Biblical Womanhood: Fault Lines & Rachel Held Evans

If you’re going to talk evangelical, you should know that in addition to rickety clichés, there are a lot of big, loaded words.

They are fault lines that split down the middle of this whole thing and separate people into neat categories. (Arminian. Calvinist. Pre-millenialist. Post-millenialist. Egalitarian. Complementarian.)

The words are as heavy and theologically riddled as they sound. At their essence, they attempt to describe a particular way of understanding the words of the Bible. But we slap them onto each other and on ourselves like so many name-brand labels.

We define and dismiss – them versus us and us verses them – and the Truth we stand on is so fractured with deep divides these days that you can barely get your footing enough to walk.

*

The first time I met Rachel Held Evans in person, I was struck by how little she is. Her writing voice is eight feet tall, fiercely intelligent…but in real life, she’s not much taller than I am. (For the record, I’m 5’3” and, I suspect, shrinking.)

At the conference, she stepped forward to introduce herself and then gave me a quick, gentle hug when I told her who I was. She was wearing a cute jacket and jeans and (maybe I imagined it) was possibly a little bit nervous about her upcoming talk.

And what she talked about was the journey. She talked about what it felt like to try to do it all literally. About sleeping in a tent and sitting on a roof and baking the challah. She talked about failing and finding. About her wonderful husband Dan.

She read from her book, a beautiful passage about trying to come to terms with the darkness of the Bible.

In the book, she talks about the warrior Jephthah, whose story is told in Judges 11. Jephthah promised God that if he helped him to win a battle, he would sacrifice whatever came out of the house to meet him upon his return.

That something turned out to be his daughter, a girl unnamed in the pages of Scripture.

“Unlike the familiar story of Isaac, this one ends without divine intervention. Jephtha fulfilled his promise and killed his daughter in God’s name. No ram was heard bleating from the thicket. No protest was issued from the clouds. No tomb was erected to the place where she lay” (63).

There is no good way to rationalize this, to understand it. And so instead, Rachel chooses a posture of open-handed remembrance. She writes about holding a small ceremony with candles and poetry and art. She writes about darkness in a way that doesn’t detract from Light but gives it definition and weight.

And listening to her speak about that in an upstairs foyer at the Story conference, I realized that this book is not about labels or division. It wasn’t really ever about complementarianism or egalitarianism or fault lines in the earth.

She wrote it because she aches for the forgotten women. The lost ones. The silenced ones.

The heart-cry I hear from the pages is not Equality! Feminism! Rights! But rather love.

*

I could tell you all to buy this book. I could tell you about my favorite part, in which Rachel decides to take back Proverbs 31 for women.(You can see my particular baggage with that passage here and here.)

I could tell you about the humor and the insight and the grace in the book. The Baby Think It Over electronic doll and the intimate way Rachel lets readers in to her fears and hesitations about motherhood. I could quote some truly beautiful and poignant one-liners.

But what I really want to tell you about is Rachel. I want to tell you how kind she is. I want to tell you how this book is full to the brim and spilling over onto her blog, where she is doing beautiful things. She is giving voice to the voiceless, promoting peace by hosting interviews with those who understand the Bible differently than she does. She calls out injustice where she sees it. She calls for unity.

She is speaking loud into the culture wars and across the fault lines, and sometimes it feels intense. You might not always agree; you might have chosen to say it differently.

But if you listen, really listen, you can hear under all of it the beating of a broken heart. A heart for women. For a faith that doesn’t always make sense. For a church that so often feels inaccessible. Most of all, for God.

And we all need to get better at it, this speaking out not for a certain way of understanding Scripture, but for each other. Our differences are not the point. The point is where we’re the same. The point is that we belong to each other, belong to Christ, and when one of us suffers, we all do.

And what I’m trying to say is that there are all of these divides and lines and different ways of understanding the same ambiguous biblical passages. I know it’s complicated. I know that it’s important, but also? It’s a shoddy excuse for being unkind and for refusing to listen.

Because if you listen, you will begin to hear the marked silence of so many people who feel voiceless. You will hear the grace in Rachel’s words. You’ll hear Proverbs 31 not so much as a to-do list, but as a poem.

You’ll begin to understand that soundtrack to A Year of Biblical Womanhood, to the Christian life in general, is love.

28 thoughts on “Biblical Womanhood: Fault Lines & Rachel Held Evans

  1. Beautiful reflection Addie. Thank you for this. I think Rachel seemed a little nervous, but man, she nailed that talk. There were so many nodding heads in that room.

  2. I might want to read this to find out why the author chose to live under law when we are under grace. I think the whole purpose of the law is to show us why we need grace but we are no longer subject to it. There is no expectation that a women has to camp in the front yard because she has her period (though some men may wish we would :-). Women are not property of their husbands and there is no need to act like it by calling him “Master.” Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. . .

    1. Pam, perhaps I should have posted a more clear synopsis of the book. Sorry about that! This project was Rachel’s response to this incredibly divisive issue: what “true biblical womanhood” looks like. Her creative take on this was to try, for one year, to follow everything that the Bible said about women completely literally.

      I know that Rachel understands grace and freedom, but this was her way of trying to sort out what the Bible really has to say about women and our role. I do recommend reading it though. What a great way to get under a really sticky issue.

      1. Perhaps Rachel does understand all that you say. I hope so. What I think she doesn’t understand is the ridicule of God and the Bible generated by her TV appearances among people who don’t know God. Or if she gets that, it doesn’t seem to bother her. Makes me angry … makes me sad.

        1. I truly hope that’s not the case, Diane. What I know about Rachel is that she loves the Bible. She loves God, and she wrestles with his word in an honest, open, imperfect way, and I respect her for that.

          I can understand how this unconventional way of exploring the very loaded concept of “Biblical womanhood” could feel offensive. But I also think that there’s a place for exploring and interacting with the Bible in really fresh, new ways like Rachel did.

          As a writer, an artist, I think a lot about how people will react to my work. But in the end, I’m learning that their reaction is not my responsibility. My responsibility is to do the work I feel called to do in the truest, most graceful way I know how to do it. But after that, it’s sort of out of my hands. There’s a big trust piece here, that God will do something with the work I’ve done.

          And I believe that God is big enough to handle even our ridicule. And, to me, even if people are talking about the Bible or God himself irreverently, at least they’re talking about him. The danger, I think, comes when we stop talking.

          Anger and sadness are totally legitimate responses when it feels like people are mocking what we believe, that wild holy thing that has saved our life. But I also think it’s important to remember that people find God in really unconventional, strange ways.

          May this be one of them.

      2. No need to apologize. You explained it well. I am going to read the book (it is on my Kindle already). I was surprised by her approach, but intrigued nevertheless.

  3. Yes. It is definitely complicated. I’m tired of the pressure to fight. This faith isn’t simple, at least it’s not for me. I just can’t believe any of us can really truly say we understand the mind of God. And yet, the conversations around me make me feel like I’m somehow missing some truth that is so obvious to everyone else.I’m thankful that people like Rachel are showing us how to be brave enough to listen, admit every minute we spend walking this road toward CHrist is faith. I want to be brave enough to step out because I’m just as broken as everyone else.

    1. It doesn’t feel simple to me either SarahBeth. Love what you said about how “every minute we spend walking this road toward Christ is faith.” Yes.

  4. I love the way Rachel honors Jephtha, too—it’s such a simple yet rich, impossible-to-forget moment in the book. And you are absolutely right. This is what I hear:

    “The heart-cry I hear from the pages is not Equality! Feminism! Rights! But rather love.”

  5. Love this! Thank you so for sharing this insight into your friend, someone I consider my friend, though we have yet to meet.

  6. I appreciate the unique approach to this passage too.

    As refreshing as it is, it’s important to really consider the passage in context, language, and historically. I’d love to speak into this, if you could bear with me.

    It’s very difficult to render this passage properly most notably because it is so often mistranslated from ancient (and “dead”…that is unused) Hebrew. Many words are guessed at and have no known or true correlation in English, in this and many seemingly troubling scriptures.

    My Hebrew professor is not convinced that typical readings for Jephthah are accurately portrayed… In other words. The English doesn’t seem to jive with what could have happened. Poor word choices have been used. A lot. The Bible has mistakes….when it swaps out words in English or other languages.

    So “consecrate” versus the word often use “sacrifice” would be a far more plausible meaning. That is to say that his daughter would be kept from marrying and remain a virgin. He would never have grandchildren, and she would never have children, or be married. That’s sad considering she was his only offspring. She also would have REALLY wanted to get married and had kids. It broke his heart. In his haste he made a rash vow, and regretted it. But, the such a vow of death would have been unheard of and quite unlikely. This possible original meaning makes sense that she says: “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

    About the burnt offering…..A burnt offering would be a portion of fat from a lamb (or goat, etc) as usual. This piece would be burnt totally up and the rest of the animal would be roasted and eaten as a meal by everyone picnic-style as was done in every celebration and feast.

    This may give us some reason to be as troubled. Given that, there are elements that remain such as that a father could and would condemn his female to even this lesser fate.

    Now if we could just spread the better (more plausible) translation around! 🙂

    1. Lisa, I appreciate your words. While the way Mrs. Held-Evans takes it would certainly be the most literal, it is far from the most accurate way to understand it, especially considering human sacrifice is contrary to Scripture… It’s hard for me to understand that someone so respected and looked up to as Rachel seems to be fine with confusing people.

      1. I’m sure confusing people was not her intention, Zachary. I think she was being true to the text as she understood it.

        Regardless of how that scripture is translated, the overall message of this section does not change: And that is that there are dark portions of the Bible that are very difficult to come to terms with. One that always comes to mind is the entire people groups wiped out by God’s command, including women and children.

        I still think that Rachel’s posture toward the hard passages is the right one (and though it’s not death, the idea that this daughter’s choices for family and marriage would be taken away is still a hard one). We sit and remember. We light a candle. We choose not to oversimplify God or pretend the hard stuff isn’t there just because it makes him a little easier to understand.

        1. Mrs. Zierman, your points are correct. I was not saying that the point (application/impact) changes a great deal, but there is a distinct difference between God allowing a lifetime of service to Him versus being burnt alive as a sacrifice. It’s still tragic and complicated, but if one interprets the passage in the latter way, God becomes a monster that is impossible to reconcile with the New Testament. The message doesn’t necessarily change, but the worldview is remarkably different between the two interpretations. The question becomes, “why is this important?” and my only answer is the importance of knowing God and His Word rightly. Rachel would admit she is far from perfect and has many blind spots (as would we all), so this, as you said, helps expand on the passage and can lead to knowing God more correctly and being able to interact with Rachel’s words in light of God’s Word. I hope I could add something of value and not just talk for the sake of talking!

    2. That’s so interesting Lisa. And comforting. Thanks for expanding on this passage and giving us some background.

      As I said to Zachary below, I don’t think the difference in translation really changes the point here. What Rachel is doing in this section is trying to find a way to hold the tension between the Bible’s hard, dark places (particularly in regards to women) and her belief that God is good. I think it’s a question that we all struggle with, and I love how Rachel chooses to do it: with ceremony and remembrance and reverence and light.

    3. I asked a close friend who is Jewish and has studied Hebrew for years about this. She emailed me:

      My translation says, “I shall offer it up as an elevation-offering.” (But mine’s ArtScroll, which is a weird translation just generally.) My other translation (JPS, which is the translation we all actually trust), says “burnt offer.”

      On the one hand, the Hebrew word that’s used, “olaid,” means sacrifice or burnt offering, so that’s pretty clear. (There are a few words that mean consecrate…most of them from the root “KDSH,” which means holy. “Hikdish,” “hichriz,” and “k’kadosh” are the ones that my dictionary is offering me. None of them appears in the text.) On the other hand, we Jews are always delighted to discuss different interpretations. (I’ve never heard this one before, which is saying something — Torah studies are not like Bible studies, and everything gets brought up.) I do, however, have some commentary that suggests that Jephthah didn’t have the right to make such a vow about his daughter, and that it could not have been fulfilled as written. This interpretation suggests that she volunteers to submit to it figuratively, by living in seclusion and remaining a virgin. Thus, as suggested below, he and his line will die out, but she herself is not actually killed. (I also have a thing that says that he is struck with a disease that causes all of his limbs to atrophy as a punishment for making such a foolish vow in the first place. This is a midrash — a story about the text — but we treat midrash as sacred, too, even if they’re not necessarily true.)

      1. Oops, one last line to her email:
        “I’m afraid the text is not open for re-translation…but that doesn’t mean we have to take it literally. And there’s the epitome of a Jewish answer for you. :)”

  7. I don’t know why, but that last sentence made me think of all the bad Christian songs that have come out through the years – not only on women, but on any issue that divides. I don’t know if a soundtrack made of those songs would be a “so bad it makes you laugh” collection, or a “so bad it makes you want to punch something” collection. There is a group on Facebook called the “90s Christian Music Recovery Group” that would be a good source for coming up with this soundtrack 🙂

    1. I hope the “I wish we’d all been ready” song could make your list…

      I’m not a fan of any song that includes the words “and everyone was tramped on the floor. I wish we’d all been ready.”

      1. Yeah, Larry Norman could probably have his own list alone 🙂 Or that could almost be an entirely different list – unnecessarily violent imagery. Or even gender cliches mixed with unnecessarily violent imagery – “get on your knees and fight like a man.”

    2. I’m so going to have to join that group. (I always found Reliant K’s “Mood Ring” to be a bit much.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

^
Back To Top