The Excellent Woman of Proverbs 31
SHE MAKETH FINE LINEN, AND SELLETH IT;
AND DELIVERETH GIRDLES UNTO THE MERCHANTS.
The Hebrew word translated “fine linen” has been much studied by the writers on Biblical literature, as our translators have thus rendered several words from the original. Woollen garments seem to have formed the chief articles of dress among the ancient Jews; but, both in Egypt and Syria, garments were also worn of fine linen and cotton, as well as of a substance called byssus. This latter material seems to have been a fabric of fine muslin—one of those “webs woven of hair,” which in India are worn at the present day, and which the Hindoo ladies wrap around them in numerous folds of drapery. It seems probable that persons of wealth and distinction in Canaan, as well as the priests and Levites, wore garments of fine linen, either white or dyed; made of the linen manufactured either in Egypt, or of the somewhat inferior quality made in the Jewish household, such as was wrought by the excellent woman in the text.
The general culture of flax in Palestine, the statement that the women spun it for the hangings of the tabernacle, and the still more immediate fact that this woman, when she worked willingly with her hands, sought flax as well as wool, leads us to infer that in this passage at least the rendering of linen rather than silk or cotton is the true one. Although, according to the Talmudists, the ancient Hebrew wore a woollen garment next his skin by day, yet cleanliness and comfort rendered it necessary that the nightly dress should be made of linen, and this appears to have been the general practice. Many of the robes of purple, scarlet, blue, and other colours, of which we read, appear to have been of a linen fabric.
But this word is thought by some writers to imply a loose inner garment, generally worn in the East—a kind of shirt. Kimchi thinks the word signifies a night‐covering, and considers that it ought to be translated “linen sheets.” “The Arabic,” says Dr. Clarke, “gives a remarkable rendering of this verse: ‘She maketh towels or table‐cloths, and sells them to the inhabitants of Bozra—a city of Mesopotamia—and fine linen, and sells them to the Canaanites.’” Kitto concurs with the Rabbi in thinking that the word here used, describes either sheets, or else under garments made of linen. It is the same as is rendered sheets in the book of Judges, where Samson promised thirty sheets and thirty changes of raiment, as a reward for guessing his riddle. It is not at all probable that in this latter case sheets are intended, because when Samson slew thirty Philistines near Ashkelon, it is hardly to be supposed that they were carrying their bed‐clothes with them. Besides, they would, like all other eastern beds, have had two sheets, and therefore thirty would have provided twice the number required, while the shirts taken from the bodies of the slain would have exactly supplied Samson with the means of performing his promise.
As no pictures or monuments have descended from the people of Israel to the modern Jew, we have no definite means of ascertaining their mode of dress. Scripture allusions form our chief guide, but tradition, as well as the costumes figured on the monuments of the other ancient nations of the East, and the present mode of dress in Egypt and the Holy Land, afford some assistance. It is still customary for the Bedouin to wear a cotton or woollen shirt or frock, generally fastened round the waist with a girdle. This is often, in summer, the only dress of the poor, and is the usual indoor dress even of the wealthy class of society. In winter, persons of humble condition wear over this garment the woollen mantle or “hyke,” a kind of dress very similar to the plaid of the Scottish Highlander. The hyke may be described as a large woollen blanket, serving as a covering both for day and for night; and was, most likely, the garment referred to in that humane provision of the law, where, if the Israelite took a pledge of his poorer brother, he was enjoined: “In any case thou shalt deliver him the pledge again when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his own raiment, and bless thee: and it shall be righteousness unto thee before the Lord thy God” (Deu 24:13).
The Talmud enumerates eighteen several garments, as forming the dress of the ancient Israelites; and it is evident from Scripture, that many robes and garments were worn by the rich, though the frock and mantle might serve for the poor.
That fine linen was worn only by persons of distinction in Canaan, is very apparent, from the value attached to it, and the comparisons it suggested. When the beloved apostle John wrote, in the isle of Patmos, that solemn revelation of prophecy, so much of which yet remains unfulfilled to the church and to the world, the fine linen, pure and white, presented to his mind an image of the righteousness of the redeemed church. “And to her,” says he, “was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints,”—that spotless robe wrought by the Saviour, for every child of God, redeemed from among men by the blood of the Lamb, sanctified by his Spirit, and made meet for tuning the golden harp of the celestial city—that robe, of which the Saviour says, “I counsel thee to buy of me white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed;” lest, being unclothed, the sinner should find, at the great day of God’s judgment, that he was “poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked, having nothing in which to appear but his own righteousness,” which the Scripture has declared to be, in the sight of God, but as “filthy rags.”
In a house in which the manufacture of various tissues seems to have been carried on so diligently, as in that of the excellent woman, linen enough would be wrought for traffic. Both this and the girdles were probably sold, not only to the merchants of her own city, but also to the Canaanites, or Phoenicians, who traded with them to Egypt and other distant lands, which their ships visited.
The continual reference to the girdle in Scripture, establishes the fact, that among the ancient Hebrews it was considered as necessary an article of attire, as it is in the present day in oriental countries. Its use in girding the loins for exertion has been already referred to, but it served also for various other purposes. The ancient Jews are supposed to have worn two girdles, the one around the body, under their inner garment, the other around their outer dress. It was this latter girdle which was tightened for exercise. The wealthy Jews, who evidently paid much attention to dress, no doubt prided themselves upon the taste and manufacture of this portion of it. In the present clay, the Arabs wear, as a girdle, an embroidered shawl, or a figured muslin, and the girdle is a piece of outward finery throughout the East. Sometimes it is beautifully wrought with coloured wools or silks, shells, beads, etc. Among the poorer classes, leathern girdles are still worn, and probably differ little from that with which John the Baptist fastened his camel’s‐hair garments. Leathern girdles are also worn by the richer Arab, when he prepares his dress for a journey.
The girdle most commonly worn by the ancient Hebrews, was probably made of woollen fabric, skilfully wrought by woman’s hand with embroidered patterns. It folded several times round the body, and confined the floating garment. One end of this girdle was doubled back, and sewn at the edge, so as to form a purse, and was most likely referred to by our Saviour, when, sending forth his apostles on their holy mission of love, he said, “Provide neither gold nor silver, nor brass, in your purses.” The Romans and Greeks also formed their purses by the folding of the girdle, and there carried their money. Paxton quotes the saying of C. Gracchus, in Aulus Gellius: “Those girdles which I carried out full of money, when I went from Rome, I have, at my return from the province, brought home empty. Forbes mentions that the Mahrattas of the present day generally carry in their leathern girdles, covered with velvet, their most valuable papers and precious jewels.
It appears from the Scriptures, that the ancient Hebrews, like the modern Turks, wore a poniard or sword in their girdle; for we read: “And Joab’s garment that he had put on was girded unto him, and upon it a girdle with a sword fastened upon his loins in the sheath thereof; and as he went forth it fell out.” (2Sa 20:8). This practice must not be understood as designed for a cruel and revengeful purpose, but originated in the want of knives. The Turkish secretary, or writer of modern days, substitutes for this weapon in his girdle, the ink‐horn and the pen; and it seems probable that those among the Jews whose employments were of a literary character, wore ink‐horns in their girdles. Thus we read in Ezekiel, of one who was clothed with linen, and had an ink‐horn by his side (Eze 9:2). The pens too are placed in the girdle, and the ink‐horn is firmly closed with a clasped lid.
The manufacture of girdles for the merchants, would of course employ many hands. When we consider, too, that girdles, as well as robes, are in request for presents all over the East, this alone requires a great supply. The Rev. W. Jowett has said, that the two words “give, give,” might very properly be taken as a motto to the armorial bearings of Syria. No one would think of appearing before a great man without a present in his hand: as, says the proverb, “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men” (Pro 18:16); and the habit of giving gifts, especially of various parts of the dress, extends itself to the most ordinary occasions. The gift of a girdle from a warrior was evidently a great mark of friendship. Among the Greeks and Romans, also, it was thus considered. When Hector and Ajax ceased from the combat in which they had encountered each other, Hector gave his girdle to Ajax as a token of amity. In the book of Samuel we find Joab blaming the man who saw Absalom hanging in the wood, in these words, “Why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle” (2Sa 18:11). Jonathan, too, the “lovely and pleasant” Jonathan, when about to certify the covenant made between himself and his friend, gave, among other things, his girdle to David; and even to the present day, the girdle is often loosed and given to one who is beloved. “And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle” (1Sa 18:4).