Who is a Virtuous Woman?

by Karen Mason | January 30, 1990

There’s a burning desire within each of us women to be the best that we can be. That’s what pushes us to take tennis lessons, sign up for continuing education, or join a Bible study. We want to grow for the better.

The problem, these days, is knowing what is better, what is the ideal. Some of us grew up strongly influenced by a philosophy of Christian womanhood whose ideal was the passive, “womanly” woman who makes her man “feel like a man”. As we grew older, we may have been influenced by the feminist ideal, the bra-burning, self-actualizing woman. What is the ideal we should be striving for?

The Bible sets forth an ideal and calls the ideal woman an eshet-chayil, which is the Hebrew for a “virtuous woman” (KJV) or a “wife of noble character” (NIV). This Hebrew expression occurs only three times in the Old Testament, but a study of these three passages is likely to reveal what the Bible supports as an ideal of Christian womanhood.

Eschet is the Hebrew word meaning “woman”. Chayil is a much more richly varied word which can mean “to be firm or to endure” (Job 20:21), physical strength (Ps 18:40), moral strength (Ps 18:32), army (Ex 14:4), or wealth (2 Ki 15:20). It seems that originally the sense of chayil was to stand firm, as would a soldier in battle. First standing for both the physical and moral strength required to stand firm, it then came to be applied to an army as a whole, and finally to the wealth owned by the so-called warrior class of Israelites. So we can suppose that an eshet-chayil is a person of strength (physical or moral) who stands firm. One primary quality of the Bible’s ideal is fortitude.

The first occurrence of eshet-chayil is Ruth 3:11. There Ruth is called an eshet-chayil by Boaz. The context is not army nor wealth: Ruth is an extremely poor, unmarried widow. The basis Boaz gives for her being an eshet-chayil is that she has done a great kindness (v 10). In fact, Ruth has just asked Boaz to marry her (cf the expression “spread the corner of your garment over me” in Eze 16:8) and to raise up offspring to Naomi, for the line of Elimelech (cf Ru 4:5, Dt 25:5-6).

Boaz mentions that everyone in Bethlehem thinks of Ruth as an eshet-chayil. From Boaz’ statement in verse 10, it’s clear that the townspeople recognized her as having done an earlier kindness. No doubt, they noted Ruth’s kindness in renouncing all past attachments (Ru 1:16-17) to assure provision for Naomi. Ruth is committed to Naomi’s welfare, to doing over and above what is right: not just the caring for her mother-in-law, even till death, but also a kinsman redeemer through she had other choices (v 10). Ruth displays the moral strength of a person who stands firm and lets nothing dissuade her from doing what will right a very wrong situation (Ru 1:21). God had allowed misfortune to fall on Naomi (Ru 1), and, though God can make good things happen on His own (cf Ru 2:3), the eshet-chayil of God’s Kingdom is God’s salt on this earth. It seems that an important characteristic of the ideal woman is her determination to make right things happen in a wrong world.

Ruth was not a submissive victim of life’s circumstances; she was an assertive actor. Ruth was not content with whatever God brought along; she initiated change in righting what she felt was wrong. She didn’t have much to work with. She had thrown in her lot with a woman peculiarly unlucky (Ru 1:13); she was poor and widowed, with no visible means of support. She had struggles and worries. But she had the determination of the biblical ideal woman.

The second occurrence of eshet-chayil is Proverbs 12:4.

An eshet-chayil is her husband’s crown but a mevisha is like decay in his bones.

Hebrew poets were very fond of writing poetry in couplets that either repeated the same idea twice or expressed opposites. Here, it’s obvious that an eshet-chayil is the opposite of a mevisha. Mevisha literally means one causing shame. The word is a feminine singular participle, so the one causing the shame is the woman and the one who feels shame is the man. Most commonly, shame in the Old Testament is what a person feels when they’ve trusted what shouldn’t have been trusted (Job 6:19-20; Ps 25:2, 20; Is 30:1-5; Jer 48:13; Hos 10:5-6; Mic 3:7; Zep 3:11-12). A man married to a mevisha feels shame because she is not trustworthy.

An eshet-chayil is the opposite. She is a woman who can be trusted. The verse is not specific about what she can be trusted to do or not to do – just that she can be trusted. Thus an ideal woman is not only determined, but also trustworthy.

The third and last occurrence of eshet-chayil is Proverbs 31:10-31. In this passage, we finally find a more specific description of an ideal woman, the “virtuous woman”, the “wife of noble character”.

Let’s look behind the tangible goods an eshet-chayil generates (food-v 14, field and vineyard-v 16, money-v 18, bed coverings-v 22, fine clothes-v 24) to uncover the timeless qualities an eshet-chayil demonstrates (trustworthiness-v 11, constancy-v 12, diligence-vv 13, 24, 27, foresight-vv 14, 18, 21, 25, personal sense of responsibility-vv 15, 19, shrewdness-v 16, energy-v 17, generosity-v 20, self-love-vv 22, 25, wisdom-v 26, fear of God-v 30).

Not all women everywhere can emulate the Israelite 10th century BC culture which this Proverbs 31 woman exemplifies. All women cannot spin, wake before dawn, have servants, own property, be strong, do business, wear linen and purple, have children or be married. But what characteristics lie behind these activities which all women at all times can emulate? Let’s look at this passage section by section.

(vv 10-12) The first section is an exhortation to young men to marry this sort of ideal woman for her trustworthiness (v 11) and her constancy (v 12).

(vv 13-20) The next section emphasized the eshet-chayil’s shrewdness, her astute sagaciousness. These are all synonyms referring to the possession of a keen, searching intelligence combined usually with sound judgment. Shrewd stresses perceptiveness, hardheadedness, cunning and an intuitive knack in practical matters. Sagacious emphasizes more profound wisdom based on wide experience and gift for discernment and farsightedness. Astute suggests qualities associated with practical wisdom, such as acute understanding, insight, discernment, and immunity to being deceived. (American Heritage Dictionary – p 1200) The eshet-chayil has this astute practical mind. Indeed, an eshet-chayil is worth far more than rubies and ought to be found at all cost. (Pv 18:22) This section gives examples for her shrewdness.

(v 13) She doesn’t just get some wool and flax, but she selects them. The Hebrew word darash indicates that she carefully applies herself in earnest seeking. She demonstrates diligent application.

(vv 14-15) Though she owns a field and a vineyard (v 16), she trades for the food she doesn’t raise herself, just as a merchant ship would stop off at many ports trading around the Mediterranean Sea. To trade for what you need requires shrewd foresight: guessing your future needs. The result of her foresighted preparation is that she has enough food to feed all those she’s responsible for. (cf Pv 27:23-27)

(v 16) The word “considers” translates the Hebrew daman which means to purpose determinedly (Je 4:28) or to conspire a crafty scheme (Ps 31:3, Ps f37:12). Though this eshet-chayil is not scheming evil, we note her foresighted planning and her shrewdness. The proof that she’s shrewd is that the field’s produce bears capital enough for her to reinvest in a vineyard (which in turn will produce more capital.) She preserves her investments contrary to the sluggard who can’t be bothered to consume them (Pv 12:27, Pv 19:24). She’s an initiator contrary to the sluggard who lets opportunity pass by (Pv 6:9,10).

(v 17) This verse is sandwiched between two verses that talk about the eshet-chayil’s shrewd business mind, so I assume the “tasks” here refer to her business tasks. Her vigor and strength are business qualities she has. Her title, eshet-chayil, literally means a “woman of strength”. However, the word “strong” here is different from chayil. It’s the verb amets which means “to strengthen”, and can refer to economic power (Job 35:9), military strength (Ps 83:8), or moral fortitude (Dt 31:7). A rich woman with servants whose only physical activity mentioned is spinning or sewing and doing business might not be physically strong. More likely, her strength is moral fortitude: sheer determination, like Ruth’s determination to secure Naomi’s redemption by the near-kin. As a strong soldier who stands his ground in battle, so the eshet-chayil stands firm in her determination. Her strength is not in vain because she has the business acumen to back it up. Business “savvy” plus determination equals sure success.

(v 18) She’s most obviously determined to exact profit from her trading. In fact, she does so well in business that “her lamp does not go out at night: I don’t think she stays up all night planning her business strategies (Pv 23:4-5). This verse doesn’t comment on her sleep patterns but on her shrewdness! The eshet-chayil always has enough oil to keep her lamp burning. Because she has profited shrewdly, her lamp doesn’t go out, just as the lampstand in the Tabernacle burned all night (Ex 27:20), just as the wise virgins had enough oil to keep their lamps burning all night (Mt 25:1-13). Her shrewdness and determination result in always having enough of whatever she needs.

(vv 19-20) Concerning shrewdness, Jesus said to his disciples: “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16) In the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25), it was the shrewd servants who were rewarded. There is nothing wrong with shrewdness. However, there is something wrong with greed (Pv 15:27, 28:22, 25, Mt 5:19-24). Shrewdness motivated by greed seeks only to accumulate wealth. Shrewdness motivated by kindness seeks to share (Dt 15:7-11).

Verses 19 and 20 describe the eshet-chayil’s shrewdness as that which seeks to share. The verses interrelate her business activity (spinning) with her generosity. A literal translation of the two verses shows their relationship:

(v 19) Her hand stretches out (shalach) on the distaff and her palms hold firmly the spindle

(v 20) Her palm spreads out to the oppressed and her hand stretches out (shalach) to the poor  These two verses are chiastically arranged. (Chiasm is the Hebrew poetic arrangement whereby similar words or thoughts are repeated in an a.b.b.a. form.) Her business activity (spinning) is thereby paired with her generosity.

This whole section (vv 13-20) emphasizes the eshet-chayil’s shrewdness: careful selection of wool and flax, careful trading for food which results in everyone being fed, careful selection of real estate which results in reinvestment of profits, determination to exact profits which result in having enough oil, business activity which results in having enough to share with others. This woman’s shrewdness naturally flows into generosity to those who  need help.

May we today be like Ruth who didn’t allow the widow Naomi to return to Israel without a provider. May we be like Boaz who took notice of Ruth (though we’re never told she was a beauty) and provided food and redemption for her and Naomi (Ru 2:15, 19, 20). May we have the shrewdness of an eshet-chayil who manages her resources so that she can share.

vv 21-27 This next section seems to emphasize the eshet-chayil’s diligence, her constant industry. (v 21) The ideal woman is so diligent she’s even prepared for snow, for the adverse circumstances of life. We can expect adversity in a less-than-ideal world. (Note Ruth who initiated redemption but couldn’t control all the unknowns [Ru 3:12-13].) Adversity happens regardless of how diligent we are (cf Job). An ideal woman diligently prepares even for adversity.

(vv 22-23) I suggest these two verses contrast the eshet-chayil with the adulteress of Proverbs 7 because the word marvadim, bed coverings, occurs only twice in the Bible: once here in verse 22 and once in Proverbs 7:16. Both the adulteress and the eshet-chayil care for their beds with bed coverings, but they care for themselves and their husbands in totally different ways. Whereas the adulteress of Proverbs 7 puts her rich cloth on her bed, the eshet-chayil wears it. She diligently cares for herself. Her diligence also profits her husband. Whereas the adulteress brings death (Pv 7:23, 27), the eshet-chayil brings repute and life. If her husband is seated with the elders, it seems likely to assume that he has already enjoyed a long life. He now sits (sitting=shabat) in Sabbath rest from his labors (retirement?) which allows him to further justice at the city gates (cf Ru 4:11). This woman’s diligence benefits herself and her husband.

(v 24) Her industry is such that when she’s provided for her household and herself, she turns to profit-making. She’s not only diligent, she’s as shrewd as always.

(v 25) This verse states the result of the eshet-chayil’s diligence: she faces the future without fear, because she is clothed (or characterized by) strength and dignity. Strength and dignity (hadar – “dignity” – is also translated “splendor”) are often paired together (Pv 20:29, Ps 96:6) and they seem to indicate that a person’s splendor is having the strength or resources to achieve a task (Ps 45:4, Ez 27:10, Is 2:21, 22, Is 52:1). The eshet-chayil has the strength—the physical and mental resources – to accomplish her tasks. One of her tasks is to look into the future, apply the mental resource of foresight, and to prepare for what she sees. Then she laughs.

(v 26) Here we find words familiar to the rest of Proverbs: wisdom and instruction. Wisdom characterizes this woman’s speaking. As a wise speaker, the eshet-chayil teaches her children (Pv 1:8, 5:20, 29:15, Dt 5:6,7), confronts teachable adults (Pv 9:9, 17:10, 25:12), but leaves fools to their folly (Pv 9:7,8,15:12). She speaks only timely words (Pv 12:18, 25, 15:24, 25:11). Her words are honest (Pv 27:5, 28:23), not flattering (Pv 29:5), not gossipy (Pv 20:19), not numerous (Pv 10:19, 12:23).

She’s not only wise, but also loving. The word “faithful” is chesed, which implies the love from which springs faithfulness to a relationship. The Hebrew construction can mean either that she instructs faithfully (that her instruction springs from her faithfulness to relationships, cf Pv 20:6) or that she instructs faithfulness (how to act faithfully in relationships). Either way, I think this woman’s diligence is emphasized. She’s so committed to her relationships that she ever watches over her tongue. That’s work!

(v 27) In conclusion to this section on diligence, it’s said that the eshet-chayil vigilantly keeps watch over what goes on in her household. She is not a lazy sluggard. She epitomizes the diligence extolled in Proverbs. Diligence seems to refer especially to preparing for the future (Pv 5:6-8, 20:4, 21:5) by constant working (Pv 14:23, 18:9, 20:13) and by prizing one’s resources (Pv 12:27, 19:24). It’s hard to separate the two character qualities of diligence and shrewdness. Whereas diligence stresses constancy, shrewdness stresses intuitive sound judgment.

So what are this ideal woman’s timeless qualities? From her title “woman of strength”, we note her sheer determination. From the quality of shrewdness, we note her forthsight, her astute intuition in practical matters, and her determined initiative. (cf also Tamar, Ge 38:26; Zipporah, Ex 4:24-26; Jael, Ju 4:21; Esther, Es 4:16; the Shunammite, II Ki 8:1-6; the widow, Lk 18:1-8; Abigail, II Sa 25:33) From her diligence, we note the constancy for which she cares for her household and herself, indeed all the relationships in which she’s involved. We note too her foresight and the prizing of her resources. The results are wealth, enough to share, and enough to laugh at the future, and praise (vv 28-31).

This eshet-chayil is the ideal, be we mustn’t assume she’s flawless or perfect. Even the eshet-chayil is sinful (Pv 20:9) and subject to human error. She’s also subject to God’s sovereignty. God does what he wills, as we know from the case of Job (Job 2:10, 42:2).

The purpose of an ideal is not to discourage us but rather to furnish us with a goal. What then is our goal? To grow in the character qualities of the eshet-chayil: her determination, her trustworthiness, her shrewdness and initiative, her diligence, foresight, and the prizing of her resources. The virtuous woman is the one who possesses these qualities.