A Post Mortem on A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I’m four years too late with this post, but I just had a major, disturbing revelation about A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans last week, one that some likely had long before me. But I do think that many approached the book the way I did and had similar assumptions about Scripture that I had after reading it.

I am a student of the Bible, but I realize that I assumed much about the accuracy of the Scripture references in the book. Because I didn’t meticulously read each reference, I assumed things about the Word of God that were wrong. I am disappointed in myself and feel misled by how the book referenced Scripture that didn’t say what was being lived out in Rachel Held Evans’ experiment. 

When I first began to interact with AYOBW, I knew that it was an attempt to show that our applications of the idea of Biblical womanhood were so varied among different groups to make the phrase virtually meaningless. The goal seemed to show holes in complementarian thought and to relieve women from the idea that they needed to be stay at home moms cooking organic meals in order to be a “biblical woman.” I existed at Mars Hill Church under Mark Driscoll’s teaching long enough to accept that as a reasonable issue to address.

I also knew that much of what Rachel Held Evans was literally living out was not actually in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t command a woman to call her husband master and so forth. But though I knew that much of what she was literally living out was not actually in the Bible, I didn’t realize how often she put Scripture references in her book that didn’t say what, in retrospect, I feel she was making the reader feel like the Bible actually did say. 

I’m going to focus on just one chapter, the one on Leviticus 15’s instructions around menstruation. 

She says:

□ Camp out in the front yard for first three days of impurity (Leviticus 15: 19) (Kindle Locations 2752-2753)

The thing is Leviticus 15:19 doesn’t say to camp out in a separate tent during your period. Women sometimes did that, and there is a fictional book, The Red Tent, with this as its central plot element. Later, Evans acknowledges that she gets this idea from a fictional book and not the Bible, but she spends enough time focusing on it that her disclaimers didn’t stay with me as much as my impressions of Scripture from her experiment.  But that verse also never mentions the number three.  It talks about seven days, the average length of a woman’s period.  I don’t know where Evans got the idea of three days, but not from Leviticus 15:19 which she references.

She also says this:

Throughout the twelve days, I was forbidden to touch a man in any way: no handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the back, no passing the salt (V. 19). (Kindle Locations 3064-3065)

The thing is that the Bible does NOT forbid a man to touch a woman in verse 19, and Evans did NOT clarify this in her book. This thing she was doing was purely Jewish tradition, the kind of adding to the Law like tithing your spice rack that Jesus rebuked in Matthew 23:23.

Now you may think I am nitpicking through these examples. And maybe the book didn’t affect other readers this way, but when Evans gave a Scripture reference that sounded somewhat like what the Law would say, my brain made the connection that this was actually what the Law said. Because the Law repeats itself at times between Deuteronomy and Leviticus, if I didn’t immediately see the “command” in one place, I assumed it was in the other. But mostly, I was focused on other aspects of the book and didn’t look up references with a fine tooth comb that I now see I should have.

An interesting thing about all of this is what happened when I interacted with Rachel on twitter this week. I finally had to stop because I’m too old to follow a meaningful conversation on twitter. I can’t find the tweet to which I am replying and miss the train of thought (if there is one). So I decided to write my thoughts out here where discussion can happen with more than 140 characters a pop. Here’s the basic way the conversation went.

Note: This conversation was civil and courteous, and I appreciated Rachel’s willingness to have it.

Wendy: Leviticus 15 doesn’t say you have to sleep in a tent during your period and it doesn’t forbid you from touching a man.

RHE: “Did you see Leviticus 15:19-24? You *can* touch a man, but results in need for ritual cleansing for man…”

Wendy: “Right. Which is distinctly different than forbidding any touching at all.”

There was then some discussion about her research on Jewish traditions around this subject.

Wendy: “That’s a starting data point then. But not saying that you are forbidden to touch a man, b/c that’s not in the Bible.”

RHE: “God did not give us a Bible of data points. God gave us a Bible FULL of stories, letters, poetry, history, etc…”

WOW! That tweet by Evans is SUCH a great point to think about. Someone suggested that this was a Meyers – Brigg NF to NT issue, and I totally get that. I am mostly left-brained and have known for sometime that I needed to listen to my right-brained believing friends because God is both – He is engineer and artist, poet and mathematician. But Evans dismissed my data point tweet altogether. God wrote a story, not data points, she said. I recently heard a scientist on a PBS Nature special say an interesting thing. He said that when you hear more than one anecdote about a topic, they stop being anecdotes and start being data. Stories have data points, and repeated themes and phrases in a story the size of God’s give us a great deal of data. My encouragement to my right-brained, poetic, story loving brothers and sisters in Christ is not to despise data and logic because your brain doesn’t excel that way. God is both left-brained and right-brained, and His story to us reflects both sides of His brain.

The funny thing is that whether Evans likes my “data point” language or not, AYOBW helped me with some data points of Scripture, particularly around the fact that the Bible refers to Ruth as a virtuous woman with the same Hebrew phrase used in Proverbs 31. Two uses of the same Hebrew phrase give us data points so that we can better understand the term. We can examine the narrative around these data points and use it to draw conclusions. I totally changed how I thought about Proverbs 31 after seeing the data (for you left-brainers) and story (for you right-brainers) of the virtuous woman of Ruth. Once you see that Ruth was known as a virtuous woman when she was a barren widow from a foreign land, we understand that our ability to be a virtuous woman doesn’t depend on a husband and children, which many conservatives have insinuated from Proverbs 31 over the years.

Evans was clear in AYOBW that she was doing an experiment on our applications of Biblical womanhood. But, though applications of Scripture vary greatly, the phrase Biblical womanhood denotes (not connotes) that it is rooted in the Bible itself rather than tradition. I think Evans did her readers a disservice by not distinguishing clearly between what was and was not actually found in the original text of Scripture. I argued in my tweets with her that we should at least be able to agree on what the Bible says as an objective baseline. What it means is open to debate, and how to apply it is highly subjective. But the facts of what it says are pretty straightforward. But Evans further argued that we don’t even agree on what it says.

RHE: “Even what it *says* is up for debate when we’re working with an ancient foreign language.”

RHE: “I spent DAYS reading various interpretations of word we translate ‘unclean.’”

In one sense, I understand what she’s doing, and I support such research and textual criticism. But she seems to be suggesting that the words themselves (not their meaning or application) are unknowable, that we can attach no certainty towards any of them. “It depends on what the meaning of is IS,” Bill Clinton famously said. Of course, in that moment, he was deflecting indictment over other words he had previously said. In Evans’ case, I felt she was deflecting the fact that she referenced Leviticus 15 when she said she was “forbidden” to touch a man and never clarified the fact that Leviticus 15 doesn’t use any word that even insinuates forbidding. In Clinton’s case, “is” has an agreed upon definition. We can agree first that “is” was the word used and that “is” means what it means (an active state of being), though we may disagree about how he used it for himself.  Really, though, if he didn’t mean “is,” he should just clarify what word he should have used.

Similarly, even for an ancient language, we have reasonable certainty that we can translate the Hebrew tame as unclean. Which is why Leviticus 15 has been translated consistently with the English word unclean. We also have reasonable certainty that no other word in Leviticus 15’s instructions around men touching women can be translated “forbid,” which is why English translations have never translated anything around the men/women interaction in Leviticus 15 as “forbid.” The word for unclean exists in the manuscript and the one for forbid does not.  This is straightforward and not confusing, even to linguists and translators.

The idea that Evans can’t even agree with that baseline of data (yes, I said data) is reflective of what I think the fundamental problem of AYOBW is. A Year of Biblical Womanhood over and over and over conflates without distinction evolved religious practices with objective statements actually in the original Hebrew text.

But I realize it is an act of faith to do anything else.

Evans said in another tweet, “ ‘What the Bible says’ is so reductive and simplistic. You make it sound as though it were totally obvious. It’s really not.”

What the Bible says. Is that reductive and simplistic? Well, in some sense it is, since the Bible says quite a number of things. But it does say some things that are actually knowable. I believe there are objective statements in the original Hebrew text that say something that is knowable, though what it means and how to apply it are regularly up for debate. That conviction of mine is based on Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5:18.

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 

This thing that Jesus says here is incredibly important. The only document we have of Jesus’ words are the Gospels, and to doubt that He speaks truth when He says that the Word of God will be preserved is to doubt His words altogether. He is specifically promising that God would preserve the Law, and He will preserve it until God has accomplished all He has said He will do, so this is right up our alley of what we are talking about in Leviticus 15. Jesus promised His disciples that God (not us) would keep His Law intact so that we can come to it with reasonable certainty that we have something authoritative in our hands when we study it. Not the traditions that followed it not mentioned in Scripture. Not the various ways various groups apply it. But what the text actually says itself, God has promised to preserve.

Jesus gives us a baseline around the Word of God, particularly the Law, that we can trust. Debate other things if you want, but don’t debate whether we can have reasonable confidence of what the Bible actually says. And if you share this conviction from Matthew 5:18, please learn from my mistake and look up every cross reference in future books you read, so that you are not misled over whether the Bible says something itself or whether an author is talking about someone else’s 6-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon interpretation of it.

30 Responses to A Post Mortem on A Year of Biblical Womanhood

  1. adaughterofthereformation January 26, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    I am an INFJ, and I think the data points are absolutely necessary to understanding the text. It's not simply useless details. It's basic biblical hermeneutics to use Scripture to interpret Scripture.

  2. Valerie Hobbs January 26, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    'He said that when you hear more than one anecdote about a topic, they stop being anecdotes and start being data.' – YES! Still reading and absorbing your post, but I appreciate it greatly.

  3. Wendy January 26, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

    I'm glad it was helpful!

  4. Sarah Peeler January 26, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I read and enjoyed AYOBW, but this clarifies a few things that bothered me about it. That said, I have a question. You said “I believe there are objective statements in the original Hebrew text that say something that is knowable, though what it means and how to apply it are regularly up for debate”. If what it means and how to apply it are so regularly up for debate, then why is it not fair to say that the what the Bible says is not actually very clear?

  5. Wendy January 27, 2016 at 1:27 am #

    Good question. In general, I think the meanings are pretty clear, which is why there are only a few words that people tend to debate from both the Old and the New Testament. Over the 2000 years, our translations have been remarkably consistent. The meanings are especially clear when the Bible uses a word a lot of time in different contexts. That's the case with the Hebrew word tame, translated unclean. But a word like teshuquah which is translated desire in Genesis 3:16 is only used 3 times, and there's a case of authority in I Timothy 2 that's only used once. Those seem more debatable.

  6. Anita January 27, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    I have no knowledge or experience with AYOBW but I completely appreciate your defense of what the Bible says. It is our responsibility to know what it says and to know it in context with which it is speaking. Having a couple of seminary classes now under my belt, I am so appreciative of all who strive to understand the whole Bible in context, not just their favorite verses that loosely seem to justify their opinion.

    I've had to take the Myer's-Briggs test for school as well and it often feels like people use that as a crutch to say, “well, that's just the way I am and I can't change that” in an effort to stubbornly stand in the middle of their opinion without making an effort to learn about the whole issue. My paid testing came up slightly different than my freebie testing. I think that this test should be used as a guide to better not understanding and not as a defense to stubbornly stand on an opinion. (climbing down off my soap box now)

  7. Andrew Young January 27, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    This is not a matter of left-brained vs. right brained. Evans’ erroneous theology stems not from the fact that she is more right-brained but rather from the fact that she views scripture as a metaphysical narrative and not God’s philosophical statement to mankind. This is most revealed in her statement that, “God wrote a story.” This is what the writer of the article has picked up on, even though she did not frame it in those terms (perhaps she didn’t even know TO frame it in those terms, but the cognitive dissonance she experienced in reading Evans’ book was enough to raise warning flags for her to further search out scripture for herself as she did). It is important for us to know that God wanted His children to be “clean”, ceremonially as well as physically (because there were certain hygienic advantages to this; the dietary restrictions were another), but to take a passage of scripture that was addressed to a specific people for a specific purpose and make a direct application to believers today is an egregious mis-handling of God’s word. Kudos to the author (Wendy) for her discernment!

  8. Sarah Peeler January 28, 2016 at 3:52 am #

    Thanks for the clarification. But doesn't the original cultural context also really matter here? We might be able to agree on the definition of a word while still disagreeing on the meaning of that word within a specific context. The words in the Bible would have had a certain meaning for the original audience, but because we are in a completely different culture/language, that awareness is harder for us to grasp. As a result, we are likely to make mistakes in our attempt to identify the meaning of a passage, even when all of the words can be “clearly” defined. I think saying that “'what the Bible says' is always up for debate” is just a way of acknowledging these limitations.

  9. Wendy January 28, 2016 at 4:11 am #

    It depends on the scope of “says” and “means”. Tame is what it says. That's indisputable. Unclean is what it means in English, which is mostly agreed upon. The application of unclean, particularly the regular addition of the idea of ritual uncleanness as more than general uncleanness seems open to interpretation. It seems that RHE is casting doubt on just the fact that tame is the word and that we can have any confidence that unclean is the correct translation of it. I see what it says as indisputable under Jesus' promise from the Gospels. The Reformed Church believed we could also trust the Spirit to make the Word knowable in ways we could trust, the doctrine of perspicuity of Scripture. So I have good confidence in the translation of it as unclean.

    I'm probably not explaining myself well.

  10. Sarah Peeler January 28, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

    I didn't get the impression that RHE was disputing that tame was the word (I could be wrong), but the thing that doesn't match to me is that she says “I spent DAYS reading various interpretations of word we translate 'unclean.”, and yet you feel the interpretation is “indisputable”. Am I unfairly comparing those two statements? Is anyone who has a different interpretation of that word from you just wrong? The frustration I have with the doctrine of perspicuity is that it is sometimes used to justify closing ourselves off to dissenting viewpoints. I just don't understand what we lose by being willing to admit that even our most confident assumptions could be flawed.

  11. Wendy January 28, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

    Well, she's disputing what it “says.” That my issue — at what point does Jesus' promise over the preservation of the Law have any meaning for us today? I don't have a problem with your last sentence as long as the thing that points out the flaws in our assumptions is Scripture itself. That's why I liked her points on eshet chayil. Scripture itself (through its use in Ruth) shows us the problems with how some interpret/apply Proverbs 31. But that's not what Rachel is doing with Leviticus 15. She insinuates that it is unknowable. But if our assumptions are flawed, Jesus intimates that something is still preserved that is knowable.

    Thanks for your questions. They are helpful to me as I think through this.

  12. Wendy January 28, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

    Oh, and one more thing!!! According to Rachel, it wasn't the translation of unclean that was up for dispute but how you interpret what that means for Jews. That again is the difference. Debate how to interpret/apply, but don't insinuate there is disagreement over what it says or even how it's translated into English. Unclean is a mostly undisputed translation (that I can see).

  13. Amy January 29, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    Yes! Rachel Held Evans is a false teacher. Period. She doesn't respect the Bible as God's inerrant Word. That alone makes her dangerous. What I find troubling is the use of her teachings by pastors to “interpret” Scripture. I pray for God to give my daughters discernment because of women like her.

  14. princessarah74 January 29, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    I think the purpose of AYOBW is being misunderstood. You're saying RHE should have clarified that according to Lev 15:19 a woman was allowed to touch her husband causing him to be unclean. And women's status was so high back then that husbands were willing to be considered unclean and go through the inconvenience of washing. Any good law abider would have been trying to not to touch a menstruating woman in order to remain clean. 1 Peter 3:6 specifically says that Sarah called Abraham lord and that women should imitate her. It doesn't matter that scripture doesn't directly command a wife to call her husband lord. It mentions a woman who does and instructs women to be like her and there will be plenty of people that interpret that to mean a wife should be subservient to her spouse. That's what RHE is pointing out. There are inconsistencies in complementarian thought and traditional interpretations of scripture.

  15. rockstarkp January 29, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

    At first, I started reading this thinking “here we go, and RHE rant.”
    But not at all. I'm so glad you worked through all this and carefully wrote this out. This is the kind of well reasoned and thoughtful interaction with RHE and her book that is needed.
    No polemics; just the facts and data. And good insight about Ruth that I'll need to ponder more now too.

  16. Anonymous January 29, 2016 at 4:22 pm #

    You can get a many part review of Evans here:
    http://turretinfan.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-womans-response-to-rachel-held-evans.html

  17. Sarah Peeler January 29, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

    Using Scripture to interpret Scripture is a very useful tool, but humans are still participating in that process and as such it is subject to our limitations. I'm not saying we can't have any confidence at all in our assessment of things – I just think we'd all benefit from defaulting to a position of humility and openness. We are not God. We might have it wrong.

    As for the RHE comments, it is becoming silly for me to continue to comment on a conversation that I wasn't participating in or even witnessing. But again, you say the translation of that word is “mostly agreed upon” and “mostly undisputed” – which is great. It does seem reasonable to think that's a good translation. But it is not undisputed. So what harm is it for us to acknowledge that there are other translations that might have value?

    I guess the difference in our perspectives is that I don't see Jesus' statements as conflicting with an “everything's up for debate” approach.

  18. Karla Pitts January 30, 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    I admit that I am unfamiliar with RHE teaching. Here is what I am wondering. As new covenant believing women, why are we looking to the old covenant as the standard for us?

  19. Wendy February 1, 2016 at 2:41 am #

    Karla, I don't know that I would would say that the Law is our “standard.” Jesus is our standard. HOWEVER, Jesus did say He didn't come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). And He was the only one to ever keep it perfectly. So we can not in the New Covenant completely distance ourselves from the Old. We are no longer under the Law, but if we believe Jesus' words on the Road to Emmaus in Luke, His life is completely wrapped up in the story of the Old Testament. There is much for us to learn from the Old Testament in terms of understanding Jesus in the New.

  20. Gail Wallace February 2, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    Well said!

  21. Gail Wallace February 2, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    Having read the book and gone through it in a study with other women, I need to say that yes, much of this seems like nitpicking and completely misses the point and purpose of the book. It was meant to be more of a woman's take on the best seller Year of Living Bibically by AJ Jacobs. It was one of the most enjoyable and deep groups experiences I have had in 50+ years of being a Christian.

  22. Wendy February 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    To be fair, Gail, I didn't originally write this post just to nitpick whether Leviticus does or does not forbid a woman to touch a man during her period. I tweeted a question to Rachel, and she engaged me in a long tweet conversation. She said things in that conversation, not necessarily said in the book, about what she believes we can have confidence in from Scripture. In the end, in her opinion there is very little we can confidently claim, that even what it “says” at the most basic level, let alone how to interpret or apply it, is up for debate. That baseline is an important one in conversations of faith and practice, and I don't think I'm nitpicking at all to point it out.

  23. Wendy February 2, 2016 at 6:52 pm #

    In other words, I may have misunderstood her book, but I did not misunderstand her tweets.

  24. Barbara Roberts February 2, 2016 at 11:55 pm #

    Andrew Young, thank you for this:

    “Evans’ erroneous theology stems not from the fact that she is more right-brained but rather from the fact that she views scripture as a metaphysical narrative and not God’s philosophical statement to mankind. This is most revealed in her statement that, 'God wrote a story.' “

    I have avoided reading any of Rachel Held Evans' work, since a long time ago I heard from people whose theological discernment I trust, that RHE's views a tainted with liberalism.

    You have nailed an important point here, Andrew.

  25. Barbara Roberts February 3, 2016 at 12:07 am #

    The smaller and more faint the taint of false teaching, the harder it is to discern. You have done well, here, Wendy, in explaining how RHE's approach is tainted.

    As I said in my reply to Andrew Young, I have not read RHE myself, but I have always sensed (maybe the Holy Spirit was prompting me) that she was off-track.

    I had the sense (and still do) that RHE is cocking a snook at complementarianism partly by ridiculing it for having extreme ideas that it does not actually have.

    If I'm is right, this rather sad — since complementarianism as taught and practiced today in many circles has PLENTY of ridiculous ideas which are well worth exposing and critiquing. There is no need to invent mischaracterisations of complementarianism in order to point out how it is often a biased interpretation of Scripture and how easily it can lead to toxic misogyny and hyper-Patriarchy that feeds the mindset that oppresses women.

    There is plenty to critique in Complementarianism without having to invent things to critique in it!

    And btw, just in case some people want to accuse me of over-generalising about complementarianism, I know that complementarianism has different shades and degrees; not all comps are the same.

  26. Barbara Roberts February 3, 2016 at 12:09 am #

    Wendy, I'm behind you. I didn't think your post was nitpicking. I think you have pointed out a pretty serious flaw in RHE's belief about Scripture.

  27. Barbara Roberts February 3, 2016 at 12:18 am #

    “As new covenant believing women, why are we looking to the old covenant as the standard for us?”

    Because Scripture is all God's word. The OT and NT are not to be seen as so disparate that no OT principles apply to Christians. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the two testaments. A mature Christian seeks to discern both the continuity and the discontinuity, and that helps us test and weigh the validity (or the invalidity) of an interpretation of a particular passage or verse.

    I don't hear Wendy Alsup as trying in this post to prove whether or not menstruating women ought or ought not be separate from their husband during either the first three days or the seven days of the menstrual period. I hear her as putting the spotlight on Rachel Held Evan's view of the inerrancy of Scripture.

  28. An37 February 3, 2016 at 12:54 am #

    When everyone has a platform nothing is indisputable; that is, you can't find a fact in the universe that someone, somewhere won't dispute. So it's unwise to make sweeping statements like “undisputed.”

    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't ignore flat earthers, 9-11 conspiracy theorists, et al., just because the facts happen to be, technically, under dispute.

  29. Wendy February 3, 2016 at 2:36 am #

    Thanks, Barb. I am right with you — there's enough to criticize of substance among complementarian thought to invent things or twist things that aren't actually there.

  30. john February 3, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    nice!