Women of Valour: Chayil and Andreia
A few years ago, the Hebrew phrase eshet chayil was often the topic of conversation on social media. The late Rachel Held Evans, who is dearly missed, often referred to it, and more than a few women chose to be tattooed with these two Hebrew words.
I thought it was time to revisit the phrase. So, in this article, I look briefly at how eshet chayil is used in the Hebrew Bible. I also look at how the Greek word andreia, a translation of chayil, is used in the Septuagint, in early Christian writings, and by the first-century Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. I note, in particular, how chayil and andreia are applied to women.
But what do the words chayil and andreia mean?
Valiant (Chayil) Women in the Hebrew Bible
The phrase eshet chayil famously occurs in the passage about the idealised wife in Proverbs 31. This passage begins with the rhetorical question, “Who can find an eshet chayil?
Eshet is a form of the common Hebrew word ishshah which means “woman” or “wife.” The noun chayil occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. It has a few meanings (see here), but often refers to strength and valour, especially in the context of warfare.
The Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society translates eshet chayil in Proverbs 31:10 as “a woman of valour.” “A woman of strength” (NRSVue) and “a woman (or, wife) of noble character” (CSB, NET, NIV) are examples of other translations.
The two-word phrase eshet chayil occurs just three times in the Bible. As well as Proverbs 31:10, it occurs in Proverbs 12:4a where it says, “A woman of valour is her husband’s crown,” and it occurs in Ruth 3:11b where it says, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of valour.”
Even though there are many valiant women in the Bible, I couldn’t find any others described as an eshet chayil. But the word chayil comes up once more in the Bible in the context of women, again in Proverbs 31.
“Many daughters have done valiantly (chayil), but you surpass them all!” (Proverbs 31:29).
Valiant (Andreia) Women in Early Christian and Jewish Texts
Eshet chayil is translated in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, as gynē andreia in Proverbs 31:10 and 12:4, but not in Ruth 3:11. (Ruth 3:11 has gynē dynameōs, “a strong/ capable woman,” instead.)
Andreia often means “courageous” and is the opposite of deilia (“timidity, cowardice”). The author of 1 Clement 55:3-6 wrote that many women were andreia and he gives Judith and Esther as two examples. Few people were, or are, given the opportunity to exhibit courage the way these two heroines did. And the women in Proverbs 31:10ff and Proverbs 12:4 displayed their strength without defeating powerful enemies or shedding blood.
As well as referring to courage, andreia can refer to exemplary self-control and inner fortitude. In a passage about the benefits of a good wife (gynē agathē), Sirach, an early Jewish author, wrote that a “virtuous wife” (gynē andreia) delights, or gladdens, her husband (Sirach 26:2 cf. Prov. 31:10, 31). The fourth-century church father Cyril of Jerusalem said about Mary Magdalene, “Though the woman was weak in body, her spirit was strong (andreion).” (Catechetical Lecture 14.13, PG 33:840)
Andreia and Celibate Women in the Early Church
Some women in the early church who displayed exceptional self-control and inner strength are described as andreia in early Christian texts. Elizabeth Castelli mentions these women and also notes that the word was associated with women who had dedicated themselves to the church as lifelong virgins. (Sexual asceticism was a celebrated virtue in the early church.)
The term is associated with virgins from very early on in the tradition; one of Hermas’ similitudes in The Shepherd includes a description of virgins whose delicacy was contrasted with their andreia [Similitude. 9.2.5]. The term is most often used in relation to particular exceptional women: Macrina teaches her mother patience and andreia [Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Macrina 10]; John Chrysostom speaks many times of the andreia of Olympias, and the word also appears once in her biography [Letters 3.1; 11.1; 12.1 (twice); 16:1 (twice); Life of Olympias 15], and Paulinus describes Melania the Elder’s andreia on the occasion of her son’s death [Letter 45.2, p. 246]. Palladius describes all of the virgins of whom he will speak as possessing andreia and there is a chapter of the Historia Lausiaca dedicated particularly to gynaikes andreiai [chapter 41].
Castelli goes on and highlights two important considerations that I explore briefly below: “The important question here is the nuance of this word, andreia, which refers to one of the Stoic virtues, and which also is related to the Greek root, aner, meaning ‘man/ male.’”
Valiant (Andreia) Women in the Writings of Musonius Rufus
Andreia was a Stoic virtue and is referred to several times by Musonius Rufus (born AD 30). He connected andreia with inner fortitude and believed it was a virtue for men and women. He advocated that sons and daughters receive the same education, and believed that educated women were more andreia and made better wives than uneducated women.
Here are two excerpts from the writings of Musonius Rufus.
Now as for courage, certainly it is to be expected that the educated woman will be more courageous (andreioteran) than the uneducated, and one who has studied philosophy than one who has not; and she will not therefore submit to anything shameful because of fear of death or unwillingness to face hardship … Would not such a woman be a great help to the man who married her, an ornament to her relatives, and a good example for all who know her?
Perhaps someone may say that courage (andreian) is a virtue appropriate to men only. That is not so. For a woman too of the right sort must have courage (andrizesthai) and be wholly free of cowardice, so that she will neither be swayed by hardships nor by fear; otherwise, how will she be said to have self-control, if by threat or force she can be constrained to yield to shame? Nay more, it is necessary for women to be able to repel attack, unless indeed they are willing to appear more cowardly than hens and other female birds which fight with creatures much larger than themselves to defend their young. How then should women not need courage (andreia)? That women have some prowess in arms the race of the Amazons demonstrated when they defeated many tribes in war. If, therefore, something of this courage (andreia) is lacking in other women, it is due to lack of use and practice rather than because they were not endowed with it.
But what does the New Testament say about andreia?
“Act Like Men”? (Andrizomai) in the New Testament
The adjective andreia does not occur in the New Testament, but a related verb does, once. The related verb is andrizomai and Paul used it in 1 Corinthians 16:13–14 when he gave final words of encouragement to the Christians in Corinth.
The etymology of andrizomai gives the sense of “act like men.” Similarly, the etymology of andreia gives the sense of “manly.” Both words contain the stem andr– from the Greek word for “man” (as in, an adult male person). But etymology does not always give a reliable indication of how a word is, or was, used and understood in real life.
In the Septuagint [see my first comment in the comments section] and other ancient Greek texts, the verb andrizomai is used in the context of valour, strength, and bravery. And it was not restricted to the courage of men. Unfortunately, in the ESV and in several older translations, andrizomai is translated in a way that makes it sound as though Paul was advocating for uniquely masculine behaviour.
The CSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, and other English Bibles, correctly translate the meaning of andrizomai as “be courageous.” Paul was not telling the Christians in Corinth to behave as men, he was telling them to be brave, and Paul follows this with “be strong.”
“Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).
Chayil and andreia are used with a range of senses in texts about ancient women. Being courageous, valiant, virtuous, and self-controlled are ideal qualities for all people, for women as well as for men.
“Who can find an eshet chayil ?
She is worth far more than jewels!” (Proverbs 31:10)
 Proverbs 31:29 is expanded in the Septuagint. Perhaps the translators couldn’t decide between two possible meanings of chayil and so translated it two ways: “Many daughters have obtained wealth (plouton), many women have done mighty things (dynata), but you have exceeded and surpassed all women.”
Note further that the Greek adverb and noun ischyrōs and ischyn, with their senses of “strength” and “might,” occur in Proverbs 31:17 and 26 respectively. The Proverbs 31 woman is being described as a formidable woman!
 In a passage of “perfected” (teleiai) women which mentions Judith, Esther, Susanna, and Miriam, Clement of Alexandria makes this comment about a pagan woman, Leaena, who was famous for withstanding torture and he uses the adverb andreiōs: “And did not Leaena of Attica manfully (andreiōs) [i.e. courageously] bear the torture? She being privy to the conspiracy of Harmodius and Aristogeiton against Hipparchus, uttered not a word, though severely tortured.” Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 4.19 (Source: New Advent; Greek: PG 8, column 1329)
 Elizabeth Castelli, “Virginity and Its Meaning for Women’s Sexuality in Early Christianity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2.1 (Spring, 1986): 61–88, 77.
 Castelli, ibid.
 Musonius Rufus, Excerpts from sections 5 and 6 from Rufus’s Lecture 3: “That women too should study philosophy.” From Musonius Rufus, “The Roman Socrates”: Lectures and Fragments, Introduction and Translation by Cora E. Lutz (Yale Classical Studies, volume 10; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947). (Online at thestoiclife.org.) The Greek can be read in a pdf of Lutz’s book (p. 40, lines 33ff).
 In the ancient world, bravery was considered to be a manly virtue. (I look more at this in my article on Isaiah 3:12 here.) The Greek adjective andreia is equivalent in meaning to the Latin adjective virtus from which we get the English word “virtuous.” Virtus is derived from the Latin word for “man” (vir).
© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved
Portrait of Judith with her maid (cropped) by Italian artist Cristofano Allori (1577–1621) (Source: Wikimedia)
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Manhood and Masculinity (and andrizomai) in the ESV
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3 Legendary Ladies: Judith, Thecla and Catherine of Alexandria
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I have more articles on brave Bible women, here.