First, Bessey makes several arguments for how we should study scripture. (It's worth mentioning that Bessey is well-versed in theology and has spent several years serving in different ministries.) Early in the book she suggests four keys for studying scripture: wisdom, the Holy Spirit (who provides wisdom), Jesus, and all the scriptures (seems legit, right?!). She continues:
"I believe it's misguided, and probably profane, to look at a diverse collection of books written over thousands of years--history, poetry, law, Gospel accounts, proverbs, correspondence, and other writings--as absolute literal instructions without context, as we [humans with our own context and histories] understand them, in all cases" (Bessey 57-58).Bessey uses this holistic approach of studying scripture to explain Proverbs 31, not as a handbook for how to be a "godly" woman. Rather, she explains that Proverbs 31 was intended as a celebration and acknowledgement of women's courage that was "memorized by Jewish husbands for the purpose of honoring their wives" (Bessey 58). Many women come at Proverbs 31 with their own experiences of being held to unrealistic expectations (whether self-inflicted or culturally imposed), and with this context, Proverbs 31 can certainly feel like an unrealistic measuring stick. Bessey's holistic approach to scripture rather than a literal interpretation of scripture feels freeing, and honestly---it makes a boatload of sense.
Likewise, she places great emphasis on examining scripture in the context of the culture and the times in which a text was written.
"Life in Christ is not meant to mirror life in Greco-Roman culture. An ancient Middle Eastern culture is not our standard. We are not meant to adopt the world of Luther's Reformation or the culture of the 18th century Great Awakening or even 1950s America as our standard for righteousness. The culture, past, or present, isn't the point: Jesus and his kingdom come, his will be done, right now--that is the point" (Bessey 77).Just a few pages before this passage, Bessey presents a variety of scriptures often quoted (and often controversial) in the church when discussing what it means to be a woman. She spends time turning these scriptures and their literal, evangelical interpretations upside down to analyze them in the context of the culture to determine WHY they were written and what they meant in that time. I've always been an advocate for studying scripture in context, but I've just never had someone spell out why so clearly.
A Woman's Role
Earlier in the book, in the chapter "A Redemptive Movement," Bessey encourages readers to abandon narrow definitions of "'biblical manhood or womanhood'" realizing, instead, our place in God's redemptive story. She explains that the Bible contains many verses of how masters should treat slaves. Does that mean that slavery is Biblical and right?
"Given God's creation and repeated prophetic mandates in scripture of equality and freedom and justice for the oppressed, God's dream for humanity is clearly not slavery" (Bessey 28).With sin came oppression and patriarchy and slavery and evil and a host of injustices (including gender inequality). Are women designed to have no voice, to only be an echo chamber for her husband (or to even be married)? Absolutely not. God simply had a better plan for us that we f'ed up. So, what was God's design for women?
The chapter "Dancing Warriors" breaks down the Hebrew worlds originally used to describe women (ezer kenegdo); she explains that women were created to be a perfect match for man. Additionally, the Hebrew word (ezer) used to describe women is the same word used as a reference to "God as Israel's helper for military purposes" (Bessey 78). We weren't created to be assistants to our husbands, a man's secretary. Instead, we were created to be equal partners in battle--"women were created and called out as warriors" (Bessey 78).
Jesus Feminist was refreshing. This sorry excuse of a book review doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all I learned. If you've found yourself wondering what role women should play in ministry, or maybe you're a woman who has had your gifts overlooked or downplayed simply because of your gender, or, perhaps you're struggling to understand how to apply scripture in a modern world--if any of these ideas apply to you, consider giving this book a read. If you do decide to read it, send me an email and let me know your thoughts on the book. I'd love to discuss it with folks!