Iron Age Super Mom: Woman of Valor

Iron Age Super Mom: Woman of Valor May 9, 2018

“A woman of valor, who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10) The Hebrew word ḥayil (pronounce with a rough h like in “Hanukkah”) used in this verse is a rich value word, used 245 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is a word so broad that its meaning must be dictated by its context. It can mean monetary value. It can refer to the values of physical or military strength. It can mean “valor” in the sense of moral or personal worth.

Iron Age Super Mom: A Woman of Worth
The great theologian Catherine Hobson exemplifies the woman of valor/worth in Proverbs 31. Photo: Tom Hobson.

The Iron Age Super Mom of Proverbs 31 is called a woman of ḥayil. The rest of that chapter spells out all the ways in which she is deemed to be a woman of valor or worth: brains, managerial skill, physical fitness, economic savvy, industriousness, moral wisdom, compassion, and love. At the end of the chapter (31:29), we find the expression to “do valiantly” (‘asah ḥayil), found also in places such as Numbers 24:18 (subject: Israel) and Psalm 118:15 (subject: God). Iron Age Super Mom does more “valiantly” than any woman who can compare to her.

Ruth has a similar reputation among Bethlehem’s leaders as a “woman of ḥayil” (Ruth 3:11, translated as “worthy” or “virtuous”); she is admired not only for her unselfish devotion to Naomi, but her courage to follow Israel’s God and to trust God to provide, while being willing to work hard to make it happen. Boaz himself is described as a gibbor- ḥayil (Ruth 2:1), which means “warrior of valor” throughout Joshua and Judges, but here in a peaceful context is usually translated “man of great wealth.” Likewise, in Ruth 4:11, Naomi’s friends’ wish for Boaz and Ruth is that they do/make ḥayil (prosper, achieve wealth, or “do valiantly”, the same phrase as in Proverbs 31:29).

Ḥayil is often used as a military word. We find dozens of references to gibbore- ḥayil (warriors of valor) and anshe- ḥayil (men of valor), where the emphasis is on military might and courage. In dozens of additional verses, the word means “army”, a collection of power or force (Exodus 14:4 – “Pharaoh and all his ḥayil”). In 2 Chronicles 14:8, the word is used two different ways: once to mean “army,” and once to mean “valor” (!). In Psalm 33:17, we are told that a war horse cannot save by the greatness of its ḥayil.  And of course, God can wield ḥayil that can overpower any human military power (Psalm 59:11).

Less often, ḥayil is used to mean other kinds of strength. In Genesis 47:6, Pharaoh says to Jacob about his sons, “If you have any men of ḥayil (competence or capability?) among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” Similarly, Moses is advised to find men of ḥayil capable to decide cases that do not require his personal attention, a job that would not require muscle (see also 1 Chronicle 9:13).   In a different sense, Isaiah 5:22 jokes about those who are “men of ḥayil (= heroes) in mixing malt liquor.”

The expression “to gird on ḥayil” is unspecific as to whether it refers to strength, courage, endurance, or what exactly (1 Samuel 2:4; Psalm 18:33, 18:40). Similarly unspecific are Habakkuk 3:19, “YHWH my Lord is my ḥayil,” and the famous line in Zechariah 4:16, “Not by ḥayil, not by koḥ (physical might), but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” It is likewise unclear what kind of strength is meant where King Lemuel’s mother says to her son, “Give not your ḥayil to women” (Proverbs 31:4). Joel 2:22 even tells us that the fig tree and the vine shall yield their ḥayil (richness or fruitfulness?).

But there are specific verses where ḥayil undoubtedly means “wealth,” particularly in Job and in poetry. In 1 Kings 10:2, the Queen of Sheba comes with “a very great ḥayil.” Is this an army, or is it more likely a display or collection of wealth? The author goes on to presumably specify the answer: “camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones.” When Zechariah predicts that the ḥayil of all nations shall be gathered, he specifies wealth as what he means: “gold, silver, and garments in great abundance” (Zechariah 14:14). In Deuteronomy 8:17-18, Moses warns Israel not to say “the might of my own hand has earned me this ḥayil,” because God is “the one who gives you the power to earn ḥayil.”  Psalm 62:10: “If ḥayil increases, do not set your heart on it.”

Watch what ḥayil is paired with, if you want proof as to where ḥayil means “wealth.” It is paired with “treasure” in Isaiah 30:6, Jeremiah 15:13 and 17:3, it is paired with “profit/gain” in Micah 4:13, it is paired with “spoil/plunder” in Isaiah 8:4, and it is paired with “abundance of riches” in Psalm 49:6.  Zephaniah 1:13 says “their ḥayil shall become plunder.” Psalm 49:11 declares that people “die and leave their ḥayil to others.” “Wealth” is the meaning that makes the most sense in these examples.

Ḥayil – a most versatile word, the quintessential value word, covering a wide range of both what we humans value, and of what God values! It is a fitting adjective to describe Iron Age Super Mom, and all who are like her today. May God grant us to value what God values in Scripture: courage and strength to withstand dangerous threats, wealth (where dollars can provide for tangible human needs), heroic love, and faith to ultimately trust in God rather than in fallible earthly weapons or resources.


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