Maria Steward, who wrote this week’s reading “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” was an abolitionist and a feminist, famous for speaking in front of a mixed audience featuring men and women, blacks and whites. Maria was a devote Christian and employed many Biblical allusions and direct quotations in her works. What caught my eye in “Religion” was her use of Proverbs 31.
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. Blessed is the man who shall call her his wife; yea, happy is the child who shall call her mother. O, woman, woman, would thou only strive to excel in merit and virtue; would thou only store thy mind with useful knowledge, great would be thine influence. Do you say, you are too far advanced in life now to begin? You are not too far advanced to instil these principles into the minds of your tender infants. Let them by no means be neglected. Discharge your duty faithfully, in every point of view: leave the event with God. So shall your skirts become clear of their blood.
In this passage, she is quoting Proverbs 31: 10, the King James Version, directly: “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” She goes on to paraphrase other parts of the verse, emphasizing the woman’s family, who are happy and blessed, as well as the way the woman should for excellence in merit and virtue and gain more knowledge in order to influence the world. Maria says even women who feel they are too old or not able to influence the world can still do these things and teach excellence and wisdom to their children. If they do not do this, Maria warns, they will be held accountable to the blood of slaves, as
Never, no, never will the chains of slavery and ignorance burst till we become united as one, and cultivate among ourselves the pure principles of piety, morality and virtue.
Maria uses strong imagery here, urging women to be strong and forceful in their fight for virtue and therefore to end slavery. She chose an apt passage to impart strength to women, though she may not have know how apt. Proverbs 31 would likely have only been available to Maria in the King James translation, which is transcribed below. But more recent scholarship into the Hebrew language and its implications in Proverbs 31 reveal the passage is about much more than a “virtuous” housewife. In fact, some scholars suggest the virtuous woman is better called the “valorous woman.”
The King James Version of the poem reads:
The Virtuous Wife
10Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, so that he shall have no lack of gain.
15She rises also while it is yet night, and gives food to her household, and a portion to her maidservants.
17She girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.
25Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26She opens her mouth with wisdom; and on her tongue is the law of kindness.
27She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness.
28Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.
The entire passage can be found here. Unfortunately, the verbs in most of English Bibles fall short of the poems meaning. Rachel Held Evans researched this topic extensively for her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and she found the Hebrew verbs here are militaristic verbs. When the passage says she “Gives food to her household,” the literal translation is “Prey” (v.15). Other warrior parallels include her husband lacks nothing of value, it literally says he lacks no “Booty” (v. 11), “She girds herself with strength” (v, 17), “Strength and honor are her clothing” (v. 25), “She shall rejoice in time to come” literally “laugh in victory” (v. 25), and “She looks well to the ways of her household” is literally “Spies over the affairs…” (v.27). The heroic language in the poem is amplified by its form: its structure is closely related to heroic poetry celebrating the deeds of warriors.
Hebrew culture still recognizes this passage as a poem celebrating all women do in the home and in the world, many things which are often overlooked. In fact, Jewish husbands sing the poem to their wives every Sabbath, and eshet chayil (woman of valor!) is a common praise among modern Jewish women. I love how Maria Stewart picked one of the seemingly more passive Bible passages about women (especially as interpreted by modern Christians!) and used it to it’s original intent, inspiring women to go forth and do battle for their children, their families, and their communities.