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

Now revealing number one on our list of most-viewed blog posts of 2011! Thanks to a number of websites – friendly and not so friendly – who linked their readers to this article, it became the most popular one of the year. Not only did it take a look at the dubious attempt of an author to be a “biblical” woman, it also had the boldness to suggest there is a right and wrong way to read the Bible. So check it out and we hope you join us back here at Entire Gospel for 2012!

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.

-Brian

(image credit)

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