Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

10 Jan

A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2012)

The subtitle of this book, “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’,” provides an intriguing and true, but somewhat misleading, description of the actual contents.

Held, who writes a blog on women and faith (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/), decided to go on a yearlong journey investigating what, exactly, the Bible says about women and trying to follow the rituals and behavior patterns it sets out for women.  She takes these roles or characteristics one or two at a time, for a month each.  Some items, such as growing her hair she continues for the entire year.  The ten she selected, gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace, are all based on Biblical teachings.  Evans doesn’t start out with an agenda; she intends to explore these virtues, as she calls them, to understand Biblical womanhood, and to see how it aligns, or doesn’t, with her evangelical upbringing.  Her attitude towards the project is reverent. Each chapter describes one month of her journey and at the end, highlights a Biblical woman whose story relates to that virtue.   Occasionally excerpts from her husband’s journey are included to provide his perspective on what she had done that month.

She kicks off the year with a study of gentleness and it is this chapter that she references in the subtitle, when she mentions sitting on the roof.  In order to avoid a contentious spirit she sets up a system that requires her to put coins in a jar every time she finds herself engaging in “gossiping, nagging, complaining, exaggerating, and snark” (8).  One of the verses that inspired this chapter is Proverbs 21:9 “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman.”  At the end of the month she counts up the money in her contentious jar and then sits on the roof one minute for every cent in the jar.   One autumn day she sat on her roof for an hour and a half.

This is not the only section wherein the author adapts an ancient phrase to a modern use.  In the chapter on valor she takes the verse on women selling garments to provide income to her household, but since she cannot sew, she makes a sash with ironed on embellishments and sells it on eBay.   For the chapter on fertility she rents a lifelike computerized doll (Baby Think It Over) used in high school classes on child care.

Held consults with people from various viewpoints, polygamists, Orthodox Jews, the Amish, Biblical patriarchy groups, and organizations promoting large families, among others, to understand their interpretations of Biblical womanhood and the Bible’s view of women.   Though she presents these views in a non-judgmental fashion she writes at one point:

“I’ve heard all kinds of explanations from Christian apologists for why the Bible includes such harsh laws about women:  that the laws were progressive in comparison to the surrounding culture, that they were designed to protect women from exploitation, that they weren’t strictly observed anyway.  These are useful insights, I suppose, but, sometimes I nbso online casino reviews wish these apologists wouldn’t be in such a hurry to explain these troubling texts away, that they would allow themselves to be bothered by them now and then.” (53)

She also visits a community in Bolivia when studying justice, and focuses on social justice, including learning how and where the food she eats was grown and how it was produced.  In the chapter on silence she spends a few days at a monastery and also attends a Quaker service, both of which value silence.

Evans contrasts the story of Abraham and Isaac with Jephthah and his daughter (whose name is not mentioned), both fathers promising to sacrifice a child.  Isaac is spared; Jephthah’s daughter is not.  Evans points out a lost ritual from the book of Judges, chapter 11:

“Wrote the narrator, “From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah (vv.39-40).

They could not protect her life, but they could protect her dignity by retelling her story – year after year, for four days, in a mysterious and subversive ceremony that perhaps led the women of Israel back to the same hills in which Jephthah’s daughter wandered before her death.  It was a tradition that appears to have continued through the writing of the book of Judges.  But it is a tradition lost to the waxing and waning of time, no longer marked by the daughters of Abrahamic faiths.” (63-64)

Another woman whose story was forgotten, or in this case erased, is Junia.  In Romans 16:7 Junia and Andronicus are referred to as apostles.  Early church commentaries clearly regard Junia as female, but in the Middle Ages a female apostle became somewhat inconvenient to the increasing marginalization of women in the church so Junia became Junias, a male version of the name that was seldom if ever used in Biblical times.

Held also takes up the famed woman of “Proverbs 31.”  The King James Version describes her as a “virtuous woman.”  Held compares several different translations; some saying “good wife,” or “capable wife” or “worthy woman.”  Here, as in other places in her book, Held cites scholarship, and finds that most scholars translate it as “valorous woman” and that the verses uses militaristic language than most English versions of the Bible soften.  “She girds herself with strength” is literally “she girds her loins.”  She also points out that rather than a list of commandments the chapter is a poem of praise of all women and the only commandment is for men to honor women.

In a discussion on the verse in Timothy (2:11) that is often interpreted to say that women should be silent and are not allowed to teach men, she points out that three verses earlier (Timothy 2:8) men are called upon to pray with uplifted hands.  This is seldom quoted as often or with the same vigor as the verse on women.

Later in the book Held points out that the woman who is healed by Jesus’s touch in Mark 5:26-34 is “the only healing in the Gospels that occurs without the express intent of Jesus” (170); it is the woman who touches Him not the other way around.

The Biblical women Evans choses to highlight in the vignettes at the end of each chapter include Deborah (a victorious general), Tamar (a widow who tricked her father-in-law into giving her the family rights he had tried to deny her),  Vasthi (the queen who refused to be paraded before her husband’s drunken friends and was set aside for her disobedience), Tabitha (the only woman in the New Testament identified with the female form of the word disciple), and Huldah (a prophet in the Old Testament who was asked to pronounce judgment on the authority of a prophetic scroll).

This is an interesting book that explores a number of aspects of Biblical teachings on women.  Held’s open minded approach makes the book accessible to readers having a variety of viewpoints.    She includes references for further reading in the back.  It is not a scholarly book in the traditional sense but it is certainly a thought provoking one.

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