A number of people have asked me lately if I will be reviewing Rachel Held Evans new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which follows her attempts “to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.” I am not going to read and review it, though my reason may sound underwhelming. I am behind on a number of projects to which I had previously obligated myself, including another book review. I also took on two ministry opportunities this fall which are taking up a great deal of the little bit of extra time I have when my family doesn’t need me. Not to mention, I’m working on finishing my own book! Though somehow that keeps getting shoved to the bottom of the pile.
All that to say, I won’t be adding anything new to my pile for the next few months. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts to stay focused on my massive To Do list, I was distracted by this article on NBC news today about Evans’ new book. In it, Evans said this, which resonated with me.
“People were throwing around this phrase, biblical womanhood, as if that’s something any of us are really practicing,” she told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Monday. “That’s the challenge, looking for any person of faith who loves the Bible, trying to figure out what parts of this book apply and should be followed literally, and which parts may be culturally influenced, and how do we decide.”
How do we decide what parts of Scripture are for today? Not all parts of Scripture are to be literally followed today, right? Most of us at least agree on that. But there are divergent perspectives within the larger evangelical movement on how we know what is required for today, especially in terms of application to women. It is tempting for me to rely on my own cultural understanding as the basis for what does and does not apply to me in Scripture. But the Bible transcends cultural context. The Bible makes audacious claims about itself. It claims to be living (Hebrews 4:12). It claims to be trustworthy (Matthew 5:18, 2 Peter 1:20-21). It speaks to events that occurred well before it was first written and to those that will occur long after it was completed.
How any of us decide to receive the Word is a fundamental act of faith. I remember well my early days at college when I first faced head on my belief (or unbelief) in the trustworthiness of the Scripture handed down by the church for two millennia. Could I trust it? How did I know it was true? What about the questions others regularly raised? I studied how we got our texts for a bit, but then I realized at some point that I could not study my way out of the need to take a step of faith on the reliability of Scripture.
So I took that step of faith. I believed that the Bible was what it claimed – the living, trustworthy revelation of God to His people, a revelation that transcends any particular cultural context. Yet, still I had to wonder what to do with peculiar passages that seemed totally irrelevant for me today. I realized early on in my wrestling over Scripture that I did not want to rely on myself to determine what was and what was not relevant for me today. I knew it was foolish for me to choose to accept the parts I liked and reject the parts I didn’t. Thankfully, the Bible does not leave us as orphans to navigate that. In fact, the Bible gives great insight to us on how to interact with itself. The most important Bible interpretation principle I know is that THE BIBLE IS THE BEST COMMENTARY ON ITSELF.
Consider Deuteronomy 22:5, which forbids women wearing men’s clothes and vice versa. Though it more likely was addressing what today would be considered transvestism, when I was growing up, this verse was used to forbid fundamentalist Christian women from wearing pants. We attended a church for a while that bought into that thinking. At some point, I read the next verse in Deuteronomy 22 on not taking the mother from a bird’s nest though you could take the young and the following one on building a parapet on your roof top. Once I got to the verse on not wearing garments with a mixture of wool and linen, I knew something was skewed in how that church was presenting Scripture. Thankfully, in my own study I one day came to understand that Jesus was the only one who ever could obey the Old Testament Law as God intended. He did obey the Law perfectly, and His death on the cross changed permanently the role of the Law for all who followed.
We have no need today to write off Old Testament law. Jesus addressed this head on in Matthew 5.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
There are many wrong ways to think about Old Testament laws. They aren’t to be written off, ignored, or abolished. Instead, Jesus FULFILLED them. He brought them to completion, and they are now done. Not only did He fulfill them, Jesus boiled them down for us so that we could continue living in the essence of what they were meant to convey. He summed this up with the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) and Greatest Command (Matthew 22:36-40).
Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 22 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Edited on Tuesday to add — I hesitate to criticize much in Evans’ book since I haven’t read it, and that would just be irresponsible on my part. But much was made in their advertising about her sleeping in a tent during her cycle each month in light of instructions in Leviticus 15. If the point of that was to reveal something about literal Biblical womanhood, then that misses that Scripture itself already tells us no one today is required to follow Leviticus 15. I am curious how much of what she attempts at Biblical womanhood falls in this category, which is not literal Biblical womanhood at all.
Upon Christ’s death on the cross, He ushered in the New Covenant, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy in Jer. 31:31-34.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah several times in his detailed discussion of all Christ’s death accomplished for us. If you are not familiar with that passage, I encourage you to read through Hebrews 8-10.
It’s not rocket science. The Bible spells out for us quite clearly how we are to interact with the Old Testament Law. If we allow the Bible to instruct us on itself, we save ourselves a lot of headache and stress. Much of our “literal” Biblical womanhood quandary becomes obsolete. In summary, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil law pointed toward Christ and was fulfilled in Him. The New Testament reaffirms the summary moral code of the Ten Commandments. Jesus even intensifies it in His Sermon on the Mount. The essence is summed up in the Greatest Command and Golden Rule. Much of the epistles then flesh out what this looks like in the New Covenant, and we can trust those instructions.
*I have notes from an excellent class on Scripture that I hope to share next week.*