The good wife

Very little of the Bible focuses on the lives of women. There are only two short books, Esther and Ruth, completely dedicated to the lives of women. Therefore, Proverbs 31:10-31 is an important portion of scripture because it clearly portrays the characteristics of a godly woman. What surprises me the most about the description is that it is so contrary to what I have seen and been taught in the churches I have attended. Perhaps that is why this section of Proverbs 31 begins with the question, Who can find a virtuous woman?

The Hebrew word translated virtuous in Proverbs 31:10 is chayil (khah´ – yil). It is the same word translated strength in Proverbs 31:3 where it says, “Give not thy strength unto women.” “Chayil means strength; power; wealth; property; capable; valiant; army; troops; influential; upper-class people. This word signifies a faculty or ‘power,’ the ability to effect or produce something. This word is used of physical ‘strength’ in the sense of power that can be exerted (2428). Most people think of power in the context of a position that one holds, such as President of the United States, but the context of power in the virtuous woman is work, physical labor. The only woman in the Bible associated with chayil is Ruth, who worked in the field of Boaz to support herself and her mother-in-law Naomi, a widowed Israelite.

It says of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:17, “She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms” and in verse 25, “strength and honour are her clothing.” Some of the activities of the virtuous woman are “working willingly with her hands (vs 13); she considereth a field, and buyeth it (vs 16); she maketh fine linen, and selleth it (vs 24); she openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (vs 26). I think an appropriate one-word description of the virtuous woman is industrious or prosperous. It is important to note that the virtuous woman is a wife and mother. It says in Proverbs 31 that “the heart of her husband doth safely  trust in her” (vs 11) and “her children arise up, and call her blessed” (vs 28).

One of the misconceptions I had when I was married was that a good wife’s primary responsibility was to take care of her husband’s sexual needs. My ex-husband once told me the reason that he married me was so he wouldn’t have to pay for sex. Today, it seems like most women are concerned with the way they look; attracting a man sexually is very important to them. It says in Proverbs 31:30 that “favour is deceitful and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.” If I ever get married again, I want to be a good wife, but instead of focusing on my sexy 60 year old body, I expect the man I marry to be impressed with the balance in my bank account.

Strength

Proverbs 31 is attributed to king Lemuel’s mother. The name translated Lemuel means “belonging to God” and is believed to be a symbolic name of Solomon (3927). If so, then the prophecy came from Bath-sheba, the woman king David had an affair with. Proverbs 31 deals with the role of women in Solomon’s life. In verses 2 – 3, Solomon’s mother warns him against having a large harem and sexual immorality. “What, my son?  and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows. Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings.” Repetition of the what question three times indicates a tone of rebuke and concern for Solomon’s awareness of his problem. Today we might say something like, What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?

Solomon’s approach to marriage was to treat it like a business transaction. Many of his wives were acquired by forming alliances with neighboring nations. In order to maintain peace, Solomon lived a double life. Three times a year, Solomon offered burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar he built for the LORD (1 Kings 9:25), but he also “went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians” (1 Kings 11:5) and built a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab (1 Kings 11:7). Solomon’s compromise resulted in the LORD taking away the majority of the kingdom from David’s descendants (1 Kings 11:11-13).

The  phrase that Solomon’s mother used, “give not thy strength unto women” (Proverbs 31:3) implies that Solomon’s wives were given power or control over the nation of Israel. In some way, they were influencing the course of Israel’s history. From an extreme perspective, Solomon’s foreign wives erased many of king David’s accomplishments. David and his army fought many years to gain control over Israel’s enemies. Solomon’s decision to worship his foreign wives’ gods made it seem as if his strength was coming from multiple sources and God was no longer calling the shots.

Exercise for the soul

Physical exercise is a relatively new concept in America. If you remember Jack LaLanne, then you know that in the 1960’s there were not many people that believed they needed regular physical exercise and fitness centers were exclusive clubs for the rich and famous. The information age has turned the majority of people into couch potatoes that rarely break a sweat without an intentional effort. It takes work to keep your body strong, especially if you want to be active in your later years.

Speaking to the LORD in Psalm 138, David said, “In the day when I cried thou answeredest me, and strengthened me with strength in my soul” (Psalm 138:3). The word soul or nephesh in Hebrew is also translated as life and person (5315). The word nephesh is derived from the word naphash which means to breathe (5314), so you could say in one sense that naphash refers to having breath in you or being alive.

When David said that the LORD strengthened him with strength in his soul, he meant that the LORD gave him a sense of vitality and exuberance toward life. The Hebrew word translated strength is also translated as power, might, and boldness (5797). In order for David to be strong in his soul, he had to exercise, he had to do what the LORD instructed him to do in his word.

David not only listened to the LORD, he did what the LORD told him to do, even when it seemed impossible. David said, “Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Psalm 139:5-6). The word translated wonderful, paliy is derived from the word pala which means to be beyond one’s ability to do (6381). David did not let the thought of impossibility stop him from doing what the LORD asked him to do. David realized that “although something may appear impossible to man, it still is within God’s power” (6381).

The thing that motivated David to exercise his soul was an awareness that God knew and understood him completely. David said, “O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-3).

Thinking of the LORD as the trainer of his soul, David was willing to yield his life to the expert. David knew that the LORD wanted him to be a mighty warrior on the inside as well as on the outside. “The Hebrew system of thought does not include the opposition of the terms ‘body’ and ‘soul,’ which are really Greek and Latin in origin. The Hebrew compares/contrasts ‘the inner self’ and ‘the outer appearance’ or, as viewed in a different context, ‘what one is to oneself’ as opposed to ‘what one appears to be to one’s observers.’ The goal of Scriptures is to make the inner and outer consistent (5315).

Made for each other

A central theme in the book of Ruth is relationships. Rather than food or clothing, abundance and loss is measured in the number of relationships one has. When she returns home from Moab, Naomi tells people that she “went out full” because she left with her husband and two sons, but is returning empty because all of them died in the land of Moab (Ruth 1:21). I think it is interesting that even though she brought her daughter in law Ruth back with her, Naomi still considers herself to be empty.

Naomi felt worthless because she didn’t have a husband or sons which were considered to be blessings from God. The quality of her relationships with her husband and sons is unknown, but when Naomi tells her daughters in law to return to the home of their parents, it says in Ruth 1:14 that “they lift up their voices and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her.”

The word clave or dâbaq (daw – bak´) in Hebrew is the same word that is used in Genesis 2:24 where is says that a man shall “leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife.” Ruth pleads with Naomi to not make her go back and even goes so far as to say “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:17). Similar to a marriage vow, Ruth is saying to her mother in law, till death do us part.

Ruth’s devotion does not seem to be of value to Naomi, perhaps because Ruth was a Moabitess, a foreigner and not a blood relative, but her willingness to leave her own country and family to be with Naomi is certainly commendable. Naomi blames her bitterness on God and believes her affliction is from his own hand. Not only does she not recognize Ruth’s value, she is missing the point that God has blessed her with a lifetime partner that is committed to taking care of her in spite of the personal sacrifice that requires.

“And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband’s; a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz” (Ruth 2:1). The word translated kinsman, yâda‘ (yaw – dah´) means to know (3045). Naomi was related to Boaz by marriage, but what this verse is saying is that Naomi had a relationship with Boaz, she knew him personally. The interesting thing about this is that there is no mention of Naomi ever interacting with Boaz after she returns to Judah. It would seem reasonable for Naomi to contact Boaz, and if he was a wealthy man, to ask for his help, but Naomi doesn’t do that.

One of the Mosaic laws made provision for a widow to glean in the field of another so that she would not go hungry if she had no one to provide for her. Ruth takes the initiative to go into a field where corn is being harvested and by divine providence she ends up in the field of Boaz. During their first meeting, Boaz tells Ruth that he has instructed his men not to have any sexual contact with her. Ruth’s response indicates that what Boaz has done is not typical behavior. “Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thy eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing that I am a stranger” (Ruth 2:10).

The fact that Boaz, a mighty man of wealth, would show kindness to a Moabite who is gleaning in his field distinguishes him from not only the typical man, but perhaps any other man in Israel. Ruth describes Boaz’s action by saying that he has comforted her (Ruth 2:13). The word translated comforted, nâcham (naw – kham´) is the same word that is translated repented in Judges 21:15. One way of looking at what Boaz did would be that he gave his strength to Ruth. He attempted to make her feel like she was his equal and he raised her status in the eyes of others.

The reason why Boaz’s action qualifies as repentance is because he did the opposite of what would have been expected under the circumstances in order to achieve a more positive outcome. Boaz could have had Ruth thrown out of his field because she was a foreigner or told his female workers to stay away from her because she would be a bad influence on them. But instead, Boaz tells Ruth to stay close by his maidens, warns his young men not to touch her, and even invites Ruth to sit at his table at mealtime.

At the end of the harvest, Naomi seeks to arrange a marriage between Boaz and Ruth. She instructs Ruth to go to Boaz at night, just before he is laying down to go to sleep. The action Naomi wants Ruth to take is a type of marriage proposal. The way it is being presented to him makes it possible for Boaz to refuse and not embarrass Ruth because he has rejected her.

Ruth’s obedience to her mother in law demonstrates her trust and belief in the Jewish way of doing things. She is no longer acting like a Moabite or following the customs of her people. A clue that Ruth has truly been converted is that her actions are described as showing kindness. The Hebrew word checed (kheh´ – sed) is one of the most important words that is used to convey Old Testament theology (2617). Checed is representative of a deep, loving relationship. The word chesed is meant to convey a strong bond that keeps two people knit together, as in a marriage, but more from love that a legal obligation to stay together. Relationship is the basis for checed and personal involvement is what makes it possible for a person to show the extraordinary kindness that checed implies.

Boaz seems to be caught off guard when he wakes in the middle of the night and finds Ruth lying at his feet. It appears that the thought of matrimony has not crossed his mind, perhaps because as he explains to Ruth, “And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman: howbeit there is a kinsman nearer than I” (Ruth 3:12). When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz, she knew that he did not have the ability to redeem her as his property. Based on Boaz’s behavior toward Ruth, Naomi may have assumed that he loved her and would want her to be his wife.

Boaz describes Ruth as a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:11). The word translated virtuous, chayil (khah´ – yil) means strength or power (2428). Chayil is often used in a military context and is associated with the word gibbôr (ghib – bore´) to describe a proven warrior (1368). What Boaz may have been implying when he referred to Ruth as a virtuous woman was that she was a good match for him, that they belonged together. Boaz is referred to as “a mighty man of wealth” in Ruth 2:1, which means that he had been successful in battle. Often times warriors took the spoils of their victories and were rewarded for the enemy territories they conquered. If Boaz claimed Ruth as his property, it would likely have established his dominance over her and inhibited her from feeling loved by him. Boaz gave Ruth the impression that she was his equal and her courage in leaving her country and coming to Judah was commendable.

“So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son” (Ruth 4:13). Boaz and Ruth were the great grandparents of king David. There was definitely a divine purpose for them to be married and have a child, but what stands out in the story of how their relationship developed is the mutual respect and admiration they had for each other. Unlike some of the other couples that contributed to the birth of Jesus, Boaz and Ruth typified the loving-kindness that God shows his children. You could say that Boaz and Ruth were made for each other and their marriage is a testament to God’s ability to work all things together for good “to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).