Biblical Womanhood and the Problem of the Old Testament

As explained in my review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, much of Rachel Held Evans’ book could be summed up, sadly, as an attempt to discount the validity of Scripture. I am hopeful that she does not intend for this to happen, but it is unfortunately what happens when she repeatedly speaks of the Bible as being outdated, useless in parts, and at times downright horrific — including at one point describing having a terrifying nightmare as she contemplated the texts (62). Tragically, that is her claim.

Evans is troubled by many things in the Old Testament, but especially by the harsh consequences in the law that follow from sexual sin — consequences that often required the death of men and women. In explaining why these same codes do not apply today — why adulterers are not stoned to death — she can only say, “Most Jews and Christians have long abandoned the practices associated with hard patriarchy” (51). But is it that simple — and that shallow?

She suggests this is because Jesus ignored certain Old Testament laws. He was a revolutionary who used “selective literalism” and who broke these anti-adultery laws when he urged compassion on the adulterous woman (53). But before we charge Jesus with breaking the law, we should give this question some serious thought.

Actually, we are faced with two questions. First, how should we handle the abuse of women recorded in the Old Testament? And second, how should we properly evaluate the ongoing value of the Old Testament law?

Handling Abuse in the Old Testament

In one chapter, Evans sets out to find groups “committed to preserving as much of the patriarchal structure of Old Testament law as possible,” including polygamists. In polygamy, “the man’s consequent procreative prowess is listed by writers of Scripture as one of his most worthy virtues” (51, 58). That is a bold claim, but she provides no biblical citations to back it up.

In her thoughts on polygamy, Evans claims the Bible never condemns it. Yet monogamous marriage seems to be the norm in the Old Testament (Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:13–15), and especially so in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6). Nowhere do we read the Bible sanctioning polygamy.

The abuse of women recorded in the Old Testament is one reason Evans reevaluated biblical womanhood and rejected complementary roles in marriage today. She notes that at one point she had confidence in the biblical view of submission. “When Dan and I got married back in 2003, we began our marriage with the assumption that I would submit to him because the Bible told me to, that while I had a voice in our decisions as a couple, Dan held the reins,” she writes. “Dan would bring home the bacon, and I would fry it” (204).

But during the early years of her marriage, Evans and her husband found that they needed to run two businesses, and as she put it “tasks tend to get assigned based on efficiency rather than gender” (204). As life continued to get busier, they realized that they functioned “best as a team of equal partners” (204). Why complementarian marriage cannot be defined as a team of equal partners (with differing roles), is not clear. In fact her chapter on submission (pages 201–220) leaves me with many unanswered questions. I’m sure other reviews will ask many of the same questions in the coming weeks.

Chillingly, Evans now claims that what she reads in the Bible is a nightmare of oppression for women. She calls upon Christian women to remember the dark stories.

Those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories. They have forgotten that the concubine of Bethlehem, the raped princess of David's house, the daughter of Jephthah, and the countless unnamed women who lived and died between the lines of Scripture exploited, neglected, ravaged, and crushed at the hand of patriarchy are as much a part of our shared narrative as Deborah, Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth. We may not have a ceremony through which to grieve them, but it is our responsibility as women of faith to guard the dark stories for our own daughters, and when they are old enough, to hold their faces between our hands and make them promise to remember. (66)

The sinful abuse of women in the Old Testament is troubling, but as troubling as it is, those sins are not determinative of new-covenant ethics for the church today, and they do not dismiss male headship either.

In writing this post, Tony Reinke passed along some helpful research suggestions as I processed what I was reading. On this point he sent the following quote from Margaret Köstenberger's book Jesus and the Feminists, where she writes:

It is true that the historical narrative books of the Hebrew Scriptures witness to numerous abuses of this abiding principle of male headship in the Old Testament period, such as arbitrary divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1–2), the intermittent practice of polygamy, adultery, rape, incest, and so on. Scripture does not condone these behaviors and attitudes. At the same time, the New Testament does not abrogate the principle of male headship even subsequent to redemption in Christ. Thus, Paul still can call Christian wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22–24), and Peter similarly enjoins wives even of unbelieving husbands to submit to them (1 Peter 3:1–6). (34)

In fact, for all of her concerns about the Old Testament laws and polygamy and rape and abuse towards women in old-covenant times, Evans ultimately misses a fundamental truth. For Jesus and Paul and for the Church, sexual and marriage ethics (and biblical womanhood) are not based on the historical sins against women that are recorded in the Old Testament, but from the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. From reading Evans’ book, you would think this was not the case.

In the first marriage, in this pre-fall union, we find the norm for all human sexual ethics, for marriage, for male and female equality, and for the distinctives to biblical manhood and biblical womanhood. When Evans addresses Eve in particular (which is very early in the book, pages xx–xxii), she fails to notice that Eve was taken out of Adam and created, not to be a helper like him, but to be Adam’s perfectly adapted helper for him (Genesis 2:18, 1 Corinthians 11:8–10). By missing this foundational point — by missing the very genesis of biblical womanhood — the remainder of the book was certain to be unclear.

Jesus, an Adulteress, and the Law

Which brings me to my second point. On top of polygamy, there is female slavery, the presence of concubines, death prescribed for sexual sins, separation from the community during a monthly cycle, widows forced to marry the brother of their late husbands, arranged marriages, pagan women slaughtered in battles, and so on (48–51). Without distinction, Evans blends what is prescribed in the law and what is described in narratives, making it all normative for “biblical womanhood.”

In her view, for womanhood to be considered biblical, everything in the Bible must be followed, what is prescribed and what is described. That isn’t possible, she says, therefore biblical womanhood is a myth (294). So we must select what we want to obey and what we don’t want to obey (a troubling theme of the book that I addressed in my original review).

Evans claims that this is what Jesus did, after all, when he refused to stone the adulterous woman (John 8:3–11). According to the law, adulterous women are to be stoned (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22). Jesus refused to.

Evans writes:

Jesus once said that his mission was not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And in this instance, fulfilling the law meant letting it go. It may serve as little comfort to those who have suffered abuse at the hand of Bible-wielding literalists, but the disturbing laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy lose just a bit of their potency when God himself breaks them. (54)

Evans’ language for why Jesus did not stone the adulterous woman is confusing and misleading.

Jesus is sinless (Hebrews 4:15). It’s doubtful that breaking the law would be the best way to describe it. Ignoring the uncomfortable parts of the law certainly does not seem accurate either. Jesus does not abolish the law, not one little comma in it (Matthew 5:17).

The religious leaders sought to corner and discount Jesus’ entire mission (John 8:5–6). If Jesus would not stone the adulterer, then he must be a law-breaker — and Evans comes right out and says it.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, D. A. Carson suggests that when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), he was specifically referencing the sin of adultery in the accusing men themselves! The men bringing the accusation were also adulterers. “When it comes to sexual sins, the woman was much more likely to be in legal and social jeopardy than her paramour,” Carson writes. “The man could lead a ‘respectable’ life while masking the same sexual sins with a knowing wink. Jesus’ simple condition, without calling into question the Mosaic code, cuts through the double standard and drives hard to reach the conscience.”

In this story Jesus is not breaking the law or shrugging off the Old Testament law. Rather, Jesus is calling these men out on their double-standard, thinking the law applied more to adulterous woman than to adulterous men.

Jesus in the Old Testament

It is through the high standards of the Old Testament law that we see the beauty of our Savior shine, not in his ignoring of the law, but in his fulfillment of it, not in lessening of the holy demands of God, but in seeing them in all their divine righteousness.

Take these few examples:

  • In Leviticus 1:9, the offering of a whole sacrifice to God prefigures Christ’s giving of his whole self (Hebrews 10:5–14).
  • In Leviticus 6:13, the unceasing flame of the altar reveals the insufficiency of repeated sacrifices in contrast to the sufficiency of Christ’s once for all sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1–10).
  • In Leviticus 11:45, separation from uncleanness symbolizes separation from sin in order to be intimate with God. It prefigures Christ’s work bringing holiness (Hebrews 7:26, 10:16).
  • In Leviticus 18:5, we read that God requires perfect obedience that can only be found in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Sinners like us cannot keep the law (Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:12–14).

These few brief references barely scratch the surface for the number of references and parallels to Christ’s coming and sacrifice found in the Old Testament.

And so, yes, women can look to the Old Testament law passages to be reminded of God's holiness in texts like Leviticus 15:19–33. These texts may make women uneasy, but they also remind us that God is holy and majestic. He is separate from all sin — male and female. His ways are not our ways; they are perfect in every way, and we are hopeless without a perfect Substitute.

In passages like Leviticus 15:19–33, women today are reminded that “regulations for the body” were imposed only “until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10). That is, the Old Testament purification codes point to the arrival of Christ, the “high priest of the good things that have come” (Hebrews 9:11).

Any woman who practices purity regulations with her body is revealing her theology. It is a sad missing of how our Savior fulfills these specific regulations in his substitutionary death. It is tragically easy for all of us to minimize the significance of our sinless Savior’s life, death and resurrection from the dead.

The Light of the Gospel

The gospel reminds us that the world is fallen and sinful. Men sin against women. Women sin against men. Women sin against women. Women are not innocent, but sinners. Male and female, we all are each part of the problem. When we read of sin in the Old Testament, we are reminded of the sin that resides in our own hearts.

But the gospel reminds us that we can look at the Old Testament law without horror or terror. There in the purity codes we see a glimpse of the beauty and sufficiency of our Savior. We see the law that he came to fulfill. And in him we are saved from the greatest terror of all — an eternity separated from God.

And yet when the gospel is clouded, things go terribly wrong in our theology. Unless the veil is lifted (2 Corinthians 3:12–18), we cannot make sense of the Old Testament law in God’s redemptive plan. We cannot understand the hope and joy of biblical womanhood. And biblical womanhood, divorced from the gospel, becomes a very dangerous thing.