Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Worthy Woman, pt. 1

This is my Exegesis work on Proverbs 31:28, 30-31. I wrote it two years ago, and yet still there is so much to learn from these short verses. Thus, here is Part 1 of A Worthy Woman. Part 2 shall follow as soon as I write it. In the meantime, ponder these words, imperfect as they are.


Sacred Scripture is filled with rich descriptions of the virtues we should emulate. In Proverbs 31 the sacred author speaks of the ideal woman, providing an ample depiction of the qualities she will possess: "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."[1] The description continues, telling of this woman's care of her household and family. It says that "her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her" (Prov. 31:28). The chapter ends with perhaps some of the most famous verses in the whole of the Old Testament: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates" (Prov. 31:30-31). These few verses are filled with underlying and intermixed literal and allegorical themes which work together to complete a poignant description and model after which all women should strive.


Strength and dignity are her clothing (Prov. 31:25a): Ernest Lussier says, "By a common metaphor her character is spoken of as her raiment."[2] In the Hebrew, the word for strength is 'oz, which is translated as both might and strength. However, it is this might does not simply refer to physical strength, but also personal, social, or political strength as well. Therefore, the ideal woman's strength refers more to her innate strength of character than to her outward, physical strength. Furthermore, the Vulgate translation for strength is fortitudo, and this is translated as both strength and courage but also as firmness. Firmness could also be understood as a firmness of character built upon a firm foundation of virtue. In the case of the ideal woman, as Ronald E. Murphy says, "It is not for bravery or courage that she is celebrated, but for the homely domestic virtues (which demand no small courage)."[3] Likewise, the Hebrew for dignity is hadhar, which means splendor, honor, majesty, and glory, all of which are applied to personages of royal bearing. This implies that the ideal woman will be one whose character is equal to that which those chosen by God to rule His people should have innately. She will be one who, through these characteristics, is able to care for her own family as a ruler cares for his people. In addition, the Vulgate uses decor for dignity, which is literally translated as beauty, grace, and charm, all of which, referring to the inner person, give a sense of an ideal woman who, through these qualities, knows herself to be worthy of respect. Therefore, the combination of these short and simple words depicts a woman who is full of virtue and the strength to complete any task before her as well as a woman who respects herself and knows her own innate worth. Going on to say that these qualities are her clothing, the sacred author suggests that these attributes will be visible to all she meets.


And she laughs at the time to come (Prov. 31:25b). This verse depicts a woman who does not fear the future. Lussier says that "her foresight enables her to face the future without apprehension."[4] She is a woman who trusts in the Lord her God and, therefore, has no need to worry about whatever the future may contain. Her Lord will care for her through all times, whether of joy or sorrow, happiness or tribulation. This ideal woman, as was seen above, knows her own self-worth, but she also has the hope that stems from trust in God. It is this combination of self-worth and hope that enables the ideal woman to endure whatever may come in the future. L. Jane Mohline expounds upon this hope when she says, "Hope as well as a strong self-esteem must play a significant role in our feelings. Hope helps us risk and trust in relationships, endure emotional pain, and keep going. The Proverbs 31 woman feels hope for 'she smiles at the future' (v. 25)."[5] Thus, it is seen that the ideal woman, through her hope and trust in God's plan, is able to live her life well to the fullest extent and face whatever tribulations or trials may be awaiting her in the days ahead.


She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (Prov. 31:26). Dermot Cox speaks of this verse when he says that "in the Ideal Woman all wisdom comes together, secular and religious."[6] This means that the ideal woman is a perfect combination of both earthly and heavenly wisdom. She is wise in living this earthly life, but she is also wise in her pursuit of heaven. She knows what is important and what is unimportant, and she knows how to display this through the words of her mouth. This woman also always speaks the wisdom of kindness, and she is thus even more to be honored. St. Augustine says that this woman is

praising creatures as creatures, the creator as creator, angels as angels, heavenly things as heavenly, earthly things as earthly, men as men, animals as animals. Nothing mixed up, nothing out of order. Not taking the name of the Lord her God in vain, not attributing the nature of a creature to the creator, speaking about everything so methodically that she doesn't put lesser things above the more important or subordinate the more important to the lesser.[7]

Speaking with wisdom necessarily implies an ordered tongue, one which, as Augustine mentions, speaks of everything in its proper place, placing neither the lower above the higher nor the higher below the lower. The Hebrew word for wisdom is chokmeh, which means both wisdom and shrewdness. In addition, the Vulgate's use of sapientia for wisdom is translated not only as wisdom, but also as understanding and reason. The use of these words, then, gives a double meaning to this woman's wisdom. She is not only wise with her words, but her mind is filled with a reason and understanding. She is able to think clearly and shrewdly which implies that she is capable of great understanding and is a woman who is able to stand her ground in the face of adversity. Furthermore, the Hebrew for "teaching of kindness" is towrah checed. Towrah is translated as law or instruction, but also as custom or manner, and checed is translated as goodness, kindness, and faithfulness. The combination of these words, then, depicts a woman whose words are kind, and her very manner and bearing allow her inner goodness to shine forth for all to see and from which they may learn. In addition, lex clementiae, which the Vulgate uses for "teaching of kindness," is literally translated as merciful, gentle, and peaceful laws or words. Therefore, it is seen that the ideal woman speaks the gentle words that guide all mankind to a closer relationship with one another, for anyone who follows the merciful law that she speaks will build friendships with others. The fact that she speaks and follows the teaching of kindness implies that this woman is not only kind to everyone, but that she also displays a friendliness and openness towards all whom she meets. As Lussier says, "She has good judgment, discretion, kindly advice."[8] The phrase 'teaching of kindness' tells us that this woman also instructs those around her in virtue. Thus, she is not only virtuous and wise herself, but she also tries to impress these virtues upon those who come under her instruction.


She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness (Prov. 31:27). Lussier tells us that "hard work is at the base of her prosperity."[9] The ideal woman does everything she can to ensure the good welfare of her house, and she does not sit idly. The man is often called the head of the house, yet the woman is referred to as the heart of it. It is this "heart" which keeps the household running smoothly. R. B. Y. Scott says that these few verses, combined with Proverbs 31:10-24, compose "an acrostic poem describing the virtues and accomplishments of an ideal wife and mother, mistress of the household of a prominent man."[10] The mistress of the house must make sure that everyone under her care, from the lowliest servant to her own children and husband, can carry out their own duties within an atmosphere that is beneficial to all. She is continually busy about all the tasks that fill her day, caring for all under her charge. She is not idle, which means that she is neither lazy nor busy about things that have no meaning. St. Basil the Great says, "Why should we dwell upon the amount of evil there is in idleness, when the apostle clearly prescribes that he who does not work should not eat? As daily sustenance is necessary for everyone, so labor in proportion to one's strength is also essential. Not vainly has Solomon written in praise."[11] The ideal woman, thus, labors in proportion to her strength; all her actions are good and have meaning. She goes about her day, caring for others and overseeing the household. Indeed, the Hebrew word for idleness is 'atsluwth, which means sluggishness or laziness. Further, the Vulgate translation for idleness is otiosa which can also be translated as unoccupied. Therefore, the ideal woman actively looks after her household, and she impresses a disregarding of the "bread of idleness" on those around her. She is neither lazy nor unoccupied, and she goes about her duties cheerfully and quickly, not allowing her feet to drag along sluggishly or her head to hang with disgust at working hard.


Her children rise up and call her blessed (Prov. 31:28a). The ideal woman's children will praise her for her virtue and her good actions. The Hebrew uses the word 'ashar for blessed, which is literally translated as to pronounce happy or to call blessed. Beatissimam, the Vulgate's word for blessed, is translated as happy or fortunate. Thus, the ideal woman's children believe her to be a woman who is content with her life on earth, fortunate in the knowledge that she will one day gain entrance to Heaven through the grace of God and her abidance by His eternal laws. The woman who is blessed will also be fruitful, as can be seen by the fact that she has children. It can be seen through this knowledge that the ideal woman will be one who fulfills God's commandment in Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28). She will fill the earth with her children, and she will raise them in a happy environment. Her blessedness also refers to her successfulness, and she will accomplish her endeavors. Further, through receiving confirmation of the goodness of her deeds in the praise of her children and husband, the ideal woman is encouraged to continue in her ways. Mohline comments upon this, saying, "The Proverbs 31 woman modeled how her self-worth was confirmed by others. 'Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her' (v. 28). While creativity and initiative enriched her life, approval and encouragement enhanced the contentment process."[12]


Her husband also, and he praises her: "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all (Prov. 31:28b-29). Her husband also praises her for her blessedness. He, however, goes further and praises her above all other women. He places her virtue and excellence at the highest rung of mortal women. In his statement in this verse, her husband proclaims to all the world that his wife, the ideal woman, has risen above all other women as regards her virtue. She has lived and acted the most excellent among all others. Murphy tells us that "the ideal of the mulier fortis or 'valiant woman' of the Roman liturgy . . . is properly the ideal of 'worthy wife.'"[13] By her virtue and excellence, the ideal woman is the epitome of feminine valiance, and contained within this valiance is the role of the worthy wife. The ideal woman, through her goodness, is a model wife and mother. Indeed, Cox tells us that "the resourceful wife stands at the end [of the chapter] as an image of all who have perfectly completed the wisdom adventure."[14] Thus, the ideal woman is one of virtue and excellence, whereby she is also resourceful and cares well for her household, her husband and children.


Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Prov. 31:30). This is perhaps one of the most famous verses within the entire selection, and it has posed many problems as regards a correct translation of the few short words. However, a closer look at the verse itself and the origin of the words contained therein will soon clarify the situation. Chen, which is the Hebrew for charm, is also translated as favor or acceptance, and refers to that for which so many people strive, that is, popularity. In addition, gratia, the Vulgate's term for charm, is also translated as favoritism or partiality. This refers also to a striving for acceptance by those who seem important in this world, yet the verse tells us that "charm is deceitful," and is thus not something after which one should seek. "Charm is deceitful" refers to the fact that outward appearances are deceiving; fair is often foul, and the exterior often deceives the observers. Outward mannerisms such as one's charm might conceal an evil interior character. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for beauty, yophiy, and pulchritudo, the Vulgate's term for beauty, both refer to the outward beauty of a human person. "Beauty is vain" can mean that outward beauty or good looks are fleeting; they do not last forever. The Hebrew for vain is hebel, which is also translated as vapor or breath. The Vulgate's translation for vain is vana, which is also translated as empty, false, or untrustworthy. Through the meanings of both these words, there can be drawn a much deeper sense of how vain beauty truly is. As it is said in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "All was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Eccl. 2:11b). The vanity of beauty is like a fleeting breath which, if strove after, is no more than a "striving after wind." Also, the sacred author is referring to the physical pleasures and beauties of this world, stating that they are vain and will end. A person's outward beauty is more often than not a false representation of that person's interior character. Neither exterior charm nor beauty make a person worthy of praise. The only things that are worth striving after are those which are eternal or which lead one to the eternal end. Following upon this striving for eternal ends, the sacred author goes on to say that "the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." In reference to this woman, St. Augustine says, "You, he says, have surpassed them all, you have outdone them all."[15] The woman who thus fears the Lord surpasses all others who have only earthly beauty; she is the one who is worthy of praise. It follows upon her virtue that she will fear the Lord, and it is through her fear of the Lord that she will become more virtuous. Her virtue and her fear of the Lord grow together.


Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates (Prov. 31:31). This final verse is an insistence that the ideal woman, the one excelling in virtue, domestic courage, love, and kindness, receive the fruit of her hands, or the fruit of her works. She deserves praise for her good works, and she should receive the ultimate reward for her acts. The gates referenced here could refer to the gates of the city where all important business was conducted. They were a public place, and thus her good works would be praised among all the people so that all may see her example and profit from following it. In a more allegorical reference, gates could be referring to the gates of Heaven where, at the end of her life, the ideal woman will be praised for her works and admitted to the presence of the Almighty to praise Him forever just as she did in her earthly life. St. Augustine says,

That will be the haven of our labors, to see God and praise God . . . There will not be any works of necessity, because there will not be any necessity. There will not be any works of mercy, because there will not be any misery. You will not break your bread to the poor, because no one will be begging. You will not take in the stranger, because everyone will be living in their own home country. You will not visit the sick, because everyone will be in good health for all eternity. You will not clothe the naked, because everyone will be clothed in eternal light. You will not bury the dead, because everyone will be living life without end. You will not, however, be doing nothing, just because you are not doing any of this. For you will see the One you have desired, and you will praise him without weariness or fatigue. That is the fruit you will receive.[16]

The woman who does all that which is enumerated in these last few verses of Proverbs 31 will, at the end of her life, enter Heaven, where her only act and duty will be to praise God Eternal. She will have exchanged her good deeds towards others on earth for the ultimate act of praising God. This, as Augustine says, is the fruit she will receive as reward for her good life on earth.

In conclusion, therefore, it can be seen that the sacred author has laid down in a few, short verses, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, an idealization of what all women should strive to become. She is a woman of excellence and virtue, one who fears the Lord. She speaks with wisdom and kindness. She cares for her household well and is worthy of the praise of her children and her husband. This woman is blessed with inner beauty and is not worried by those fleeting, exterior so-called beauties or charms. Most importantly, she is a woman who, upon her departure from this earth, will be fit to enter the kingdom of Heaven and receive what is due to her for her good actions on earth. Therefore, the ideal woman as presented in Proverbs 31:25-31 is the epitome and role model for all women through every time and era.

[1]Proverbs 31:25-26 RSV. All Biblical citations will be from the Revised Standard Version throughout this paper unless otherwise noted.

[2]Ernest Lussier, Old Testament Reading Guide: The Book of Proverbs and the Book of Sirach (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1965), 63.

[3]Ronald E. Murphy, Seven Books of Wisdom (Milwaukee, MN: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1960), 25-26.

[4]Lussier, 63.

[5]L. Jane Mohline, A Woman of Excellence: Developing Your Special Female Self (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), 38.

[6]Dermot Cox, Proverbs with an Introduction to Sapientical Books (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 253.

[7]St. Augustine, Sermon, 37.23, quoted in J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, Old Testament, vol. 9; Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 188.

[8]Lussier, 63.

[9]Lussier, 63.

[10]R. B. Y. Scott, The Anchor Bible: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 22.

[11]St. Basil the Great, The Long Rules, 37, quoted in J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, Old Testament, vol. 9; Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 188.

[12]Mohline, 183.

[13]Murphy, 25-26.

[14]Cox, 253.

[15]St. Augustine, Sermon, 37.27, quoted in J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, Old Testament, vol. 9; Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 189.

[16]St. Augustine, Sermon, 37.30, quoted in J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, Old Testament, vol. 9; Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 189.

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