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The Virtuous Wife from a Korean Perspective

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).

Prov 31:10-31 is a rare example in the Hebrew Bible of a female lead text. Its main character, the ‘ēšet ḥayil, is translated into English as a “virtuous woman” (KJV), “good wife” (CEV, MSG), “excellent wife” (ESV), “worthy woman” (AMP), “competent wife” (CEB), and “capable wife” (NRSV). Here, “a capable wife” is used, following the NRSV. 

The capable wife has become a model that some communities have used to encourage girls and women to act in a way that is considered praiseworthy. In Korean Christian culture, for instance, the capable wife has served as a model for domestic life.

What influenced Korean Christian readings of Proverbs 31?

The Hebrew word ḥayil connotes strength (1Sam 2:4) and army (Josh 1:14), but Prov 31 is one of the rare examples of the adjective being used for a woman. Instead of translating the Hebrew meaning, the Korean translation adopts a Confucian understanding. When the Bible was first translated into the Korean language in the fourteenth century CE, Confucianism was a dominant ideology in the country. As such, it had an enormous influence on the entire nation and its people, especially women’s lives. It also influenced how the Bible was translated. In the case of Prov 31, the “capable wife” was translated as a “wise and virtuous woman,” which resonates with the idea of a “virtuous wife” in Korean Confucianism.

How is the capable wife of Proverbs like the virtuous wife of Korean Confucianism?

Throughout history, some have read the capable wife of Proverbs as an ideal woman, teaching how to be a faithful and praiseworthy woman. Specifically, the capable wife is a trustworthy wife, laudable mother, and a woman who praises YHWH. Her productive labors bring benefits to the household, honor to her husband, leadership to the servants, helping hands to the community, and wisdom to her children. She is the superwoman who has done perfectly. She is an ideal who is far more valuable than precious jewels.

Likewise, in Korean Confucianism, a virtuous woman is one whose conduct, speech, behaviors, appearance, and service are morally virtuous; she is well-behaved, diligent, and obedient to the husband. Indeed, Confucian teachings praise women for their selfless, sacrificial services for the household. Virtuous women are productive, resourceful wives. At times, they are also the breadwinners who make a living and support their husbands to be government officials and prominent scholars. 

Traditional Korean interpretations of the virtuous woman in Prov 31 are not far from the Confucian ideal. Prominent pastors and Christian leaders often preach that the virtuous wife is diligent in household chores and supportive of her household. She willingly sacrifices herself for her husband and children, believing that this is the noblest and most virtuous duty for women. These interpretations present the capable wife as a stereotypical, traditional Confucian woman who sacrificially serves the household. Moreover, these interpretations encourage women to dedicate themselves to domestic life as wise and virtuous women in the Confucian norm. These interpretations teach girls and women to support their husbands; that is what it meant to be a woman within the created order. 

Such a message has limitations: It limits women’s role to that of housewives and attempts to discourage women from achieving and cultivating themselves. It also runs the risk of creating weak, vulnerable men who are incapable of thriving without the support of their wives. In other words, it creates defective human ideals about men and women. While some women and men benefit from this human ideal, many Christian women, over the course of the text’s interpretative history, have suffered from trying to fit themselves into the model of a virtuous woman. 

However, the Confucian notion of the virtuous woman is not only oppressive. While it has limited women’s place to the household, some women who have followed this ideal have survived and even thrived, expanding their abilities and skills unexpectedly. They have become the behind-the-scenes bosses who drive the household. Women have attained wisdom from their experiences and have become warriors who navigate autonomously and wisely as they make their names known, even more than their husbands. 

Some have read the capable wife as reflective of an actual ancient Israelite woman. Whether or not that is the case, the capable wife of Proverbs reflects a woman who can thrive in patriarchal society by showing a strategic mode of survival. The capable wife is one who works diligently and productively without losing dignity. She is known for her wisdom and kindness (Prov 31:25-26). Likewise, reading the virtuous woman in Prov 31:10-31 today from the Korean Confucian perspective affirms that women cannot only survive, but they can thrive in limited and restrictive circumstances. The virtuous woman will not be constrained but can use her gifts and skills to advance her situation. In this regard, Prov 31:10-31 is not an entirely oppressive text, but it teaches wisdom for life, especially for women.

  • Kang-Sun-Ah

    Sun-Ah Kang is a PhD student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) and a Provisional Elder in Northern Illinois Conference (UMC), serving local churches. She contributed an article, “Rereading “a Virtuous Woman (’ēšet hayil)” in Proverbs 31:10–31” to Landscapes of Korean and Korean American Biblical Interpretation (SBL Press, 2019) and “A Redemptive Reading of Proverbs 31:10–31 in the Context of the Comfort Women” to Political Theology’s Symposium series (2020).