When I first heard about A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I was intrigued. The book chronicles Rachel Held Evans’ attempt to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year, including not cutting her hair, calling her husband “master” and keeping silent in church.
Beyond the novelty factor, the experiment is a significant undertaking. Biblical womanhood is a hotly debated topic, attracting a wide range of interpretations and opinions. How would Evans address this? As it turns out, with intelligence, humour and a sincere desire to understand God’s will for women.
“There would be no picking and choosing,” writes Evans, who took all commands from Genesis to Revelation into account, while focusing on a particular virtue each month. It’s hard not to laugh when she describes trying to keep quiet while watching a football game during her month of gentleness or cook her first turkey dinner while focusing on domesticity.
But in chapters that focus on virtues such as obedience and submission, the tone is more serious as Evans discusses stories and passages in the Bible that are difficult for many modern women to read. For example, Old Testament law states that a woman who has been raped must marry her rapist (see Deuteronomy 22:28-29); in the New Testament, women are instructed to submit to their husbands “in everything,” as they submit to Christ (see Ephesians 5:24).
Evans doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she does an admirable job of differentiating between culture-specific commands for women and timeless principles to live by. In doing so, she draws on a variety of sources as she explores the meaning of biblical womanhood, from theologians to ordinary people. One of the most fruitful relationships she develops over the course of the year is with an orthodox Jewish woman, Ahava, who offers insight into many Jewish laws and customs. For example, she explains that Proverbs 31 is not a to-do list for women, but a poem of praise that husbands sing to their wives every week at the Sabbath meal. “No matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity,” says Ahava. Everyone can be a “valorous woman” (see Proverbs 31:10) in their own way.
Adding to Evans’ personal reflections are profiles at the end of each chapter, which showcase the diversity of women in the Bible—from warriors to mothers, prostitutes to apostles. “What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal,” Evans writes, “but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valour. They lived their lives with faith.”
With so many heroines of the faith to learn from, perhaps it is no surprise that after 12 months of “biblical womanhood,” Evans reached a rather unconventional conclusion: that there is no such thing.
For more on biblical womanhood, read Salvationist‘s interview with Rachel Held Evans here.