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Saturday, June 30, 2007

A virtuous woman

Ruth not only shows hesed, a word now so loaded with meaning that it is hard to translate, but she is also a virtuous woman.

Virtuous from
  • morally excellent
  • pure: in a state of sexual virginity; "pure and vestal modesty"; "a spinster or virgin lady"; "men have decreed that their women must be pure and virginal"
And there's the catch. Just as "kind' can mean "acting with compassion" or simply "gentle", virtuous can mean "virginal" or "morally excellent". But, in fact, the Hebrew says nothing about chastity or virginity but points rather to strength and nobility.

In Hebrew she is אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל. This word is defined in the Koehler-Baumgartner as
  • capacity, power, strength
  • property, wealth
  • qualified, fit for military service
  • of good family, valiant, brave
In the LXX Ruth 3:11 is translated as γυνὴ δυνάμεως - a woman of power. This expression, אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל, also occurs in Proverbs 31:10 where it is translated in the LXX as γυναῖκα ἀνδρείαν - a manly woman.

Of course, ανδρεια does not really mean "manly". As the adjective derivative of ανηρ it means "noble" "of the military or citizen class" or "brave" and "strong". It all gets a little awkward because we perceive of this word ανηρ as reflecting gender rather than class. In an odd way, it does both. Therefore, Ruth is
a woman of strong character, a noble woman, a woman of class.

Naturally we understand that Boaz didn't want a bodybuilder nor a masculine woman. However, in this society being strong was not a purely masculine trait,
ideally the men should be strong and the women should be strong too.

Here is Katherine Bushnell on the translation of חַיִל as virtuous, rather than strong.
    624 Next we will consider the Hebrew word cha-yil (HEB), which occurs 242 times in the Old Testament. It is translated “army” and “war” 58 times; “host” and “forces” 43 times; “might” or “power” 16 times; “goods,” “riches,” “substance” and “wealth” in all 31 times; “band of soldiers,” “band of men,” “company,” and “train” once each; “activity” once; “valor” 28 times; “strength” 11 times: these are all noun forms. The word is often translated as an adjective or adverb. It is translated “valiant” and “valiantly” 35 times; “strong” 6 times; “able” 4 times; “worthily” once and “worthy” once. We have now given you the complete list of the various renderings of this word excepting four instances in which the word is used in describing a woman. Please review the list, and get the usage of the word clearly in mind before proceeding further.

    625. Now we will take the first of these four remaining cases, relating to women: Ruth, the Moabitess, was a woman of courage and decision of character. In her loyalty to her dead husband’s mother, she refused to turn back and re-marry in her own land, but forsook her country and kindred to accompany her mother-in-law to a (to her) foreign land, and undertook there, to keep them both from starvation by the labour of her hands. Boaz, who afterwards married her, said to her: “All the city of my people doth know that thou art a woman of cha-yil,” (Ruth 3:11). Now considering the girl’s courage and devotion, how should this word have been translated? You have the list of meanings before you, and are quite competent to form an opinion. How would “thou art an able woman” or “thou art a woman of courage” do? The Septuagint Greek says, “Thou art a woman of power” (dunamis).

    626. But it almost looks as though our English translators took no care, as to the precise language here. The circumstances, when Boaz spoke the words, were peculiar, but not improper in Israel; but man was praising a woman, and “of course” here is a reference to her reputation for chastity, and so it is translated, “thou art a virtuous woman.” But glance over the various meanings given to this word elsewhere. Not once has it reference to any other moral characteristic than that of strength or force. What courage this foreign girl had shown in supporting her mother-in-law!

    627. Now for the next mistranslation of this word, because it relates to woman. The last chapter of Proverbs describes an ideal woman for a wife. The description is a mother’s, to her son. It is quite different from the average man’s ideal of woman at her best. But the Bible describes her, in the language of Lemuel’s mother, as a woman whose “price is far above rubies:. Here are some of her striking characteristics: “She is like the merchants’ ships, she bringeth her food from afar.” “She considereth a field and buyeth it.” “She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.” “Strength and honor are her clothing.” Surely this must be a “strong-minded” woman who is praised here.

    628. Three times over the “strength” of this woman of Proverbs is referred to. Each line of the description speaks of efficiency. She is praised in turn for general goodness and trustworthiness, energy, efficiency, enterprise, far-sightedness, early-rising, business capacity, gardening, muscular strength, weaving, benevolence, fore-thought, embroidery work, elegant clothes for herself, tailoring for her husband, honor, wisdom, kindness, piety. But, as it happens, no definite reference is made to her purity, or to her faithfulness to her husband in the marriage relation.

    629. Now what one word would best sum up such a character? The precise original expression is the same as in the verse we have quoted from Ruth,a woman of cha-yil.” We must suppose that the translators hastily concluded that they knew, without looking closely at the original, what sort of a woman a mother ought to recommend to her son for a wife, and so they translated: “Who can find a virtuous woman?” That represents the undoubted sentiments of the translators; but it does not represent the teaching of the original text. “Virtue” is of priceless value to woman, to be sure; but her duty to her husband is not her only duty; all her life cannot be summed up in that one moral quality.

    630. “But,” someone will reply, “virtue is often used in the sense of a summing up of all moral characteristics.” That may be; but it would not be so understood by the common folk, in this connection, and the Bible is supposed to be translated for them. The vast majority, reading this verse, would suppose the word “virtue” to refer to the woman’s chastity. The Septuagint translates here (“Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Askelon,” lest the study of the sacred tongues be prohibited to woman!), “A masculine woman . . . more valuable is she than very costly stones.”

    And finally, the description of this ideal woman is summed up in the 29th verse, in the words: “Many daughters have done cha-yil, but thou excellest them all. “Worthily,” “valiantly,” are the only translations that we have in any other part of the Bible for this word, when used as an adverb. But after the same careless manner, the word is here translated “virtuously.” We suppose there was an instinctive distaste, disrelish, for showing that the Bible praised, in the inspired words of a woman writer, a “strong” woman, for doing “valiantly.”

    631. Now for the fourth instance of the mistranslation of this word: Proverbs 12:4 reads, in the original, “A woman of cha-yil is a crown to her husband,” and there is no doubt that she is here again praised for her strength of character. But the English reads, “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.” Doubtless such a woman is a crown to her husband, but women prefer to know what the Bible says, rather than to be merely reminded of a favorite axiom among men. Here again, the Septuagint translates, “masculine.”

    632. “But,” an objector will say “ ‘virtuous’ comes from the Latin word vir, which means ‘man’, and why is it not the proper word to use here, in the sense of ‘manly’, ‘strong’?” Because “virtue,” while it has this literal sense, is not used to describe “manliness” in English, but “morality” in general, among men: and when used of woman, it is understood to refer to morality of one sort, more particularly, which happens not to be referred to in these extended descriptions in the quotations from Proverbs. If the translator had thought that this word “virtue,” or the word “virtuously” were likely to be understood in their literal sense by women, “manly” and “manfully,” who can believe that he would ever have employed those words here?

    633. Virtue is a quality of great importance to women, and had they been more clearly taught from pulpit, and by a more careful translation of such passages as we have been considering, the obligation laid upon them in the Bible, to be strong, in body, mind and spirit; if these theologians themselves had learned this from the Bible, women would have been far better equipped to guard their virtue,¾since the ruin of girls is usually due to weak character and general unfitness to cope with the world. To sum up: This Hebrew word, cha-yil, used over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible, signifies “force,” “strength,” “ability.” But in every instance where it relates to women, and nowhere else, is it translated “virtue,” i.e. “chastity.”
Some translations now reflect this.
  • a virtuous woman KJV
  • a worthy woman NRSV, ESV
  • a woman of worth RSV
  • a woman of excellence NASB
  • a woman of noble character TNIV
  • what a courageous woman you are--a real prize! The Message
  • also honorable, respected, fine, etc.
I'm not sure if a woman wants to be a prize. How about "what a strong woman you are - a real treasure!" Actually the TNIV probably has it right this time. She is a woman of noble character.

I was challenged last month, when we were reading and discussing Eph. 5:22-33 to come up with some Biblical thoughts on the relationships described in Ephesians. I feel that the story of Ruth has shed some light on this for me. People are to be subject to their hesed relationships, in a reciprocal manner. They are to show covenant kindness and loyalty to each other.

In the story of Ruth, men and woman equally make their own decisions, provide for and protect others, initiate action and sacrifice for those that they are in relationship with. In the context of a male headship agrarian society, where men own both land and women, the women are strong - they function within this context, as actors with the characteristic of strength. Ruth leaves her own country, provides for Naomi, marries a man who will enable her to honour her first husband's family, and in a final act, takes her first born son and gives him to Naomi to name and feed at her own breast. It is an amazing story.


At Sun Jul 01, 06:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops... I think my comment went under the girl blogger post instead of the "cha-yil" post.

At Sun Jul 01, 03:59:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

I think I translated eshet-hhayil as "woman of valour" but "woman of fortitude" came a close second. A dear friend of mine simply translates it "A Real Woman."


At Mon Jul 02, 06:26:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The trouble with "A Real Woman" is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Sadly, some men will understand it as meaning a beautiful, submissive and probably empty-headed woman - not the kind I am interested in!

At Mon Jul 02, 08:35:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Peter, you have a point, but "A Real Woman" was only the translation of 2 words. If you read the rest of her work, I don't think empty-headedness would be a problem.


At Mon Jul 02, 11:34:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks, the JPS 1917 has "virtuous women" for Ruth but "woman of valour" for Prov. 31.

I have just picked up an excellent book on Prov. 31 which I may blog about next.

Unfortuantely, REAL Women is the name of a Canadian Lobby group with a stand against providing easy access to divorce.

They have a negative stand on abortion, affirmative action, equal pay for work of equal value, etc. but no position whatsoever on family violence.

At Mon Jul 02, 02:51:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

REAL Women is the name of a Canadian Lobby group ...

Oh dear! My comment turned out more serious than even I expected! Do these "REAL Women" really do their own lobbying, or do their husbands do all the work and make their wives sign the letters etc?

At Mon Jul 02, 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Beyond Words said...

One of my prize possessions is an original piece of art my sister gave me, by Jewish artist Gad Almaliah. It is metal and calligraphy, in Hebrew and English of Proverbs 31, A Woman of VALOR. You can view it here:

Sometimes when I get tired of the gender roles rhetoric, I gaze at the word "valor."

God knows.

At Mon Jul 02, 04:13:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have sympathy with some of the concerns of REAL women, but they do only represent a certain group of women.

The book I just bought is called The Song of the Valiant Woman by Al Wolter. I think I'll blog about it for a while.


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