Is There a Right Way to Interpret the Bible? One Woman Lives “Biblically” for a Year

What is biblical womanhood supposed to look like? Rachel Held Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town, has committed one year to following the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible. She has blogged about her experience and intends to publish a book with Thomas Nelson in 2012. She interviews women with differing views, camps in her backyard following Levitical laws, and grows out her hair. Nine months in, she said this about her experience:

I had long questioned the notion that the Bible presents one uniform prescription for how to be a woman, and these past nine months of research and experimentation have confirmed the fact that the whole concept of ‘biblical womanhood’ can be terribly misleading.

In any project involving research and experimentation, one’s methods will largely influence the results. For example, suppose I want to discover which weight loss program – Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, etc. – is most effective for my body type. I decide to try each for one week and whichever sheds the most pounds I will crown as “most effective”. At the end I will have a new perspective, but it is determined largely by my method. One program may be effective for a week, but another may be more effective if practiced regularly. One may benefit from the achievements of last week’s program and skew the results. The amount of exercise I engage in may affect the results in ways I have not measured. My method of research and experimentation will lead me to a result, but it may not be the right one.

The same holds true with Rachel Evans’ research into Biblical Womanhood which prompted her to view the concept as “terribly misleading” and to declare “none of us is actually practicing biblical womanhood.” Her method, while it entertains and will attract an audience, ignores basic practices of interpretation. It has the effect of making Bible interpretation seem utterly hopeless; the best we can do is try to make sense of it for ourselves and not judge others who see it differently. Thankfully, one of the long-held doctrines of the Christian faith is the “clarity” of the Scriptures. The Bible is written so its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it, desiring God’s help, and being willing to follow it (Ps. 19:7, 119:130, Matt. 12:3-5, 21:42, 22:31, Luke 16:29-31, etc.). The Bible is not a hopelessly confusing book leading different people down different paths but a clear book that rewards faithful study with the truth God has revealed.

This will make some uncomfortable, but there is a right and a wrong way to interpret the Bible. We already believe this to be true of other documents. We are not free to interpret our bank statement, a restaurant menu, the tax code, an algebra book, or a Hemingway novel however we wish. While interpretations may vary, there is a right and a wrong way to read those things. It is the same with the Bible. While individual interpretations will vary, there is a right and a wrong way to interpret it. Let’s take a look at some of Evans’ comments and see three practical things to keep in mind in our own interpreting.

She says her most eye-opening experience was turning Proverbs 31 into a to-do list and finding it impossible. Of course it’s impossible! It’s a poem, not a list of commands. When interpreting the Bible, always keep in mind the genre of literature you are studying. The Bible is composed of narratives, laws, poetry, letters, apocalypses, prophecies, and wisdom. Each genre has its own rules and must be read on those terms. If I write a poem to my wife and say, “If I don’t see you my heart will stop beating” she doesn’t assume eye contact will prevent my death. She knows it is an expression of longing. In the same way, Proverbs 31 is an acrostic poem depicting the excellent wife. The author literally intended it not to be taken as a to-do list.

She also camps in her backyard to observe her “time of impurity” as prescribed in Leviticus. While this makes for good reading, it ignores a basic principle: the parts of the Bible are understood in light of the whole. I recently assembled a bookcase using a manual with ten steps. I couldn’t imagine trying to assemble it using only step three! I can only understand the bookcase in light of the whole manual. Similarly, I can’t understand Leviticus without understanding the whole story of the Bible. Paul declares in Romans 7:6 “But now we are released from the law…” So the laws guarding against impurity have been fulfilled and done away with in Christ. In forming our biblical view on womanhood or anything else, we must take into account all of what God has revealed in the Bible.

She also makes this statement: “…technically speaking it is ‘biblical’ for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, ‘biblical’ for her to be forced to marry her rapist and ‘biblical’ for her to be one of many wives!” She also researches woman in the Bible who “defy what many people perceive to be the traits of a biblical woman.” The problem with basing your views off of stories and characters in the Bible is that narrative is not normative. There are certain things the Bible reports and certain things the Bible teaches. Because something happened does not mean God approved of it or prescribes it for us. The Bible teaches marriage is between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5-6) yet through the stories of the patriarchs and their multiple wives shows how denying this teaching leads to suffering. The characters of the Bible are not mythic heroes to emulate but sinners used by God to bring about redemption through Jesus Christ.

What methods guide your interpretation of the Scriptures? If we simply take into account literary genres, attempt to understand passages of Scripture within the context of the whole, and distinguish the events in the Bible from the teachings of the Bible we can be more effective interpreters.

Does it mean we won’t disagree? No.

Does it mean we won’t struggle to understand? No.

Does it mean we’ll always get it right? No.

It does mean we can faithfully, humbly, and obediently pursue truth God has revealed.

After perusing Rachel Evans’ blog I found her to be thoughtful and well-informed, though I often disagreed with her. Her book will likely be entertaining and insightful. But our goal in interpreting the Bible isn’t to entertain or even to unearth shocking new insights. If we’re willing to set aside the humor of modern day attempts to follow Levitical laws and understand the text on its own terms we can know its truth and it will transform our lives, provoking even more beneficial discussion. Truth matters – about biblical womanhood and anything else. Let’s pursue it.


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8 thoughts on “Is There a Right Way to Interpret the Bible? One Woman Lives “Biblically” for a Year

  1. So you’re saying that it’s a problem that ” the best we can do is try to make sense of it for ourselves and not judge others who see it differently. “?
    and that there is a wrong way of reading the Bible?

    … Well I thought the Bible itself said that it is GOD the one and only who can judge.

    So who are you to say what is right and wrong?

    • Hey Giselle, hope you’re having a good labor day weekend. Let me respond thoughtfully to your comment.

      First, while the Bible does teach God is the ultimate judge, it does assign God’s people with the task of judgment as well. Jesus commands us to “judge with right judgment” in John 7:24. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:2 that believers will “judge the world” and will “judge angels” and are therefore competent to judge the smaller matters of this life.

      Second, Jesus claims there is a wrong way to read the Bible. In Matt. 22:29 and John 5:39 he rebukes those who – even though they had memorized the Bible – had not read it rightly and therefore didn’t believe in him. Peter claims in 2 Peter 3:16 that many will twist the Scriptures to a wrong interpretation. If the Bible can mean anything to anyone, than it ultimately means nothing. If written texts (like the Bible, legal contracts, laws, menus, history books, technical manuals, etc.) can be read any way we feel like then our civilization collapses because it becomes impossible for a writer to accurately transmit a message to a reader.

      Finally, I am nobody. My opinion doesn’t matter. But thankfully, the few rules of Bible interpretation I have shared above have been used by the church for 2,000 years to rightly understand the text. Unfortunately for Ms. Evans, her book will fail to persuade those who disagree with her because she ignores these rules and critiques a form of biblical womanhood no one in the history of the church has ever practiced.

      Hope this not-as-brief-as-I-hoped reply helps with your question!

  2. Hemingway can of course be interpreted in different ways…all literature can, and most literature is not filled with heroes and commandments, but fallible humans that show us the consequences of making certain choices. Even your bank statement or menu can be interpreted as a ‘happy’ document, or ‘bad news’ by different people when the numbers might be exactly the same. Re-interpreting literature from different perspectives is what broadens our minds. Shouldn’t Christians be supporting each other in their interpretation of the bible, rather than tearing each other down?

    • You are confusing the meaning of a text with the impact that text has on different people in different times and places. There is a right and wrong WAY to read a text. Let’s use the examples you mentioned.

      Suppose I am in English class and I write a paper where I claim Hemingway, in his novel “The Old Man and the Sea”, wanted to symbolize the struggle of the University of Kentucky Wildcats college basketball team to return to the national championship game since they last won it in 1998. I should receive an “F” on that paper. Why? Reading the book and a little knowledge of the author (both common sense things) would clearly tell me that was not what he intended. Hemingway’s novel may impact people in different ways, but there is still only one right answer to the question of what Hemingway himself intended the book to communicate. Similarly, turning Proverbs 31 into a set of commands as Rachel Held Evans does was clearly not what the author of that poem intended (anymore than Dr. Seuss intends us to take “Green Eggs and Ham” as a set of commands).

      Additionally, your bank statement may make you happy or sad, but it still means the same thing. If my current balance is $34.95 I am not free to interpret my account number – 7863234 – as my actual balance. Whether I think it is a happy document or bad news doesn’t change what it means. A fact which will become painfully obvious when the bills come due.

      The Bible may impact different people in different times and places in different ways and they may see things we have missed and emphasize things we neglect, but the meaning does not change. Re-interpreting literature is not necessarily what broadens our minds – reading more and seeking to understand what the authors want to communicate broadens our minds. Would we argue allowing 8th grade algebra students to solve math problems anyway they feel broadens their minds?

      Christians should encourage AND challenge one another to interpret the Bible rightly (2 Tim. 2:15). If we are free to make the Bible say whatever we want it to say, than the Bible ultimately says nothing at all. An argument which says “interpret the Bible however you want” is one which ultimately says God has not spoken to us and we are left with only our opinions. I believe God has spoken through the Bible. I believe we can understand it. That is my plea. We need to honestly seek what message the author of the Bible is trying to communicate instead of fabricating our own.

      Hope this helps you understand my point! Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  3. I don’t get it, I must admit. “Narrative is not normative,” so we need not conform ourselves to the example of the patriarchs. And “we are released from the law,” so we need not conform ourselves to the commands of God as expressed in the Law. And Biblical poetry is all metaphorical, not comprising in any sense a “to do” list. So what exactly is left of the Old Testament, in terms of concrete guidance for life or faith? Can you give a specific example of proper interpretation of the Old Testament, stripped of the Church-camp analogies with tax returns and English classes?

    • Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I teach an entire class on what you are asking, so I’ll have to try and be brief here. Let me share two points to answer your question,

      First, to properly interpret the OT, we must ask what was the intent of the author when they wrote. What message did the author want to communicate? So take the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. This is not a story about you and I facing our own personal giants (such as cancer, debt, family trouble, etc.). This is obvious because the author says nothing about this in the text. Rather, in the climax in 1 Sam. 17:45-47 David declares the message of the story – “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves…” So the message of the story is there is one true God all nations must know Who saves His people. The significance of this for you and I is that we would put our faith in this God.

      Second, we must realize the Bible is not about us – it is not a guide for life. Rather it is about God and His work of reconciling all things to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. The reason the Bible goes to such great lengths to mess up the reputations of all its heroes is because it is a book about fallen humanity in need of a saving God. Does the Bible really want us to be like Noah who made some good wine and got drunk and passed out in his tent (Gen. 9)? Or like Abraham who got impatient with God and had sex with his concubine to conceive a son (Gen. 16)? Or like Moses who murdered an Egyptian (Ex. 2)? The OT exists to reveal the one and only glorious God of the universe and to promise His redemption of His people through His Messiah and to call us to have faith in and worship that God.

      By the way, this is nothing new. This is how the church has understood the OT for centuries. This is how the New Testament understands and interprets the Old Testament. Without the Old Testament, the New Testament is meaningless – it has no background. Without the New Testament, the Old Testament is incomplete. Together they form one book that reveals the work of God in saving His people through His Son, Jesus. It is not about us. It’s about Him.

  4. This may be an old hat, but I must point out that if this were truly the case:

    “The Bible is written so its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it, desiring God’s help, and being willing to follow it (Ps. 19:7, 119:130, Matt. 12:3-5, 21:42, 22:31, Luke 16:29-31, etc.). The Bible is not a hopelessly confusing book leading different people down different paths but a clear book that rewards faithful study with the truth God has revealed.”

    Then multiple Christian denominations wouldn’t exist. We’d all still be Catholic – and for that matter, one kind of Catholic – if it were.

    Just a thought.

    • You raise a great point and one that has been raised before. I maintain the Bible is clear and able to be understood despite obvious divisions among Christians. Here is why I think that:

      Catholics are not dissimilar from protestants because of different readings of the Bible but because Catholics accept the authority of the church as equal with Scripture. That allows them to believe in the immaculate conception, papal infallibility, the seven sacraments, and purgatory even though these things are nowhere taught in Scripture. So their beliefs are different not because the Bible isn’t clear but because the Catholic church can add the official teaching of popes and councils to the Bible.

      Differences between mainline protestant denominations and evangelicals are not due primarily to different readings of the Bible but because mainline denominations have rejected parts of the Bible while evangelicals hold all of the Bible to be completely true and trustworthy. Thus, it is not primarily because the Bible isn’t clear but because holding to all of the Bible versus holding to only part of it will create divisions in belief.

      Christians have largely been in agreement for 2,000 years about what the Bible teaches about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the atonement, the resurrection, heaven and hell, biblical morality, faith, and more. Are there parts of the Bible that are less clear, harder to understand, and that create division? Sure! But the important matters have been clear for centuries.

      I was part of a conference this year in Chicago where 5,300 pastors and church leaders from dozens of denominations and from across the world gathered. Though we came from different denominations and traditions, we were there because we largely agreed on what the Bible said. I also had the privilege of doing mission work in South Africa and discovered believers there read and understand the Bible much in the same way I do.

      We will have our disagreements, but this is to be expected as sinful human beings from diverse backgrounds seek more and more to come to grips with the truth of God’s Word. As long as we don’t add to it or subtract from it and apply some commonsense rules to reading it, I am convinced the Bible has a clear message.

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