September 19, 2021
In 1975, the United Nations declared it the International Women’s Year. The General Assembly wanted to highlight all the gains women had made in the progress toward equality, from Switzerland granting women the right to vote in 1971, to women getting the right to apply for their own credit card without their husband’s signature, to all the other progress that had been made and all the progress that could be made. Well, in commemoration for the International Women’s Year, the women of Iceland decided to do something big.
See, in 1975, Icelandic women earned only 60% of what their male counterparts made for the same work. But women were also culturally expected to be the main ones taking care of the home—raising the kids, cleaning the house, keeping up with the chores, that kind of thing. So in 1975, a movement gained steam for women to stage a “walk out” of all kinds of work. On October 24 at 2:05, 90% of the women in Iceland stopped working for the rest of the day. The whole country saw exactly how much it relied on the hard work of women to function, and by the following year, the parliament passed equal pay for equal work.
Throughout history, women have been the major movers and shakers, the power behind the throne. They have been expected to hold the household together, to raise the kids, to keep the home economy afloat, and to do all the less glamorous work that makes the glamorous stuff even possible. Hardworking, hyperintelligent women are the reason we were able to put a man on the moon. Dedicated, hardworking mothers are the reason so many of our homes were stable places to grow up. Every man in history from Leo Tolstoy to Andrew Carnegie to Woodrow Wilson relied on the hard work of the women in their lives to make their own successes possible.
And in the Bible, there is this remarkable chapter of Proverbs that gives voice to that kind of woman. This chapter that proclaims and celebrates the “capable wife,” as our translation calls it. But, while I might go off into my nerdy corner about language sometimes, I think we should hold tightly to the original Hebrew and use its much deeper meaning to know what this scripture is talking about, and what it tells us.
See, the word used is eshet chayil: eshet meaning “woman,” and in some contexts “wife;” and chayil, which is a much harder word to translate. Chayil is above all a military word, describing power, ability, wisdom, or valor. When the Bible says this woman is an eshet chayil, it’s saying this woman is an absolute force of nature. She is unstoppable. She can do whatever she sets her mind to. She is a force to be reckoned with. And she is a power unto herself—all you can do is grab her coattails and hope for the best.
Which is so different from a lot of traditional interpretations of “The Proverbs 31 Woman,” which where I’m from often has this flavor of describing what every young woman should aspire to be for her future husband. In that interpretation, the eshet chayil is the way she is not for her own sake, but for the sake of her husband. And I want us to push back on that understanding.
This eshet chayil is a description of an ideal for a particular situation. See, Proverbs was a book written for the young men at court, the up-and-coming politicians and power players in the Israelite elite scene. This description of an impossibly powerful, industrious, intelligent and ambitious woman was an ideal for these young men to find in a wife who would help them climb the social ladder. It’s important for us, then, to set aside the kind of objective use of a woman’s phenomenal capabilities for something so small as just her husband’s career that this text was historically used for. But that doesn’t mean it’s without worth.
The thing about ideals is, they generally don’t exist in reality. Even the first line acknowledges that: “An eshet chayil, who can find?” We’re set up to know that this isn’t a realistic expectation for even one, let alone all, women. But it is an ideal. And ideals exist to be strived for, to give us something to aim at. All of the eshet chayil’s qualities are good things to work toward, because even making progress toward that ideal is a move to be better. But the truth is, we all know an eshet chayil, or at least someone who gets close to those qualities.
It’s the person who is the hard worker, who knows what needs to be done and works toward it. They’re the schedule-keeper, the one who lines up all the meals for the week or plans out all the family vacations. They’re the one who everyone knows will get the work project done and can be relied upon to attend to all the little details. They’re the one we all trust to do what they say they’ll do.
But that also means, crucially, that not all of us are eshet chayils. Not everyone has those qualities to be super industrious, to “consider a field and buy it,” or always have those perfectly obedient children and the well-run household (or whatever its metaphorical equivalent is in your life)—let alone the resources or ability to get those kinds of skills. Some of us have the role of the husband and children in our Proverbs text. Some of us are called not to be the eshet chayil, but to support, cheer on, and show our appreciation however we can for the eshet chayils in our lives, to “praise them at the city gates.” Because God makes both kinds of people, and if God makes both kinds, then we need both kinds.
We need the kind of person who is the go-getter, the ideas person, the one who can find the problem and figure out the solution. And we need the person who will follow that person’s lead, doing the tasks that would be too numerous for just one person to take care of. We need people who will acknowledge and lift up those eshet chayils in our midst so they know they’re actually appreciated, and we’re not just silently letting them do all the work as if we were in a high school group project.
God sets up this ideal of the eshet chayil and shows us what it looks like in Proverbs. And God calls on us to figure out who those people are in our midst, and listen to them. Because we’re all called to serve the kingdom, to share God’s goodness with the world in what we say and what we do, but we’re also called to each do it in the unique way that God has called us to do it. So maybe you’re an eshet chayil, or maybe you’re someone meant to cheer them on and help them in their work. But either way, we are all called to serve others in the way that God has blessed us to serve. May that help us share God’s kingdom, God’s grace, and God’s love in our midst.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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