Hebrew In Israel | Woman Of Valour – Learn Torah

"A woman of valour who can find? for her price is far above rubies." Proverbs 31:10

woman of valor, Proverbs 31,

Hebrew In Israel | Woman Of Valour – Learn Torah

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We all know the famous “Eshet Chayil” of Proverbs 31:10.  Commonly it is translated as “Woman of Valour” to indicate great deeds.  The text does go ahead and give us a long list of deeds which this woman does.  The same attribute is also used to describe men of great deeds such as Exodus 18:21.


וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת, שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת

But you should choose from among all the people competent men who are God-fearing, honest and incorruptible to be their leaders, in charge of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”  Genesis 47:6

אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפָנֶיךָ הִוא-בְּמֵיטַב הָאָרֶץ, הוֹשֵׁב אֶת-אָבִיךָ וְאֶת-אַחֶיךָ יֵשְׁבוּ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן. וְאִם יָדַעְתָּ וְיֶשׁ בָּם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל, וְשַׂמְתָּם שָׂרֵי מִקְנֶה עַל-אֲשֶׁר-לִי

and the land of Egypt lies before you.  Have your father and brothers live on the best property in the country — let them live in the land of Goshen.  Moreover, if you know that some of them are particularly competent, put them in charge of my livestock.

 

Word Meaning

Before we start, it must be pointed out that the root ח.י.ל like many words in Hebrew has more than one meaning.  The devision must be between the substantive use and the genitive use.  Chayil is mostly used to describe armies or bounty/financial strength.  However, as a secondary use (semantic disposition) it refers more to the action principle as it covers more than just military or financial strength.  For physical strength and warrior ideas, the word גיבור (Hero) or the genitive construction איש מלחמה (man of war) would be much more suitable when trying to describe a warrior type.  It is also important to remember that military ideas and metaphors are not found in the Bible when it comes to women.  Hence the only possible interpretation has to be limited to a specific grouping of actions and attributes.

To understand the woman described in Proverbs we have to focus on the secondary use of the word.

The two common aspects of a person of valour in the Biblical text are:

a. The best choice for any necessary action

b. Full loyalty and trust

However there is a problem.  The word used as the attribute for the woman does not mean valour as mental or physical state.  חיל-Chayil in this use is more commonly used in Biblical Hebrew to indicate the result of a productive action, or a treasure/valued item one may have.  This is clearly the case of the description in Proverbs 32 where a long list of actions are given to us.  The woman of valour is actually a woman of swift action who is able to do many deeds which have an outcome of tangible results. 

Other examples of Chayil as a physical result of someone’s deeds (i.e wealth due to one’s actions) can be found in:

Numbers 31:9

וַיִּשְׁבּוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-נְשֵׁי מִדְיָן, וְאֶת-טַפָּם; וְאֵת כָּל-בְּהֶמְתָּם וְאֶת-כָּל-מִקְנֵהֶם וְאֶת-כָּל-חֵילָם, בָּזָזוּ

The people of Isra’el took captive the women of Midyan and their little ones, and they took as booty all their cattle, flocks and other goods

Isaiah 30:6

מַשָּׂא בַּהֲמוֹת נֶגֶב:  בְּאֶרֶץ צָרָה וְצוּקָה לָבִיא וָלַיִשׁ מֵהֶם, אֶפְעֶה וְשָׂרָף מְעוֹפֵף, יִשְׂאוּ עַל-כֶּתֶף עֲיָרִים חֵילֵהֶם וְעַל-דַּבֶּשֶׁת גְּמַלִּים אוֹצְרֹתָם, עַל-עַם לֹא יוֹעִילו

A prophecy about the animals in the Negev:  In a land of trouble and anguish, of lionesses and roaring lions, of vipers and poisonous flying serpents, they carry their riches on donkeys’ backs and their treasures on camels’ humps to a people who will not help them.

Zechariah 14:1

וְגַם-יְהוּדָה–תִּלָּחֵם, בִּירוּשָׁלִָם; וְאֻסַּף חֵיל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם סָבִיב, זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּבְגָדִים–לָרֹב מְאֹד

Y’hudah too will fight against Yerushalayim; and the wealth of all the nations will be assembled — gold, silver and clothing in great abundance.

 

As a result of this one can reject the idea that the word is an attribute of the person, and should change it to being an adjective which is a result of their actions.  This result is evaluated by the viewer and is given from their perspective as an evaluation of action.  Hence it is not the woman who is the Chayil.  The Chayil stands by itself, while the woman is the causing noun of the Chayil, and the Chayil is attributed to her by the construction of the Chayil to the noun Woman.  This can be to some degree the Biblical version of the saying “actions speak louder than words”.  This does not mean that the speaker is unaware of the positive attributes the woman has, but is is more a matter of perspective and what is emphasised by the speaker.

 

The case of Ruth – Subjective vs. Objective

An interesting case is found in Ruth 2:11. 

וַיַּעַן בֹּעַז, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ-הֻגֵּד הֻגַּד לִי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-עָשִׂית אֶת-חֲמוֹתֵךְ, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אִישֵׁךְ; וַתַּעַזְבִי אָבִיךְ וְאִמֵּךְ, וְאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֵּךְ, וַתֵּלְכִי, אֶל-עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעַתְּ תְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם

“Bo‘az answered her, “I’ve heard the whole story, everything you’ve done for your mother-in-law since your husband died, including how you left your father and mother and the land you were born in to come to a people about whom you knew nothing beforehand.”

 

Ruth was considered an Eshet Chayil but what is interesting is that she was as such in relation to Boaz.  Her fame of being a woman of action is in direct relation to her loyalty to Boaz and his family.  She did not abandon her mother in law, and remained loyal to Boaz and his field.  Hence she is a treasure to Boaz, not a treasure standing by itself.  Her value is measured by the eye of Boaz, and is not an objective perspective, but rather subjective to how she is perceived by others.  Hence Ruth is of importance and a treasure to her family due to her deeds.  Modern day people would consider this inappropriate, but we cannot judge the past based on our modern day ideas. 

 

Conclusion 

The conclusion of the above is that it is possible to argue that an Eshet Chayil by no means is not a woman of valour, but that the concept was used to indicate that for the husband or family she is a treasure.  Her deeds are not overlooked, but the focus is the reaction of others to her.

 

Sources: 

Cohen C. משמעים שנולדו מתוך טעות (Meanings created due to mistakes), in Sa’arey Lashon A, Jerusalem, 2008 pp.32-36

Kedar M.T, מילון העברית המקראית, Ramat Gan, 2007, pp.295-297

 

Originally Published:  7 February 2017

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