Valour: How Biblical translation has failed the “chayil” woman.

Valour/Valiant: Chayil (Strong’s 2428)

Root: חָ֫יִל (chet, yod, lamed)  [Pronounced kai-EEL]

Valour or valiant is one of the most prevalent words in the Old Testament and it has an complicated translation history.

Here is what thefreedictionary.com says about valour:

VALOUR – the qualities of a hero or heroine; exceptional or heroic courage when facing danger (especially in battle).

Certainly this definition fits with how chayil is used in the Old Testament. The following are some examples in the Old Testament where the word is used. The bracketed words are the English translation of chayil commonly used in that particular verse.

Judges 6:12

The angel of YHWH appeared to him (Gideon) and said to him, “YHWH is with you, O mighty one of chayil [valour]”

Judges 20:46

So all of Benjamin who fell that day were 25,000 men who draw the sword; all these were chayil [valiant warriors].

1 Samuel 9:1a

Now there was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjamite, a chayil [mighty man of valour]. He had a son whose name was Saul…

1 Chronicles 5:18

The sons of Reuben and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, consisting of chayil [valiant men] who bore shield and sword and shot with bow and were skillful in battle, were 44,760, who went to war.

Ezekiel 37:3-6, 10

He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.” Again He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of YHWH.’ “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am YHWH.’”…So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great chayil [army].

Over & over chayil is represented as someone in God’s army. It is translated as valiant warriors, capable men, strong & powerful, a great army, mighty soldiers… descriptions considered rich in masculine imagery.

But what happens when the word chayil is used to describe a woman? Well, nothing should happen because it means the same thing: strong, courageous, powerful, valiant, warrior! But, unfortunately, translation has not been so kind.

The silhouette of a warrior woman with storm clouds in the background.
Picture from: https://ministrytodaymag.com/life/women/22137-women-of-god-get-your-ezer-on

Chayil is used to describe women four times in the Old Testament. Only once is it connected to a specific woman (Ruth). Although valour, strength, mighty warrior are the usual translation for this word, when it comes to women the translation becomes warped. In the following passages the bracketed words are the English translation of chayil commonly used in that particular verse:

Ruth 3:11

Boaz to Ruth: And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All of my people in the town know that you are a woman of chayil. [virtue/noble character].

Proverbs 12:4

A chayil [virtuous/excellent/chaste] wife is the crown of her husband, but she who shames him is like rottenness in his bones.

Proverbs 31, often referred to as the the Virtuous Wife chapter, is debatable. Many think it is a description of the ideal wife, given by King Lemuel’s mother. It could also be a description of the personification of wisdom, commonly referred to as a “she” in Proverbs, who everyone, men and women, should aspire to. Either way, by using the words “excellent” and “noble” the translators have painted the wrong picture:

Proverbs 31:10

A chayil [excellent] wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels.

Proverbs 31:29

Many daughters have chayil [done nobly], but you excel them all.

For a woman chayil has been translated as virtuous, chaste, excellent, noble. But this is incorrect. It should be valour and strength?

Many daughters have chayil [valour and strength], but you excel them all.

Virtue is often described as moral excellence and purity; although great qualities these are not really the same thing as chayil. Nobility is a person of honour, integrity and decency, but again these are not really the same thing as chayil.

Why is the word chayil translated differently depending on gender?

Unfortunately sexist translations have shut down the Biblical image of the Warrior Woman. A history of inequality is the issue… and it is for this reason that studying scripture in the original language is the best course of action. Understandably this can’t happen for everyone, but it is good to at least be aware that our translations don’t always give us the best or most accurate rendering of the Bible.

Ruth

Just like the men, women are referred to as chayil… they are heroic and courageous when facing danger; they are strong, valiant and powerful. This is how Boaz defines Ruth:

All of my people in the town know that you are a woman of chayil.

According to Boaz Ruth is strong and heroic in the face of danger… and all of  Boaz’s people within the town of Bethlehem know it! But how?

Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi were in danger. They were existing in serious poverty, close to starvation. As was the cultural custom when a woman found herself in such a situation they were to go to the nearest family member for help. So, Naomi and Ruth headed to Bethlehem to find a relative to rescue them. Boaz, although not the closest relative in Naomi’s family (he was the second closest), was there to help them. Upon Naomi’s suggestion Ruth, in a symbolic act of bravely, snuck into a place where only men were allowed and laid by the feet of Boaz as he slept:

Ruth 3:7-14

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”

“The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All of my people in the town know that you are a woman of chayil. Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”

So Boaz recognizes her bravery coming to a place forbidden to women and sleeping by a man all night long. By cultural standards this is a scandalous act but Boaz does not flinch a bit. He sees it for what it is, strength and bravery. For Ruth, with Naomi’s encouragement, is symbolically declaring her right, as a kinswoman, to demand Boaz’s assistance. This is not a meek, mild, girl; this is strong and courageous woman!

This explains how Boaz saw Ruth as chayil, but how about the rest of Boaz’s people within Bethlehem? How do they know that she is a warrior [chayil] woman? To understand that we need to go back to the beginning of Ruth and Naomi’s story:

Naomi had two daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah. Both were Moabite women. When Naomi’s husband and two sons died she gave her daughters-in-law the option of returning to their Moabite families, leaving Naomi alone to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. Orpah chooses to return to her birth family. Ruth does not.

Ruth 1:15-17

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

Ruth had the option of leaving Naomi (likely to her death) and returning to her Moabite family, but her choice to stay shows strength and valour on many levels:

  1. The safe and easy choice would be to return to her local family. The long journey to Bethlehem with absolutely no means of income, no shelter, no food (apart from what they might be able to scavenge) was incredibly dangerous. Two women, traveling alone on unsafe roads, facing starvation… to choose that option is an act of courage in the face of danger. Facing death and uncertainty, and without reservation, is an act of heroic courage. This is chayil.
  2. Ruth was a Moabite who converted to Judaism and saved her mother-in-law Naomi. Although this was a choice she likely made when marrying into her husband’s family, she had the option of giving it up and going home to her old gods. But unlike conversion upon marriage, which came at that time with benefits of status and financial stability, Ruth converts with no evident benefits. She bravely trusts in Naomi’s God, even when they are at the lowest point in their lives. This is what valiant strength looks like. This is chayil.
  3. Ruth also bravely made a promise. She would live and die, and be buried, with Naomi. I believe she recognized, in their dire poverty, that death might very well be soon. And if she failed in her promise she would call on God to inflict severe punishment upon her. This is a warrior woman… taking a stance and being willing to die for it. This is chayil.

What is a warrior? A warrior faces death and uncertainty, they soldier on even at the lowest point in their lives, and they take a stance and are willing to die for it. Ruth is a warrior woman!

The townsfolk would have known Naomi and they knew the dangerous sacrifice Ruth made to save her. They saw Ruth as a chayil (warrior) woman, defending a beloved member of their town. Ruth brought Naomi safely to Bethlehem, and through her actions she provided nourishment for them, she established a home for them, and she gave them a future. And this future included the Messiah, for Ruth is one of only five women (including Mary) named in the genealogy of Yeshua.

Why is Ruth a warrior woman? Because, as the old song says, “the Bible tells us so”.

We need to be chayil people, women and men of heroic courage, strength, and valour. For we have been given the tools to change the world with YHWH’s love.

Next week’s word: Life

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