Book Review: Rachel Held Evans, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” (Part 3)

Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a long semester, I have finally gotten the chance to do some reading for myself, and at the top of my list was catching up with the rest of the blogging world and reading Rachel Held Evans’ latest book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Having read Evans’ blog a fair amount, I was familiar with the project. I also recently read and reviewed her book Evolving in Monkey Town, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was very excited to read this book, too!

In the first post of this review I argued that on closer examination, the main critiques of Evans’ book are all either misdirections which seek to distract from the main point of her project, absolute misrepresentations of the book itself (whether willful or not I leave to my readers to decide), or heated rhetoric revealing a clear bias against the book and its author. In reality, Evans very effectively reveals the selectivity of traditional evangelical understandings of biblical womanhood and argues for, in their place, a biblical womanhood defined by a virtuous and faithful character in whatever calling women find themselves in. In doing so Evans raises serious questions about conservative evangelical hermeneutics. By questioning the foundation of their claims about biblical authority, Evans’ project actually poses a serious threat to the conservative evangelical establishment, and it is for that reason, I think, that she has been the subject of such fierce criticism.

In part two of this review I examined Evans deconstruction of traditional notions of “biblical womanhood.”  Evans argues, I said, that in actuality these understandings are more often than not misinterpretations of the texts they are based on.  For example, we saw in the chapter on valor that the genre of Proverbs 31 has been ignored by many evangelical interpreters, and in the chapter on submission that many evangelicals ignore the cultural and even biblical context of those verses which seemingly command women to submit to their husbands.  Ultimately, such misinterpretations fail to take into account the full breadth of biblical testimony about women, and the result of this failure is significant damage done to the church by conveying a message of inferiority to women who have many gifts to offer to the Christian community.


In today’s post, the third and final part of this review, I want to look more closely at the positive, constructive arguments about womanhood that Evans makes in her book.  Similarly to part two, in this post we will focus on a small collection of chapters rather than attempting to cover the entire scope of Evans’ book (that would simply take up too much space).  Today’s post will focus on the chapters about obedience (chapter 3), valor (chapter 4), submission (chapter 9), justice (chapter 10), and silence (chapter 11).

OBEDIENCE


As we saw in part two, in the chapter on obedience Evans does an excellent job of pointing out the way many evangelicals have sugarcoated the treatment and status of women in the biblical world.  The clear difference in the treatment and status of women in the laws of the Bible, as well as numerous “dark stories” of atrocities committed against women, serve as a clear reminder that women were considered the ontological inferior of men in the ancient world.  However, as Evans points out, there are some elements of subversion in the biblical witness, particularly in the celebration of biblical heroins who took control of the fate of their own families and, often enough, the fate of nations. Such stories serve to call into question the underlying assumptions of the law and pave the way for the first fundamental principle of Evans own understanding of biblical womanhood: the essential equality of both men and women.  Evans finds the grounding for this claim in the creation story of Genesis, a text often used to argue for the subordination of women on two grounds: 1) their being created after men, and 2) the designation “helpmeet” applied to women in the story.  Evans reinterprets that second reason, however, with the aid of a newfound Jewish friend:

Hello.  I’m an Orthodox Jew who is interested in your “living biblical womanhood” project.  For the record, in Bereshit (Genesis by you) where it talks about the “helpmeet,” the Hebrew is not just Ezer, but Ezer k’gnedo, which means “the help that opposes.”  The rabbis explain this term like two posts of equal weight leaned against one another.  They stand because of equal force.  My husband is a rabbi and he actually debated a complementarian evangelical once.  The guy totally expected to have him on his side, but he was wrong!  (68)

Drawing from this interpretation of the text, Evans answers the question raised by pitting the narratives of matriarchal heroines against the patriarchal biblical laws: women were not meant to be ontologically inferior to men but to be their equals.  Though in today’s world this might seem like something that hardly needs to be said, for Evans and many other women in the evangelical community this is a point that must be clearly articulated and placed on the table lest it get lost in the fog surrounding discussions of “biblical womanhood.”

VALOR

In part two, we noted that Evans’ observations about the genre of the Proverbs 31 poem should have a drastic impact on how we understand the meaning of the poem.  Evans also draws upon a closer reading of the Hebrew text as she constructs her own interpretation:

Most scholars seem to think that the Hebrew eschet chayil is best translated “valorous woman” [usually translated “noble wife”], for the structure and diction employed in the poem closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior.  Lost to English readers are the militaristic nuances found in the original language (emphasis added): “she provides food for her family” (literally, “prey,” v. 15); “her husband… lacks nothing of value” (literally, “booty,” v. 11); “she watches over the affairs of the household” (literally, “spies,” v. 27); “she girds herself with strength” (literally, “she girds her loins,” v. 17 KJV); “she can laugh at the days to come” (literally, “laugh in victory,” v. 15).  According to Erika Moore, “the valorous wife is a heroic figure used by God to do good for His people, just as the ancient judges and kings did good for God’s people by their martial exploits.” (75-76)

It is this reinterpretation of the text as essentially extolling the virtue of valor which becomes the second, essential characteristic of Evans’ own understanding of biblical womanhood: that true biblical womanhood is about living a life of character, not fitting into certain prescribed roles.  The valorous pursuit of whatever God has called an individual woman to is what is important, not the fulfillment of particular “duties” assigned by patriarchal cultural norms.

It’s important to note, as we pointed out in part two, that Evans is very conscious of the temptation to prescribe a one-size-fits-all formula of her own for what the life of a “biblical woman” should look like.  Evans wrestles with this herself and she encounters her own fears around many aspects of life often associated with traditional “biblical womanhood,” such as domestic tasks or motherhood.  In this chapter she attempts to make clear, as she does in numerous other places throughout the book, that she is resisting this temptation to prescribe and is instead hoping to lift up the virtuous, valorous living of women in many different kinds of lifestyles:

The Proverbs 31 woman is a star not because of what she does but how she does it– with valor  So do your thing.  If it’s refurbishing old furniture– do it with valor.  If it’s keeping up with your two-year-old– do it with valor.  If it’s fighting against human trafficking… leading a company… or getting other people to do your work for you– do it with valor.  Take risks.  Work hard.  Make mistakes.  Get up the next morning and surround yourself with people who will cheer you on.  (95)

This point, I think, is important because it shields Evans against a criticism that she is replacing the conservative notion of “biblical womanhood” with an equally rigid “liberal” model of womanhood (whatever that might look like…).  While Evans certainly wants to open up more opportunities within the church to women, she goes out of her way to argue that she does not believe every woman must be a teacher or leader in the church.  Many women will choose a more “traditional” lifestyle, and Evans at the end of the day overcomes her hesitations about such choices and even encourages women who take them on.  Her point is not to see the end of women fulfilling traditional roles but to see the end of women being told they must fulfill them to be true “biblical” women.

SUBMISSION

In deconstructing the normal evangelical interpretation of New Testament passages about submission, as we noted in part two, Evans points to the historical, cultural, and biblical context of those passages to call into question their “timelessness.”  In reconstructing the meaning of these passages, Evans gives us one of the most clear-cut of reflections in the book on how the incarnation impacts the meaning of biblical womanhood:

In the biblical narrative, hierarchy enters human relationships as part of the curse, and begins with man’s oppression of women— “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).  But with Christ, hierarchical relationships are exposed for the sham that they are, as the last are made first, the first are made last, the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, and the God of the universe takes the form of a slave. (219)

The overthrowing of hierarchy that Evans grounds in the incarnation of Christ provides the logic for a “subversive” understanding of the household codes in the New Testament:

If you look close enough, you can detect the rumblings of subversion beneath the seemingly acquiescent text.  It is no accident that Peter introduced his version of the household codes with a riddle— “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16 Updated NIV)— or that Paul began his with the general admonition that Christians are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21; emphasis added).  It is hard for us to recognize it now, but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free. (218)


Besides reminding me of an amazing scene from The West Wing, the merit of this interpretation, from my perspective, is two-fold:  first, it seems to capture the redemptive logic of the New Testament, which does seem to undermine the fallen, hierarchical nature of human relationships, much better than the traditional interpretation.  Second, this interpretation draws out from texts which might otherwise seem very time-bound (given their discussions of slavery and their clear reflections of ancient household codes) a principle which can be applied across time: mutual submission and service to one another as a marker of the Christian community.  Evans thus has not simply critiqued a misunderstanding of these texts, she has presented a much more expansive reading of them which both embraces all of humanity and reflects the redemptive work of the incarnation.

JUSTICE

In addition to a foundation of essential equality, a defining virtue of valorous living in whatever calling one experiences, and an understanding of redemptive history in the undermining of hierarchy, Evans sees a strong concern for justice as a particularly important piece of the biblical model of womanhood (228).  For Evans, this concern is not just motivated by social-justice-conscientiousness, though that certainly plays a role, it is grounded in a theological understanding of “righteousness” derived from Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament:

Judaism has no word for “charity.”  Instead the Jews speak of tzedakah, which means “justice” or “righteousness.”  While the word charity connotes a single act of giving, justice speaks to right living, of aligning oneself with the world in a way that sustains rather than exploits the rest of creation.  Justice is not a gift, it’s a lifestyle, a commitment to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam— “repairing the world.” (227)

Framing our involvement in social justice issues in theological terms is something that I think is important for Christians to focus on.  We engage in the work of social justice not just because helping those in need is a morally praiseworthy thing to do but because caring for those in need and working to fix the world flows out of the very logic of our belief system.  Throughout this chapter Evans focuses in particular on issues of justice related to the status of women around the world, but the framework she highlights above provides an excellent starting point for grounding Christian involvement in a whole host of social justice issues in the theological narrative of participating in God’s redemption of the world.  Even though the interpretation she offers is grounded in contemporary Judaism, the same themes from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are echoed in the writings of the New Testament, so we as Christians stand to learn a great deal from our Jewish brothers and sisters on this point.

SILENCE

In drawing this review to a close I want to return to Evans’ chapter about silence.  In part two of this review, we discussed Evans concerns about the damage done when the church misinterprets scripture and uses it to silence an entire subset of people who could otherwise offer great strengths and talents to the Christian faith.  In a sub-section after the end of the chapter proper, Evans discusses female biblical prophets and offers a counter to this damaging use of scripture as a weapon:

The Bible identifies ten such female prophets in the Old and New Testaments: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Isaiah’s wife, Anna, and the four daughters of Philip.  In addition, women like Rachel, Hannah, Abigail, Elisabeth and Mary are described as having prophetic visions about the future of their children, the destiny of nations, and coming Messiah… The breaking in of the new creation after Christ’s resurrection unleashed a cacophony of new prophetic voices, and apparently, prophesying among women was such a common activity in the early church that Paul had to remind women to cover their heads when they did it.  While some may try to downplay biblical examples of female disciples, deacons, leaders, and apostles, no one can deny the Bible’s long tradition of prophetic feminine vision.  And right now, we need that prophetic vision more than ever.  Right now thirty thousand children die every day from preventable diseases.  Right now a woman dies in childbirth every minute. Right now women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than form cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.  People who see the leadership of women like Huldah and Junia as special exceptions for times of great need are oblivious to the world in which we live.  Those who think the urgency of Pentecost has passed are deluding themselves.  They “have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear” (Ezekiel 12:2).  So my advice to women is this:  If a man ever tries to use the Bible as a weapon against you to keep you from speaking the truth, just thrown on a head covering and tell him you’re prophesying instead.  To those who will not accept us as preachers, we will have to become prophets.  (280-81).


I found this book a very enjoyable, insightful, thought-provoking read.  Evans powerfully deconstructs the traditional image of “biblical womanhood,” revealing its basis in the frequent misinterpretation or selective reading of scripture.  Simultaneously, Evans reinterprets many of these texts to reveal an image of women as full equals to men; meant to live lives of valor fulfilling whatever call God has given them; to embody the redemptive, hierarchy-over-turning work of Christ; to seek justice for those in need; and to speak as prophets to a world in desperate need of God’s word.


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