The Proverbs 31 “Woman of Strength”: An Argument for a Primary-Sense Translation -- By: Megan K. DeFranza
PP 25:1 (Winter 2011) p. 21
The Proverbs 31 “Woman of Strength”:
An Argument for a Primary-Sense Translation
Megan K. DeFranza is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a doctoral candidate at Marquette University writing her dissertation on theological anthropology and intersex. She lives with her husband, Andrew, and daughters, Lórien and Eden, in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Proverbs 31:10-31 is one of the better-known passages of the Old Testament. Many of us hear sermons preached from this text every Mother’s Day, yet these sermons often miss the meaning of this passage. Many pastors hold up the Proverbs 31 woman as the model for all women, yet they present a distorted and limited view of women, hindered as they are by imprecise English translations. Given the weight placed upon the Proverbs 31 woman as an example of “biblical womanhood,” it is essential that we correct our reading of the text. One of the best ways we can do this is by returning to a more literal or primary-sense translation.
For a word attested more than 240 times in the Old Testament, some may find it surprising that scholars cannot agree on a standard translation for khayil in the context of Proverbs 31:10-31. The range of translations for ’esheth-khayil includes “wife of noble character” (NIV), “virtuous woman” (KJV), “excellent wife” (NAS), “capable wife” (NRS, JPS), “truly capable woman” (NJB), “worthy wife” (NAB), “woman of worth” (DB1), “valiant woman” (DRA2), and “virtuous and capable wife” (NLT). What may be even more surprising is how far these translations diverge from the primary sense of khayil. In his entry in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Hermann Eising explains, “Despite the frequent occurrence of khayil in the sense of ‘army,’ its basic meaning must be given as ‘strength, power.’”3 Yet, all good translators know that, when it comes to identifying the meanings of words, context is key. The semantic range of any word is determined by its use in various settings. Thus the range of khayil is broad enough to include, in addition to strength or power, such concepts as efficiency and wealth.4 It is the context of Proverbs 31 that seems problematic for many translators. How should one render a term normally appearing in a ...
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