“Who can find a virtuous woman?”: Proverbs 31 as you’ve never understood it before


*NOTE: To all of the men reading this, the information here influences your life as much as it does a woman’s. For your sake (and for the sake of the women in your life), please keep reading!


We were gearing up to sing “I Will Be What I Believe” last week in Primary. At the end it splits so half of the children sing the chorus and the other half sing “Armies of Helaman,” and they wanted to divide into girls and boys for it. I agreed to their request, then on principle told the girls they would be singing the Armies part. Every single boy (and even a few girls) in the room balked at that suggestion—why on earth would you have girls sing the part that is so clearly for boys?


To be fair, the stripling warriors mentioned in the song were boys, so perhaps that played into their expectations. And historically, aside from anomalies like Joan of Arc, males have been the soldiers. They’ve been the protectors, the conquerors, the heroes.


But the author of Proverbs tells of a different kind of warrior.


Background of Proverbs 31:10

“Who can find a virtuous woman?” the King James Version says. “For her price is far above rubies.”


This verse is in my scriptural Hall of Fame (and soon you'll know why). It is so meaningful to me that one of my prized possessions is this verse on a page from an original Geneva Bible, a translation of the Old and New Testaments that was published over a half century before the KJV and the version taken by the pilgrims on the Mayflower.



It is so significant to me that made a large plaque for my bedroom that says the first phrase in Hebrew. Every single time I look at it I'm reminded of what this verse means to me, and, more importantly, about me.





Here are a few pieces of information about the second half of Proverbs 31 that are of note:


The twenty verses that follow "Who shall find a virtuous woman" detail what a virtuous woman does with her life. This block of scripture is traditionally sung each week by Jewish men in honor of womanhood as part of welcoming in the Sabbath.


In Hebrew, it is an acrostic poem where the first letter of each verse begins with the succeeding letter of the alphabet. [i]


According to a Jewish interpretive text, Midrash Tanchuma [ii], Abraham said these words in memorial of Sarah after she died.


"Eshet Chayil"

Proverbs 31:10 has a good message as we are used to reading it in the KJV. But to read it in Hebrew is illuminating—a different translation of the words completely changes the meaning of “woman of virtue.”


The phrase is eshet chayil (EH-shet chah-YEEL, with a gutteral ch in the back of your throat as in Bach); the first word means woman or wife, and the second is usually translated in the Bible with a martial undertone, specifically as army or valiant. According to one Jewish scholar, this fictional but exemplary woman is “a heroic figure, a kind of domestic warrior.” [iii] In its literal sense, the phrase is rendered woman of valor.


This verse could be more authentically translated, “Who can find a woman of valor? For her worth is far beyond jewels.”

"Who can find a woman of valor? For her worth is far beyond jewels." (Proverbs 31:10, literal translation)

(So yes, primary boys, according to the scriptures women are brave and powerful soldiers, too!)


The woman of valor

What does it mean to be a woman of valor—a warrior woman? The author of Proverbs describes her in detail. Of course, context plays an important role here, as is explained by Aya Baron:


“Imagining this prayer in its original context, a time in which domestic labor was the primary way for women to express their value, it remarkably and beautifully honors unseen labor performed in the home. … This prayer captures a snapshot of a time when its recitation was a meaningful way for women to be seen and honored for their service.” [iv]


Below I’ve loosely summarized each verse of the Eshet Chayil in an effort to accurately describe the woman of valor while also bridging that cultural gap so that it better reflects womanhood today:

  • A woman of valor is trustworthy (verse 11) and honorable (12).

  • She seeks out and willingly engages to make her sphere a better place (13), and will go to any lengths to do it (14).

  • She sacrifices her own comforts to provide for others in her care (15).

  • She is a woman savvy in the ways of business and finances (16).

  • She takes care of her body so it can be strong and productive (17).

  • She is confident in the quality of what she produces (18).

  • She is wise in her domestic duties (19).

  • Her heart notices and has compassion for those who are suffering (20).

  • She is prepared for emergencies (21).

  • She shows up in the world in a way that expresses her inner dignity and worth (22).

  • This woman’s hard work and character support her loved ones, and they can freely go about their responsibilities and hold their heads high (23).

  • She uses her gifts and talents to provide stability for herself and her family (24).

  • Her inner strength allows her to not fear the future, whatever comes (25).

  • This woman is wise and kind (26).

  • She avoids idleness (27).

  • Her efforts and her goodness are recognized (28).

  • She stands out as a woman who knows her worth and who lives valiantly—she is heroic in her own right (29).

  • She focuses on things that last longest and matter most (30).

  • Her works speak for themselves, yet she deserves to feel seen and honored for all she does (31).


This is quite a long list of amazing qualities, right?!


In its attempt to praise women, however, this set of verses sometimes does reverse damage and leaves me feeling like a failure. How could I ever live up to such an idealized portrait of womanhood? As a result, I become paralyzed by the overwhelming expectations placed on me and I end up doing nothing. (I know Jewish women who feel the same way, and who dread this being sung in their honor each week. It reminds me of how Mother’s Day leaves many women feeling worse about themselves instead of better.)


But I just can’t imagine this is the effect the writer of Proverbs was going for. Right? So are there better ways could we approach this set of verses?


PARADIGM SHIFT ONE

What if the woman of valor isn’t created by doing all of those things, but by doing any of them? Focus on and give yourself credit for all the things you are doing!


Women: Is there a description or two from those verses that you feel you are good at?


Men: Which of the descriptions are accurate about a woman? You can probably see far more of them in her than she can in herself.


PARADIGM SHIFT TWO

Perhaps this is just one way to be a woman of valor. Each woman brings her own unique talents and experiences to the mix, and her own set of verses could be written. This his list clearly isn’t exhaustive! For example, it doesn’t even mention having or taking care of children (except that they rise up and call her blessed at the end), which was anciently viewed as the crowning blessing women offered the world.


Women: In what ways not mentioned in Proverbs 31 have you shown up as a woman of valor? (Skills, talents, opportunities you've chosen to take, etc.)


Men: In what ways not mentioned here has a woman you love shown she is a woman of valor?


PARADIGM SHIFT THREE

As with all things spiritual, we need to remember that in the Lord’s eyes our efforts matter more than our successes. [v] Please, please, please give yourself grace!


Women: What efforts are you making to be a woman of valor? How can you be more compassionate toward yourself in this area?


Men: How can you acknowledge the efforts a woman you love puts forward to make a difference in herand yourworld?


PARADIGM SHIFT FOUR

Ultimately, no matter where you currently are on your journey, you can choose to develop valiant characteristics and to courageously step into the battles you face.


Women: What single characteristic of a warrior woman (listed in Proverbs or not) do you feel would most benefit your life? What is a step you can take toward developing it?


Men: How can you support a woman you love as she consciously tries to grow herself?


The Battlefield

One of my favorite pieces of art is a painting of a woman dressed in leather battle garb, holding a spear in one hand, a torch in the other, and protecting a young girl with her body. She is the woman of valor I imagine as I read these verses. She’s the woman I want to be: drawing all of my courage and skills together to defend the vulnerable and to fight for the Lord, despite my inadequacies and fears.


"Modern-day Mother in Zion," Anita Mae Hart-Carroll (1955), churchofjesuschrist.org

Our most important wars are those where we fight for things that are eternal: families, truths, and freedoms. These struggles are against powers of darkness seeking to annihilate those blessings, and the threat is as real as any war waged on earth. “We cannot sign on for [battles of] eternal significance and everlasting consequence without knowing it will be a fight,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland declared. But he with conviction he added that the Lord’s warriors can have confidence that it will be “a good fight and a winning fight.” [vi]


Some of the wars we fight together, and others we fight alone. Either way, the Lord promises to be with us on our battlefields. [vii] Like the stripling warriors we may be exhausted, battered, and wounded [viii]—but in the end we, too, will come off conquerors. [ix]


You are a woman of valor!

Men, please go out of your way to praise the women in your life for the ways they show up as warriors. Consciously seek to notice how a woman makes your life and the world a better place, and then tell her. Express your gratitude for her courage and goodness. Treat her in ways that show you value her as a woman of valor.


Women, each of you is a soldier, a protector, and a conqueror. There is no one right way to be a woman of valor. Single or married, a mother or grandmother or no children, working outside the home, volunteering, rich, poor, stellar, regular. God endows you with His power as you keep your covenants with Him. As His daughter, you are worth more than all the gems on the planet, and the unique ways you bless the world with your heart, talents, and skills are immeasurable. Don’t rely on others to tell you that, though—take it to Him and come to believe it for yourself, then step into your power and radiate your amazing light. You are already doing so much better than you think you are!


You are a hero, a true eshet chayil.


So carry on, warrior woman! “On, on to the victory!” [x]








Notes

[i] An acrostic in English would be set up this way: the first line starts with a word beginning with an A, the second with a B, and so on until the letter Z on the last line.

[ii] Midrashim are rabbinic philosophical or hypothetical explanations of and expositions on the stories found in the Hebrew bible. Midrash Tanchuma focuses on stories found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).

[iii] Dr. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: The Writings, p. 451

[iv] “Background Information on Eshet Chayil,” Jewish Women’s Archive, jwa.org

[v] See D&C 46:9; President Russell M. Nelson, “An Especially Noble Calling” (video portion), April 2020.

[vi] “Cast Not Away Therefore Thy Confidence,” BYU Devotional Address, 2 March 1999; qtd. in Ensign, 2000.

[vii] See, for example, Isaiah 41:10; D&C 84:88

[viii] Alma 57:25

[ix] Romans 8:37

[x] D&C 128:22