to suggest that if one was to read Eshet Hayil as a real woman then this reading would be highly compatible with the Russian Jewish concerns: "Her activity aims at establishing economic security and well-being for her husband and children, from whom she gains approval and praise. The center of her life is her home and, even though her activities extend outside, she makes no use of her skills for the benefit of her community or nation." 31
By contrast, Christine Roy Yoder's fascinating study previously referenced in this paper, comes to this conclusion: "To a significant extent, Wisdom's Origins lie not in putative mythological antecedents or abstract literary constructs, but in women's concrete, everyday realities." 32 In her doctoral work at Princeton Seminary, she presented compelling evidence from extra-biblical sources that many women in the approximate time of Proverbs' composition, in Jewish and non-Jewish settings, were actively engaged in the very duties of business administration that are attributed to Eshet Hayil. Her conclusion is very similar to mine: Eshet Hayil is indeed Woman Wisdom Personified, due to the unquestionable connection with Proverbs 1-11, but its root is not found in a literary device, or any kind of metaphysical, purely spiritual entity, but on the contrary in the real life of righteous women, who fear the Lord.
If it is true that the root of Proverbs 31:10-31 is a real women (even if it is an archetype of a real woman), then several things are appropriate to note as examples of those implications.
The second implication is that a woman that has her children out of "the nest" should consider now free time a trust from the Lord to be used for His work. 34 She should be encouraged to pursue more education and to engage in ministry or work that is more appropriate for her mature stage of life. There are things that are only learned by living longer. She has done it. Now is the time to become a resource and a mentor for many.
The third implication builds on the second. If the second implication is authentic, then plans need to be made ahead of time in order to be engaged in these activities after ones children are grown. Women should continue to have a continual education even during the time when they are raising children, so that when the children are grown they already have the credentials they need or are halfway through with regards to attaining them.
The fourth implication is that hired work may be employed in the house. 35 Often times a woman feel that she is not being faithful to the Lord's calling as a woman, if she hires someone else to clean the house. But this thinking needs to be corrected by the freedom that is granted in the "real woman" reading of our passage. Eshet Hayil of the house can concentrate on raising and educating children as well as investing in her business as opposed to spending the majority of her time in the upkeep of the house itself.
The fifth implication is somewhat debatable, because it is unclear what does the phrase "her lamp does not go out at night" refer to? I have a hunch that it is not a statement that describes her hard working character. That has been established throughout the poem many times. It is likely that it is referring to her private marital life with her husband. In this case the emphasis is upon her success in balancing her life's duties. Not only is she incredible mother, business owner, teacher of wisdom, she is also terrific wife that knows how to give and to receive sexual pleasure, not allowing herself to overlook this responsibility and privilege as well.
The second implication is that a husband has a holy duty to encourage his wife in the endeavors that she would like to undertake. Husband needs to become proactive in enabling his wife "to soar as high and far as God-given wings will take her".
The third implication is that a man who is actively engaged in looking for a woman to be his wife, should be challenged not to skip in his search the women who are smart, accomplished scholars, professionals and are more mature in some ways.
The fourth implication is that it is the job of the husband to make sure that appropriate honor is given to his wife by him and the other recipients of her many blessings — the children. The culture of fostering honor by the husband needs to move from the level of the occasional and subconscious to the predetermined and purposeful.
The fifth implication is that the husband should never infer, refer or otherwise imply that his wife is not employed. She may not be employed outside of the home, but she is most definitely working hard within the boundaries of the family property. He is to increase her honor in the language that he and others around him employ.
The sixth implication is that the husband is to insure that his wife is able to participate in ministry that also extends outside of the home. Together the husband and wife need to decided how the time would be allocated, so that the house is not overlooked and the outside ministry is not neglected either.
The seven implication is the husband is to see his wife and take steps to enhance her abilities and calling as the wise sage, who is given to him, his family, church and the world as a mouthpiece of God's Holy Torah.
As I examined the fairly large size chart that I literally covered with numbers and shortened version of the implications, it was very helpful to see the "bigger picture". All positions had some kind of positive and negative implications that in my mind followed the circumstance of the women and the interpretive view under consideration. Interpretive option #2 had the most positive implications for woman's life, since it was combining the positives sides of both interpretive options #1 and #3. Options #4 and #6 ranked last in the positive implications that they carried for the women, even though they were some positive implications that other options did not carry.
It is important that the reader does not fall into the trap of "pragmatic interpretation". That is the idea that a given interpretation is true, if it produces the most positive effects. The truth of interpretation does not depend on the quality and amount of implications. However, since all of us except the Creator Himself, perceive truth subjectively, the implications function as a safe net within which we can engage in the creative art of hermeneutics.
1. James L. Crenshaw, Book of Proverbs in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman), vol.5 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 514.
2. R.N. Whybray, "Book of Proverbs," in: J.H. Hayes, Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation K-Z (Nashville: Abington Press, 1999), 322
3. The setting of the book of Proverbs is Ancient Israelite Imperial Court. Those are instruction to the king, it is good for the people, only because it is also good for the king.
4. R.J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1999), 30-33, 271-277
5. Christine Roy Yoder, Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (Berlin: WdeG, 2001), 97
6. "While parallels may indeed be adduced for the structural patterns of both "The Words of Lemuel" and "The excellent wife," the most intriguing correspondence remains that between the two poems themselves. As initially observed, the two poems which are now joined together to form the final chapter of the book of Proverbs share certain key words, themes, and subjects, which may have prompted some "editorial decision" to juxtapose the two originally independent poems." (Murray, Liechtenstein. "Chiasm and symmetry in Proverbs 31" in Zuck, RB (ed) Learning from the sages (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) 381-390)
7. David R. Blumenthal, The Images of Women in the Hebrew Bible, available at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/ImagesWomen.html#fn19
8. Cloudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminane in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1985), 238
9. There are of course different styles of poetry. Russian poetry and Hebrew poetry will look very different.
10. Hebrew has twenty-two letters as oppose to Russian with thirty-three.
11. Study Notes from NRSV (Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America). Available from http://www.anova.org
12. Ps. 9-10; 25; 33; 36; 110; 111; 118 (This psalm numbering is according to the Russian Bible)
13. R.N. Whybray, The Composition of the Book of Proverbs (JSOT PRESS: Sheffield, 1994), 160
14. We should keep in mind that some times the structure is chiastic, but no pivotal theme is present at all.
15. "What is Chiasmus?" Available at http://www.inthebeginning.org/chiasmus/introduction/chdef.htm
16. Duanne A. Garrett, The New American Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nashville: Broadman Press,1993) 248
17. What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:4-5, RSV).
18. Mamonova, Women and Russia: Feminist Writings from the Soviet Union (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), xviii.
19. Christine Roy Yoder, Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (Berlin: WdeG, 2001), 3
20. ibid., 92
21. Naphtali Gutstein, "Proverbs 31:10-31: the Woman of Valor as Allegory", Jewish Bible Quarterly 27 (1999): 36-39
22. Laura Donaldson, "Postcolonialism and Biblical Reading: an Introduction," Semeia 75 (1996): 1
23. From Luther's Works, Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). pp 268-293
24. For writing this paper and thinking through the implications, I put together a chart of positions (readings) and situations that women live in. This chart could be of further help to some one who might want to think even further about the implications of various interpretations. I did not provide the "filled in" chart that I filled out myself, but rather only the blank chart for future use by the reader. However, as an acknowledgement, this tool was invaluable to me as I set out to make sure that I do not ignore any group of men or women and the implications that would follow.
25. It is true also of people that are already retired or are senior citizens. There is a problem in the church and society with what has been termed as ageism. Instead of valuing and using the gifts that people that attained a considerable age, the society and the church are ignoring these people.
26. In Sweden there is a particularly great population of househusbands. This country seems to have already reformed the culture enough for people not to look at it as suspicious activity.
27. By now I lived in the U.S. about 13 years. I picked up many expressions like somewhat archaic "lady in waiting". This of course is the word play on this concept.
28. This term is used of Yiftah, the farmer turned general; of Kish, the father of King Saul; of Jeroboam, the farmer turned king of the northern kingdom; of Na´aman, the God-fearing Aramean general; of Zadok, a military leader; of Elyada, a military leader; and of Bo´az, the husband of Ruth and the ancestor of David. The term, thus, fairly consistently denotes someone from a prosperous agricultural background who assumes a public role, often but not always, a military one. Bo´az is the most interesting instance because Bo´az, the affluent farmer who redeems land and family seed, is called Ish Gibbor Hayil while Ruth, the convert who enables land and seed to be redeemed and founds the Davidic dynasty, is called Eshet Hayil, the only woman to be given this title by name. David R. Blumenthal, The Images of Women in the Hebrew Bible), available on the we at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/ImagesWomen.html#fn19
29. W. Gunter Plaut, Book of Proverbs: A Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1961), 313
30. Divorce rate in Jewish households usually is some what lower then in their gentile counterparts. This phenomena cannot, however, be attributed to particular marital faithfulness of Jewish husbands, rather this is the outworking of the firm commitment on the part of the wife to keep the family together no mater what their husbands may do.
31. Shulamit Valler, "Who is Eshet Chayil in Rabbinic Literature?" in: Athalya Brenner, A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature, (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 85
32. Christine Roy Yoder, Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (Berlin: WdeG, 2001), 111
33. Of course the Woman's of Valor involvement is not limited to business. It could be a social action activity, political movement or anything else. The important part is that she is managing, treasuring and using the many talents that God endowed her with.
34. It is true also of people that are already retired or are senior citizens. There is a problem in the church and society with what has been termed as ageism. Instead of valuing and using the gifts that people that attained a considerable age, the society and the church are ignoring these people.
35. When one considers further implications with regards to raising children especially girls, questions like ‘do we (parents) buy our daughter a traditional kitchen to instill into her traditional "home girl" values or are we at liberty, instead, from the very start to supply her with a desk resembling that of a future business women or a scholar, should be considered.
36. I had the hardest time drawing out implications concerning women addressed to women or implications that would require me to think as a woman. What became clear to me is that I have got to be ignoring women's concerns and issues in my sermons as well, as I try to think through the implications to the passages that I exposit.
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