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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Song of a Valiant Woman: 5

Drew Kaplan writes about the eshet hayil as a woman of substance. According to Christine Yoder this best captures the qualities of "strength and capacity, wealth and skill". Her article provides a socioeconomic reading of the passage and certainly widens the discussion.

At this point I still prefer the perspective of narrative criticism, which I would have to admit is more familiar to me, but I found that Yoder brought a lot of new insights to the discussion. There is no sense in which the two approaches are mutually exclusive. I also had time to read Waltke's commentary on this chapter. He stands very much in the narrative tradition and accords strongly with Wolters' approach.

Wolters continues,
    Heroic poetry typically describes the exploits of men belonging to an aristocratic class in which honour and individual initiative rank high on the scale of values. The hero is typically a nobleman. So too the valiant woman of Proverbs 31 is clearly a wealthy lady of the upper classes.

    All these traits in the poem give us reason to suppose that the Valiant Woman is deliberately described in terms borrowed from a tradition of heroic poetry.
So Wolters argues that the primary sense of the language of this poem denotes heroic prowess and applies to a class of individuals who would be noble and possess military strength. If the primary understanding is that of class, it is easy to see why the woman would be attributed characteristics belonging equally to the males of her class. The purpose is not to define the wife as distinct from her husband in quality but the same. She is worthy of him because she has the same qualities of strength, honour and wisdom.

This is typical of a class-based society. I would argue that it in a society in which the notion of class is no longer openly acknowledged as a value, the distinction between men and women is thrown into deeper contrast. In a class-based society, royalty must marry royalty and a nobleman seeks to marry a noblewoman.

The way in which this woman is distinct from her husband is that she generates the economic base for the family and creates wealth to support her husband who sits in the gates. In this sense she could be considered a woman of substance. However, I would argue that hayil refers to the quality which makes her equal to and the same as her husband. They are both hayil, or noble in quality, of the warrior class.

So, although this woman is indeed a woman of substance, I would hesitate to use that as the primary translation for hayil. She generates wealth because she is hayil, rather than the other way around. She not only provides for her family but she assists the poor and needy, and wisdom and the law of lovingkindness are on her tongue.

Certainly, hayil may mean strength, courage, nobility, wealth, wisdom, even academic accomplishments in different societies - whatever is most valued as capital at the time. The most basic meaning of hayil might actually be virtue, not in the sense of chastity but in the sense of excellence or arete in Greek. However, if one defines the poem as heroic, which it seems to be from the use of the vocabulary of aggression found in the poem, then the primary sense of this word would be 'heroic', 'noble'or 'valiant'.

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