For one year, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans vowed to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible–including not cutting her hair, calling her husband “master” and keeping silent in church–and she chronicled her experiences in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Staff writer Kristin Fryer spoke to Evans about the book, the Bible and what it means to be a “woman of valour.”
Kristin Fryer: Why did you take on this project? What was your goal?
Rachel Held Evans: When I was growing up in the Bible belt, “biblical womanhood” was always presented as this ideal that I should strive toward as a woman. But nobody could agree on exactly what biblical womanhood meant. Most of the time it was being invoked to explain why women should be discouraged from working outside the home, or why they should be forbidden from taking leadership positions in the church. I was never really comfortable with that. So I wanted to playfully challenge the idea that the Bible prescribes just one right way to be a woman, and hopefully encourage women to cut one another some slack, since none of us are practising it 100 percent.
KF: What were some of the most positive aspects of this experience for you?
RHE: Doing interviews with people and learning how different women understand biblical womanhood. I became friends with an Orthodox Jew, Ahava, who helped me through a lot of the Old Testament stuff and even sent me her challah [Sabbath bread] recipe. I learned so much about the Bible by consulting Jewish commentaries, interviewing Jewish folks and learning about how they interpret these texts. I found it really enriching and helpful, particularly as I wrestled through some of the more difficult parts of the Old Testament. Now, whenever I’m struggling with a difficult text, I go to the Jewish commentaries, because they’ve been reading these texts a lot longer than we have.
KF: There are some parts of the Mosaic Law that are difficult for modern women to read—for example, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which specifies that a woman who has been raped must marry her rapist. How do you understand such passages?
RHE: They really are a challenge. It’s somewhat helpful to keep that in mind that, compared to the surrounding culture, the Mosaic Law was actually quite deferential and helpful to women. At the same time, those laws are clearly rooted in a patriarchal culture where women were essentially considered property, and there’s really no way to tidy that up, so I don’t try to. The Bible is instructive, it’s relevant—all of it is—but we have to understand that it was written in a context. It was written for us, but not necessarily to us.
When Christ was asked which was the most important commandment in the law [see Matthew 22:34-40], he said “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself,” adding, “All the rest of the law and the prophets hang on those two commands.” That’s the hermeneutic I use when reading Scripture. How does this help me love God better? How does this help me love my neighbour better? Knowing that that is the heartbeat of Scripture—loving God and loving your neighbour—helps me put things in perspective. It doesn’t explain everything away, but it reminds me of the true character of God.
KF: You spent a month attempting to be the “wife of noble character” described in Proverbs 31. Why did you focus on that passage in particular?
RHE: Probably because every woman I know secretly hates it. (laughs) Proverbs 31 celebrates the accomplishments of an upper class wife, probably a queen. It talks about rising before the sun comes up and working until the sun sets, spending hours at the loom, weaving, and providing food for the family, and on and on—all these amazing domestic accomplishments. Unfortunately, a lot of the time this passage is treated proscriptively—as in, “Women, this is what God wants you to be like.”
Talking with Ahava about the Jewish interpretation of this text, it’s really a blessing—a celebration of what women have already accomplished. In Jewish culture, it is the man who memorizes this passage. Ahava’s husband sings it to her at every Sabbath meal and she explained that it doesn’t matter how much she has accomplished that week; it’s just an unconditional celebration of her.
The first line of the poem is often translated, “A virtuous women who can find?”, but the best translation is, “A woman of valour who can find?” The expression is eshet chayil—woman of valour. Ahava explained that she and her friends use this expression to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. And it doesn’t have to be a domestic accomplishment. It could be getting a raise at work, going out of your way to help somebody else—any number of things that a woman accomplishes, big or small. And they’ll celebrate these accomplishments by calling each other eshet chayil—woman of valour.
KF: Looking back on the year, what was the most difficult task or rule for you to follow and why?
RHE: One month I followed the purity code found in Leviticus, which includes very specific rules for how a woman should conduct herself during her period. So, for 12 days that month, I could not touch any man at all—including my husband—and I had to carry around a cushion because Leviticus says that anything a woman sits on during that time would be considered unclean, so everywhere I went I was sitting on this cushion. And of course, people would ask me why, and I had to explain that I was on my period. That was a little embarrassing.
KF: What is the number one thing you want readers to take away from your book?
RHE: I want women to know that they’re not a mistake. If they don’t fit into the mold that’s always been presented to them about what it means to be a woman of faith, that they’re not wrong. You often hear things like, “A woman’s highest calling is motherhood.” That’s not true. As Christians, our highest calling is to follow Christ.
The Bible doesn’t teach just one right way to be a woman of faith, so I hope women come away from the book feeling liberated from the unrealistic or unfair expectations that the church has placed on them in that regard. I hope they feel that they can be themselves as they follow Christ, because I think we’re most effective when we’re free to use our gifts and be ourselves as we glorify God.
I hope that everyone who reads the book—women and men—comes away with a willingness to re-evaluate what we mean when we say things like biblical womanhood or biblical politics or biblical marriage—a willingness to put that under some scrutiny and acknowledge the fact that we all come to the text with interpretive biases.
For more on this topic, read our review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood here.