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There is a lot of interest in the feminine imagery in the first nine chapters of Proverbs, especially the figure of "Lady Wisdom".

The book also ends with attention to a female figure. The last passage of the book, Proverbs 31:10-31, sometimes referred to as "Ode to a Capable Wife" (or "Valiant Woman"), reflects on the ʾēšet ḥayīl [אֵשֶׁת־חַיִל] -- although how to translate even this phrase is not straightforward.

But is that poem describing a "real", human wife? or is it part of the symbolic world found in Proverbs 1-9, where voices of "Lady Wisdom" and "Lady Folly" are heard (see especially Proverbs 9:1-6 + 13-18)? In other words, was the Proverbs 31 poem intended as a reflection on an "ideal woman/wife", or is she more symbolic, like "Lady Wisdom"?

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The Book of Proverbs appears to be a compilation of material from different sources and different periods, so that what we find in one part of the book may be quite independent of material elsewhere in the same book. The imagery in Proverbs chapter 31 is different to that in Proverbs 1-9, where personified 'Wisdom' is to be seen as a post-Exilic spirit/goddess that some scholars believe to have evolved from the pre-Exilic goddess Asherah.

In Proverbs 31:10, we find the key to the imagery in the chapter:

Proverbs 31:10: Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

What follows is advice about finding a virtuous woman: what to look for in a perfect wife. Her virtues include trustworthiness (31:11), doing good for her husband (31:12), work ethic (31:13-16) and so on. Such will be her virtues that her children will call her blessed and her husband praise her (31:28). 'Solomon' concludes with the advice to look after and encourage a wife like this:

Proverbs 31:31: Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

This is not a description so much of a 'real', identifiable woman but of an ideal wife. As with much of the Book of Proverbs, verses 31:10-31 are wise advice that is as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago.

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  • Excellent answer. I have just one question about the first part. Why do scholars think that the Wisdom personification from chapters 1-9 might derive from the goddess Asherah? I would think that whoever is writing Proverbs (traditionally held to be Solomon, but if not him then surely some religious scribe) would go well out of their way to avoid comparisons with idols.
    – ktm5124
    Feb 5 '17 at 4:32
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    Hi @ktm5124 and thank you for your interest. Wisdom as a spirit/goddess is found not only in Proverbs but in later intertestimental books and even in Luke 7:35: "But wisdom is justified of all her children." The post-Exilic scribes may not have been conscious of the evolution from Asherah to Wisdom, but they did reflect the beliefs of their times. Feb 5 '17 at 5:43
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Conclusion

The Valiant Wife of Proverbs 31 is symbolic. She was the betrothed Lady of Wisdom who married the King.

A King who learns wisdom will choose a wife who has wisdom. Lady Wisdom is the Ideal Wife. When Lady Wisdom accepts and becomes his wife, she must become the Valiant Wife. Together they are symbolic of the Messianic reign of the King and His Valiant Wife.

Connections to Lady Wisdom

While not in the section of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly of Chapter 9, there are several aspects which identify the Valiant Wife as the Lady of Wisdom. The most obvious is what the Valiant Wife does:

Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kindly teaching. (31:26 JPS) 1

The Valiant Wife speaks wisdom; like the Lady of Wisdom who called and raised her voice (8:1) to all mankind (8:4), spoke of noble and upright things (8:6), uttered truth (8:7) with just words (8:8). Both women have mouths full of wisdom and both women teach.

Besides speaking wisdom and teaching both women have the same "merchandise" (סַחַר):

Lady Wisdom:
For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. (3:14 KJV)

Valiant Wife:
She perceives that her merchandise is good, and her lamp does not go out by night. (31:18)

Merchandise is סַחַר which means gain or profit resulting from merchandise. The emphasis is on the profit from an activity. [H5504-cachar] Wisdom is both the merchandise and the gain. Elsewhere this word is only found in Isaiah where it is also personified as befitting the women of Proverbs:

And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the LORD: it shall not be treasured nor laid up; for her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before the LORD, to eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing. (Isaiah 23:18 KJV)

Another similarity is that the Valiant Wife has the same value as the Lady of Wisdom:

Lady Wisdom:
She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her. (3:15)
For wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her. (8:11)

Valiant Wife:
Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. (31:10)

Finally, how Wisdom is introduced and is the personification of the first woman is the final attribute of the Valiant Wife:

Lady Wisdom:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (1:7)
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. (2:5)
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (9:10)

Valiant Wife:
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, And let her own works praise her in the gates. (31:30-31)

The Valiant Wife is a woman who fears the LORD; the same quality as Lady Wisdom. The rationale of Proverbs is a spiral. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD which, for one who is wise, must be the end of wisdom. For the King and the woman there is a logical conclusion. Lady Wisdom would make the ideal wife and when married, would be the Valiant Wife. If King Lemuel is wise, the woman he chooses as wife will be the ideal woman, Lady Wisdom.

However, Lady Wisdom being wise must have a wise husband. In particular one who has learned her wisdom, the purpose of Proverbs. An inherent consequence of the personification of wisdom as a woman is that in the process of teaching, she is also identifying herself as the ideal wife.

In terms of Lady Wisdom and Folly the Book of Proverbs makes four general points before ending with the advice for King Lemuel and describing the Valiant Wife:

  • Teach a man the value of wisdom
  • Contrast wisdom and folly
  • Identify Lady Wisdom as the Ideal Woman
  • Contrast Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly
  • Proverbs 31:1-9: Advice to the King: choose Lady Wisdom (not Lady Folly) as wife
  • Proverbs 31:10-31: Describe the attributes of Lady Wisdom when she becomes the Valiant Wife.

Chapter 9 - The Wedding Banquet

The personification of Lady Wisdom ends at Chapter 9 where Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly each prepare a feast and send invitations. In the context of choosing a wife the feast is symbolic of the marriage banquet. In the Jewish tradition after the betrothal a man leaves to prepare a place and returns for his bride. The key points are preparing a home and coming back for the bride.

Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars. (9:1)

The house was constructed by Lady Wisdom yet a man who has learned wisdom must also live in such a house. Again there is an inherent consequence in the personification of wisdom who teaches wisdom. For the man who applies what the Lady of Wisdom teaches is building a house according to her specifications. When the King takes his wife to the house he built, she will be right at home: his house will be indistinguishable from hers. Chapter 31 also contains the imagery of a woman’s house where the man lives since it is the mother who counsels King Lemuel.

A key contrast between Lady Wisdom and Folly is in the invitations to their respective feasts:

She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town (9:3 ESV)

She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town (9:14 ESV)

The more significant difference between the two invitations is how they are made. Since Lady Wisdom's invitations were made indirectly, the man must come for her. The wise King will follow the custom and come for his bride, the Lady of Wisdom.

Lady Folly makes her appeal in person. In essence this is the man's final application of wisdom. Will he continue in his betrothal and return for his bride or will he abandon her and go directly to Lady Folly? Significantly Lady Folly's final appeal is from the כִּ֝סֵּ֗א which is almost always translated as throne [H3678-kicce] Again imagery is present: the King must choose the authority of one woman, either Lady Folly who is sitting on her throne or the wisdom of Lady Wisdom. Regardless of his choice, it will be final as he is joined to just one woman. The King who comes for Wisdom finds life and obtains favor from the LORD (8:35). The King who goes to Folly destroys himself and joins her in the depths of Sheol (8:36, 9:18)

Thus, Lady Wisdom who was present from the beginning is also symbolic of God's plan for the King:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

A king must marry and the two are expected to be fruitful. But he must choose his wife wisely and so must learn wisdom. He goes into the world and learns the wisdom taught by Lady Wisdom. In the process he learns the ideal woman is Lady Wisdom and the only house suitable for this bride is one built as she instructs. Likewise the feast is the one prepared as she instructs. Finally, as teacher, she knows the last lesson has been given and the time for the invitations to be sent out.

While it is true that Lady Wisdom is the source of the house, the meal, and invitations, without the King, they will not exist. In other words, if the King chooses the other woman, Lady Wisdom is like a widow in that she lost her husband; without whom she cannot be the Valiant Wife. Despite all of her wisdom, she will be bereft of those attributes found in the Valiant Wife.

Concluding Thoughts

If the Valiant Wife is the betrothed Lady Wisdom, then like the personification of Lady Wisdom throughout, there should more than the characteristics of an ideal wife.

The Valiant Wife does something exceptional:

She opened her mouth to wisdom; and the law of mercy (חֶסֶד) is in her tongue. (31:26 WYC)

The Valiant Wife teaches the unique תּוֹרָה חֶסֶד, literally torah checed found nowhere else in the Tanakh. חֶסֶד is most often translated as mercy the characteristic loving-kindness of the LORD (Exodus 20:6 for example) [H2617-checed] The Valiant Wife will teach the Torah of Mercy and in doing so will exceed anything accomplished by the unmarried Lady of Wisdom.

When married the couple take on even greater qualities:

King:
Open your mouth for the speechless, In the cause of all who are appointed to die. (31:8)
Open your mouth, judge righteously, And plead the cause of the poor and needy. (31:9)

Valiant Wife:
She opened her mouth to wisdom; and the law of mercy (חֶסֶד) is in her tongue. (31:26 WYC)

The King speaks one behalf of those appointed to die, judges righteously, pleads the cause of the poor and needy while his wife teaches the Torah of Mercy. King Lemuel and the Valiant Wife are symbolic of a ruling King in the Messianic age. Perhaps an underappreciated aspect of the Davidic reign is the necessity and presence of his wise and valiant wife.

Finally, there are two personifications of Wisdom in the vein of Proverbs used in the Gospel:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:19 NASB)

But wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:35)

Lady Wisdom is justified by her deeds. In fact it is her deeds which prove she is the ideal woman. The Valiant Wife is justified by all of her children which is how Proverbs ends:

Give her of the fruit of her hands, And let her own works praise her in the gates. (31:31)

After the marriage the Valiant Wife will get the fruit of her hands, those taught as the unmarried Lady of Wisdom and those taught as the Valiant Wife. All her children will praise her in the gates of New Jerusalem.


1. New King James Version accept as noted.

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The term "אֵֽשֶׁת־חַ֭יִל" occures outside of Proverbs only in Ruth 3:11, where Boas tell Ruth, that she is known in the whole town as "אֵֽשֶׁת־חַ֭יִל". Considering that Ruth is the next book after Proverbs in the Hebrew canon, this paragraph can be seen as a preview of the following book, or the other way round, Ruth can be seen as an interpretation of these verses and how they can become real.

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