Eshet chayil mi yimtza v’rachok mip’ninim michrah
An accomplished woman, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.
Proverbs 31 is often touted among Christian circles as the great definer of a Godly woman. To achieve even a semblance of being “a wife of noble character” is seen as a victory but for many women the pursuit of that title can bring heartache, a sense of failure, and a burden for perfection.
But who is this paragon of virtue we aspire to? Is she an obedient, docile wife or a strong, capable partner? Can we truly meet the expectation of such feminine accomplishment?
The Chayil woman is often translated as the “virtuous” or “accomplished” woman. But what is Chayil (pronounced CHEYE-el)?
Chayil is a Hebrew word that takes on several meanings in Old Testament texts.
Chayil can connote bravery (Ps. 76:6); capability (Prov. 12:4); triumph (Ps. 118:15); a rampart (Ps. 84:8); or wealth (Prov.13:22).
The term is often used in Hebrew to describe great forces and armies.
Should it be any wonder that such a powerful word is used for a woman?
Consider the Jewish women of the Old Testament. If not for them, the Jewish people may have remained enslaved. It was a woman (Esther) who stood before her husband, the king, and prevented the massacre of her people. It was a woman (Rebecca) who had the wisdom to recognize the need for Isaac to bless Jacob as the father of the Jewish people. It was a woman (Mary) who was entrusted to carry and raise the Son of Man.
A Chayil woman possesses wisdom, kindness, patience, and a loving spirit but she also possesses strength, boldness, and capability; characteristics that made it possible for women of the OT to accomplish what they did.
There is a custom within traditional Jewish households for men to recite proverbs 31 before sitting down to the Shabbat evening meal. The intention is for the husband to be reminded to be thankful for all his wife has done for him and their family. What a beautiful concept. A great hope would be that the man reciting this ancient poem would see it in its fullness; a picture of a fine balance feminine softness and feminine strength.
But is that balance even attainable?
A better question might be, “does it have to be?”
We will never be the perfect reflection of God that the Messiah is but we are still called to pursue a lifestyle akin to his. Could the same not be said for Proverbs 31?
Women should not sabotage their own happiness by placing unhealthy expectations on themselves. Instead, they should treat each task they face with honor and dignity. In some ways they will excel and others they may be… gasp… adequate. Each person has a specific set of gifts and talents that God has called entrusted them with. Some women may reflect the feminine softness of the Chayil woman and some may reflect her feminine strength.
A great resource to learn more: www.hillel.org