November 16, 2014
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
When you were a child, did you appreciate your mother? Sure, she fed you, clothed you, helped you, put Band-Aids on you and you cried when you lost her, but did you really know how hard she was working to keep you safely growing and flourishing? Of course, when you grew up, you might have begun to understand and when you perhaps became a parent, her devotion became apparent. But do you ever think of your mom as a “woman of valor”? That’s exactly how Proverbs 31 describes her.
This chapter is one of the very few in the Bible actually written by a woman. At the beginning of the chapter, we hear that this is the words not of the king, but of his mom (Prov 31:1). First, she gives him advice about ruling justly and soberly, without being duped by lust (v. 3) or drink (v. 4). Then she expounds on what an eshet chayil is like, seemingly giving motherly counsel to her son about whom to marry. Eshet chayil means “woman of valor.” Chayil means strength, the strength of a warrior. Usually, the term gibbor chayil is used (Josh 1:14, 6:2; Judg 6:12; 2 Kgs 15:20) and translated as “mighty man of valor.” The term eshet chayil only appears in Ruth 3:11, Proverbs 12:4 and here in this passage. The woman described here is no damsel in distress, but a heroine. She should remind us of Lady Wisdom, who is described in Proverbs 8 and she also points forward to the Seat of Wisdom, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.
Often this passage is used for women’s Bible studies. There is even an international “Proverbs 31 Ministries.” But when you read it, you realize it does not give what we would consider a balanced picture of all of womanhood. Rather it focuses almost exclusively on economics. Her value to her husband and household is largely financial. She deals with merchants (v. 24) and merchant ships (v. 14). She makes cloth (v. 13), thick clothes (v. 21, 24), and blankets (v. 22). She is also a good investor who knows how to spot a good property deal (v. 16). She even can start a winery from the profits of her home-based textile business (v. 16, 18). What is striking from a modern perspective is that this text lauds the woman’s financial worth in her traditional role working in the home, which expands into external networks, while our era often overlooks this in favor of the financial gain of working outside the home.
Her Work Ethic
The eshet chayil’s home is not a lazy place. In fact, the text emphasizes that she “rises while it is yet night” (v. 16 RSV) and “her lamp does not go out at night” (v. 18). She is not an insomniac, but a fiercely dedicated woman, willing to sacrifice her comfort and sleep for others. Any mother knows that her exertions often happen after everyone else goes to bed: nursing an infant, the last load of laundry, the pressures of an evening or nighttime job. In the midst of all this nocturnal work, we know for certain that the woman of valor “does not eat the bread of idleness” (Prov 31:27).
Her work includes distaff and spindle. A distaff is a rod used to hold wool for spinning with a spindle. In the ancient world, there was no Macy’s. You had to make your own clothes. Usually, it was part of the wife’s job to take wool and other fibers, prepare them, spin them, weave them and make garments from her homespun cloth. This was a huge part of the woman’s work, which is why it is emphasized repeatedly here. She makes high-quality, warm clothing, which merchants like to sell, while she herself is clothed in the rich garments of royalty: fine linen and purple (v. 22). And of course, behind every successful man is a strong woman: by her hard work she makes her husband a prominent man in the public square (v. 23).
Often, when people in our culture want to compliment a woman, her muscles are not the first thing that comes to mind. But Proverbs 31 repeatedly reports the strength of the eshet chayil with a couple different words: chayil, valor (v. 10, 29), ‘oz, might (vv. 17, 25). She is a strong, powerful woman. She is so full of hope on account of her hard work, that she has no anxiety about the future, but “laughs” at it (v. 25). Wisdom comes from her lips (v. 26), just like it comes from the mother of the king (v. 1). Not only is she clothed in finest raiment, but in “strength and dignity” (v. 25). What counts is not the vanity of good looks, but “fear of the Lord” (v. 30). She is like the virtuous man described in Psalm 1 or throughout the Proverbs. She is wise and acts on her wisdom, which keeps the fear of the Lord before her eyes and in her heart. Her zeal for serving her family and working hard for others comes from the discipline of embracing the law of the Lord. Her devotion yields incredible energy.
Worthy of Praise
Such devotion should not go unnoticed. In fact, her children raise a chorus with her husband: “Many women have done excellently (chayil), but you have surpassed them all” (Prov 31:29). Many are strong, but she is the strongest. In one beautiful Jewish tradition that embodies this verse, the husband sings this hymn from Proverbs 31 to his wife both on her wedding day and at sundown on Friday every week (!) to honor her for her service to the family. She deserves the “fruit of her hands” and public renown for her deeds (Prov 31:31).
The power and beauty of this passage cannot be overrated, but its immediate application can be. This poem presents an ideal, not a moral standard. It gives us a picture of the epitome of the most accomplished, heroically virtuous, hard-working woman—the kind of perfect example to be striven toward but not judged by. The eshet chayil inspires by her life, but more than that, I think this passage is meant to draw our minds to the lives of strong women in our lives—mothers, wives, sisters, friends, so that we can honor their virtue and praise their commitment. Maybe our moms really are “women of valor” and we just failed to notice.