Yesterday in Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman, I told you that I discovered something about this woman earlier this week, I had never known. While doing research for my sermon this Sunday, I was looking at The New Interpreter’s Bible, and I discovered that there is a ton of military imagery in the poem! I’m not talking about a reference or two here. I mean there is military imagery used throughout this poem to describe this woman. I grew up hearing that this woman was two things: obedient and submissive (two traits that are not even in these verses). But all of the military images through this passage shows that she was a strong and decisive woman.
The first military image is the the first word used to describe her, “capable”: “A capable wife, who can find?” The Hebrew word, hayil, is used to describe men as “strong,” “mighty,” and “with competence and vigor,” especially in warfare. At it’s very root it means power; a power that is able to acquire strength through gaining money and/or raising an army. Right off the bat, we are told this is a strong woman who knows how to get things done.
The second military image is found in verse 11: “[her husband] will lack no gain.” The literal meaning of gain is spoils from war or booty. In the NIB, Raymond C. Van Leeuwen notes that using this word in this passage is strange: it “suggests the woman is like a warrior bringing home booty from her victories.” She goes out and fights for what her family needs. She makes sure her family has everything they need to survive.
The next martial image is in verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it.” The word “buy” may not be such a good translation of the Hebrew word. Literally, she “takes” the field, and this word is normally used of an army taking a city or a region. The verb means to conquer and subdue a territory. This verse shows the woman looking at a wild field and figuring out how to tame it and subdue it into a vineyard. In the Judean highlands turning a plot of land into a vineyard took a massive amount of work. The soil is rocky, and all of the rocks have to be removed, then the land terraced, and the rocks built into a wall, so that the vineyard doesn’t wash down the hillside at the first good rain. It also had to be terraced to make sure that enough water stayed on the land so the vines could grow. Like a general she surveys her battlefield and plans her attack. Anyone who has ever gardened knows this is not an over-exaggeration.
In the very next verse our Valiant Woman “girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong” or in the good old King James Version, she “girded up her loins” (one of my all time favorite KJVisms). Men normally gird up their loins in the Bible for a heroic deed, normally a deed that involves fighting. Having a strong arm is another Biblical metaphor for being battle ready. Van Leeuwen has this to say: “‘She puts her hands to’ is an idiom that has military connotations of mastery, thus reinforcing the heroic character of the woman’s activities.”
The end of the poem comes back to where we began with the word hayil. Here it describes the woman’s actions when her husband compares her to other women: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Here hayil is translated as “done excellently.” The Valiant Woman has done deeds of strength and power that again refer to warfare and gaining wealth. “Surpass them all” is another “idiom that often refers to military activity.”
Van Leeuwen concludes that this a heroic hymn that cast this woman in her daily life as a warrior who fights and brings the best to her family. He wraps up the Reflections part of this passage with this observation:
The use of masculine images in praise of a woman (vv. 17, 25) must be considered in the light of the poem’s masculine audience. If ancient Israel admired the man of war (even Yahweh in Exodus 15:1-3) who defended God’s people from their enemies, and if Israelite males, like men throughout history, were sinfully prone to demean women as the “the weaker sex,” the praise of woman here is designed to alter errant male perceptions of women. The heroic terms of strength usually applied to men are here given to a woman so her splendor and wisdom may be seen by all.
Again we see in looking at the women of the Bible that gender roles just were not that set in stone as some people want them to be. Very masculine imagery is used to describe the woman’s life as a wife and a mother. And being a wife and mother is not contained to the home. The woman goes out and gets a plot of land in shape to plant a vineyard. She plants the vineyard with “the fruit of her own hand,” her own money. She also goes out and sells what she and her serving girls make to the local merchants, bringing in income for the family. She is a wife, mother, entrepeneur and business woman. And all of these roles are described with masculine and military imagery. I guess it just goes to show what I’ve been saying for the last few years: feminine and masculine gender roles are just not set in stone for all time in the Bible. We cannot go back to “biblical” manhood and womanhood because there is no such thing.
This post is based on “Proverbs” by Raymond C. Leeuwen in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5, pp. 260-4.
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