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Proverbs 31 as an Acrostic Poem

A translation of Proverbs 31 showing the alphabetic acrostic found in the Hebrrew text.  The words in the center read "woman of valor" (eshet hayil).
A tumbled down, and hurt his Arm, against a bit of wood.
B said, ‘My Boy, O! do not cry; it cannot do you good!’
—Edward Lear

Try to name a nonfantastical animal that starts with the letter U and you will understand the challenge of creating an acrostic poem. Acrostic poems draw attention to the first letter of each line, and in Prov 31:10-31, the first letter of each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet—v. 10 begins with aleph, v. 11 with bet, and so on through the 22 letters to v. 31, which begins with the final letter, tav. Although this poetic device makes Prov 31:10-31 stand out in the book of Proverbs, acrostics can be found in several other places in the Bible. Most appear in the Psalms (Ps 9, Ps 10, Ps 25, Ps 34, Ps 37, Ps 111, Ps 112, Ps 119, Ps 145), but prophetic literature (Nah 1) and Wisdom literature (Sir 51, Lam 1-4) also use acrostics.

The technical term for these poems is abecedarian, because they use the acrostic device only to make alphabets. Other acrostic poems do even more, spelling names or phrases. For example, the Babylonian Theodicy uses the initial letter of each stanza to spell out a sentence declaring the scribe’s devotion to his king and god. Alternatively, Lewis Carroll closes Through the Looking Glass with a poem whose initial letters spell out Alice Pleasance Liddell, the name of the girl on whom his fictional Alice may be based.

The purposes of alphabetic acrostics vary by the poem, but some scholars have suggested that it was an aid for oral memorization. More likely, though, because they are so difficult to compose, acrostics were an ostentatious show of scribal technique, an ancient version of the antics of the French Oulipo group, who do things like write entire books without the letter E.

Ps 119 has drawn criticism in this regard: its meticulously composed acrostic structure, with 22 eight-line alphabetic stanzas, can be overwhelming. The eight lines of the first stanza begin with aleph, the next eight lines in the second stanza begin with bet, and so on, for 22 stanzas. That is not to say that the acrostic cannot be a device of great power. In the book of Lamentations, the first two chapters’ acrostics build toward the extremely structured and overflowing threefold acrostic in chapter 3. Not coincidentally, that chapter is the part of Lamentations most filled with promise for a new future. However, Lamentations does not end on a note of hopeful expectation. Lam 4-5 gradually abandons the acrostic, and the book concludes with a deflated nonacrostic poem whose 22-lines are but a reminder of the hope suggested by Lam 3. The acrostic form echoes through Lamentations even in its absence.

In Prov 31:10-31, too, the acrostic form fits the purpose of the poem and the book. This poem paints a picture of a woman who embodies real, practical wisdom from A to Z, or from aleph to tav. Yet, as Carol Meyers points out, this poem does not in fact exhaust the scope of practical economic activity for ancient Israelite women. The acrostic form may therefore be helping to communicate something that the poem’s content does not. Even further, the fact that Proverbs’ only acrostic section shows strong links with major themes of the book (the preciousness of wisdom and the difficulty of obtaining it, the fear of the Lord) shows that the “strong woman” is not just some kind of afterthought but is an essential portrayal of wisdom.

  • Sean Burt

    Sean Burt is an assistant professor in religious studies and English at North Dakota State University. His research interests include Persian-period Judaism, genre theory, and the Psalms. He is the author of The Courtier and the Governor: Transformations of Genre in the Nehemiah Memoir (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).