Women in the Hood— ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’

In the wake of the runaway best seller of A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically previously reviewed on this blog, it is hardly a surprise that somebody thought it was a good idea to do such a book from a woman’s point of view. The former book was written by a basically secular Jew who decided to be ‘observant’ for a year. A Year of Biblical Womanhood however is a horse of a different color– written by an Evangelical woman who is hardly trying on orthodox praxis just for a year. It written by award winning writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans.

Jacobs, interestingly, even tries his hand at some NT praxis, which he didn’t have to do as a Jew. Even more surprisingly Evans tries her hand at a lot of OT and even modern Jewish praxis, which she also didn’t have to do. After all, Christians are frankly not under any form of the old covenant and so its a bit surprising to find, for example, a whole chapter of Rachel following Jewish practices in regard to menstruation. This may seem to some to smack of irreverence, or even making a mockery of Jewish praxis, but it shouldn’t be taken that way. Rachel is not trying to play at being Jewish, she is sincerely trying to get inside of what Biblical womanhood is in its essence, taking as wide a swath as possible of texts and Biblical women as examples.

Full Disclosure: while Rachel does come from a somewhat fundamentalist Protestant background, this book will not be endorsed by the Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood crowd. Rachel is not one of the girls in that hood, or headcovering, or burka.

Like the Jacobs book, this book is divided up into 12 monthly segments, however in addition to that, Rachel has decided to pick twelve qualities attributed to and revered in some text or texts as a Biblical ideal for a woman. These are gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, charity,silence, and finally grace. Rachel attempts to model or exhibit each of these qualities for a full month, and undertakes activities and practices to further exhibit the quality in question.

Sometimes in spots (e.g. the chapter on purity) while reading this book as a man, I had that same kind of unintentional voyeuristic or queasy feeling I used to get when as a child my mother would take me to the department store and sometimes I got parked near her in the ladies department, even near the lingerie section, or even worse, I felt like I did when I was commandeered into playing bridge with my mother’s bridge club because someone forgot to come. I sometimes felt like the input I was receiving fell into the category of ‘too much information for guys’ or ‘things I really didn’t need to hear’.

But then, Rachel knows her audience, and it would appear to be overwhelmingly female, to judge from her blog. Still, this is an especially interesting read for a man who has written several books on women in the NT. What is especially interesting is that Rachel is focusing on what can be called ‘the virtues and values’ of Biblical women more than just on practices, though the latter exhibit the former.

At the end of each chapter Rachel presents us with a precis of a ‘woman of valor’ as she calls them, and they turn out to be a truly diverse lot—-Deborah the warrior, Tamar the Trickster, Mary the Mother of God, Vashti the other Queen, Ruth the Moabite, Mary Magdalene, Leah the Unloved, the Samaritan at the Well, Tabitha the Disciple, Junia the Apostle, and Huldah the Prophet. Honestly, I doubt many of these women could pass the litmus test of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood of God’s ideal woman.

As it turns out, a good deal of the Bible is R rated, especially the parts that involve women, and their involvements in sex, and war, and ministry, and politics. Actually few of those aforementioned women were stay at home gals in the modern sense. But then, as I like to say, the problem with women like these in the Bible is not that they are strong women. The problem is that then as now, weak men have a problem handling strong women whether inside or outside the Bible, inside or outside the church, inside or outside the family. It’s sad, but it’s true, perhaps especially in conservative Christian churches.

Rachel Held Evans has come by her writing awards honestly. There is some fine writing, and some very funny writing in this book, and Rachel herself is often quite transparent and self-effacing about the ways she falls short of any sort of model of a ‘Biblical woman’ as she tells of her adventures in an entertaining and informative way.

Consider for example the following passage where she rightly objects to the silly Christian allegorizing of the Song of Songs anatomical descriptions (in this case 1.13-16 and 7.7-9) by various rather prudish early church fathers: “According to Origen the two breasts that the suitor is so eager to grasp represent the OT and the NT. The lips he longs to kiss represent the Eucharist, noted another medieval scholar. The luxurious bed on which the lovers lie represents the convents of the Church, said Saint Bernard. Sure. And Hooters represents the American affinity for owl culture.” (p. 111).

Rachel Held Evans is not just another woman using the Bible to write about women’s experiences. She actually is quite adept at Biblical interpretation and has done some good reading and research and exegetical spade work when she is dealing with any kinds of Biblical texts, including the so-called ‘texts of terror’. Whether you agree with her interpretations or not, they are always possible, and often plausible and fair and deserve respect and close scrutiny.

My one real objection to anything she says exegetically is when she suggests that Jesus felt it was o.k. to break the law (e.g. sabbath law or purity law) in service of a higher good. I would say that Jesus is inaugurating a new covenant, a new Kingdom situation, and in the process he has fulfilled the law and the prophets. You don’t see yourself as breaking a law which you are convinced it is part of a bygone era (‘the law and the prophets were until John… since then…’).

There is plenty of useful discussion and interesting anecdotes in this book, and in the process we encounter a couple with a good healthy marriage who deeply love, respect, and serve one another— team Rachel and Dan. It is a heart-warming story about young Evangelicals who do not conform to some of the media’s stereotypes of what such people are like. I was especially heartened by their commitment to the whole Gospel– both spiritual and social holiness… Good News for all including the least, the last and the lost. Good news for the poor and the environment as well.

At the end of the day, the conclusions of this book are really quite wise— “So after twelve months of ‘biblical womanhood’ [including wearing headcoverings and calling her husband master etc.], I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model of biblical womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.” (p. 294).

There are indeed a wide variety of women commended (even Rahab the harlot) and a wide variety of roles undertaken by these women in the Bible which are at least implicitly affirmed— including Christian women teaching men (see Priscilla for example). As Rachel says “Far too many church leaders have glossed over these [diverse] stories and attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid rules. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and they change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances.” (p. 294).

The same church leaders who harp on a certain reading of texts like Ephes. 5.22ff ignore what Ephes. 5.21 says as a preface to that discussion. The same church leaders who stress what the household code in Col. 3 says about women are dead silent about what it says about slaves. The same church leaders that stress women should not teach according to their reading of 1 Tim. 2 ignore that that passage is correcting problems and begins with a correction of men who are exhorted to stop grumbling and always lift up holy hands in prayer. Outside of charismatic circles, I don’t see much evidence anyone is practicing that teaching much less enforcing that rule. In short, these leaders sound byte the text and privilege and apply only certain parts of it and Rachel rightly calls them out.

So what was Rachel really seeking personally in her year of Biblical womanhood. In the end she tells us– “”deep in the recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission— permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.” (p. 295).

Since the Bible makes clear that there are various ways to be God’s woman whether single or married, and various roles exhibited in the text which are legitimate for women to assume, one can only say to Rachel what her husband sometimes says— ‘you go girl’. Find out what the highest and best is for you and what God is calling you to do and to be and pursue it with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

  • http://drgtjustwondering.blogspot.com Diana Trautwein

    Thank you, Ben. Your timing is impeccable. A lot of Rachel’s friends have secretly posted encouraging blog writings today (as her book officially launches) to salute and thank her for her bravery. Whether you know it or not, you’ve joined right in! As an older woman in ministry, who came through some of the same journey points that Rachel has, I am deeply grateful for her presence out here and for her willingness to take an awful lot of flak from some pretty powerful people. It is lovely to see someone of your stature and reputation acknowledge her good work. Thank you so much.

  • Gwen

    Since I read Jacobs’ book, Origen might suggest that I “grasp the other breast” and read Rachel. I’m cracking up over your comments on Song of Solomon! I have listened to you speak, I have read your books, I have followed you here. Always, you are fair, forthright and and willing to engage in discussion.
    According to your review, Rachel affirms through her experience and scholarship assertions I have only intuitively and amateurishly made. Thanks be to God that she put in this year of slavish subservience to illustrate the point(s) so I and others don’t feel we have to–though women in Christendom are doing just that on far too many fronts.
    Incidentally, I’m a LOTR fan as well and love your Hobbit following; you’ve turned me on to Sade and so many interesting aspects of our life in the world…and on and on. Thanks for making your (very active) stream of consciousness available to us through your writing. It’s a gift. I know it comes at a price as in the case of sharing your grief. Prayers for your journey.

  • Doug

    Jeepers. Is it too much to ask for someone who is considered a “scholar” to at least try and write a review without using it as a sledgehammer against whoever we smurkingly assume to be “out of it” (those Biblical Womanhood people!)!?

    I’ve read several reviews of this book by respected scholars who tried to honestly interact with the book on its face and didn’t feel the need to play to some audience with the review. These kinds of books are always attacking some straw man – a shadowy figure we’re told exists but doesn’t seem to be publishing right now. No one who holds to any of the more conservative/traditional understandings of gender roles will recognize any of his or her arguments in this book. Only the straw man will find himself duly represented.

  • Ben Witherington

    Doug how I wish you were right. But I’ve been paying attention to this whole discussion for 40 years, and you could not be more wrong. Rachel is dealing with the very arguments she herself has had thrown in her face again and again and again. And wrongly so. And frankly they are often not very Biblical arguments at all. BW3

  • John

    Just wondering about your reaction to the charge that RE is disingenuous in her approach since she chooses to interpret the Bible for the purposes of this book in the most unintelligent and extremely fundamentalistic way possible without explaining herself. She then seems to conclusions as if she had made a legimate attempt to live biblically as an intelligent and informed manner interpreting the Bible as women who are sincerely trying to live biblically would. I wish she had taken a less silly approach. It could have sparked a real debate. It seems that instead those with more traditional views are just going to ignore this book as making a mockery of their position and of the Bible itself.

  • Ben Witherington

    I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, though the year deal was a bit gimmicky. You need to understand that she lives in a very fundamentalistic part of the country, and to some extent she is reacting to that. And understandably so. We keep telling her…. she needs to move, get out a bit more. BW3

  • Patrick

    I don’t recall ever getting the impression Jesus “broke the torah”. He heightened some of it’s requirements and fulfilled them. He broke Pharisee law. Where would it seem Jesus did this to Rachel?

  • Ben Witherington

    Healing on the sabbath, and the purity laws. BW3

  • http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com Matt Dabbs

    Poor Rahab the inn keeper, always being called a prostitute! I bet in heaven she is going to get tired of correcting people. Seriously though, thanks for an objective review.

  • david carlson

    I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, though the year deal was a bit gimmicky. You need to understand that she lives in a very fundamentalistic part of the country, and to some extent she is reacting to that.

    Many of the breast beaters who are decrying her book both ignore this and refuse to confront the wackos like quiverfull and their ilk. If you are going to complain about her hermanutic, I will consider their complaints if they bothered to address the ills in our world

  • http://www.ja-nei.blogspot.com Hallvard N. Jorgensen

    Dear Ben, thanks for your nice review of Evans’ book. I myself am a theologian, and I’ve grown up in an evangelical church in Norway which has a “complementarian” stance. I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading in these issues, by authors with different opinions. My conclusions so far are that historically and exegetically I basically think the complementarian stance is the most faithful to the early church reflected in the NT, including of course Paul (although I’m not sure of whether I personally like this conclusion or not :-S)

    Particularly important for me in reaching this conclusion have been Grudem’s “Evangelical feminism and biblical truth,” Köstenberger’s “Women in the church” and Michael Lakeys PhD “Image and glory of God”. Lakey affirms that Paul really sees a “metaphysical” difference between man and woman, building on several “hints” of authority and “function” in what is said about Adam and Eve in the creation narrative of Gen 2, and this difference seems to undergird his exhortations to find one’s place in the “chain of authority,” e. g. God-Christ-Man-Woman.

    I would also add that I believe Paul (along with the early church – partly since these matters are reflected in different strands of the NT, and partly since Paul I think it’s hard to see how Paul’s appeal to common Christian traditions in 1 Cor 11 could not refer to the gender-issues he are about to delve into) sees the relation between man and woman as a part of a bigger “structuring” of the cosmos, again, I think, culled from OT thought (Gen and the law, perhaps). So that when Paul talks of the “taxis” of the relationship of man and woman, this is then to be understood as merely a facet of a bigger “taxis,” involving “principalities and powers,” children under their parents, slaves under their masters etc. By obeying this “taxis,” the churches are a “pre-taste” of the kingdom of God, where the taxis will be perfect, under God’s authority.

    Do you have any thoughts on this reading? Of course, these are historical reflections; there’s also the hermeneutic and systematic task of how to apply these texts today…

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Hallward:
    Thanks for your good interaction. I would say that Grudem is nearly entirely wrong in his reading of the relevant texts in the OT and NT. It led me to wonder if you had read the whole different stream of Evangelical books which favor a more egalitarian reading of the Bible? You could start with my book Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge U. Press). I would commend Philip Payne’s work, which completely deconstructs the reading of Grudem and Kostenberger of the Pauline passages.

    In regard to creation theology, it seems clear to me that patriarchy is a result of the original curse and the Fall, not the original creation order. As God says in the curse on Eve ‘your desire will be for your husband and he will lord it over you’. To love and to cherish degenerates into to desire and to dominate. Nothing in the two creation stories suggests that somehow Eve is subordinate to Adam. Indeed that sort of language never occurs in the Hebrew text, and in regard to the phrase ‘a suitable helper’ the Hebrew term for helper is regularly used in the OT of Yahweh himself with no implications of subordination at all. You will notice as well that the Genesis text speaks of a deficiency in the man, not the woman— it’s not good for the MAN to be alone. No such similar statement is made about the woman. I could go on, but I will finally just add that the household codes in Paul and elsewhere in the NT are attempts by Paul and others to inject the leaven of a Christian approach to relationships into a pre-existing patriarchal structure. The structure is not endorsed, indeed it is restructured, leading to the imperative— submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.

    Ben W.

  • http://www.ja-nei.blogspot.com Hallvard N. Jorgensen

    Thanks a lot for your kind and interesting answer. I have read quite a bit of evangelical egalitarian books, but not the ones you mention. I’ll definitely take a closer look at them.

  • CG

    Dismayed to see that RHE has overcorrected from her legalist upbringing and has gone deep into skepticism and relativism.

    Even more dismayed to see so many others who ought to know better praising her for it.

  • Stacey Erickson

    Thank you for a wonderful, specific review!

    This week, I’ve been thinking on stereotypes, and so also appreciated, “It is a heart-warming story about young Evangelicals who do not conform to some of the media’s stereotypes of what such people are like.” Indeed, I proffer, none of us is remotely a media stereotype; each of us is an individual person.

    Thank you, again.


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