There has been much discussion by scholars about who the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 refers to, and there are two major opinions about it. One is that since the Hebrew text of the first 30 chapters of Proverbs is very predominantly male-oriented, the last section of Proverbs refers to the ideal wife. The second opinion is that starting in Proverbs 1:20 and going throughout the book, wisdom (and understanding, discretion, and discernment) and folly have been personified as women, while the people they are trying to influence are men. In that light, it makes sense that Proverbs 31:10-31 is simply continuing that flow of thought and portraying the ideal wife as the embodiment of Wisdom.
We see value in both opinions. We see that Proverbs 31 is portraying an ideal wife in the sense that an ideal wife (and the ideal woman) should strive to be as much like the woman in Proverbs 31 as her circumstances and culture allow. Nevertheless, there are problems with trying to make all of Proverbs 31:10-31 fit with a literal “wise wife.” As Roland Murphy writes, “Who could achieve in many lifetimes what she achieves in these verses.”a Furthermore, there are several things mentioned in Proverbs 31 that would not be “ideal” for a woman in the biblical culture. These include going out into the world and trading (Prov. 31:11); buying and selling land (Prov. 31:16), and tying her clothes up around her waist (Prov. 31:17).
Thus, we see how and why Proverbs 31 is portraying Wisdom as a wife, and that the lessons in the section generally apply to both men and women. In the same way that the Hebrew text of Proverbs 1:4 is specifically addressed to the “young man,” but many versions read “youth” or “young person” because the lessons apply to women also, in Proverbs 31 the ideal wife is an embodiment of wisdom and the lessons apply to both men and women.
Wisdom and Folly are personified as women throughout Proverbs, and the personification is designed to make a point and also to make the text easy to understand. When Lady Wisdom calls out to the naïve men and invites them to come to her house and eat her food and live (Prov. 9:1-6), and the adulteress Lady Folly calls out to the naïve men and invites them to come to her house and eat secret bread and drink stolen waters, that is, have sex (Prov. 9:13-18), we are not to assume that all wise and foolish people are women and all naïve people are men. These are personifications and general portraits that allow us to see wisdom and folly in action, and show us the value in being wise rather than foolish. Nevertheless, in Proverbs 9, as in Proverbs 31, we do see that there is also a “real” aspect to the personification. The reason the personification and story in Proverbs 9 works so well is that there are a lot of naïve and foolish young men who will ignore the invitation of Wisdom and go visit a prostitute or an adulteress who is boisterous, pushy, glamorous, and offers sex.
Another piece of evidence that supports the position that the wife in Proverbs 31 is a continuation of the personification of Wisdom throughout Proverbs, a piece of evidence that is not mentioned by a large number of commentators, is that there is a very strong connection between what the wife in Proverbs 31 does and what Wisdom does earlier in Proverbs. For example, the wife is worth more than gems (Prov. 31:10), and Wisdom is worth more than gems (Prov. 3:15; 8:11). The wife does her husband good and not evil (Prov. 31:12), while Wisdom helps us find a good way of life (Prov. 2:9-10) and hates evil (Prov. 8:12-13). The wife profits the household and is like the “ships of a merchant,” while Wisdom also brings in profit (Prov. 3:14). The wife gets food and provides it for her household (Prov. 31:14-15), while Wisdom also procures and provides food (Prov. 9:1-2). The wife has jobs for her female servants (Prov. 31:15), and Wisdom has jobs for her female servants (Prov. 9:3). The wife deals well and has “fruit” (profit) from her labor (Prov. 31:16), while Wisdom has “fruit” that is better than gold (Prov. 8:19). The wife girds herself with strength (Prov. 31:17), while a wise person has strength (Prov. 24:5). The wife perceives her “gain” (profit from trading) is good (Prov. 31:18), and Wisdom’s gain is better than silver (Prov. 3:14). The wife laughs at the future, revealing her playful nature (Prov. 31:25), while Wisdom laughed and played when God was making the earth (Prov. 8:30-31). The wife watches over her household (Prov. 31:27) just as Wisdom and her female attendants watch and guard us (Prov. 2:10-11). Given all that, we can see why T. McCreesh concludes, “chapter 31 is the book’s final masterful portrait of Wisdom.”b
Another thing that is worth noting in comparing the wife in Proverbs 31 to Wisdom is that there is a pun about “wisdom” in the Hebrew text of Proverbs 31:27. The Hebrew says, “she keeps watch” but the exact Hebrew word is tsophia (צוֹפִיָּה), a form of the verb that occurs only here in the entire Hebrew Bible and that is pronounced almost exactly like sophia, the Greek word for “wisdom.” Sometimes language puns happen accidentally, and that cannot be completely ruled out here, nevertheless, the fact that this Hebrew verb occurs only here in the entire Bible, combined with the fact that all of Proverbs has been about wisdom and this is the closing section of the book of Proverbs, is quite good evidence that this was not an accident but a divinely constructed pun. So the verse clearly seems to have a sort of “hidden meaning” along with the more obvious meaning, one that says, “‘wisdom’ is the way of her household.” It makes sense that the way of Wisdom’s household would be wisdom.
We conclude that Proverbs 31:10-31 is a portrait of Lady Wisdom, as embodied in a strong woman. Women can and should try to emulate Wisdom, and men can learn from her as well.
[For more on the figure of speech personification, see commentary on Prov. 1:20, “wisdom.”]
“gems.” The Hebrew word paniyn (#06443 פָּנִין) is traditionally translated “rubies,” but it seems that cannot be correct. Rubies were not known in the Middle East until much later than the time Proverbs was written. The most likely candidate for the word is “coral.” There is a very beautiful orange-red coral in the Mediterranean Sea that grows too deep to be gathered until modern times, so it was very rare and only occasionally washed up on the shore. So in biblical times, the coral was rare and therefore very valuable. Now it is just another coral, and although it is beautiful, it does not have much value.
The fact that the value of coral has changed dramatically causes a problem for translators because in biblical times Proverbs could say “coral” and everyone understood it would be like saying “diamonds” or “rubies” today. But those gems did not exist in the biblical period as we know them now, so introducing them causes a historical anachronism and error. On the other hand, literally translating the Hebrew and saying “coral” causes a different type of error, because in today’s language, you would be implying that, at her best, Wisdom (Prov. 3:15), and the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:10), were not worth very much.
The best compromise seems to be to translate the Hebrew word paniyn as “gems,” “jewels,” or some other more neutral word that gets across the meaning of a precious stone or gem without specifying the exact gem.
This problem that happens with the value of items from culture to culture and throughout time shows up in a number of places in the Bible. For example, at the time of Christ, the pearl was the apex gem in the culture due to its rarity, and until the invention of cultured pearls and then the scuba tank, pearls were always very expensive and highly valued. But now they are not nearly as valuable as they once were.
[For more on pearls in the biblical culture, see commentary on Matthew 13:45.]