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Monday, July 16, 2007

Song of a Valiant Woman: 9

I haven't yet addressed whether the woman in Prov. 31 should be called a "woman" or a "wife". In Hebrew and Greek as well as French and German this distinction is not necessary. Most Bibles, however, call this woman a "wife" - the only exception I note is the JPS. (I would like to explain that the only reason I do not quote the NJPS is that I do not have a copy at this time.)

Looking at this passage from an historic point of view, it would be easy to say that the primary role of the Jewish woman was to be a wife and bear sons, and point out that this passage refers to finding a wife. However, it is not so simple. Ruth was an אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל ishet hayyel, as a widow. That is, the woman has these characteristics already and this made her desirable as a wife. Rahab also had the most basic characteristic of the אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל which is חֶסֶד hesed, kindness.

Other Jewish woman were respected aside from their marital arrangements - Miriam and Deborah are the most obvious. In the Christian scriptures there are Mary, Martha, Phoebe, Lydia and others. They are economically viable. Miriam was a midwife. There seems to be a distinct role for the Jewish woman as a benefactress and healer.

The most stereotypic recent example of this would be Rebecca, the beautiful Jewish healer of Scott's epic Ivanhoe. I mentioned this book to a Jewish friend of mine who immediately identified it as her favourite book as a young girl. Here is an assessment of Rebecca on The Curious Jew,
    The spirited, beautiful, magnaminous Jewess Scott creates is perhaps the most intriguing Jewish character I have ever come across. Incredibly different from Isaac of York or the other Jews and Jewesses she cites throughout the book, she is the flame, the spirit, the brilliance of the Jewish people. She is courageous, she helps Ivanhoe and loves him (though she should not) and parts from him, allowing him to wed Rowena, even though she herself loves him. She upholds her religion in all situations. Truly, she must be the epitome of the literary Judaic characters! I have not yet seen one more cleverly crafted than she. Hurrah for Scott! And hurrah for the Jewess!
There is also a Rebecca Gratz, who, according to legend, served as the model for Scott's Rebecca. Rebecca Gratz did not marry.
    When she was 20, she organized the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children of Reduced Circumstances in Philadelphia. She served as its first secretary and was a motivating force in its administration and in raising much needed funds. Gratz was also one of the founders of the nonsectarian Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, chartered in 1815 and served as its secretary for more than 40 years.

    Sensing that there was a further need to service the needy and the unfortunate in the Jewish community, she organized and founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819. She created the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum in 1855 and led in the establishment of the Fuel Society and the Sewing Society.

    While she was involved with these charitable organizations, she also managed to raise the nine children of her sister, Rachel, who died in 1823.

One of my concerns is to demonstrate that when using this passage in a sermon, it is quite appropriate to explain the double meaning of אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל, as both as wife and woman. Wolters summarizes his first chapter,
    On an overt and explicit level the Song of a Valiant Woman constitutes a critique of the literature in praise of women which was prevalent in the ancient Near East. As a distinct tradition, this literature was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the physical charms of women from an erotic point of view - in a word their sex appeal. Against the ideal of feminine perfection reflected in this widespread erotic poetry, which was cultivated in the context of royal courts and harems, the acrostic poem glorifies the active good works of a woman in the ordinary affairs of family, community, and business life - good works which for all their earthliness are rooted in the fear of the Lord.
This passage represents women as strong, economically viable, benefactors, wise teachers, and kind. It also represents women as supportive wives. It shows the full range from practical competence to benevolence and wisdom. There is a hint of the polarity that I have been struggling with in other posts.

Addendum: ElShaddai notes that Gary Zimmerli is opting for the HCSB these days. I follow his posts with interest. Here is a limited survey for אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל ishah hayyel in the HCSB and a few others.

Prov. 31:10 "a capable wife"
Ruth 3:11 "a woman of noble character" HCSB

Prov. 31:10 "excellent wife"
Ruth 3:11"worthy woman" ESV

Prov. 31:10 "wife of noble character"
Ruth 3:11 "woman of noble character" TNIV

Prov. 31:10 "a woman of valour"
Ruth 3:11 "a virtuous woman" JPS

The TNIV still impresses me but I haven't seen the NJPS.

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1 Comments:

At Tue Jul 17, 02:53:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Surely the translation must be "wife" rather than "woman" because her husband is later mentioned. If you translate just "woman" you end up stereotyping all "valiant" women as necessarily married.

Here is the NJPS Tanakh version of the song:

10 What a rare find is a capable wife!
Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
11 Her husband puts his confidence in her,
And lacks no good thing.
12 She is good to him, never bad,
All the days of her life.
13 She looks for wool and flax,
And sets her hand to them with a will.
14 She is like a merchant fleet,
Bringing her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night,
And supplies provisions for her household,
The daily fare of her maids.
16 She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;
She plants a vineyard by her own labors.
17 She girds herself with strength,
[c-]And performs her tasks with vigor.[-c]
18 She sees[d] that her business thrives;
Her lamp never goes out at night.
19 She sets her hand to the distaff;
Her fingers work the spindle.
20 She gives generously to the poor;
Her hands are stretched out to the needy.
21 She is not worried for her household because of snow,
For her whole household is dressed in crimson.
22 She makes covers for herself;
Her clothing is linen and purple.
23 Her husband is prominent in the gates,
As he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes cloth and sells it,
And offers a girdle to the merchant.
25 She is clothed with strength and splendor;
She looks to the future cheerfully.
26 Her mouth is full of wisdom,
Her tongue with kindly teaching.
27 She oversees the activities of her household
And never eats the bread of idleness.
28 Her children declare her happy;
Her husband praises her,
29 “Many women have done well,
But you surpass them all.”
30 Grace is deceptive,
Beauty is illusory;
It is for her fear of the Lord
That a woman is to be praised.
31 Extol her for the fruit of her hand,
And let her works praise her in the gates.

[c-c] Lit. "And exerts her arms."
[d] Lit. "tastes."

 

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