Recently, in the God’s Design course, we explored some of the incredible women of the Old Testament and how God used them in unexpected ways – women like Deborah (with a glance at Jael), Huldah and Abigail.
We also took a close look at the Hebrew term eshet chayil. In most translations, we read “a wife of noble character,” “a virtuous wife” or something very similar. You’ll find it in Ruth 3:11, Prov 12:4, and Prov 31:10.
Bear with me while we take a look at the meaning of these two Hebrew words. Eshet is a form of the Hebrew isha, meaning woman or wife. While the context in which eshet chayil is used in Proverbs 31 tells us the passage is speaking of a wife, in Ruth, Boaz uses this term when Ruth is still a widow, not a wife. The way in which it’s still used in Jewish communities to this day indicates that it is taken to be inclusive of any women or girls, irrespective of marital status. This phrase has something to say to all of God’s women.
Chayil is a particularly interesting word. Look it up in your concordance, and you’ll find there are many instances of this word to compare and find the meaning – you could almost say we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to this word. Definitions include:
- strongest defenders
- fighting men
- brave warriors
- very capable men
- valiant soldier
- mighty men
- military leaders
However, in the three instances where chayil is combined with eshet, you’ll find that the translation given is “noble,” “virtuous,” or similar. In the verses where this word applies to men, there’s not a single occasion where the translators use “noble” or “virtuous.” It’s not that “noble” or “virtuous” are not suitable ways to describe men, but rather, that these are not the most accurate translations of this word. Neither am I saying that women should not be called “noble” or “virtuous,” but again, this is not what the Hebrew text says.
Hold on a minute! Are the biblical writers using a very military, powerful and – dare I say it? – manly concept to describe women? What’s going on here?
Women are part of the people of God. We’re not excluded when God repeatedly gives His people instructions like, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of (your enemies), for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6). “Be strong and courageous” occurs 11 times in the Old Testament, to individuals and to God’s people as a whole. God doesn’t say, “Men, be strong and courageous. Women, make sure you’re carefully protected, stay in the background, and be gentle and quiet. Let men be your strength.” (That would be to invite men to usurp Christ’s place in our lives.)
No, “be strong and courageous” applies equally to women. We need courage to face the everyday challenges of life, big and small; to confront our own inner demons; to stand for Christ in a culture which opposes and ridicules our faith; to choose faith, hope and life over despair and cynicism; to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us; to put our trust in Christ alone rather than in our material blessings, skills or relationships; to hear God’s calling on our lives and pursue it, however difficult it may be.
A better translation for eshet chayil is “woman of valour.” Noble character is a good thing, in a man or a woman. Virtue is an equally good thing, in a man or a woman. But these particular verses call God’s women to stand up and be counted as courageous warriors of God.
Look out for Eshet Chayil (Part 2) next week.