A Year Of Biblical Womanhood: How A Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting On Her Roof, Covering Her Head, And Calling Her Husband Master
Rachel Held Evans
In response to a Christian culture where “biblical” gets tacked in front of everything from preaching to marriage, but especially to womanhood, Rachel Held Evans takes on the challenge of exploring the many things the Bible says to and about women in 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.
The breakdown of her year is straightforward: each month she explores a different quality of womanhood, including gentleness, modesty, purity, valour, submission, domesticity, fertility, etc.
Aiming to take biblical instructions at face value for her project, she explores different groups with more literal interpretations of Scripture in regard to the behaviour of women – including Amish, the “Quiverfull” movement (promoting bearing as many children as possible, inspired by Psalm 128:1–3), polygamists, Orthodox Jews, and Quakers (practitioners of silence in worship).
In addition, she goes back to Christianity’s roots and explores Jewish rituals, feasts, and lenses for interpreting Scripture. Each chapter ends with a vignette on a different woman of faith – from well-known figures like Mary, Deborah, and Eve, to the lesser-known like prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:8–20), and apostle Junia (Romans 16:7).
I was intrigued by the idea – despite thinking, “Didn’t A.J. Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically) already do this?” – and the book didn’t disappoint. Though I couldn’t relate to Evans’ background of southern U.S. evangelicalism that prompted the experiment, I loved her honest approach and detailed research. The project certainly has an entertaining aspect as it leads to mishaps in the kitchen, housekeeping frustrations, alterations in personal appearance (conservative dress and head coverings), food preparation in observance of Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hoshanah, and camping out in her front yard during menstruation.
These highly personal stories are a highlight of the book, but also one of its weaknesses. Evans does go on and on at times about the stress of her household tasks, and write about friends and family as though the reader were as familiar with these characters as she is. However, anyone who’s been nearly reduced to tears of frustration deboning a chicken can sympathize with the obsessing! Furthermore, the names of family members may be familiar to readers who’ve already been following the regular posts on Evans’ popular blog.
Evans’ stringent rules and practices are always balanced by her thorough research and commitment to biblical interpretation. When interviewing groups that think differently about Bible passages, her tone was respectful and balanced, seeking understanding without judgment, though, of course, she does not condone interpretations like polygamy.
Throughout her explorations, Evans consistently transforms the 12 “womanly” virtues – so often framed as “not-doing” – into active behaviour. On the quality of gentleness, for example, she exegetes this fruit of the Spirit not as a passive trait, but one “associated with integrity and self-control, particularly in the face of persecution.” The quality, called praus in Greek, is “the same word they used to describe a wild horse that had been tamed” and usually translated as the “meek” inheritors of the earth in the Beatitudes.
I especially loved the way Evans reclaimed the daunting “Proverbs 31 woman” as a blessing rather than a laundry list of impossible tasks. (How many women do you know who spin their own clothing or purchase vineyards?) Evans asserts we have a lot to learn from Jewish interpretations of this passage.
In Jewish tradition, the husband memorizes this acrostic poem to praise his wife over the Sabbath meal. The poem is written like a warrior’s ode, celebrating the valour of a woman of faith who accomplishes the daily tasks God sets before her. This beautiful exhortation to faithfulness in the mundane reminded me of the New Testament command: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
At the end of her year, Evans comes to the conclusion that there is really no such thing as biblical womanhood. “Women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens…mothers, and martyrs. What makes these stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, 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.”
Evans ends her project with insights and observations that would serve all Christ followers well, not just women. Our calling as followers of Christ – regardless of gender – is first to love God, then love others.
I would recommend this book as an accessible and entertaining, but thorough introduction for all who are interested in a candid and personal exploration of what the Bible says about women.
—Rebekah Miller Doerksen is a member at Crossroads MB Church, Winnipeg, and leadership development assistant for the Canadian Conference of MB Churches. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, she is not only a skilled baker of bread, and a servant through music, but also a leader in congregational care at her church. Rebekah is married to Eric.