Tuesday

making peace with proverbs 31 {A Year of Biblical Womanhood}

The specter of gender expectation for women looms large across evangelicalism, and Rachel Held Evan tackles the topic with boldness and grace in her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

Who should read this book?

  • People who appreciate humor, honesty, and a good story
  • Anyone who's wondered or struggled with what the Bible says about women
  • Those who suspect narrow prescriptive labels for gender, marriage, and womanhood of being a size-too-small and possibly clashing with the freedom we find in Christ
  • Skeptics who are willing to honestly engage Rachel's content firsthand instead of through the lens of her critics
  • Christians who love the Bible and anyone who mourns to see it wielded as a weapon
  • Those who trust that God is not threatened by doubts, questions, or seeking
  • People weary of easy answers who wonder how to serve God and honor a pre-modern scripture in our own post-modern context

The book is divided into twelve womanly virtues found in the Bible, and Rachel spends a month each exploring traits including gentleness, domesticity, obedience, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace.

One of my favorite chapters was Valor: Will the Real Proverbs 31 Woman Please Stand Up? Rachel explains that "the wife of noble character" (eshet chayil) in verse 10 is best translated as "valorous woman" and that the poem celebrates the woman as a kind of warrior. "Lost to English readers are the militaristic nuances found in the original language," Held Evans explains (76). She provides prey for her family, she girds her loins, she laughs in victory.

Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday. The only instructive language it contains is directed toward men, with the admonition that a thankful husband honors his wife "for all the things that her hands have done" (Proverbs 31:31). Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis notes that the poem was intended "not to honor one particularly praiseworthy woman, but rather to underscore the central significance of women's skilled work in a household-based economy." She concludes that "it will not do to make facile comparisons between the biblical figure and the suburban housewife, or alternately between her and the modern career woman. (76)
Nevertheless, Rachel spends a month undertaking a slew of domestic projects in an effort to live up to what many within evangelicalism esteem as the paragon of "biblical womanhood," and this chapter is among Rachel's most endearing. The tone of her book is familiar, funny, and less serious than the voice she often adopts on her popular theological blog.

Through her project, Rachel befriends an Orthodox Jew who provides an insight I won't soon forget. Ahava explains that Orthodox women often praise each other saying eshet chayil (valorous woman), and that her husband sings Proverbs 31 to her every Shabbat: "It's special to me because I know that no matter what I do or don't do, he praises me for blessing the family with energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way." (88).

The concept of "Biblical Womanhood" is something of a sacred cow in contemporary fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Daring to question its prescriptions is akin to heresy in certain circles, and this book has invited a firestorm from those who don't appreciate questions--or women who won't toe the line. Rachel has become something of a lightening rod for mean-spirited criticism from some Christians, which puzzles me as I find her writing to be both generous and orthodox.

But God is not honored by infighting, and this book is not intended as ammunition is anyone's battle. Rachel writes not to fan flames but to loose chains. In exploring her own frustrations with Scripture and Christian culture, Held Evans grows to love the Bible more--and the One who inspired it and sets hearts free.

Rachel has a high view of scripture. Her work is not mockery but an honest and faithful investigation. She illuminates the truth that every person and tradition interprets which makes some folks uncomfortable who prefer to imagine Bible interpretation in easy blacks and whites.

Discomfort in matters of faith may just be a sacred tension. The Bible is a complex book--or rather sixty-six. I appreciate Christians like Rachel, who lead with humility, ask hard questions, embrace mystery, and step out in a faith that is not always sure and yet believes.

Rachel Held Evans is helping a generation to make peace with Proverbs 31 and broadening a much needed conversation about gender in the Church. She's a voice of hope, helping disheartened men and women to love the Bible again and discover a faith bigger than fear, fighting, and narrow cultural lenses.

Eshet Chayil, my friend. Let them say what they will. Yours is a ministry of reconciliation, and we're thankful for your words and witness.

A synchroblog in support of Rachel and her new book, available today, locally and online. Won't you join us in raising a glass?

LAUGHING AT THE DAYS                                                  

When she said, "Where better to look than Proverbs 31?"
my heart sunk hard and I lifted tea to lips in weak disguise.

I am Suzannah's complete lack of enthusiasm.

In this sorority, we're tested veterans, survivors
of grueling initiation. Keepers of the homefront in 
sweltering season where husbands serve God, camp,
and other mamas' kids from dawn 'til taps, repeat.

We labor, too, in ops covert. Hidden in plain sight,
your gaze bore through, unseeing. Between baths and
bedtime, we quell meltdowns and pray against takedown
by tiny torpedoes, devastating in beauty and will. This

summer of solo kid-wrangling, adult conversations
are rare as rubies--or solitude. It's a shame this one's
so much about trying harder. Being better. Doing more.

That Proverbs 31 gal, she's a first degree doer:
working vigorously, providing planting making
sewing trading spinningspinningspinning
She does not eat the bread of idleness!

Character praiseworthy, competence incomparable.
Her lamp goes not out at night, she rises before the sun.
Discussion dizzies and I wonder, is there joy deep
in the serving, in the honor of hard work?

Do we serve to please our King or prove our worth?

Will we remember Whose we are when striving slows, illness
strikes or money runs out? If drought presses close, can
we trust the Gardener who makes all things grow?

Be still, dear one and know. Abide. Laugh at days to come,
for he gives to his beloved sleep and rest to weary souls.


[reworked from poem originally published here]
related: making peace with feminism

Review copy provided by Thomas Nelson.


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