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This Sunday School Study Guide is provided free of cost for personal study and as an aid for Sunday School teachers.  It contains copyright material and may not be reproduced in any form for sale, without permission from the copyright holders.  


Bailey Sadler Class



Study Theme:  Re-Finance: Ancient Wisdom For Modern Money Management

What This Lesson Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

The focus for this study is on how a believer should act with respect to his/her responsibly to manage what God has given to each one.


July 17

View Money Properly


July 24

Make Agreements Cautiously


July 31

Earn Money Productively


Aug. 07

Manage Money Diligently


Aug. 14

Invest Money Wisely


Aug. 21

Give Money Generously


Aug. 28

Love Gets Involved


Act responsibly with what God has given you.


Proverbs 31:13-21





Be Enterprising With Your Assets  (Prov. 31:13-15)

Be Diligent About Business  (Prov. 31:16-17)

Be Industrious  (Prov. 31:18-21)


Proverbs 31 is titled “The words of King Lemuel” (Prov. 31:1). Not much is known about Lemuel, but his kingdom may have been located in north Arabia, near Edom. The admonitions of Lemuel, which he learned from his mother (v. 1), include the subjects of women, the dangers of alcohol, and the rights of the poor and needy (vv. 2-9). The majority of the chapter is taken up with a description of character and qualities of a desirable wife (vv. 10-31). 

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


Earning a paycheck is one thing; budgeting and using that money wisely is another thing. Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck. The example of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 gives us an example on managing the money and assets we’ve been given.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


Be Enterprising With Your Assets  (Prov. 31:13-15)

13 She selects wool and flax and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and portions for her female servants.








1.   What does the word “enterprising” mean?  (See Digging Deeper.)

2.   What does it mean, then, to be “enterprising” with your assets?

3.   Who was King Lemuel (in Prov. 31:1)? (See “Setting” above & “Lemuel” in Digging Deeper.)

4.   Based on this passage, what did this good woman do to provide for the basic needs of her family?

5.   Based on verse 13, what does the writer’s use of “willing hands” imply?

6.   How would you describe the attitude behind “willing hands”?

7.   What words suggest she went beyond just doing what was expected but used her assets to maximum potential?

8.   What other skills do you see in her that suggest she was an enterprising woman?

9.   What are some ways we can initiate financial change in our own circumstances?

10.   Do you think being proactive in financial matters is a good policy to follow?  Why, or why not?

11.   Do you think that sometimes a lack of planning can cause us to make costly decisions?  If so, why?

12.   How would you describe the relationship between “attitude” and “stewardship”?

13.   How would you describe an attitude of “stewardship”?

14.   Where would you rate “money” on your list of family needs”

15.   Which of the three “Lasting Lessons” from this passage listed below, has the greatest meaning for you and your family?

16.   How does being a Christian impact how we view and manage our money?

17.   What light does Luke 16:10 (vv. 1113) shed on this passage?


Lasting Lessons in Prov. 31:13-15:

1.  Whether we produce goods or services, we need to be diligent about earning money for the family.

2.  Consuming must be done wisely.  It is not just a matter of careful consideration, taking into account budget, the quality of the purchase, and what the family will actually enjoy having.

3.  While working as producers and consumers, we cannot neglect basic duties around the home.  Money won’t do us any good if our homes are unpleasant to inhabit.



Be Diligent About Business  (Prov. 31:16-17)

16 She evaluates a field and buys it; she plants a vineyard with her earnings. 17 She draws on her strength and reveals that her arms are strong.

1.   What quality is attributed to the woman in these verses?

2.   How does she demonstrate wisdom and act responsibly (v. 16)?

3.   Based on this passage, what suggests she prepared herself for the work she undertook?

4.   What do you think it means to “draw” on one’s strength?

5.   For what is the woman described in verses 16-17 is known?

6.   How would you describe her attitude toward her financial situation?

7.   What does it mean to you to be diligent in the management of your finances?

8.   What are some things we could do to be more thoughtful in our spending?

9.   In what ways are seniors tempted to spend their money unwisely?

10.   Do you think using business skills would be have a positive impact on the way we run our homes?  Why, or why not?

11.   Do you think the roles of both men and women have changed since biblical days?

12.   If so, what roles do you think have changed the most: men’s roles; women’s roles?

13.   Do you think today’s roles are an improvement over those of ancient biblical times?  Why, or why not?


Lasting Lessons in Prov. 31:16-17:

1.  Our purchases need to be evaluated in terms of prudence, purpose, and potential—not whim, envy, or peer pressure.

2.  Wise investments or purchases are those that have potential to be productive and to provide for our future.

3.  We are to prepare ourselves for our work by strengthening ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually so we can give our best to its accomplishment.



Be Industrious  (Prov. 31:18-21)


18 She sees that her profits are good, and her lamp never goes out at night. 19 She extends her hands to the spinning staff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 Her hands reach out to the poor, and she extends her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all in her household are doubly clothed.

1.   What suggests this woman found her work to be high quality and personally satisfying?

2.   In what way was the woman personally invested in her work?

3.   Based on the entire focal passage (Prov. 31:13-21), what skill sets do you think she possessed?

4.   What part do you think discipline plays in our responsibility to our families today?

5.   Besides her household, who else benefited from her diligent use of her assets and skill sets?

6.   Why did the woman not have concerns about the well-being of her family when winter came?

7.   How would you describe the diligence and discipline of this virtuous woman?

8.   Do you think women, in general, display this degree of diligence and discipline in our society today?  Why, or why not?

9.   What message do you think this passage has for families and households in today’s society?

10.   Should our attitude toward the management of our homes provide some degree of help toward the needy in our community?  Why, or why not?

11.   What light does Ephesians 4:28 shed on sharing with the needy?

12.   Based on the entire focal passage, how would you summarize the lesson this study has for us today?


Lasting Lessons in Prov. 31:18-21:

1.  Each of us has jobs that we simply need to embrace, deliberately choosing to do them every day.

2.  We believe, as Paul taught, that we work not for ourselves alone but so we can give to others (see Eph. 4:28).

3.  One of the great rewards for hard work is earning the means to provide good things for one’s family.



What we see in this focal passage is a description of a responsible individual who was creative, industrious, astute, devoted, kind, and exemplary.  Much of what she did was the typical work of the woman for her family and household.  She, however, appears to have taken it to another level.  Rather than being satisfied with just doing what was expected, the woman described in theses verses was dedicated to fulfilling her fullest potential.  In looking at her life, we are reminded that we too ought to be committed to doing the best with what we have.  We may never achieve super-status, but that is not the goal.  The goal is to be respo9nsible in who we are and in how we used the internal and external assets at our disposal.  If we take the general principles and apply them to any individual, male or female, what a person he/she would be!

So where do you stand when it comes to comparison with this exemplary person?  On a scale of 1 (very low) to 10 (at the top) rate how your measure up to this exemplary person!  Where do you stand?  Do you need improvement?  Ask God to show you what area/s where you need improvement?  Then ask Him to show you how you can improve.  He stands ready to help!

What are the implications of these truths for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the center of God’s will.


Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.



Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

American Standard Version:  Proverbs 31:13-21

Proverbs 31:13-21 (ASV)

13 She seeketh wool and flax, And worketh willingly with her hands. 14 She is like the merchant-ships; She bringeth her bread from afar. 15 She riseth also while it is yet night, And giveth food to her household, And their task to her maidens. 16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it; With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17 She girdeth her loins with strength, And maketh strong her arms. 18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is profitable: Her lamp goeth not out by night. 19 She layeth her hands to the distaff, And her hands hold the spindle. 20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household; For all her household are clothed with scarlet.


King James Version:  Proverbs 31:13-21

Proverbs 31:13-21 (KJV)

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14 She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. 18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.


New International Version:  Proverbs 31:13-21

Proverbs 31:13-21 (NIV)

13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.


 (NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from four sources: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old Testament,Believer's Bible Commentary,The Complete Biblical Library Commentary,” and “The Moody Bible Commentary,” and is provided for your study.)


Lesson Outline — “Manage Money Diligently” — Proverbs 31:13-21




Be Enterprising With Your Assets  (Prov. 31:13-15)

Be Diligent About Business  (Prov. 31:16-17)

Be Industrious  (Prov. 31:18-21)


The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old Testament:  Proverbs 31:13-21

The Wife of Noble Character (31:10-21)

The Book of Proverbs comes to a close with the addition of this poem about the woman of valor. A careful reading of the passage will show that her value is derived from her character of godly wisdom that is beneficial to her family and to the community as a whole.

A. Praise in General (31:10-12)

31:10 The introductory rhetorical question establishes the point that the wife of noble character is not easily found; but when she is, she is a treasure. Her description as “a wife of noble character” (‘esheth -hayil) signifies that she possesses all the virtues, honor, and strength to do the things that the poem will set forth. It is interesting to notice that this woman, like wisdom, is worth more than rubies (cf. 3:15; 8:11).

31:11-12 The noble woman’s husband lacks nothing of value. The term shalal (“value,” v. 11) usually means “plunder”; the point may be that the gain will be as rich and bountiful as the spoils of war. The capable woman inspires the confidence of her husband because in her business and domestic enterprises she proves able (v. 12; cf. 1 Sam 24:2). In any marriage, but especially when a large household is involved, such trust in the wife’s abilities is essential.

B. Industrial Pursuits of the Household (31:13-15)

31:13-15 Now the cataloging of activities begins. The picture presented is of a large household that requires supervision. All indicators suggest that it is a wealthy and honorable household. This noble woman takes the responsibility to see that food and clothing are provided, making the choices, working with her hands, and ensuring that the food for the day will be there. The simile with the merchant ships suggests that she brings a continual supply of abundance.

C. Financial Enterprise (31:16-18)

31:16-18 This part of the account portrays the noble wife as a shrewd business woman, making wise investments from her earnings. There is no foolish purchasing nor indebtedness here. Verse 17 literally says that she “girds her loins with strength”—she is a vigorous and tireless worker, for girding is an expression for preparation for serious work. Consequently she learns by experience that her efforts are profitable. The last line of v. 18 may simply mean that she burns the midnight oil in following through a business opportunity (McKane, p. 668), although it might signify that her house was flourishing without calamity (cf. Job 18:6; Jer 25:10).

D. Provision for the Family and the Poor (31:19-21)

31:19 Verse 19 focuses on the domestic activity of spinning: the “distaff” is the straight rod, and the “spindle” is the round or circular part. She “stretches out” (NIV, “holds”) her hand to the work to provide clothing.

31:20. The noble wife also provides for the poor. The text literally says that she “opens her palm” to the poor; i.e, she gives to the poor with liberality (Ps 112:9). This was the hand that was diligently at work in the previous verse with an acquired skill; it is not the hand of a lazy, wealthy woman. She uses her industry in charitable ways.

31:21. Moreover, the noble wife is well prepared for the future. When faced with cold, her family has warm clothes to wear. The word “scarlet” could be read also as “two cloaks,” suggesting double garments for warmth

SOURCE: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General Editor; Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers


Believer's Bible Commentary: Proverbs 31:13-31

The Ideal Wife and Mother (31:10-31)

The closing section of the book describes the ideal wife. It is written in the form of an acrostic, each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in proper order. Knox's translation attempts to reproduce this acrostic style in English, using twenty-two of our twenty-six letters.

31:10-12.  A virtuous or fine wife is one who is capable, diligent, worthy, and good. Her worth cannot be measured in terms of costly jewels. Her husband can have full confidence in her, with no need to fear any lack of honest gain. Her finest efforts are put forth to help him; she never fails to cooperate.

31:13-15.  She is always on the lookout for wool and flax, and enjoys converting them into cloth. On her shopping trips, she is like the merchant ships that return to port laden with produce from afar. See her going to the supermarket, loading her shopping cart with the best bargains. She also rises before daybreak to prepare food for her household. The portion she gives to her maidservants may include not only their breakfast but their work assignments for the day.

31:16-18.  When she hears that some nearby field is for sale, she goes out to see it. It is just what she needs, so she buys it, then industriously plants a vineyard with money she has earned. She prepares herself for her tasks with great vigor and enthusiasm. She is not afraid of strenuous work. She takes a quiet, humble satisfaction in the results of her labor. After the others have gone to bed, she often works late into the night.

31:19-22.  She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hand holds the spindle, that is, she busies herself spinning wool and flax into yarn and thread. In addition to all this, she finds time to help the needy. She unselfishly shares with those who are less fortunate. She does not dread the approach of winter because there is plenty of warm clothing in the closets. She makes tapestry for herself; her own clothing is fine linen and purple.

31:23.  Her husband is a man of prominence in the community. He sits at the gates with the elders. He can devote himself to public affairs without worrying about conditions at home.

31:24-27.  His wife weaves linen garments and sells them at the market. She also earns money by supplying sashes to the merchants. Clothed with industry and dignity, she faces the future with confidence. The instruction she gives to her family is a balance of wisdom and kindness. She keeps in close touch with the affairs of her household, and does not waste time or engage in shallow, unproductive activity.

31:28,29.  Her children realize that she is an outstanding mother, and they tell her so. Her husband also praises her as a God-given wife. He says, "There are many good wives in the world, but you excel them all."

31:30,31.  The writer now adds his amen to what the husband has just said. It is true. A woman may have charm but no common sense. She may be beautiful but impractical. But a woman who fears the Lord, as described above, is the best kind. Let her be honored for her diligence and noble character. When the town fathers meet at the civic center, let them praise her outstanding accomplishments.

It is noteworthy and fitting that Proverbs should end on this very positive note about women. Three women have been prominent in this book: the personification of Wisdom, seen as a woman inviting learners to her banquet, the immoral woman or seductress, and finally, the "woman (or wife) of valor," as the literal translation reads in 31:10 (NKJV margin).

SOURCE: Believer's Bible Commentary; by William MacDonald; Copyright © 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.


The Complete Biblical Library Commentary:  Proverbs 31:13-22

The poem describes a prosperous and extensive household of the upper class. She is not, however, a woman “of leisure.” She oversees the production of food and clothing for the household (vv. 13ff, 19, 21f), as well as for trade or barter (v. 24), and has financial resources to buy and develop property (v. 16), although whether these resources are her own or her husband’s is not specified. Part of this freedom is the result of her husband’s trust (v. 11), which she has earned by the pattern of her life (v. 12).

Another caution against the despair that often attends reading this poem is that, although the poem certainly emphasizes her industry, it does not necessarily teach that she does all these deeds personally, any more than the statements that Solomon built the Temple mean that he carved and set the stones or poured the bronze himself (1 Ki. 5:17-7:51). She had servants who doubtless did some of it (v. 15), although she also participated and was ultimately responsible. The clear implication is that she understood her responsibilities and submitted to the Lord her plans for meeting them.

31:10-12.  An excellent wife is rare and therefore precious (cf. Ecc. 7:27ff). Since she is rare, she must be “found,” like rare jewels and wisdom itself (cf. Prov. 2:1-4). This implies a careful search, a search that is rewarded by the favor of God (cf. 18:22; 19:14). Her way of life gains her husband’s trust (v. 11), since everything that she does is good for him also (v. 12; cf. 12:4). The rest of the poem expands this theme of the blessing that her diligence brings to her household, and thus to her husband.

Her husband’s “good” (v. 12) is literally “spoil” or “booty,” a military image that seems out of place in this portrait of domestic life, but that probably reflects the variety of good that she brings him. Just as the spoils of war might include cattle, slaves, precious metals and valuable clothing, her bounty provides many kinds of benefits.

31:13-14.  When it is time to find materials, she does so intentionally and carefully, searching out the best wool and flax, whether from her own property or in the marketplace. These are the raw materials from which she will make clothing for herself (v. 22), her household (v. 21), and to sell (v. 24). Her delight in her work grows out of her relationship to the Lord (v. 30), since every part of her life, even this chore, lies within that relationship.

Verse 14 also shows her willingness to search out that which is best for her household. The point is not the distance that she travels, but that she does whatever is necessary to provide their needs.

31:15.  Not only is she careful to seek what is best, she disciplines herself to meet their needs at the right time. Since they worked mainly with hand tools, and since they could not work after dark, every moment of daylight would have been precious. Rising before sunrise to feed them would enable them to work in the fields throughout the entire day.

The third line could mean either that she provided specifically for her maidservants (cf. 27:27) or that she prescribed tasks for them, since the word can mean “prescribed portion” (cf. Prov. 30:8) or “prescribed duty” (the word is most frequently translated “statute”). The parallel with “food” (v. 5b; lit., “prey”) suggests that this is their portion of food, but, since they would have been part of her household (v. 15b), this is probably intended to suggest that she is as careful about seeing that the servants fulfill their duties as she is to see that they (and everyone else) are fed.

31:16.  Just as she seeks out the best materials (vv. 13ff), she also acts carefully when dealing in real estate. The yield of this field and vineyard will be two further means of supporting her household, either directly, by providing food for them, or by providing income from the sale of the produce. Her care in choosing demonstrates that she is weighing the consequences of this choice. Nothing is done out of impulse. The process described here also needs to be understood in light of the emphasis in Proverbs on the wisdom of seeking counsel. She knows where and how to get good advice when making decisions (cf. 11:14; 12:15; 15:22; 19:20; 20:18; 21:30f; 24:5f; 27:9).

31:17.  Like v. 13b, which says that she delights in the work she has to do, this verse also shows that she works industriously and diligently, not reluctantly or with a slack hand (cf. the warnings against laziness throughout the Book). Both images can refer to preparation for a task (on “gird,” cf. Exo. 12:11; 2 Ki. 4:29; 9:1; “strengthen,” cf. Amos 2:14; Nah. 2:1). She understands that whatever must be done should be done well (cf. Ecc. 9:10).

31:18.  She knows by experience (“tastes,” cf. Ps. 34:9) that her return for her labor is worthwhile. This verse strengthens the parallel of a life lived wisely with wisdom itself, since the word for “gain” (HED #5693; so NASB; “merchandise,” NRSV) occurs in only one other verse in Proverbs, where it describes the value of wisdom itself (3:14). Together with v. 15a, the second line of this verse implies that she is the first to rise and the last to go to bed. This may reflect the self-sacrifice inherent in such a life.

31:19-20.  Although these verses appear to address two different topics, industry and generosity, they are bound by their objects, which are named chiastically (“Her hands she reaches... and her palms,” “Her palm... and her hands she reaches”). This structure underlines the close connection between industry and generosity, which is addressed in 21:25f. Only the diligent have enough to be generous; the lazy lack even what they need for themselves (cf. 19:15; 20:13). Generosity in its turn is frequently commended as evidence of wise living, in the fear of the Lord (cf. 11:24ff; 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9, 16; 28:27).

31:21-22.  Red dye was expensive; scarlet clothing was a sign that they were well-prepared for harsh weather with the best clothing that could be made. Her own clothing is also of the highest quality. Perhaps the linen had been spun and woven from the flax that she had purchased (v. 13), although some scholars think that “linen” and “purple” specify imported goods. Although there is a difference between “red” and “purple” (both most frequently describe the materials of the Tabernacle; cf. Exo. 25-28, 35-39), the exact shade of these colors is unknown, although both here refer to clothing made from dyed fabric, and both, whether purchased as fabric, dye or dyed fabric, would have been quite expensive. It is easy (and misleading) to over-interpret differences between parallel lines (see “Overview”), but the poet does mention the wife’s concern and provision for her household before describing her own clothing.

SOURCE: The Complete Biblical Library Commentary - Proverbs-Song of Songs.  Copyright © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.


The Moody Bible Commentary:  Proverbs 31:13-22

The Excellent Wife (31:10-22)

This famous poem is an acrostic in Hebrew. Each verse begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, giving the reader the impression of a complete "A to Z" picture of this godly woman (Waltke, Book of Proverbs 15-31, 514). It is probably a heroic poem, a genre which typically sings the praises of a military hero (Longman, Proverbs, 539-40). She is no less valiant, being a reflection of Lady Wisdom herself. Young men need to be reminded of the kind of women they should seek for a spouse. Plus, she serves as an example for women of all ages to emulate as well.

31:10.  The excellent wife is literally called a "woman/wife of strength or valor" ('eshet chayil). She is strong in competence and character (Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 891; cf. Ru 3:11; Pr 19:14). The rhetorical question (who can find such a woman?) does not deny her existence. It rather highlights how rare and precious she is, even far beyond jewels (cf. 8:11). A man with such a wife has a rare treasure indeed (cf. 12:4).

31:11-12.  Her husband can readily see her worth. He trusts in her completely, with full confidence (v. 11a). And he has good reason, for through her he will have no lack of gain (v. 11b). Gain is a military term meaning "spoil" or "booty." This suggests that she is like "a warrior in the battle of life" who wins plunder for her family, to their benefit (Longman, Proverbs, 543). Indeed, all throughout her life she is a great asset to him, committed to consistently do him good and not evil (v. 12).

31:13.  Wool and flax were needed to make clothes for her family. She not only seeks to secure those materials, quite possibly by overseeing their production herself (Clifford, Proverbs, 275), but she also makes those clothes willingly and with delight, having joy in her family and her work.

31:14.  She is industrious and resourceful. Like merchant ships, she trades goods she has produced domestically for food she cannot produce at home. She is thus able to secure "tasty foreign delicacies" from afar, provisioning a bountiful table that "replicates in miniature that of fabled King Solomon" (Waltke, Book of Proverbs 15-31, 524; cf. 1Kg 4:21-23).

31:15.  Unlike the sluggard, who cannot get out of bed to feed himself (26:14-15), the excellent wife rises early before dawn (while it is still night) to make sure the entire household, including her maidservants, has the food they need. This shows that she is compassionate, sacrificial, and hard working. The word translated food (terep) often means "prey." This may suggest she is like a lioness—strong, cunning, skillful—in providing for her own.

31:16.  She is entrepreneurial. She makes sound judgments (she considers thoughtfully) in choosing the right field for development. Then, using her own earnings from her domestic labors, she buys the property and plants a vineyard on it. Presumably, the vineyard then produces grapes, wine, and raisins for her family as well as creates a profitable agribusiness.

31:17.  This verse uses language that reiterates her strength and vigor. Halfhearted effort is not for her. The Hebrew text literally says that she girds her loins with strength. Girding the loins involved tucking one's floor length tunic into one's belt in order to allow for free movement of one's legs for fighting or hard work. Similarly to make her arms strong may mean "that she tucks in her sleeves so that they will not encumber her in her work" (Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 895). She thus prepares herself to energetically engage any task that she undertakes (cf. 10:4).

31:18-20.  Her efforts pay off as she senses the gain is good from her business ventures. The image of her lamp... not going out at night could suggest that she works well into the night (i.e., her business success spurs her on to work harder). Or, that she is prosperous enough to keep the lamp burning (i.e., her successful efforts ensure the prosperity of her household and the oil does not run out). Either way, her success does not go to her head (vv. 19-20). Working the distaff and spindle (tools for spinning fabric) with her hands indicates that she personally continues to spin fabric. That is, she does not neglect her domestic responsibilities (cf. v. 13) despite her profitable business ventures (Garrett, Proverbs, 250; cf. Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 895). She wisely cares for the poor and is compassionate, stretches out her hands to the needy (cf. 14:21; 19:17; 28:27; 29:7).

31:21-22.  She has foresight to provide clothes for all her household. She therefore does not have to be afraid of the cold weather (snow), because their clothes are warm. That they are also dyed scarlet suggests that their clothing is expensive and of the highest quality, since scarlet die was very expensive, and often used on wool (2Sm 1:24). Although she has been scrupulous in caring for others, as a dignified woman she takes appropriate care of herself as well. Her bed coverings and clothing, made of fine linen and purple, are also expensive and of highest quality—even luxurious—as befits a woman of her status. While not all women could aspire to her financial status, all can emulate her industriousness and commitment to providing the best care for her family within whatever monetary means she has. She is the example of a wise woman who builds her house, and any woman who likewise wants to honor the Lord with her life in relation to her family can follow her example (cf. Pr 14:1).

SOURCE: The Moody Bible Commentary; by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham; © 2014 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2015 WORDsearch.



enterprising: adj. showing initiative and resourcefulness.

SOURCE: Concise Oxford Dictionary; Tenth Edition; Oxford University Press

Spinning staff (v. 19)—This long stick had unspun fibers (generally flax or wool) wrapped on top. It kept the fibers untangled before they were spun into thread.

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SPINNING:  Although spinning must have been one of the commonest of the crafts in Bible times, it is mentioned definitely in three passages only, namely, Exodus 35:25f, where ‏טָוָה‎, ṭāwāh, is so translated, and in Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27 νήθειν, néthein), where Jesus refers to the lilies of the field as neither toiling nor spinning.

The materials commonly spun were flax, cotton, wool, goats' hair. Goats' hair required little preparation other than washing, before spinning. Wool was first cleansed and then carded. The present method of carding, which no doubt is of ancient origin, is to pile the wool on a mat and then detach the fibers from each other by snapping a bow-string against the pile. The bow is specially constructed and carefully balanced so that it can be easily held with one hand while with the other the string is struck with a pestle-shaped mallet like a carver's mallet. The same instrument is used for carding cotton.

Flax was treated in ancient times as today, if the Egyptian sculptures have been rightly interpreted. The stalks after being stripped of their seeds were first retted. This operation consisted in soaking the stems in water until fermentation or rotting had so loosened the fibers that they could be separated from each other by combing. A series of washings and long exposure to the weather finally produced what was termed snowy-white linen.

The various fibers, mentioned above, to be made into thread, were gathered into a loose rope which was wound around a distaff or about the left hand. From this reel it was unwound as needed, the fibers more carefully adjusted with the thumbs and two first fingers of both hands, and then the rope twisted by means of a spindle. The spindle varied in form but was always a shaft, 8 to 12 in. in length, provided at one end with a hook or other means of fastening the thread and at the other end with a circular wharve or whorl of stone or other heavy material to give momentum to the rotating spindle. When 2 or 3 ft. of the rope was prepared as mentioned above, the spindle was twirled with the right hand or laid on the thigh and rotated by passing the hand over the shaft. After the thread was twisted it was wound on the spindle, fastened, and a new portion of rope prepared and twisted. The rope was sometimes fastened to a post and the spindle twisted with both hands, in which case the whorl was not necessary (see Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt, I, 317; II, 170, 172). Spinning was the work of both men and women in ancient Egypt. The Bible characterizes it as the work of women (Exodus 35; Proverbs 31:19). The same method of spinning is still used by the women of Syria, although imported yarn is largely taking the place of homespun thread.    (See Distaff below.)

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

DISTAFF (‏פֶּלֶךְ‎, pelekh): This word occurs once in Proverbs 31:19; "spindle" is found in the same passage. In the Revised Version (British and American) the meanings of the two words have been exchanged.

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

LEMUEL (lehm’ yoo ehl) Personal name meaning “devoted to God.” A king who received words of wisdom from his mother concerning wine, women, and the legal rights of the weak and poor (Prov. 31:1-9). Exactly where his kingdom of Massa was is not known, although certain linguistic features in the text have led scholars to place it in north Arabia, possibly near Edom. This section of Proverbs apparently comes from a non-Israelite woman. Holman Bible Dictionary.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

LEMUEL (‏לְמוּאֵל‎, lemūʾēl, or ‏לְמוֹאֵל‎, lemōʾēl): A king whose words, an "oracle (taught him by his mother)," are given in Proverbs 31:1-9; and possibly the succeeding acrostic poem (Proverbs 31:10-31) is from the same source. Instead of translating the word after this name as "oracle" some propose to leave it as a proper name, translating "king of Massa," and referring for his kingdom to Massa (Genesis 25:14), one of the sons of Ishmael, supposedly head of a tribe or sheikh of a country. It is to be noted, however, that the words of Agur in the previous chapter are similarly called massa', "oracle" with not so clear a reason for referring it to a country.

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.




Proverbs 31:  The History Behind Its Ideal

By Carol Meyers

Dr. Meyers, assistant professor in the department of religion, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, teaches biblical studies and archeology; she also is associate director of Duke’s Meiron Excavation Project in Galilee.


HERE CAN BE NO DOUBT about the orientation of the poem in Proverbs 31.  The titles it receives in various English versions, such as  “The Goodly Wife” or “The Ideal Housewife,” indicate that the woman’s role is purely a domestic one.  Modern men and women, influenced in some manner or other by the feminist movement, may feel that this image of the ancient Hebrew poem is a restricted one.  It is precisely because Proverbs 31 is perceived in such a restricted manner that we should examine the nature and function—indeed the very origins—of the domestic ideal projected by this last chapter in the book of Proverbs. 

Many of the stories and ideas contained in the Old Testament become comprehensible only when they are set against their contemporary world.  Frequently, some ancient Near Eastern legend or practice can be contrasted with a close parallel in the Bible.  Such a contrast may highlight just how original a theological idea or a humanitarian concept may be.  The material in Proverbs 31 likewise can be dealt with more effectively by looking at it in its biblical setting within the larger world of the ancient Near East.

The wifely image of the upper class Israelite woman of Proverbs 31 may be somewhat at odds with twentieth-century patterns, but the image also contrasts with what we know about the lives and possibilities for upper class women in the ancient world.  Outside ancient Israel, particularly in the Semitic culture of Mesopotamia, well-to-do women enjoyed a fair measure of economic and even legal freedom.  The societies were structured along patriarchal lines; but women of means could own property, develop their own businesses, and work in occupations independently of their menfolk.  Among such occupations religious functions are most notable, perhaps because women did not perform such functions in the biblical community.  Various orders of priestesses have been traced.  Certain other lower echelon cultic (worship) jobs were filled by women.  In general, female presence in what sociologists would call the “public realm” was a regular fact of ancient life.1

Proverbs, and the Bible in general, presents a dramatically different image.  While certain women such as Deborah and Miriam have public roles, these are exceptional and irregular.  Certainly the priesthood was never an option.  By and large, the biblical emphasis is on maternal and domestic tasks for the female members of the community of ancient Israel.

This contrast between Israelite society and the neighboring peoples must be noted and questioned.  Was Israel trying to deny certain freedom to half its population?  Are we dealing with biblical chauvinism?

The answers to such questions can be sought fairly only by looking first at the realities of early Israelite society.  The theological sanctions and models provided in the Bible are enduring ones; even so, they were addressed first and foremost to the needs of a particular community at a particular point in time.  That community was the people Israel.  That point in time was the era of the beginnings of Israelite national existence in the Promised Land.  The materials uncovered in excavating the early Iron Age settlements (about 1200-1000 BC) in the hill country of Palestine represent in archeological and cultural form the emergence into world history of that tiny people, Israel.

Conditions of daily life interacted with community ideals in that formative period.  These developments contain the keys to help us understand the particular Israelite ways of doing things.  Many of the most creative and far-reaching aspects of Israel as recorded for us in the Bible stem from this period of tribal existence.  Thus, any search for the origins of the domestic ideal for women must begin with this period of the judges—particularly since the ideal represents a small yet significant departure from the spectrum of female roles in the surrounding cultures.  Together, recent archeological discoveries and biblical evidence now allow us to reconstruct this critical period in a way not possible a short time ago. 

Perhaps the word “pioneer” best captures the mood and quality of existence in ancient Israel before the monarchy.  The Israelite villages of the Iron Age were built, by and large, on sites that had not previously been occupied.  The tribes succeeded in establishing their territorial control chiefly in the hill country, where the Canaanites had never occupied much territory or built many cities.  In other words, a pioneering effort was involved, in building homes and clearing agricultural lands on what was largely, at that time, virgin territory.

The tribe of Joseph, for example, was allotted a central portion of this land.  The work involved in making this allotment viable involved clearing the native stands of forests: “The hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders” (Josh. 17:18, RSV).

Another task, above and beyond the normal chores of daily life in an agricultural economy, was the clearing of rocks from the hillside to prepare the ground for agricultural terraces.  The Canaanites and Philistines still controlled the more level lands of Palestine, the lands most suited for the staple field crops of wheat and barley.  In order for the Israelites to achieve a viable economy, not dependent on trade with the enemy nations that surrounded her, the hillsides had to be specially prepared so that grain could be produced on land suited more naturally to vineyards and orchards.  Archeological investigation of some of the new villages has shown that agricultural terraces were developed in the hill country during this period.  This development allowed the farmers to produce grain crops even though they had no access to the kind of land, such as the Philistine plain, where this vital staple normally was farmed in ancient Palestine.  As did the New England farmers in America, the Israelite farmers had to expend considerable effort to clear rocky hillsides and prepare land for crops.  They achieved a measure of self-sufficiency in this way.

Further, many of these new settlements were located at considerable distance from natural water supplies.  The springs or small streams from which life-giving water could be obtained during the long rainless summers of Palestine were often as not controlled by the established Canaanite cities, which persisted as enclaves even within territories largely dominated by Israelites.  Therefore, large cisterns had to be hewn into the bedrock by nearly every family or groups of families living close together.3  Though they sought the relatively soft Cenonian limestone wherever possible for this task, the Israelites nonetheless had to devoted considerable energy to dig their cisterns.  Man-made cisterns were the source of water and thus of life for nearly half the year.  Runoffs from abundant winter rains could be stored, making water available year round.

These examples indicate rather clearly that life in this pioneering era of the Israelite tribes placed great demands on the population.  There was a great deal of work to be done, above and beyond the normal jobs that were required in order to secure adequate food supplies for the new settlements.  Human labor was at a premium in this period in a way that would never recur after the bulk of these initial land preparations as well as the house-building chores of the new settles had been completed.

The demand for able-bodied labor was intensified by other factors during the period of the judges.  The military factor is the most obvious one to those familiar with the stories in the books of Joshua and Judges.  Before a monarchy (with its standing army) was instituted in Israel, the defense of all these new settlements was a critical problem.  Most of the villages were un-walled.  The people surrounding the new Israelite territories were menacing, and the Israelites were inexperienced in conventional warfare.  Time and again, a military crisis was met by a kind of militia system that sometimes brought imperfect results (Judg. 3:27-28; 4:10; 5:8-9, 14-18; 6:34-35).  A leader would come forth in the nick of time, blow his trumpet, and call men away from their villages to meet the enemy threat.

Sometimes the Israelites prevailed; other times “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the children of Israel” (Judg. 10:7, RSV).  Lives were lost in raids and battles.  Normal life became virtually impossible at times; people even fled their homes and lived in caves and mountainous dens (Judg. 6:2).

If life was difficult because of all the work that needed to be done by a pioneering people, it also was dangerous during this period before a monarchy and army brought peace and stability for a while.  The population base needed for establishing Israelite settlements was threatened continually by the attacking forces of other groups.  At worst, precious lives were lost at such times.  At best, precious manpower was called away from the domestic scene at a time when it was most needed.

One can well imagine what family life might have been like under such circumstances.  All members of a family—men, women, and children—would have been required to pitch in, to help, to work in the fields and vineyards, to accomplish the household tasks.  Under such circumstances, the larger a family, the better.  The concept of the large farm family that we have known in American life, as the best way to cope with the demands of everyday life efficiently as well as self-sufficiently, fits the conditions in early Israel.

On top of this, land-clearing and cistern-digging tasks were of urgent concern.  Such tasks are nearly always performed by men in any society.  Thus, women would be required to have competence in all other aspects, managerial and otherwise, of farm life.  This pattern particularly would be true, in addition, because of the recurrent military crises.  With men called upon unpredictably to face emergencies, women had to sustain the home economy of indefinite periods.

All of these facts of Iron Age life in Palestine converge to project an urgent pressure toward the domestic role for women.  No room existed in the developing agricultural economy and nascent village life of this period for women to have assumed any sort of existence independent of the family unit.  A woman’s “career” of necessity was her household and family.  The success of Israel’s community goals depended on a woman’s devotion to the concerns of her household.

In a way, the same could be said for men as well in this period.  Career options were virtually non-existent except for those community-supported families set aside to provide men for priestly tasks.  Community leaders were “elder,” older men whose value in the physical work world had diminished.  No standing army as yet made the military a career option.  Commerce and trade, as can be determined archeologically, had not yet emerged as significant factors in Israelite life.  Specialized technology and crafts were as yet minimal, and those that existed were based in the home.  From a male viewpoint as well as from a female one, the focus of life was the household and its productive land.

Early Israelite society thus was one in which life and productivity were centered about the nuclear family and its land.  A domestic role for women was essential, as the preceding description of pioneer tribal life makes clear.  Even beyond this, however, the maternal aspect within the domestic role was critical during this period.

One can sense that large families were desirable from this reconstructed of the extraordinary need for manpower, or people-power, in tribal Israel.  For one further reason, this need for people-power was probably even more intense than the foregoing discussion would indicate.  As best as can be determined, the groups of people that came together to make up the Israelite tribes and thus the new nation of Israel were suffering from  the effects of a series of plagues that seem to have accompanied—and perhaps contributed to—the downfall of the preceding Late Bronze culture of the East Mediterranean.

The biblical accounts of the Egyptian plagues and the plagues during the wilderness period (Ex. 32; Num. 11:1-3; 14:11; 16:25) probably reflect widespread public health problems of the Late Bronze II period.  A Hittite prayer of roughly the same period pleads for relief from the devastating effects of plague on the population of Asia Minor.  Tomb groups and paleopathological analyses (examination of ancient remains to study diseases) of their contents all over the Mediterranean Sea basin indicate a decrease in life span and a high presence of disease.  Demographic (people and their movements) studies, as imprecise as they may be, seem to indicate a substantial decline in the population of the Near East at this time.

For ancient Israel, a decrease in population could not have come at a less opportune moment.  With territory to settle anew and lands to prepare anew, every human soul represented a sacred contribution to the covenant-bound community of Israel.  The stage was set for the maternal role and the fertility ideal to be strengthened.  The models of the matriarchs in Genesis, in their efforts to overcome barrenness, and the resounding “be fruitful and multiply” provided encouragement to women to face the risky prospect of pregnancy.  We should not overlook the fact that men outlived women by as much as ten years (a man’s life span was roughly forty years, a woman’s was thirty years) in antiquity because of the high mortality rate that accompanied childbirth.  In short, religious ideals which sanctioned procreation suited well the needs of pioneer Israel. 4

Thus, the domestic ideal—and the maternal dimension of it in particular—was evoked by the particular conditions of the beginnings of Israel.  It was an image that was sustained even when the critical period had given way to the growth and stability of the early monarchy.  It was an image captured in the poetic imagination of Proverbs 31.  This acrostic poem reflects an ideal that took shape under conditions that existed centuries before.

The life pattern revealed in Proverbs 31 was creative and highly valued in its own original setting.  It is no accident that this descriptive paean closes a biblical book in which the opening chapters contain a personification of Wisdom as a woman.  The role of women as teachers within their domestic setting emerges, and is underscored in a way, by that personification.  With no public education as such, early Israel depended upon women for the transmission of skills and also of values from one generation to the next: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26, RSV).                          Bi

1.  R. Harris, “Woman in the Ancient Near East,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, pp. 960-63.

2.  J. Callaway, “The Significance of the Iron Age Village at ‘Ai (Et-Tell),” Proceedings of the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies (1969), vol. 1, pp. 56-61.

3.  Ibid.

4.  See Carol Meyers, “The Roots of Restriction: Women in Early Israel,” Biblical Archeologist 41 (September 1978), pp. 91-103.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Summer 1981.


Food Storage and Preservation In The Ancient Near East

By Daniel C. Browning, Jr.

Daniel C. Browning, Jr. is professor of religion and history at William Carey University, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


HE BIBLE MAKES a number of references to food production and preparation but says precious little about food storage and preservation.  It is also a topic that does not come to mind quickly.  Modern people are somewhat spoiled (pun intended) in this area, as we have taken for granted the conveniences of preservatives, air-tight containers, pre-packaged foods, and refrigeration. 

Israelite Food Culture

Ancient Israel emerged from a semi-nomadic pastoral society, that is to say, from a shepherding tradition rather than a farming one.  Genesis depicts the patriarchs’ life-styles as those of semi-nomadic pastoralists rather like the Bedouins of more recent times.  Genesis and other books of the Pentateuch are replete with stories and insinuations that the pastoral country life was more godly than the farming culture of the Canaanites in their cities.  Indeed, that the three greatest heroes of the Old Testament—Abraham, Moses, and David—were shepherding when the Lord called them is hardly a coincidence.  In much later times, when farming became the norm for Israel, the pastoral life remained the ideal.  Thus, Jesus referred to Himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11-14)—never the “good farmer.” 

Reflecting similar disdain, the urbanites looked down on pastoralists as uncivilized.  Babylonians referred to nomads as those “who know no barley,” “dig up truffles in the steppe,” and “eat uncooked meat.”1  A situation may seem backward to modern Bible readers; the city dwellers (Babylonians and Canaanites) were the farmers, but the security and markets of cities were a necessity for sedentary farming.  Farming also provided large amounts of food at certain times, a bounty that required storage and preservation for the city’s population to survive throughout the year.  In contrast, nomads ate what was available at the time or from their animals and had limited food storage and preservation concerns.

When Israel settled into the promised land, the nation made a transition from nomadism to settled life.  This meant farming became the norm for food production and food storage; preservation became a critical issue for Israelites.

Food Storage

Grains—“Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11).  Jesus’ words reflect the truth that the basic ration for most people has traditionally been grain and its products.  The main grains in the ancient Near East were barley and wheat, which people ate either raw, parched, or crushed, or ground into flour.  Storing flour was not efficient, so people ground it as needed for baking bread daily.2  People stored unprocessed grain for many months and in large quantities to protect it from dampness and rodents.

People stored wheat and barley grain after threshing and winnowing it—time intensive activities that immediately followed harvest.  Some grain was set aside for seed.  Workers would sometimes heat the rest of the grain, warming it enough to kill the germ and prevent germination while in storage.  A variety of storage options included above-ground public granaries or storehouses, subterranean silos or pits, or large jars in private storerooms.  Above-ground public granaries from the Bronze Age (3150-1200 BC) were located in Egypt (see Gen. 41:34-35,48-49) and Canaanite cities.  From the Israelite period (1200-586 BC), excavations have uncovered large subterranean silos at Beth-shemesh, Hazor, and Megiddo.  The size of these silos implies state control, perhaps for collection of taxes in kind.  Large pillared storehouses, unique to Israel, were also apparently used for tax collection and distribution (2 Chron. 32:27-29).  In such buildings, people stored grain (and other products) in clay jars and other vessels and distributed it as rations to people in government employ.  At Arad, receipts penned on broken potsherds reveal a ration of one bread loaf made from one liter of flour per day.  The military considered bread to be edible for four days from issue.3  For family use, grain pits, often stone-lined or plastered, were the most common storage method in the Israelite period and were often a feature of individual houses.4 

Food products other than grain generally required processing for extended storage to be possible.  Grain too, especially barley, could be processed in a form of beer (“strong drink” in many translations; Judg. 13:7,14).  Beer could be rather nutritious, depending on the ingredients, and provided a longer preservation time for grain calories than baked products.  At times ancient Babylonians rationed nutritious beer, from one quart to one gallon per day, depending on a man’s rank!5

Fruits and Vegetables—Most fruits and vegetables tended to be seasonal foods, eaten when they were available.  People could process some fruits, like grapes, figs, dates, and apricots by drying or pressing them into cakes (2 Sam. 16:1-2) or would put them into jars (Jer. 40:10).  People converted grapes to raisins or processed grape juice into wine; they crushed and pressed olives to produce oil, which they then stored in jars for a variety of uses.  Processing raw olives for consumption was not introduced until the intertestamental period.6 

Meat and Fish—Meat and fish, obviously, were best eaten fresh.  Without refrigeration, long-term preservation of meat and fist was possible only by drying, salting, or smoking.  Lacking, though, is any evidence from the Bible, other texts, or archaeology that the Israelites ever preserved meat by these means.7 

In effect, the living animals provided their own storage until such a time as they were consumed.  To slaughter lambs or kids immediately after weaning was economical—as there had been no investment of feed and the mother was at optimal milk production.8 

Dairy—While acting as living food storage, herds and flocks also provided milk.  Surprisingly, Mesopotamians always left milk to ferment before drinking it;9 whether Israelites drank fresh milk is unclear (see Judg. 4:19; 5:25).

Putting fresh milk in a goatskin with some buttermilk and leaving it overnight produced yogurt.  Persons would drink the excess soured and curdled milk from bowls or dip bread in it (possibly the dipping substance in Ruth 2:14).  Processing the yogurt further by inflating the goatskin and swinging it for about 90 minutes produced fresh butter.  Further processing produced a melted butter fat (see 2 Sam. 17:29) that, if stored in a goatskin, could keep for several years.10  Processing the milk and making it into yogurt and cheese made it digestible for people who were lactose-intolerant.11

People also preserved milk for long periods as a chalky hard cheese by mixing salt with churned milk and drying the mixture for several days in the sun.  They cut the resulting product into blocks, making transport easy (Prov. 31:14).  Grating and mixing this chalky hard cheese with water produced reconstituted sour milk.12  Individuals made a soft cheese, still typical of the Middle East, by adding a clotting agent to fresh milk, draining after curdling, and salting.  People ate it fresh or stored if for short periods in olive oil.  Longer preservation was achieved with higher salt content and drying.13

In a region with a single annual grain harvest, food storage and preservation was an essential component to survival, especially for those living a sedentary lifestyle.  In making the transition to a settled life in the promised land, ancient Israelites must have learned well the diligence of the ant, methodically laying up sustenance for the difficult months each year (Prov. 6:6-8).                                       Bi

1.  Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. in chief Sasson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 1:496.

2.  Borowski, ”Food Storage” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, ed. in chief Meyers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 2:317-18.

3.  Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 72.

4.  Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1987), 71-82.

5.  Homan, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” Biblical Archaeology Review 36, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 2010): 48-56, 78; Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” 497.

6.  Borowski, “Food Storage,” 317.

7.  Borowski, Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel (Walnut Creek: AltaMIra, 1998), 57, 83, n. 27.

8.  Ibid., 57.

9.  Stol, “Private Life in Mesopotamia,” 497.

10. Borowski, Every Living Thing, 55-56.

11. Ibid., 55.

12. Stol, “Private Life in Mesopotamia,” 497; Borowski, “Food Storage,” 317; Borowski, Every Living Thing, 56.

13. Borowski, Every Living Thing, 55.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 42, No. 3; Spring 2016.


Lamps In Ancient Israel

By William F. Cook, III

William F. Cook, III is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek, Florida Baptist Theological College, Graceville, Florida.

Street lights did not exist in the ancient world.  After dark most people remained indoors.  When the rich ventured out at night, they were led by slaves carrying torches.  Homes were dimly lit with small lamps.  Lamps are referred to frequently in the Bible, sometimes in contexts of considerable significance; however, they are never described.  A few passages refer to their daily use in the home (Job 31:18; Matt. 5:15), but most references are in relation to the lamps used in the tabernacle and temple.  Lamps are among the most important material artifacts of the ancient Near East.  Archaeological excavations have unearthed numerous examples of lamps dating from before Abraham to after Christ .  These archaeological remains provide valuable information on the origin, development, and purpose of lamps in the ancient world. 

The earliest lamps were flat-bottomed bowls with a slight lip to support the wick.  From this household bowl lamp developed the “saucer lamp” in the early Bronze Age.  This simple “saucer lamp” or “shell lamp” was made of clay and used in Israel from the time of the Hebrew settlement through the beginning of the divided monarchy.  The ancient Hebrews simply called it a “lamp” (ner[nayr]).  These lamps had a single little spout on one side of the saucer for holding the wick.  The potter shaped clay into a simple bowl.  Then he folded its rim forming a flange around the oil reserve and a spout for the wick.  The spout of the “saucer lamp” became increasingly well defined during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages.1

Prior to the time of the prophets (1100-400 BC) a base was added to stabilize the lamp.  These lamps are called “cup-and-saucer lamps” (double-bowl lamp) and consist of a saucer and an inner container.  People utilized the “cup-and-saucer lamp” in sanctuaries, tombs, and homes from the 13th to the 16th century BC.  Another lamp employed during this time period was the multi-spouted lamp.  Both the cup-and-saucer and the multi-spouted lamps may have been  used in household rites.2

The ordinary Old Testament lamp held enough oil to burn throughout the night, but the wick had to be trimmed and adjusted every few hours as it burned.3  The virtuous housewife (Prov. 31:18) had to get up once or twice a night to “trim” her lamp; otherwise it would go out and there would be no fire with which to light her cooking fire the next morning.  Their oil used was olive oil, and the wick was made of flax or fiber (Isa. 42:3, KJV).  Lamps were sometimes placed in concave niches in the walls of houses.  Some were hung by cords.

During the Persian Period (559-332 BC) a new kind of broad, shallow lamp emerged.  The lamp remained an open vessel with a more elongated lip.  The fact that the lamp remained open left the possibility of the oil spilling out.  However, this problem was remedied in the Hellenistic Age (332-63 BC).  Lamps began to appear with almost completely closed tops and elongated tube-like spouts.4  The new lamp forms of the period exhibit the influence of Greek culture.  Throughout this period lamps began to be decorated with simple designs and inscriptions.5  In the second century BC molded multiple-spout lamps appeared in Israel.  The earliest examples of the multiple-spout lamps resemble wheel-made lamps.6  McRay notes that  “among the remains of sites occupied by Jewish zealots midway in this period are lamps which are open at the top like those of the Iron Age but much smaller.”7  These lamps are called “slipper lamps” because of their shape.  They come from the second century BC and appear to be a cultural reaction against Hellenism.8

During the early Roman period (63 BC – AD 70) a type of lamp appeared during the reign of Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC) that consequently is called the “Herodian” lamp.  The unusual spout resembled a spatula.  Jesus was probably most familiar with this lamp.  Jesus presumably described this lamp in the parables of the ten virgins (Matt. 25) and the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15:8).  The Herodian lamp may have been formed on a wheel or it may have been made in molds cut from soft stone.

The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 is instructive for our understanding of these lamps.  The word for “lamp” in the parable of the ten virgins is lampas [lam PASS], not the usual term lychnos [LUCH noss].  Normally lampas meant “torch.”  This can be seen by its use in John 18:3, where we read that those who came to arrest Jesus in the garden carried lampades (torches).  However, by the first century the term lampas had undergone an extension of meaning.9  Therefore, the translation “lamp” is more appropriate in Matthew 25.  Luke, in Acts 20:8, used the term when describing a meeting in a home at Troas, where a boy fell from the third floor and died.  In this passage lampades must mean lamps rather than torches, since they were inside a house.

Since the maidens presumably lit their lamps at twilight and the lamps were about to go out at midnight, we learn that these lamps held enough oil for four to five hours of burning.  Jesus said that the maidens “trimmed” their lamps (Matt. 25:7).  This probably means that they added oil and adjusted their wicks.  If an individual anticipated using the lamp for an extended period he or she would bring additional oil for the lamp in a separate container.10 

The biblical writers often used the term “lamp” in a symbolic sense.  The “lamp of the wicked” fails because it lacks the life-giving light of God (Prov. 21:4).  When one’s lamp goes out, it symbolizes the death of an individual or community (Job 18:6; Jer. 25:10).  This may explain the reason that lamps were often placed in tombs in the ancient world, serving as a symbol of hope in life after death.  Because the lamp often symbolized life, it also came to represent joy and prosperity (2 Sam. 22:29; Prov. 6:20,23).

The New Testament is full of rich symbolism of light and lamps as well.  John the Baptist was a lamp because he bore witness to the coming Messiah (John 5:35).  The eye as “the lamp of the body” illuminated the inner being and radiated the brightness of the inner light (Matt. 6:22-23; Luke 11:34-36).  Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the “light of the world.”  He declared the same for His followers (Matt. 5:14).  Jesus in this passage suggested that the believer’s light is like a city set on a hill.  A city set on a hill could be seen from a distance if torches or a number of oil lamps were burning.  This light could give a traveler needed direction as he approached the city.  Jesus suggested that the believer’s life is to be like a lamp on a lampstand.  Stands for lamps must have been somewhat common in Israel during Roman times (compare Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16; 11:33).  No lampstands have been found among Israeli remains of the Herodian period, perhaps because they were likely made of wood.  Jesus’ thought was that a lamp is put on a stand in order to give light.  Therefore, no one wanting to see would place a bowl over the lamp for that would extinguish the flame.  Jesus encouraged His disciples to let their light shine before men to illuminate the darkness as a lamp on a stand gives light for those in the house to see.  God’s light shines from the believer’s life as he or she performs good works in order that God may receive praise. 

The Bible’s lamp/light imagery suggests that our world is shrouded in spiritual darkness.  The purpose of light is to shine and illumine the darkness.  That is why John the Baptist was so significant as the “lamp that was burning and shining,” for he pointed people to the Messiah.  Christ calls believers to give spiritual light and direction to those in darkness.  Therefore our Christianity should be visible and shining rather than reclusive and hidden.  The believer’s life should be like a city set on a hill, guiding those who are in darkness.

1.   Robert Houston Smith, “The Household Lamps in Old Testament Times,” The Biblical Archaeologist 27 (1964), No. 3-5.

2.   Smith, 14-15.

3.   J. Rea, “Lamp,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 866.

4.   John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 31.

5.   G. F. Hasel, “Lamp” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 3:69.

6.   Hasel, 3:69; see also Robert Houston Smith, “The Household Lamps of Palestine in Intertestamental Times,” The Biblical Archaeologist 27 (December 1964): 115.

7.   McRay, 31.

8.   McRay, 31.

9.   W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University Press, 1979), 465.

10. Robert Houston Smith, “The Household Lamps of Palestine in New Testament Times,” The Biblical Archaeologist 29 (1966), No. 1: 5.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Winter 1996.




 (12.167)  What Is The Answer To & Where In The Bible Is This Week’s Trivia Question Found? Who was commissioned by an angel to save Israel from the Midianites?  Answer Next Week:

Last week’s question: Who was the major prophet, ordained before his birth, to be God’s messenger? Answer: Jeremiah; Jer. 1:5.