What’s a good wife good for? And what sort of dangers might she present? The male author of this androcentric acrostic poem describes the benefit of having a “capable wife” as shalal, translated “gain” in the NRSV (Prov 31:11), a word that elsewhere refers to the spoil or booty taken in war. Although this teacher urges his class of young men to “want one of those,” he also seems to say “Caution, boys!” The good wife’s value lies in her economic potential, not in her beauty and all that that implies.
In the ancient world, a woman’s contribution to the household involved more than cooking, cleaning, and childbearing. A capable wife, according to this poem, is a one-woman economic miracle. She works from dawn to dusk, not just at home but in the public economic arena as well: buying, selling, and producing.
But there is something a little bit fearsome about this paragon of productivity. How much control over her husband’s resources she seems to have! In fact, the Hebrew word chayil used to describe the wife often characterizes male warriors. The NRSV translates chayil as “capable,” but “valorous” or “strong” carries more of the sense. So, does the husband of such a capable wife feel like a warrior enjoying his booty or like a man at the mercy of a warrior woman? As if concerned with according the wife too much strength, the teacher-poet also says, “Control her.” Give her a share (but not all) of the fruit of her hands (Prov 31:31), and watch out for the deceptiveness of womanly charm (Prov 31:30).
Poems on two other female figures in Prov 1-9, Woman Wisdom and her negative counterpart Woman Folly, underline the obvious benefit and the implicit danger of finding a valorous wife. Wisdom is personified as a woman (Prov 1:20-33, Prov 4:5-9, Prov 7:4-5, Prov 8:1-36, Prov 9:1-6) who, like the capable wife, builds and provisions her house and has servants who invite men to partake of her food and drink (Prov 9:1-6). But Woman Wisdom one-ups even the idealized capable wife. She claims an origin with Yahweh before creation (Prov 8:22-31) and offers not just physical nourishment but also the life and favor that comes from Yahweh to the right-minded, innocent youth who follows and embraces her (Prov 4:8-9, Prov 8:35). Taken together, Woman Wisdom and the capable wife positively reinforce each other. The wise human wife is accorded profound value by association with her heavenly counterpart, whereas Woman Wisdom is grounded and humanized as part of daily life.
But Woman Wisdom also has an evil twin, the directly contrasted Woman Folly (Prov 9:1-6) and the related figure of the “loose woman” or “adulteress” (in Hebrew, literally: female stranger, outsider) in Prov 2:16-19, Prov 5:20, Prov 7:6-27. Like Wisdom, Woman Folly also offers food and drink, but these are the comestibles of deceit for the foolish, served in her house of death. The Strange Woman brings sexual danger to the forefront: death will be the end of the young man who succumbs to her allure, betraying both his wife and Woman Wisdom The female figures in Prov 1-9 are archetypes, embodiments of good and evil, life and death. As such, they bring to full expression the subtle male anxiety that underlies the virtues extolled in the Strong Wife.
What would the young male student learn from such instruction? That women are a challenging mixture of desirability and danger. The right one will offer him the gain of material substance and social stature and perhaps even sexual pleasure (Prov 5:15-19). But this woman will be hard to find! And she will save him from the clutches of the Strange Woman only if she in turn suffers her husband’s control.