When Christians mention the “Proverbs 31 Woman” we typically think of the idealised woman mentioned in Proverbs 31:10ff. Myriads of messages, books, and website articles have been devoted to extolling, and sometimes sentimentalising, the virtues of this woman, and she is put forward as a role model for all godly women to follow.
I’d love to have the stamina of this woman and be able to get up before dawn every morning (Prov. 31:15). I’d love to be as industrious and productive as she seems to be (Prov. 31:18, 24). And I think we’d all like to be as rich as she is, and be able to buy our own piece of real estate and plant a vineyard (Prov. 31:16-18). But we must never forget: this woman is not real. She is an idealised fabrication.
There is another woman mentioned in Proverbs 31, a real woman who is often overlooked but who also serves as a model for women. This other Proverbs 31 woman serves as a biblical precedent for a woman teaching a man.
King Lemuel’s Mother
A woman who taught inspired and wise sayings
King Lemuel’s mother is mentioned in Proverbs 31:1. This woman taught, or admonished, her son with an inspired message that is contained in Proverbs 31:2-9. Lemuel was a grown man and he was a king, but this didn’t stop him from receiving and appreciating instruction from a woman. He recognised and respected the wisdom of his mother’s words.
Her words were even recorded and included in the canon of Holy Scripture. This means that the teaching of King Lemuel’s mother has the authority of Scripture. (Many Christians believe Scripture has the highest level of spiritual authority.) Furthermore, by being part of Scripture, the sayings of this woman continue to authoritatively instruct men and women, and even kings. Her admonition remains relevant and much-needed today! Read it here.
Other Bible women also spoke inspired, informative, and influential words to men.
Anna the Prophetess
A woman who spoke about Jesus in the temple
Anna was a prophetess. In Luke 2:37b-38 it says she never left the temple and was “worshipping with fasting and prayer, night and day.” She was in the temple when Mary and Joseph went there with the infant Jesus. When Anna saw Jesus, she recognised who he was and what he would accomplish. So she gave thanks to God and continually spoke about him “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Surely this “all” included men.
Did the men have a problem with the fact that a woman was speaking to them about God and about theology to do with the redemption of Jerusalem? Apparently not. As a pious and respected prophetess, one who had seen the Messiah with her own eyes, Anna and her words were influential and significant. Otherwise, Luke would not have mentioned her and her speaking ministry in his Gospel. [More on Anna here.]
A woman who explained theology to Apollos
Another Bible woman who spoke about theology to men was Priscilla. Priscilla and her husband Aquila explained “the way of God” (i.e. theology) to a Christian minister named Apollos. Apollos was an educated and well-spoken teacher, a scholar, but he did not know about Christian baptism. Priscilla and Aquila, seeing this lack, invited him into their home, which was where the couple’s church met. There they explained to him the doctrine of Christian baptism.
Neither Aquila, Apollos, or Luke (who records this event in Acts) seem to be in any way concerned that Priscilla corrected a male teacher and explained “the way of God more accurately” to him. (See Acts 18:24-26.)
Priscilla and Aquila led a house church in their home Ephesus, and later in Rome. Priscilla would have had many opportunities to minister and teach in this setting where, presumably, both men and women gathered (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:19).
Faithful Instruction from Wise Women
Many Christians who restrict women to certain roles and functions within the Christian community overlook the Proverbs 31 woman mentioned in verse 1 and concentrate instead on the second woman mentioned in the latter half of the chapter. One thing these two Proverbs 31 women have in common, however, is that they both spoke and taught with wisdom and faithfulness: “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction (torah) is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26 NIV).
Many women have worthwhile and wise words to share and to teach—practical, spiritual, and theological words—and their instruction and advice is trustworthy and faithful. Despite what some people have presumed, the Protestant Bible does not say that women are more easily deceived, or more deceptive, than men.
Moreover, the consensus of what the Bible says about women speaking to men, and instructing men, does not support the idea that wise and godly women cannot teach men. Yet many Christian men seem content to miss out on wise and faithful instruction from their sisters. Sadly, many Christian women, too, seem intent on keeping their fellow sisters from teaching and leadership within the church community.
King Lemuel valued, respected, and trusted the teachings of his mother. My hope is that the church will respect and trust her women and their abilities, including their ability to teach inspired and theological messages.
 King Lemuel’s mother’s inspired message is variously referred to in English translations as an oracle (NASB, HSCB, ESV), an inspired utterance (NIV), a vision (WYC), a declaration (YLT), a prophecy (KJV), etc, translated from the Hebrew word massa (Septuagint: chrēmatismos). Massa is used frequently for Isaiah’s prophecies (e.g. Isa. 13:1). The same word is also used for Nahum’s, Habakkuk’s and Malachi’s prophecies (Nah. 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Mal. 1:1).
The Septuagint (LXX) adds that the words in Proverbs 31:2-9 are words “spoken by God” and taught (paideuō) by the king’s mother. (In the LXX, Proverbs 31:1-9 is inserted after Proverbs 24:33, and Lemuel’s name is omitted altogether.)
A few English Bibles translate massa as a place name: “The words of King Lemuel of Massa, which his mother taught him” (Prov. 31:1a CEB; cf. CEV & NAB).
 Some believe that Proverbs 31:10–31, written as an acrostic, is another inspired message of King Lemuel’s mother.
 According to Jewish tradition, Lemuel was King Solomon, but this is unlikely. Gemler states that both Agur (Prov. 30:1ff) and King Lemuel have Minaean-Sabaean names and that this and other details suggest the men are of an Arabian tribe. W.F. Albright, however, suggests they belonged to an Aramean tribe in the Syrian desert. (Source: TDNT 7:480-481.) See also endnote 1 about Massa as a place name. Professor Claude Mariottini further discusses King Lemuel’s identity here.
 Solomon also respected the teaching of mothers (Prov. 1:8-9; 6:20). It may have been Bathsheba who instilled in Solomon his love for wisdom and knowledge. “Mother” is mentioned fifteen times in Proverbs, always with some sense that mothers deserve respect.
 The inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Deborah (Judg. 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov. 31:1–9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff), and perhaps Miriam’s song (Exod. 15:20-21), are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture. According to the stance of many churches, women cannot even teach or preach about these words from women. I’ve written about every prophetess in the Bible here.
 Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husband’s name in Acts 18:26. In fact, her name appears first in four of the six mentions of this couple (Acts 18:2-3; 18-19; 26; Rom. 16:3-5a; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:9). Luke is careful in how he orders names in Acts. For instance, in his account of the joint ministry of the Paul and Barnabas, Luke switches the order of the names of Paul and Barnabas, listing first whoever was more well-known or more active in ministry at that particular time. (See Acts 13:7, 42-50; 14:1, 3, 12, 14, 23; 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35-36.) In the last chapter of his letter to the Romans, when Paul lists the twenty-eight Christians in Rome who he wants greeted, he lists Priscilla first! (Rom. 16:3ff).
 The Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translates Proverbs 31:26b as, “the law [torah] of kindness [chesed] is on her tongue.” In the Hebrew Bible, chesed often refers to God’s covenantal loving kindness.
 There is only one verse in the entire Bible that says a woman is not allowed to teach—one verse. I have written about this verse here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2012
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Postscript: January 15 2022
Thoughts on “Woman of Valour” (eshet chayil) and “Courageous” (andreia)
Chayil and Valiant Women in the Hebrew Bible
The passage about the idealised wife in Proverbs 31 begins with the rhetorical question, “Who can find an eshet chayil? The Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society translates eshet chayil in Proverbs 31:10 as “a woman of valour.”
Eshet is a form of the common Hebrew word for woman or wife (ishshah). It is joined to the noun chayil, a noun that occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Bible and often has the meanings of strength and valour. (See here.) So “a woman of strength” or “a woman of noble character” are also good translations of eshet chayil.
The two-word expression eshet chayil occurs just three times in the Bible. As well as Proverbs 31:10, it also occurs in Proverbs 12:4a (“A woman of valour is her husband’s crown”) and in Ruth 3:11b (“All the people of my town know that you are a woman of valour.“)
Even though there are many brave women in the Bible, I couldn’t find another woman described as chayil, but the word comes up again when describing the Proverbs 31 woman: “Many daughters have done valiantly (chayil), but you surpass them all!” (Prov. 31:29).
Andreia and Valiant Women in the Greek
Chayil is translated in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, as the adjective andreia in Proverbs 31:10 and 12:4, but not in Ruth 3:11 or Proverbs 31:29. Ruth 3:11 has dynamis (“strong, capable”).
[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 sense of “strength” and “might,” occur in Proverbs 31:17 and 26 respectively. The Proverbs 31 woman is a formidable woman!]
Back to andreia, this adjective often means “courageous” and is the opposite of deilia, “cowardice.” (LSJ) But it can also refer to virtuous self-control. The author of 1 Clement 55:3-6 says that many women were andreia and gives Judith and Esther as two examples. Few people were, or are, given the opportunity to exhibit courage in the way these two heroines did, and we can assume the ideal wives in Proverbs 31:10ff and Proverbs 12:4 displayed their strength without defeating powerful enemies and shedding blood.
Some women in the early church who displayed exceptional self-control are described as andreia in early Christian texts written in Greek.
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]. 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.”
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.
The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus (born AD 30), who believed sons and daughters should receive the same education, stated that educated women were more andreia (Lecture 3.5; Lecture 4.3) and made better wives (Lecture 3.6) than women who were not educated.
Now as for courage, certainly it is to be expected that the educated woman will be more courageous 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?
Excerpts from sections 5 and 6 from Rufus’s Lecture 3: “That women too should study philosophy.”
Perhaps someone may say that courage is a virtue appropriate to men only. That is not so. For a woman too of the right sort must have courage 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?
Section 3 from Lecture 4: “Should daughters receive the same training as sons?”
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 source: thestoiclife.org)
The adjective andreia doesn’t occur in the New Testament, but a related verb does, once. The related verb andrizomai is used in 1 Corinthians 16:13 where it applies to men and women and is correctly translated as “be courageous”: “Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong.”
Being valiant, virtuous, self-controlled, and courageous are ideal qualities for all people, women and men, married or not.
Every Female Prophet in the Bible
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
1 Timothy 2:12, the created order, and Bible men who were guided by godly women
Women, Teaching and Deception
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
Lois and Eunice’s Faith and Family
A Sympathetic Look at Bathsheba
Leading Together in the Home (Honour your Mother and your Father)