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.
□ 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.