Thoughts on Book #10: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

I grew up in an egalitarian family, though we never called it that. Though my upbringing was a conservative evangelical one, my dad stayed at home while my mom worked, my church supported female pastors (though ours was male), and many of the women in my family were/are in the tops of their fields, dedicated to their vocations as they are their families. For me, all of this was normal. It’s part of why I married Christy; she’s a strong woman dedicated to her career as well as to me.

It was really weird to find out that not everyone thinks this is a good thing, or to find that most women’s ministries encourage women to stay at home and let their husbands be breadwinners. In my mind, there’s nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t think that’s a woman’s only option. What bothered me (as it does the author) was how much the word biblical got thrown around when talking about what it means to be a woman, like it were some kind of trump card you used to shut down your opponent. I’ve stuck to my views, as have my parents, but not without criticism and condescension, something that Rachel Held Evans encounterd greatly over the course of this book.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood tells the story of one Rachel Held Evans, a blogger and speaker from Dayton Tennessee, who decided that she was going to exactly what the title says: spend an entire year living like a “biblical woman.” Many different books have been written on this subject with many differing points of view, from extreme complimentarian (such as the Quiverfull movement) to extreme feminist (for lack of a better word), and Evans, being the curious person that she is, decided to take a long hard look at the Bible verses many of these traditions use to support their viewpoint and the historical context behind them. This led Evans to not cutting her hair for a year, calling her husband “master,” living in a tent outside during her period, and whole mess of long forgotten traditions still present in Scripture.

Evans’ book reads like a blogger’s book would; the language is relatively informal, but is informed by good scholarship and research as well, so it’s a little bit higher writing than someone’s personal journal (like Ed Dobson’s A Year of Living Like Jesus). Evans uses sources in both conservative (such as the Council For Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and more “progressive” Christian circles (such as OT scholar Peter Enns and NT Scholar Scot McKnight), as well as Jewish ones (such as a rabbi’s wife) to inform her understanding of the Scripture, and while it’s not exactly a scholarly study, that’s far from being a bad thing.

Evans certainly did far more research than most women’s groups leaders that I’ve experienced, and I agree with her conclusions, which end on an egalitarian persuasion. While she’s pretty open about her disagreement with complimentarianism (a viewpoint which places the man at the head of the relationship, with the woman submitting to the man), she works hard to understand the viewpoints she’s examining and critiquing, not judging those who’ve adopted the viewpoint. Regardless, the book generated more than its share of controversy, leading to many attacks from more conservative Christians, such as those at the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and The Gospel Coalition, for her egalitarian perspective and conclusions.

One of the biggest things I got from this book was her view of Proverbs 31, long used for devotionals as a road map for being a “biblical woman.” I can remember being at VFCC and guys talking about finding a P31 woman (just like Evans mentions in her college experiences), but Evans’ research completely turned the common understanding of the passage on its head. Through her Jewish contacts, Evans explains that Proverbs 31 isn’t some set of guidelines for being a biblical woman, but a poem written for men to memorize and recite to their wife, usually sung like a song. It’s designed to honor women as “eshet chayil,” or “women of valor,” praising them for their hard work and wonderful qualities. Evans uses the title “woman of valor” as a way to honor many of the women she encountered throughout her study, whether in the Scriptures or in her travels. What I loved about this was seeing the passage returned to its original context for honoring women, and I’ve already begun honoring my wife with the title (not as a song; don’t know if she’d appreciate that).

This book moved me to understand more how much the Bible has been used to oppress women over the last two millenia as well. I had inklings of this truth over the years, but never how far we still have to go as a church and as a society to still see women as equals, and not as second class. Evans pulls no punches in painting the reality for women then and women now, how in Bolivia economic conditions force men to leave their families for work abroad, sending money back to their wives and children, who barely have enough to make ends meet as it is, and are left unprotected from predators and criminals. The stories she tells are heartbreaking, but they also inspire hope, as she shows her readers women of valor who are working to change their environment.

I was excited for this book to come out, and I’m all the more glad that it’s out there. It’s empowering and inspiring, and I hope its impact is felt around the world. Eshet chayil, Rachel Held Evans!

PS, Rachel blogs here. You should go check it out.

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