More Thoughts on Literal Biblical Womanhood

Earlier this week, I wrote that, during this Easter season, I am meditating on the clarity the disciples gained concerning the law and prophets during the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. They were coming to understand all things biblical through the new lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The title of my book, The Gospel-Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospel, alludes to this. The disciples were coming to understand biblical everything through the lens of the gospel during those 40 days.

I wrote last year on how to read the Bible when it comes to the concept of “Biblical Womanhood.” At that point, I hadn’t read Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I’m finally getting around to reading it now, and a few things have dawned on me right off the bat.


Last year, I had a strong gut reaction to hearing that Evan’s was calling her husband “master” and sleeping in a tent during her cycle. I thought, “That’s not what the Bible teaches!” But, in truth, she was using the word “biblical” in a more accurate way than I. She used “biblical” as it is traditionally defined.

biblical—of, relating to, or contained in the Bible.

In contrast, I think of biblical womanhood as centered around what the Bible INSTRUCTS women to be and do, not things it merely mentions. The fact that the Bible mentions something about a woman in a Bible story then, by my definition of biblical, becomes irrelevant to determining what is truly biblical. But technically, the way I use the word “biblical” is not consistent with its actual definition.

When you examine biblical womanhood by its traditional definition, i. e. everything the Bible says about women, and then filter it through the lens of the gospel, you get a much better picture of what God does and does not instruct women today to be and do. In particular, understanding Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament law and sacrificial system sheds great light on which parts of what the Bible mentions about women are relevant in how we choose to live today.

The technical term used in theological circles is hermeneutics, which simply means how we interpret Scripture. A lot of how we interpret Scripture seems intuitive to me. No one has to tell me that the fact that the Bible mentions a woman who did something in a story (like bargaining to sleep with her husband using her son’s mandrakes in Genesis 30) in any way suggests that I need to emulate that. That’s absurd. It’s a story. It’s a description of what happened, not a prescription for what I need to do.

But to be fair to Rachel Held Evan’s use of the word biblical in her book, even reformed conservatives at times treat the Bible as she does — without regard to the Bible’s own instructions for interpreting itself. My personal experience of late centered around the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is not about you or me. That’s not to say that there aren’t things in Nehemiah on which to meditate and emulate, but we know what things those are based on how other Scripture speaks of those concepts. Nehemiah is about God, not us. It reveals His character and His work for His people. It is not about what you and I need to be or do. It is the story of God drawing the remnant of His people to Himself for His purposes. The fact that Nehemiah rebuilt the temple doesn’t mean that we need to rebuild the temple. Most of us have the common sense to understand at least that. But I have heard prominent reformed pastors tell their congregation that the fact that Nehemiah pulled out the hair of male leaders among the Jews is reason for us to do similarly. That method of interpretation is obviously faulty, yet it happens nonetheless. The primary way we know that the DESCRIPTION of Nehemiah’s violence against Jewish fathers is not to be emulated is that the Bible also gives a PRESCRIPTON for what to do in similar situations that is the exact opposite (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When the Bible DESCRIBES one thing in story but PRESCRIBES another, it is a faulty method of interpretation to use what it describes as your model for yourself.

As I think through this difference in ways we use the phrase biblical, I think more highly of what Rachel’s book brings to the table. It highlights the absurdity of lifting up biblical (of or pertaining to the bible) womanhood as a model for Christian women today. It would have been helpful, in my opinion, if she had offered insight on a correct hermeneutic for understanding what the Bible really does say to women today – that the Old Testament law was fulfilled in Christ and that there is a profound difference in what the Bible describes happening in its stories and what it actually instructs us to emulate. The Bible is surprisingly clear on what does and does not apply to women today IF you use the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and His instructions on how they apply) to interpret the rest of Scripture on the issue of womanhood.

8 Responses to More Thoughts on Literal Biblical Womanhood

  1. kbonikowsky April 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Surprisingly clear, eh?
    I don't really think so.

    Rachel's hermeneutic is all through the book.
    – She interprets the epistles through the lens of the ancient culture: p 216-219; 259-263.
    – She interprets with translation in mind: p75-77;247-249.
    – She addresses how Jesus changed the interpretation of OT law: p106-107; 169-171.

    Anyway, those are just a few. I'm glad you finally read it. Considering I agree with her hermeneutic on this topic, I liked the book. But, I thought it was a primer to this topic. It was meant to only introduce conservative Christian women, like us, to another way of interpreting classic gender texts. There is so much more she could have covered. But, I appreciate her humorous and gentle way of handling dicey and tense topics.

  2. Wendy April 4, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    I'm still in the middle of reading it. I don't see any mention of Jesus' instructions on the law on those pages you mentioned. But I'll keep reading.

    When Jesus says, “I didn't come to destroy the law but to fulfill it,” that seems clear. Paul says point blank that the law was our temporary guardian until Christ came and now that we are in Christ, we are no longer under the guardian. The law is fulfilled. That's pretty clear.

  3. kbonikowsky April 4, 2013 at 4:55 am #

    Ah, well if you are in the middle, the end is where she delves a bit more into her menuetics. 🙂

    p. 106 – Jesus on family relations points to his emphasis on faith, not physical relations or legal obligations.

    p. 169 – 171 “Jesus showed little regard for the Levitical purity codes…When God became human, when he wrapped himself in our blood and skin and bones, his first order of business was to touch the ones that we would not touch, to fellowship in our sufferings, and to declare once and for all that purity is found not in the body, but in the heart.”

    My comment on the clarity of Scripture refers to the last sentence in your post. I do not believe gender passages are clear. “Clearly” means having no problem understanding it. There are too many interpretations of the gender question to claim it is clear. What I “clearly” see, I bet you don't.

    If you don't take her too seriously (she is writing a farce:
    a boisterous comedy involving ludicrous action and dialogue which is intended to excite laughter through exaggeration and extravagance rather than by a realistic imitation of life. It contains exaggerated physical action which is often repeated, exaggeration of character and situation, absurd situations, and surprises in the form of unexpected appearances and disclosures.), then I think you'll begin to see her points a little better.

    I don't usually stick up for an author like this, and I am really happy you are reading it!

  4. Wendy April 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I think the Bible gives us clear instructions on interpreting itself that Rachel doesn't seem to use. I don't yet understand why she uses so much of the Old Testament law to make her point when Jesus says point blank He fulfilled the law and Paul further emphasizes that we are no longer under it.

    There are certainly things to wrestle with in Scripture concerning gender, but the Old Testament law isn't one of them.

    Thanks for the feedback. I'll definitely pay close attention toward the end for how she interprets. I know she's done a ton of research.

  5. leslie g. April 4, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Oh, thank you so much for this. I really hope you post more when you've finished the book. I loved it; I thought it was really well written and fun to read, and it was definitely thought-provoking for me. But your concerns are things I noticed too. And I would love, love to hear your perspective on her approach to New Testament instructions about women's roles. I'm not entirely convinced… but the conservative responses of “she's just ignoring what the Bible says!” don't really cut it for me either, you know?

  6. Chimae Goncalves April 4, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    I bought it to read it but after seeing Cathy Kellers review I am not so sure that I should read it?

  7. Wendy April 4, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    I can't answer that for you, Chimae. Personally, I like to read people with whom I at times disagree because it sharpens my understanding of the issues.

  8. Luma Simms April 10, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Wendy, I don't know how I missed this post last week! 🙁 Glad you're doing this. My hands are way too full right now but I hope to get to it over the summer.