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Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)
To state the obvious, many scholars will surely draw inspiration from the three volumes edited by Professor Susanne Scholz. I congratulate Professor Scholz for the effort she has put into the production of these three very rich and valuable volumes. If I were to use an Indian expression, I would say that the volumes are overflowing with “rasa.” The word rasa literally means “juice” or “essence.” According to classical aesthetic theory, in a well-written book or work of art, all the nine rasas such as love/beauty (sexual pleasure), laughter, sorrow, anger, heroism/courage, terror/fear, disgust, surprise/wonder and peace or tranquility are evoked in measure appropriate to the subject at hand. I will admit that the volumes and their contents did not provide sexual pleasure, but certainly aroused appreciation, surprise, hope, challenge and also some disappointment.
Writing a response to these volumes is a daunting task, primarily because of the depth and the breadth of the contents. The pleasure of the text, namely the Hebrew Bible, and a commitment to issues surrounding gender was clearly the principle impetus for the writers in these volumes. They have all been successful in informing us of the state of feminist interpretations on the Hebrew Bible, of interpretations done in particular social locations (although not always stated), and the array of methods and approaches used. The volumes braid together the milestones and achievements, methods, approaches, and hermeneutics used by female and some male scholars, and they have in effect highlighted the difficulties and the complexities of feminist biblical interpretation. The three volumes are an important “institutional” resource and they contribute most significantly to sustained conversations and debates on gendering biblical studies and the pains and pleasures of both the doing and the institutionalization of feminist biblical studies. The volumes and their contents have pushed me, a feminist biblical scholar, and my scholarship and feminist activism to debate the volumes’ compulsions and challenges. Since it is impossible in this short space and time to offer a detailed response to each of the rich chapters that compose the three volumes, I have chosen to respond to a few key issues that have been highlighted by the editor in the introductions to each of the volumes. I respond to these issues from my own social location as an Indian woman with commitments to marginalized communities in Asia and more particularly India.
First, what is it that makes a work feminist? The editorial does not propose a working definition of feminism that binds these volumes. It is only in Volume 3 that Scholz offers definitions that others have articulated and she makes clear how contested the concept is (vol. 3, p. 5–6). Therefore, I ask what makes these volumes feminist? A definition is perhaps needed to ensure that readers become aware of what is included and not included. Are these volumes presented as “feminist” because the majority of the authors are women? Is it because they have written about gender/women in the Hebrew Bible? Are they feminist because they are ideologically feminist? I had to test these essays against my own understanding of what constitutes feminism. A feminist approach recognizes that the tiered and hierarchical organizing of society is crucial for the maintenance of the social order, that to live lives marked male and female and transgender/bisexual is to live different realities. More importantly, to be a feminist is to be “occupying” the peripheral/marginal, relatively powerless position with reference to every dominant space that consumes the space at the center. Feminism is a “political” stance of life—a consciousness that sees from the position of marginality, one that a person has deliberately chosen to occupy. It is a gesture of subversion towards domination. It destabilizes and disorders the established field, resists homogenization, opens up multiple possibilities rather than shutting them off. To be a feminist is also to recognize that apart from gender-based injustice, there are multiple structural inequalities that lie beneath the social order (the intersectionality of gender, race, class, caste, nation, colonized/colonizer, earth). A feminist believes that change and transformation is possible, and works for its possibility at whatever level.
The contributors to the three volumes echo many aspects of the above understanding of feminism. For example, Stratton (vol. 1, p. 105–106) helpfully reminds us of Exum’s proposal that “feminist readers have to start the interpretation process not with the biblical text but with the concerns of feminism as a worldview and a political enterprise” (vol. 1, p. 105). Stratton continues: “Feminist interpreters ask questions like: How are women portrayed? Who has power, and whose interests are being served? Hence, feminist readers expose the strategies by which men have justified their control over women and they try to understand women’s complicity in their own subordination. Interpretation involves not merely a descriptive process but also requires a stance outside the Bible’s androcentric ideology.”
The contributors have employed feminist convictions as defined by feminism, and they have deconstructed and resisted the hegemonic interpretations of the biblical text. They have also revealed that feminism is not the isolated achievement of an individual woman. I am not sure if they see themselves in the way I describe them. But the contributors as women/feminists have written as though they are part of the history that has produced them as individuals and as a group. They have inserted themselves into centuries of thick, textured narratives of struggles and celebrations in both the biblical text and possibly their own histories; they have remembered heroes and our foremothers, both named and unnamed. They have noted and written to gradually transform the field of biblical studies decisively and to shift old markers forever.
In the introduction to Volume 1 Scholz writes: “This volume contributes to the effort of making visible their work, exploring the range and depth of feminist exegetical scholarship thus far, and recapturing the early optimistic spirit in feminist work that regarded biblical interpretations as part of the larger justice movements in the world” (vol. 1, p. 10). The volume succeeded in fulfilling this aim. The essays map the formation of feminist biblical interpretation by gathering, retrieving, reviewing, and evaluating a past that makes sense from a feminist perspective. The volume engages with the past into the present and provides a base upon which to position the future.
Second, I want to consider who is included and not included in this “feminist” project. I would have appreciated inclusion of more feminist scholars and more engagement with feminist works from the two-thirds parts of the globe in Volume 1 and Volume 3. For instance, the essay by Helen Leneman, “Genealogies of feminist Biblical Studies: An interview Report from the 1970’s Generation” (vol. 1, p. 11–32), does not mention any scholars from spaces outside the Western world. In contrast, writers examining the impact of feminism in theology and biblical studies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will always acknowledge the positive and inspiring impact of North Atlantic first-wave feminists for the growth of their own consciousness as feminists and in their engagement with the bible. Volume 1 includes the diverse voices of Madipoane Masenya (Africa), Yael Shemesh (Israel), Julie Kelso (Australia), David M. Valeta (male), Fiona Black (Canada), and Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan (Asian-American), besides others from the USA. Yet the absence of a Womanist or African American exegete in this list is glaring. I also note the sparse and insufficient engagement of their voices as well as of voices from outside of the North American and the European contexts. I was hoping, for example, to find some references to Asian interpretations of texts in First and Second Samuel in Ngan’s analysis and retrospect, but there was none. This reminds me of Randall Bailey, the African American Hebrew Bible scholar, who criticizes those who rest their conclusions only on white Western sources.
I am aware of the problematic roles that are thrust upon a non-Western individual when she and her work enters the orbit of certain kinds of academic concerns and discursive practices pursued supposedly and predominantly only in the West. But feminist biblical interpretation is not a project of the West alone. Two-thirds world feminists/womanists should be recognized as crucial partners of mainstream Western feminist voices engaged in biblical criticism, as critical interlocutors of strategies at work in versions of feminist academic multiculturalism. Two-thirds world feminist/womanist scholars make critical interventions not only in mainstream Western biblical interpretation but also in our two-third’s world discourses about the bible within our contexts and communities. We have experienced that our interventions have not always been accepted as “scholarship,” that our “methods” have been downplayed and the relevance of our interpretations questioned. However, we live in times when the dominance of biblical scholarship in the West is challenged, and this challenge has contributed to the breakdown of the North Atlantic dominance of biblical studies. It is therefore important to improve the range of texts we attend to and the issues we take seriously. We must include a range of marginalized voices into the feminist biblical debates since they offer important social and political perspectives, observations, and insights.
Feminist biblical studies would certainly benefit from heeding the voices and challenges posed by two-thirds world women and postcolonial scholars, such as Kwok Pui-lan and Musa Dube, as suggested by Stratton (vol. 1, p. 80–109). They stress the importance of considering “all of the women and marginalized peoples of the world in our scholarship” and to “become decolonizing readers,” to “demonstrate a conscious adoption of resistance to imperialism” in order to “build true conversations of equal subjects in our postcolonial and multicultural world,” and to use our scholarship and “disciplines for liberation causes” (vol. 1, p. 107).
Scholz observes that there is “still little dialog among various feminist interpretations.” This much needed conversation can be facilitated with an intentional commitment to including diverse and global voices alongside traditional or Western feminist biblical interpretation in the retrospect. After all, the project of feminism has no borders. It is a project of inclusion, a project of hearing voices from spaces that are often ignored and marginalized. I would like to believe that we belong to patches of different colors, tones, and patterns, all detached, and yet sewn together. Feminism is akin to a patchwork quilt, giving equal attention to issues faced by bourgeois feminism, rural feminism, the LGBQT movement, the dalit movement, domestic workers, and victims and survivors of sexual abuse and the like. I think such an understanding of feminism is perhaps lacking in these volumes since the collection focuses largely on works produced by Anglo women and men. Some years ago, I evaluated a thesis on texts from the Hebrew Bible. Many women in the two-thirds part of the globe had written on them, as the issues raised by these biblical texts bear many similarities to experiences of women in traditional cultures. All women experience abuse and violence but subjugated and marginalized and minority women experience abuse and violence in far greater intensity and breadth in the two-thirds world. Some of what these interpreters from non-white contexts say has universal significance, and their insights call for justice for all women and perhaps help even men preserve their humanity. However, the thesis writer paid no attention to the voices of these women interpreters. Her defense was that “I wanted to attend to only feminist contributions!” I rest my case.
This observation also raises for me the issue of the place of oral cultures and the privileging of written sources. There are many native, vernacular, and informal reflections on the biblical texts by women. Feminist interpretations of biblical texts in the two-thirds part of the globe are largely informal that do not always use the formal tools of biblical methodology and exegesis. Developed largely outside biblical scholarship and the academy, these grass-roots readings are feminist. The challenge for us within the academy is to extend our inquiries beyond academic institutions and practices and to include potentially provocative sites such as film, fiction, art, and poetry. Such readings are full of hermeneutical and exegetical insight that may contribute to the transformation of the androcentric worldview, especially by implicitly advocating for a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Finding these written and oral voices requires commitment and patience because they are not always easily available in publications familiar to the academy. Yet they do exist and they play a significant role in transforming women’s lives both inside and outside the church and the academy.
Third, I call attention to the place of theory in feminist biblical interpretations. In Volume 1, Scholz writes that feminist biblical studies have not reached a “theoretical-feminist paradise” (vol. 1, p. 9). I am not as worried about this issue, since I am not a strong theoretician myself. However, I recognize that there is some theory at work that undergirds each of the essays even if it is not made explicit. Can we speak of an implicit theoretical underpinning in these works? Would it have helped for the editor to analyze and name the theoretical foundations for each essay? Essential and important as theory is to help structure and construct the work, critical theory for theory’s sake is unhelpful. I find it more appealing to see a theory tested, implemented, and employed toward a purpose; and this is not as apparent in all the essays.
Fourth, in my own work I am very concerned about the significance of social location. Scholz writes in Volume 2: “In the mid-1990s…feminist interpreters looked back at a very long tradition of identifying their readings within their gender locations although they did not usually use explicitly the terminology of ‘social location’, in contrast to minoritized scholars who located themselves in their various socio-political, racial, ethnic, and class-differentiated contexts. However, the theoretical acknowledgment has encouraged feminist interpreters to clearly name their ‘social locations’ defined by various intersectional categories although some feminist scholars still hesitate to acknowledge the locatedness of their work, perhaps for fear their work might be rejected as ‘eisegesis’” (vol. 2, p. 5). This last sentence bothers me a bit because it refers to the reason why mainstream academics ignore much of our contextual work. But it also means that works which are not forthright about the context/location from which they are written are considered to have “universal” value, whereas those that are explicit about their social location have only “particular” value. Confining feminist biblical scholarship to the question of the status of women alone strengthens the field, thus rendering it as a safer question against the more threatening questions and issues of contextually conscious readers who interrogate the field of feminist biblical studies. I strongly believe that minority readings also push the edges of biblical interpretation and their concerns need to be heeded.
What saddens me is the dismal lack of engagement with socially located readings and interpretations. For several years, I have co-edited the SBL series, “International Voices in Biblical Studies,” and it has required much effort to convince prospective authors that contextual interpretations are as valid as the others. I was forced to state repeatedly that the series is no less important than others of the SBL. Even those who do contextual work often hesitate to publish their work with a series that is transparently “pro-context.” It has been an interesting experience so far to see who offers to review our volumes. An insider to the publishing world once remarked that there is no market for contextual works, especially from the two-thirds world, and if published, reviewers will be “gentle” to not offend the sensibilities of the authors. How can we foster a healthy debate between the so-called mainstream feminist biblical scholars and those of us who speak from specific contexts? While contextual feminist scholars engage academic and mainstream feminist interpretations of the biblical text, the same is not true in the reverse, as is evidenced to some extent in these volumes as well.
Analyzing traditional and orthodox ideas about gender roles, inequity, racial/caste discrimination, corruption, and power abuse in communities and the church through engagement with the biblical text comes with some professional risk. Our works are often considered personal, value-laden, and political, as if they did not belong in the arena of “faith” or “scholarship.” Yet, somehow, not paying attention to the realities and conditions of the marginalized in the world is not regarded as personal, value-laden, and political. Thus, the support of the status quo within both the church and the academy continues, and many issues are rejected, silenced, or ignored. But as feminist and systemic thinkers we are aware that it is impossible not to communicate or call attention to this reality. If we did not do so, we would actually condone violence and narrow exegetical options, political and economic oppressions, and social frustrations that communities of women experience daily.
By having a volume on social location in a three-part project, the editor has impressed upon the wider academy that feminist contextual biblical interpretations are not “epistemological judgments” or driven by “value judgments” but that they are “academic,” “scholarly,” and worthy of attention. The volume asserts the importance and- significance of social-location exegesis for the wider academy. Thus Volume 2 calls attention to the value of “engaged” and “organic” scholarship. It brings to the fore the magnitude of one’s social location, and it highlights that one’s interpretive strategies and theoretical frameworks need to be disclosed in biblical studies. The placement of the social-location volume between the first volume on “Biblical Books” and the third volume on “Methods” is, I think, “prophetic.” Its position in the middle bridges the three volumes, thereby exposing the strengths and the lacunas when seen through the lens of context. The second volume thus encourages feminist biblical interpreters from marginal geographies of varying oppressed identities to assert the definitions of our field and to challenge the discipline’s emphasis on “objectivist positivism” and “scientific value-detachment.”
Volume 2 brings political energy to the task of feminist biblical interpretation because it insists on engaging with the socio-political and cultural contexts in the broadest possible sense. The inclusion of the Middle East (Palestine), the Caribbean, and the Pacific would have made the section on “Continental Geographies” more complete. Yet the volume has much value, and it is representative of a scenario in which academic trends and fashions are changing with bewildering speed. Its significance lies in the questions raised, the evolving methodologies, and the care with which the findings have been elucidated with a remarkable combination of restraint, conviction, and confidence. The picture that emerges is one of complexity if not of troubling contradictions.
Our marginal histories, politics, and cultural considerations are respectfully woven together in this volume. The distinctiveness of an interpretation remains distinctive only when we allow the unique features of one’s experience to converse with the biblical text. Having said that, it is important to be aware and cautious of the fact that the views included in this volume are those of an elite social group at a particular historical moment. They should not become the defining components of the “worldviews” of the included contexts. It is essential that we reflect how the actual religious practices, spiritual understandings, and scriptural interpretations of various groups of women, oppressed castes, and socially and culturally marginalized groups challenge and subvert rather than endorse the views found in the essays. An uncritical appreciation may obstruct understanding the place of these “cultural positions” within the moral and political fabric of their social contexts, and obscure their ideological functions as justifications for practices or institutions that have been unjust and exclusionary and worked to dis-empower and marginalize a great many of the inhabitants of the cultural contexts under consideration.
Fifth, I also want to comment on the methods as they are adopted by feminist biblical scholars. Scholz states that feminist scholars use “standard exegetical methods that they have inherited from the field and have adopted them for feminist biblical commentaries, feminist historical constructions of ancient Israelite society and feminist cultural analysis of gender, androcentricism and issues of sexuality” (vol. 3, p. 3). The array of these methods, as used by feminist biblical scholars, have been very effectively showcased in this third volume. The volume recognizes that academic research facilitates diverse forms of economic, social, and cultural imperialism/domination by shaping and legitimating policies that entrench existing unjust power relations. In other words, biblical interpretation and the choice of method are not an innocent or distant academic exercise but an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions. Methods and our use of them are politically and ideologically driven.
Hence, my concern that comes from reading this volume relates to the significance of these methods for the marginalized and unlettered communities of women. I am aware of how difficult it is to discuss methodology and marginalized communities in the same breath. How might we use these methods in service for marginalized communities such as dalit women? The suitability of a method for marginalized communities can be determined only with an analysis of forms and structures of domination, and an awareness and understanding of the complex ways in which biblical interpretations are deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial, colonial, patriarchal, and casteist practices. Perhaps, related but equally significant questions are: Does a marginalized woman appreciate what we do within the academy? Do our ideals of biblical interpretation concur with theirs? In simple terms, what are the perspectives of marginalized on methodology? The deconstruction of the text/story and the uncovering of underlying texts are insufficient, for none of that helps people improve the current conditions or prevents the marginalized from continued oppression. The past, our local and global stories, the present, our communities, cultures, languages, social practices, current and extant interpretations of the Bible are all spaces of marginalization, but they have also become spaces of resistance and hope. It is from these spaces that we need to address biblical interpretation within the wider framework of self-determination, decolonization, and social justice. The method should assist us to analyze and evaluate the roots of social construction and distortion as they appear in the social and cultural worlds, especially to people who create, intensify, or reinforce discrimination, injustice, and subjugation that shape the manner we approach and interpret the biblical text.
What is also particularly interesting is Scholz’s statement that feminist biblical interpreters do not always provide reasons for their choice or use of a particular method (vol. 3, p. 2). I see this absence arise out of at least two issues. One issue relates to the way the bible is received, namely as “literature” or as “scripture.” The other issue relates to the purposes for which one interprets the bible. One might argue that the distinction between literature and scripture is artificial, as for instance David Clines maintains, or that the Bible is understood better if it is first read as literature. I do not discount the validity of these responses. I agree that there are advantages to reading the bible as literature as it enhances our understanding of it. Yet there is a difference between those who view the bible as literature only and those who also regard it as scripture, or vice versa. For those who see it as literature only, the validity of a method lies in how it opens up the text. For those who see the bible both as literature and scripture, they want to understand not only the text but also how it might edify our living and being. They read the bible to transform women’s lives and to bring systemic and structural changes, and they seem to be much more attuned to critically assess the functionality of a method as well as to explain and justify their use of a method. These readers are also quite forthright in setting out the hermeneutical principles that will be employed: resistance, liberation, life, and transformation, to name just a few.
It is thus important to understand the space in which our issues and methodologies intersect. It is also important to situate the development of counter-practices of biblical study within both our critique of Western knowledge and the movements of resistance. Informed by critical and feminist evaluations of positivism, I vote for methodologies that disrupt the rules of the research game toward practices that are respectful, ethical, sympathetic, and useful versus racist, casteist practices and androcentric attitudes, ethnocentric assumptions, and exploitative research. This, of course, deserves a lot more reflection. For now, we need to make space for wider ranging approaches towards understanding the issues, the approaches, and the methods employed by feminist interpreters of the Bible. This also means that feminist biblical scholars should recognize the use of non-formal methods that are imaginative, such as “vernacular readings,” that are characteristic of local culture and communication processes and are distinguished from “metropolitan readings” that assume a “working universality.
In conclusion, I affirm that these volumes draw attention to the ways in which feminist biblical interpretation has developed through dialogues, sometimes discordant, with other disciplines, with the women’s movement and other complex political scenarios, and, of course with the institutions that provide patronage. What is evident is the dynamism of the field, with challenges to facile consensus. While these readings, approaches, and locations from which women scholars read the text may be disruptive, we need to recognize their potentially productive and fruitful nature, as we are compelled to interrogate our own locations and vocations continuously. This process can be disturbing, disrupting, but it is certainly not stagnating. The volumes lead us into visualizing alternative scenarios of feminist biblical studies, even as making these visions real may appear to be a daunting challenge. The volumes give hope that patriarchy/kyriarchy is not as indomitable as we think. As women, we are aware that patriarchy/kyriarchy is an assembling of structures in which we all participate both consciously or unconsciously. However, if we consciously refuse to participate in it, the structures will be hindered from closing their gates with a pleasing click. Susanne Scholz’s three volumes disorganize the settled field of biblical studies, and they open up multiple possibilities within the arena rather than closing them off. Yes, feminist biblical scholarship is far from finished! Through the formation of a field of knowledge with the name “Feminist Biblical Studies” new routes and roots of knowledge about and by women have been and are still to be discovered. Thank you, Professor Scholz, for including me in this venture and for your persistence to see this project through.
 I am reminded here also of Scholz’s argument made in defence of Dinah in Genesis 34, where she claims that a feminist would always take the side of the victim. Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 30.
 R. S. Sugirtharajah, “Introduction and Some Thoughts on Asian Biblical Hermeneutics,” Biblical Interpretation 2 (1994) 251–263.
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Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, Ph.D.,
is Associate Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies at the Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia. She has strong commitments to people who are politically, socially, economically, and environmentally marginalized. She contributes to developing Dalit and Indian feminist interpretations of biblical texts based on the social biographies of these communities, their perspectives, and lived experiences. She has published in various academic books, focusing primarily on interpretations of Old Testament texts from the perspective of the Indian context and the marginalized. Her current research projects include a feminist commentary on 1 Kings for the Wisdom Commentary Series and an Earth Centred commentary on Joshua 1–11.