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Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)
I’d like to begin by congratulating Dr. Scholz on this flowering, towering accomplishment in feminist biblical scholarship. The scope of the trifecta is impressive and accessible. In addition, the covers are lovely. It is obviously impossible to review all three volumes in any detail in this forum so my text selection, as in much of biblical interpretation, will be necessarily eclectic. I also want to acknowledge that I understand the production of the project has its own story and did not begin in its entirety with Dr. Scholz.
This already sizeable three-volume project understandably does not address the essential linkages between feminist scholarship, intersectional hermeneutics, or related disciplines as Scholz indicates in the introduction. Rather, the authors sketch out the contours of the discipline and illustrate ongoing conversations about methods and trajectories in feminist biblical studies. For example, there is still conversation around whether simply (or not-so-simply) focusing on women’s characters is feminist or feminist enough, or whether a feminist project must work towards transformation or reformation, as in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s “emancipatory-radical democratic paradigm” (vol. 1, p. 60). The collection is a useful compendium, a good representation of the last forty years of feminist biblical scholarship. My primary concern about the project is the underrepresentation of marginalized voices, particularly womanist voices with what appears to be a single black voice per volume and similar representation of Asian and Latina voices.
A recent experience with an older, senior white feminist colleague taught me that it does not go without saying that womanism is feminism. From Alice Walker’s 1980 articulation, “Womanist encompasses feminist.” From her classic 1983 definition, a womanist is “[a] black feminist or feminist of color.” Among my definitions are, “A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen - like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back - with a hand upon her hip.” And: “Womanism is feminism with swag.” Womanism hails from the same eras as feminism, nurtured in part by hostility in white feminist spaces. Scholz observes: “Feminist exegesis expands in the 1980s when voices of ‘otherness’ become increasingly vocal. For the first time, African American women scholars join the interpreters from south Africa and other African countries” (vol. 2, p. 127). Missing is the foundational womanist text written by Renita Weem and entitled Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible. It should also be noted that womanist biblical scholarship does not begin with publication or discovery.
While womanist scholarship is acknowledged and included within a number of individual essays and in a single womanist essay, in Volume 3 by Karen Fletcher-Baker - a theologian, not a biblical scholar - the significance of womanist biblical scholarship to the feminist biblical scholarly guild is not sufficiently indicated. Womanist biblical scholarship is feminist biblical scholarship. I note there are cognate African feminist voices in at least two of the three volumes, Madipoane Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele) in Volume 1 and Musa Dube in Volume 2 - due to its focus on social locations, the second volume is far and away the most diverse. Yet there is not a single African American womanist biblical scholar among the forty-four essays of all three volumes.
I am now turning to the individual volumes in uneven detail.
Volume 1: Biblical Books
The first volume undertakes the difficult and necessary task of sketching out the contours of the field of feminist biblical studies. The volume begins with a fascinating series of excerpts from interviews with feminist biblical scholars who were shaped in part by the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s curated by Helen Leneman in an essay entitled “Genealogies of Feminist Biblical Studies: An Interview Report From the 1970’s Generation.” She interviewed Phyllis Bird, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Esther Fuchs, Carol Meyers, Mieke Bal, Dana Fewell, Athalya Brenner, Carol Fontiane, Toni Craven, and Claudia Camp. The influential works of Phyllis Trible and Fokkelien van Djik-Hemmes are referenced repeatedly. Noticeably absent are womanist and feminist scholars of color, for example, Renita Weems and Gale Yee.
The first volume ably surveys feminist Hebrew biblical scholarship of the current era. It traces the pattern of feminist engagement with the Hebrew text, revealing its gluts and lacunae for a potential map to future projects and steering investigators to underserved texts. The essay on Genesis, one of the most commented upon texts by feminists, is a useful starting point for the analysis of feminist scholarship no matter its placement in the canon. The survey of approaches to Genesis reveals more work on female characters - mothers, goddesses, etc. - than on systems of power and domination (vol. 1, p. 58–61), a bellwether for Scholz of the future of feminist scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Scholz’s essay, “Eve’s Daughters Liberated? The Book of Genesis in Feminist Exegesis,” makes clear that the future of feminist work is in “the intersectionality of the multiple dimensions of social relationships and subject formations in Genesis and the histories of interpretation.” (vol. 1, p. 59)
Amelia Devin Freedman’s emphasis on the “multivocality” of feminist biblical scholarship in “Image, Status, and Regulation: The Feminist Interpretive History of Exodus to Deuteronomy” in the next chapter pairs well with Scholz. Freedman offers a useful look at the diversity of feminist approaches to the text, if you will, making room at the table, a characteristic of womanism.
Given the immensity of the feminist scholarly catalogue on Judges, and what I believe to be the over-familiarity of this corpus and its interrogators, I moved to Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan’s treatment of the Samuel material, “Class Privilege in Patriarchal Society: Women in First and Second Samuel.” I concur with Ngan’s assessment that much of the feminist literature on the corpus focuses on the five named women, Hannah, Michal, Tamar, Abigail and Bathsheba. It is thus unbalanced, for instance, leaving Abigail underexplored (vol. 1, p. 120). However, Ngan neglects my work on Abigail in Daughters of Miriam (vol. 1, p. 140–149). Like Scholz, Ngan offers criticism of scholarship that focuses solely on dominant female characters or does not question the “patriarchal assumptions” and the framing of the text, and she too advocates for more nuanced “dialogic” readings (vol. 1, p. 134).
Because my just published volume, Womanist Midrash, was too late for consideration in this three-volume series, I was particularly interested in the essay on “‘Queens’ and other Female Characters: Feminist Interpretations of First and Second Kings” written by Julie Faith Parker. Parker begins an impressive list of the named and unnamed women, derived from the dictionary edited by Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer. It would have been useful to have a reckoning of how well explored or neglected these characters are in feminist biblical scholarship.
Parker’s approach subverted the inherent hierarchy and patriarchy in the moniker and content of Kings. The essay focuses on female characters marginalized in the Israelite tradition, goddesses, unnamed women and girls before it moves to major named figures like Jezebel and Bathsheba (vol. 1, p. 136). When Parker discusses Asherah, she helpfully illustrates the import of ancient Near Eastern scholarship on feminist biblical scholarship. Perhaps a subsequent volume to this series could address interdisciplinarity and intersectionality. Then, work on Jezebel in particular would benefit from being in conversation with womanist scholars and black feminist scholars inside and outside of biblical studies. Such works ought to include Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America that explores the Jezebel trope applied to African American women, Tamura Lomax’s forthcoming “Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Black Religion and Black Popular Culture, or my own work. Parker also observes that texts featuring various roles for female characters open up possibilities for readers to read from their own social location (vol. 1, p. 148).
Volume 2: Social Locations
The second volume explores “gender as a social location” in a variety of global and hermeneutical settings (vol. 2, p. 8). The “sampl[ed] continental geographies” include African East Asia, South Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America (vol. 2, p. v–vi). The “sampl[ed] hermeneutical locations” include Jewish, lesbian, disability, eco-feminism, secular, Christian post-Shoah, evangelical Christian and Muslim (vol. 2, p. vi–vii). These essays are by design and necessity deeply contextual, foregrounding the issues of each location, continental and hermeneutic as illustrated by Teresa Okure’s premise that “life” is “the starting point” of hermeneutics (vol. 2, p. 25; cf. footnote 39). I can see myself adopting this volume for a course in feminist biblical interpretation at any level and I would have students read every essay.
Volume 3: Methods
This volume explores some of the most significant methodological approaches to the Hebrew biblical text by feminist scholars. These approaches are grouped as being “behind,” “within,” and “in front of the text,” with two chapters as the prolegomena on methods as hermeneutics (vol. 3, p. v–vii). This is the longest of the three volumes with eighteen essays to the fourteen of the other two. In her introduction to the volume, Scholz pushes against the nearly unquestioned acceptance of post-Enlightenment malestream exegetical methods demonstrated by their, our, use of them, with, and without modification (vol. 3, p. 3). The subtitle of her introduction makes Scholz’s position abundantly clear; it is: “About the Lack of Theoretical Debate on Method in Feminist Exegesis” (vol. 3, p. 2). I can see myself using the introduction and the essays in the prolegomena section with my doctoral students.
Scholz’s prodding in the Introduction and first chapter, entitled “On Methods and Methodology in Feminist Biblical Studies: A Conversation” (with Pamela J. Milne) made me reconsider how I use the terms method and methodology, perspective and hermeneutics. (vol. 3, p. 19) In my Womanist Biblical Interpretation class we talk about womanism as a hermeneutic, not as a method, as it is suggested in this volume. But we have not articulated why. Further, I have not differentiated between method and methodology as Scholz encourages us using Esther Fuchs’ work (vol. 3, p. 3–4).
In her chapter “Sexual Politics as an Interventionist Interrogation: the Israelite and Foreign Woman in Feminist Exegesis,” Esther Fuchs takes up the issues of method and methodology. She observes that many readings on Israelite women construct them in binary opposition to foreign women. Thus, Fuchs aims to “move the feminist discussion of biblical texts from sexual to textual politics, namely, to questions of purpose, investment and orientation of the nation as narration (vol. 3, p. 50). I found these foregrounding conversations very useful and look forward to spending more time with them.
Before I close, I return to womanist biblical scholarship addressed in part by Karen Baker-Fletcher’s essay in Volume 3, “Seeking Our Survival, Our Quality of Life, and Wisdom: Womanist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible.” Baker-Fletcher offers a multidisciplinary overview that traces the lineage of womanist engagement with the Hebrew Bible from the fields of theology, ethics, and biblical studies while she also finds the term used in “sociology, literature, theater and film, media studies, psychology, history and anthropology” (vol. 3, p. 225; cf. footnote 2). Her analysis is not limited to womanist biblical scholars because womanist interpreters of the Hebrew Bible are not limited to Hebrew biblical scholars, as she indicates in one of her subtitles: “We, Too, Are Hebrew Bible Interpreters: Womanist Mothers in Hebrew Bible Scholarship” (vol. 3, p. 230). The footnotes are helpful to readers trying to navigate multiple claims from multiple voices in womanism. I will assign this essay in the final class of my Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics class.
As I consider “What’s next,” I raise a question from the students in my Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics class: “How is woman defined, particular now that we have expanded, including non-binary understandings of gender?” To that I add my own question: “Can we define woman without being cis-arrogant or trans-antagonistic.” These are questions for the next volume.
 Alice Walker, “Coming Apart,” in: Laura Lederer, Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography (New York: Morrow, 1980), 100.
 Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xi.
 Sermon excerpt from Wil Gafney, “You Have the Forehead of a Whore” (unpublished, 2017).
 @wilgafney, Twitter, 2017.
 Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (San Diego, CA: LuraMedia, 1988).
 There are fourteen essays in Volume 1, fourteen essays in Volume 2, and eighteen essays in Volume 3.
 Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 1–2.
 Carol Meyers, Tony Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).
 Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Black Religion and Black Popular Culture (forthcoming).
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Wil Gafney, Ph.D.,
is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne (2017), a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah in the Wisdom series (2017), Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel (2008), and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible (2008) and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible (2010).