A Review of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”

This is going to be a long post. I intended to write a short book review, but it swelled into something more. So here we go!

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This book will undoubtedly be loved by many, but also hated by many. The concept is not a new one – A.J. Jacobs wrote The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.  Nonetheless, this book follows a woman’s perspective and is therefore in many ways quite different. Rachel Held Evans divides her book – A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” into twelve chapters, one for each month. Each month is then dedicated to a single virtue or trait. She addresses 1) Gentleness 2) Domesticity 3) Obedience 4) Valour 5) Beauty 6)Modesty 7) Purity 8) Fertility 9) Submission 10) Justice 11) Silence and 12) Grace.

Since a teenager I have often wondered about women’s roles within the confines of marriage, church and society as a whole. While Evans’ book certainly didn’t answer many questions, she did offer up some thoughtful tidbits which led me to look more closely at the Bible and ponder more deeply its words.

There were several points that she made that served more as a reminder than anything else. For example she states:

” …the ‘gentle and quiet spirit’ Peter wrote about is not, in fact, an exclusively feminine virtue, but is elevated throughout the New Testament as a trait expected of all Christians. Jesus used the same word – praus, in Greek – to describe himself as ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (Matthew 11:29). … Far from connoting timidity or docility, gentleness is associated with integrity and self-control, particularly in the face of persecution.” – 16

This was a welcome reminder of what it means to have a “gentle and quiet spirit,” especially considering how often I lack timidity (I may or may not put my foot in my mouth from time to time).

Perhaps one of my favourite statements in the book was that:

“Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation.” – 30

So often I have been asked what I feel ‘called’ to do. While this kind of questioning might make sense to some people, it has never made sense to me. I have never felt ‘called’ by God  to pursue any particular vocation. I have never felt that I needed to find the right vocation either.

There are certain things that I like to do. I enjoy knitting and crochet, reading and writing, working with children at my work and teaching. Do I feel this makes me more likely to enjoy particular jobs? Absolutely. But I don’t believe that there is any one right vocation for me. I genuinely believe that whatever I choose to do with my life – whether it be a long career in a library, nursing or being a homemaker – I would find each worthwhile.

I once was told that working directly in the church was the only truly valuable job because you’re working with people’s souls and what else matters? I cringed.  I think any person can do great things for God whether you’re a janitor, a missionary, a dentist or a preacher. Some women want to be homemakers and stay home with their children and this is wonderful! But other women want to have a career and spend many of their hours away from home, and this is also wonderful! One vocation is no less valuable than another. What matters is that you find God in whatever vocation you choose.

I also really enjoyed Evans’ inclusion of her Jewish correspondent’s – Ahava’s – thoughts. Ahava had a particularly interesting notion of the Bible:

“Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don’t do this. Even though we take the Torah literally (all 613 commandments!), the rest is seen differently, as a way of understanding our Creator, rather than direct commands.” – 87

But, when do we take it literally and when do we not? How do we make that judgement? Christianity works a little differently than Judaism and these are difficult questions which Evans never addresses.

Ahava also discusses what, in Hebrew, the Bible means when it talks about Eve as a “helpmeet.” She says:

“For the record, in Bereshit (Genesis by you) where it talks about the “helpmeet,” in Hebrew it is not just Ezer, but Ezer k’gnedo, which means “the help that opposes.” The Rabbis explain this term like two posts of equal weight leaned against one another. They stand because of equal force.” –  68

What a great way to think of relationships between two people!

Similarly, Evans discusses marriage between equal partners on pages 204-205, which I can relate to very much. My husband and I came into our marriage with the understanding that he would lead and I would follow. I would have a voice in all decisions as a couple, but he would hold “the reins.” In practice though, this simply isn’t how our marriage functions; in the end we submit to one another equally.

Sometimes I hold the reins simply because I have more knowledge or a better understanding of the problem. Other times he is in the lead because he holds the greater knowledge and understanding. Then, of course, there are times where we hold equal knowledge and understanding and neither is better equipped to lead.  In these moments we challenge each other so that we may arrive at a conclusion in harmony. It takes patience and love, but always do we listen to the other’s point of view, often learning something new in the process.

Back to talking about Ahava, Evans’ Jewish correspondent – she goes on to discuss Proverbs 31 and how it is honoured in Jewish culture:

“Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an eshet chayil (a valorous woman) all the time. …Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way.” –  87-88

To me this is a beautiful and special way to honour one’s wife. Though, I wouldn’t expect my husband to sing to me, his singing is only slightly better than mine (which isn’t good).

Evans expands on Ahava’s thoughts by pointing out that the valourous woman – eshet chayil – is at its core a blessing, never meant to be earned but rather given unconditionally (88). She says,

“The Proverbs 31 woman is not a star because of what she does but how she does it -with valour.” -95

This is a powerful reminder to perform all tasks and face all obstacles in life with the right attitude – courage, fortitude, determination and love. It also means that I don’t have to rise before dawn to be a good wife (thank the Lord)! I love my sleep. And a good bout of idleness once in a while.

However, Evans applies this same logic to modesty later in the book and says that,

“It’s not what we wear but how we wear it.” – 140.

Mmm, no. Sometimes it really is about what you wear. Whether we want this to be true or not, our clothes reflect a lot about ourselves – our personalities and values first and foremost.

Overall, the book was thought-provoking, funny and satirical, intelligent and ambitious. However, I felt that the purpose of her book was somewhat vague. I came to it thinking it was going to address and discuss Christian women and their place in marriage, church and society. Instead, she seems to focus on the Bible and how it’s silly to interpret it all literally. Evans did not provide much in the way of a conclusion either. I was left stumped at what the purpose of the whole project had been.

Kathy Keller said it right when she wrote to Evans,

“You tell readers they won’t ultimately be able to follow everything the Bible teaches, that they will have to choose some things and  ignore others. But what will be their standard or means for doing so?”

Evans responds to Keller’s review by stating that she was trying to expose how messy things get when we interpret the Bible literally and wanted to open an honest dialogue about what defines womanhood, particularly in reaction to the complementarian views of women and men.

Evans often draws from the Jewish tradition, with many of her rituals and observations stemming from the Old Testament. While this is certainly interesting and offered some insights, it often confused her purpose.

In the end I would recommend this book to others because I think it stimulates conversation and Evans is clearly a talented writer. I rate it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

With that, I’ll leave you with an anecdote that can be found at the end of the book. I think it’s a good one!

“Some rabbis say that, at birth, we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks. To those who repent of their sins, especially in the days of Rosh Hashanah, God sends the angel Gabriel to make knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God. Because each of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness from time to time, our strings are full of knots. But, the rabbis like to say, a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots. So the person with many sins but a humble heart is closer to God.” -303

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