My freshman year of college at Biola University, I heard a few women stand up and give a devotional on Proverbs 31. I had heard a great deal about Proverbs 31 by the time they spoke, given that I am a pastor’s kid and started going to church before I could even open my eyes for more than 30 minutes. At Biola, these women gave me and 100 other girls a sufficient list of all the ways we could be an ideal woman and mate as we hoped for the cliché, “ring by spring.” I walked away with a to-do list a mile long and learned that if I worked hard enough, perhaps I would be noticed as a woman, given attention by Godly men, and showered with words of acclimation from my righteous peers. I also had a way to compare myself with others and hope that I was measuring up to the “biblical” ideal. Thank God for growth in life, learning about the real truth of scripture, and Rachel Held Evans.
About a week or so ago I received the book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” over email in a digital PDF and was asked to review it. I finished the book in under 4 days but have been mulling over it ever since. Rachel Held Evans wrote this work in response to the rise in fundamentalist interpretations of being a woman biblically. She took an approach that some are suggesting mocks the Word she and I love so dearly, but more accurately, her book lets us into a journey she went on to discover what scripture really says about what it means to be a woman. Rachel has written a scholarly, poignant, yet hilarious book and vulnerably shares her life with us.
For an entire year, Rachel took it upon herself to literally implement many of the Old Testament and New Testament commands or directions for women in her daily life. Although her desire was to be playful and funny as she experimented her way through these commands, doing things like celebrating her husband at the Dayton, TN city sign or living in a tent during her monthly visit from Aunt Flo, she dove into scripture with phenomenal scholarship and exegesis. Out of all the commands, she chose a few to participate in all year, like not cutting her hair (“her glory”) while she focused in on other commands for only a month at a time.
I laughed my way through this book, sometimes even out loud. Although this may not have been conducive to others working around me, I didn’t care. It was just that funny. I mean, attempting to cook her way through Martha Stewart’s cooking guides, trying her hand at pie crust after not baking much previously, or even stepping foot in a hobby lobby to buy fabric for a dress never having sewn before, allowed for major material in getting a good laugh. Rachel is quick to laugh with others at her own expense and reveals her willingness to be honest and vulnerable through this challenging experiment. But really, who orders a robotic baby online just to play mom?! I applaud the effort and the fact that she shares her fear of motherhood with all of God’s green earth.
Scripture was used and not abused all the way through this delightful read. One of Rachel’s hopes was to celebrate the good that women are involved in globally and scripturally. In between chapters of the book, Rachel produced short exposes on women in scripture that we hear so little about. For example, she reminds us of Deborah’s role as a judge, Huldah’s significance as a prophetess, and Queen Vashti’s role catapulting the story of Esther. They are magnificent reminders of the role women have played in the greater story of God and His redemption. I was, and will continue to be encouraged by the stories of these ancient women and the hope I can have in how God uses us ALL for His kingdom.
Rachel was not scared of the texts that conservatives use to suggest women ought to be silent in church or simply relegated only to children’s ministry, as if spiritually molding young minds is chump change when it comes to ministering to God’s people. She dove into the cultural context of these texts and did some of the best work I have seen in scholarship on these luminous Pauline passages. And friends, I have studied these texts as a seminary grad, a female, and a single person headed into ministry. Trust me on this, Rachel Held Evans knows what the heck she’s doing when it comes to interpreting the text for what it really says, and not how our evangelical church culture might want to read it for short sentences in the power plays we’re all guilty of.
I love that Rachel studied the Hebrew in Genesis, at the creation of women, and in Proverbs 31. I love Hebrew and find so much delight in understanding its vast significance in how we read the Old Testament. “Eshet Chayil” meaning woman of valor, is a phrase not unfamiliar to Rachel’s blog as she has previously learned the Hebrew phrase. However, as she did her research to better understand the Old Testament and biblical traditions, Rachel found an orthodox Jewish woman to help her really go deeply into this study. In doing so, she uncovered that this phrase, “Eshet Chayil” and its relationship to Proverbs 31 I important to understand when applying P31 to our lives. In the Jewish tradition, during the weekly shabbat, Sabbath meal, the husband of the house sings Proverbs 31 over his wife as a blessing. He is celebrating her as a woman of valor in all of the ways she serves and blesses her family. It does not matter if she has checked all the boxes in her list of Proverbs 31 duties, but he acknowledges the gift that she is to her family as a woman, and often as a mother. In understanding the context of this passage, we find that a woman actually wrote it, encouraging her son to find a woman worthy of his hand. It was a mother’s cry for a woman of character to be invited into their family, not a woman who carried this list around in her pocket, attempting to achieve a perfection only God can carry.
By the end of the book, Rachel’s search for the definition of biblical womanhood leaves her with this conclusion that I find liberating,
“So after twelve months of ‘biblical womanhood’ I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does notpresent 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. 294-295).
There are all kinds of women in scripture who reveal to us that we are created in the image of a complex God, made of many of His characteristics, attributes, skills, talents, and gifts. Do we thus limit God’s use of His image created in us, when we stuff our gifts or compare them to another?
As a woman of faith, a single person, and a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, church and ministry can be an incredibly hard place to be. I found this book to be tremendously freeing, encouraging, and convicting. I was reminded of ways I do not serve God in my life that must change. I was also encouraged to press on in ways that I do serve in ministry that others, including some of my closest friends, do not celebrate or agree with. These words were especially liberating to me, “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).
Everyone needs a cheerleader in ministry and Rachel Held Evans was a cheerleader and a friend to me in the words she wrote. Her work will always be significant to me and I am forever grateful.