I finally got to read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans a couple weeks and am just now going back through to take some notes and share some thoughts.
First off, I really enjoyed it. The first read-through was fast and just as funny as I had heard. I laughed out loud multiple times, read funny bits to John and went “hmm” a couple times. And after I finished, I wondered what some of those angry reviewers were ranting about (there was a lot of hyperventilating when it first came out). Maybe I’ve been reading so much on these topics (gender roles, egalitarian vs. complementarian etc) that none of it seemed that new or shocking. So I’m not going to wade into the mess of debate around those topics and instead just share some of the parts I liked best.
One of Evan’s main points in starting this project was that we are all selective about the Bible in some ways and we need to be aware of that, especially when we say something is “Biblical” or not. Whether we try to or not, we easily dismiss certain things as “cultural” while embracing other things as timeless commands. I have relatives who take the command about women covering their heads seriously (1 Corinthians 11:6) and yet my family does not, even though this command is in a passage often referenced in my circles when discussing gender roles in marriage (1 Cor 11:3). Evans wants us to think this through more carefully, because using the word “biblical” in front of “womanhood” can mean some pretty different things depending on who you’re talking to. It isn’t as cut-and-dried as we tend to assume it is in our own small little communities.
In a funny way, her checklists for what rules she tries to put into practice each month prove this point. Many reviewers quibbled with what parts of the Bible she decided to take literally and which she didn’t, showing just how easy it is for us to interpret things differently. These different attempts to live out various passages highlight the fact that many of us take descriptive passages as prescriptive and vice versa.
One of the prime examples of this was how many Christians turn the poem about the “Wife of Noble Character” in Proverbs 31 into a template for what Christian women should live up to. Evans describes her college experience with guys looking for a “Proverbs31 woman” and girls taking Bible studies on being a “Proverbs 31 wife.” I hadn’t run into this until recently when we dedicated Canon and our pastor prayed for John to be a good leader and for me to be like the Proverbs 31 wife. Then a friend posted about her fears of having a girl because she’s never felt she lived up to the Proverbs 31 description. Reading the poem as a standard to live up does make it feel like quite the heavy burden!
As it turns out, the Proverbs 31 poem was never meant to be a “to do” list. One of the most interesting parts of the book for me, was Evan’s interactions with an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava, who shared that,
“Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way.”
The only instruction found in the poem is directed at men. They are to honor their wives for what they do. And that’s exactly what this poem is used for in Jewish culture: as a celebration of valorous women. I felt like the whole book was worth reading just for the exploration of this passage.
Stay tuned – I have a couple more posts about this book! If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear about your favourite part.