Ask a Womanist Biblical Scholar....(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

We’re picking up our popular “Ask a…” series in the new year, beginning with “Ask a womanist biblical scholar…”

The Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas and is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth.  A scholar of prophets, prophecy and prophetic texts in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures specializing in women prophets, she also specializes in womanist and feminist ways of reading scripture. A particular love is the Hebrew language - reading, teaching, studying - and classical rabbinic (Jewish) biblical scholarship. Dr. Gafney is the author of Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel, and the Peoples’ Bible, which she co-edited, available through Fortress Press. 

You posed some really great questions to Dr. Gafney last week, and I think you will be challenged and enlightened by her responses. Enjoy! 


From Dr. Gafney: Rachel, thank you for the invitation to participate in this conversation. Thank you all for these engaging questions. The professor in me sometimes resists and reframes some language and what look like presuppositions. Please accept that reframing in the spirit of teaching and learning and conversation.

From Marcus: I'm not terribly familiar with womanism. Should I consider it a movement separate from feminism? Intersecting with feminism? Or as a movement designed to work within the feminist movement as a reformation movement (similar to the early church in Jerusalem to Judaism, or the Tea Party within the Republican Party)? If it's not the latter, how has traditional feminism proven itself to be inadequate for addressing issues which womanism addresses? 

Dear Marcus, womanism and feminism are parallel and intersecting and divergent. Womanism is a response to racism in feminism and sexism in the Black Liberation movement. One crucial aspect of womanism that sets it apart from feminism is the emphasis on the well-being of the entire community. Alice Walker’s definition of womanism is the ancestral, founding articulation. It is long but I think it is important to reproduce it in full since it is so often abbreviated:

1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as a natural counter-balance of laughter) and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist, as in: “Mamma, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?” Ans.: “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mamma, I'm walking to Canada and I'm taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn't be the first time.” 3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless. 4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, xi.)

From Devin: Womanism seems like a difficult perspective from which to tackle the Old Testament in particular. Would you say that womanist perspectives on the Old Testament are more about finding the redemptive notes in what I often take to be an oppressive narrative for women, or is it more about reimagining the central messages and letting it speak fresh to a modern reader?

Devin, I wonder what your presuppositions are about the Hebrew Bible and black women’s feminism. For whom is reading Hebrew Bible not difficult? Perhaps those who identify with the dominant voice? I do teach and study Hebrew Bible and not OT. The Hebrew Scriptures are full and complete, do not need to be supplemented and have not been replaced. 

For me, living, praying, reading, writing and living Hebrew Bible as a black woman is no more problematic than being a black woman in the Americas. My primary approach to the text is to look/listen for what it has to say. I expect it to be revelatory and illuminating because it is scripture and for me as an Episcopalian; those are my presuppositions. That means God’s words are in there somewhere and, knowing the text is androcentric, patriarchal, kyriarchal, hegemonic and full of cultural biases – like America, (minus the kyriarchy but the oligarchy is coming close). And, because the Word is both human and divine, I know it will be swaddled in the stuff of flesh. The Hebrew Scriptures are rich and full of life in all of its and their complexities; the God revealed in its pages transcends the limited and limiting portrayal in the text, pointing to a God beyond the text who is shadowed by God in the text. Even though only about 9% of female characters have names in the text, there are more than one hundred “eleventy” (111) women’s names that are preserved. So many rich stories among them that are largely neglected and more among the nameless women and missing characters including women who wield power and authority and successfully negotiate the androcentric framing of the text. 

From Leanne: While there are many women in the Bible, growing up in a more conservative home and faith I often found they focused more on the negative representations of women and glossed over quickly the more positive ones. When I left the traditions of my family and when more mainstream, I have been pleasantly surprised by the stories of women in the Bible. Which story of a woman in Scripture do you find most liberating and why?

Dear Leanne, I don’t know when I have ever not been free. I don’t think of a particular woman’s story as liberating. Empowering is the word that comes to mind; there are a couple that have stayed with me. The prophet Huldah was the first life-changing woman for me. Having not realized there were women prophets – which are now something of a specialty for me [Daughters of Miriam] – I wondered why folk ever had a conversation about women preaching when women preached as prophets in the bible. The woman who had the biggest effect on me in my preaching and teaching was Sheerah. The knowledge that a woman built three cities in Israel and Canaan, and that they endured, perhaps until today, helped me to stop reading the text through an exclusively male lens and to look for obscure and neglected texts, particularly in genealogy.

From Erin: Thank you for participating, Dr. Gafney. We hear a lot about first wave, second wave, and third wave feminism. Applicable or not, they are difficult to share with girls and young women. How would you share womanism with a 5 year old? A 12 year old? A 19 year old? How would you model your values in ways younger people can understand?

(Similarly, Rebecca asked:  I am a young female youth minister living in the south. How can I walk with my youth who are mostly the children of privilege, in ways that they see the liberating call of the Gospel. How can I teach my girls who are already so heavily immersed in patriarchy about the freedom that Christ has for them in the Gospel?)

Rebecca and Erin, Teaching a girl that she matters, that her voice and ideas matter even when others say they don’t is appropriate at any age. I have been an out feminist and womanist my entire clergy and scholarly career. Girls have always been able to see and hear that in my experience. Some of my practices are using explicitly feminist God-language, not just “inclusive” because folk hear/see/imagine a male god when they hear “God.” I also chose to be known as Father Wil when I became a priest so that the male priests and I would have the same title – which in that church they also used for God. When the Sunday School teacher told the 5 year-olds, “This is Father Wil and she’s going to say our Mass today,” the little girls’ eyes lit up and they sat up. The paradigm shifted before their eyes. There was another woman priest but she used a different title and I felt was seen/placed in a different category.

I don’t know that we can talk about freedom in the gospel without talking about freedom from the enslaving paradigms with which it is also framed and which are constitutive of it. That means talking about androcentrism, patriarchy, sexism and misogyny in the scriptures and in the church from the pulpit, in the theological classroom, in congregational conversations, in public theology and the scholarly literature. We must talk about slavery in the gospels, about Jesus healing but not freeing slaves and using the language of slavery as normative.

From Anand: I see you've served as an army chaplain. How does that experience inform your theology in ways that differ from many with a feminist/womanist perspective?

Dear Anand, one of the great gifts of military ministry is comfort with and acceptance of death in a way I haven’t experienced in the civilian world. That familiarity and acceptance is not just towards the inevitability of soldiers dying, but also killing. I am much more comfortable with deliberate acts of violence – waging war, self-defense – than many other feminists and womanists I know. The stories of women who kill in scriptures are among those I teach and preach regularly, Deborah, Jael, Judith, Athaliah.

From Rachel: For those new to the conversation, what books about womanism and Christianity would you most recommend as primers?

Rachel, these are just a few of my favorite classic womanist texts:

Renita Weems: Just A Sister Away and I Asked For Intimacy
Delores Williams: Sisters in the Wilderness
Katie Cannon: Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community

From Dan: I'd like to hear from Dr. Gafney what she'd most like a white, comfortable, middle-aged Englishman like me to understand about her study and perspective.

Dear Dan, first I’d like you to know something about your perspective that you may already know, that it is not the only one nor even the “right” one. Womanism is black women’s interpretation but it is not only for black women. Womanist biblical interpretation enriches every person and every community’s understanding of the biblical text. There are things you will never see in the text without reading in the company of black women. In the post-colonial, post-Atlantic slave trade world, it is crucial that peoples who have historically benefited from the sale and plunder of black women’s bodies, justifying those practices with their readings of scripture learn to hear and the scriptures in our voices and through our eyes. 

Thank you all for your questions. Thanks again to Rachel for the invitation. I invite you to explore the #BriteBible and #what2preach hashtags on Twitter to see two different kinds of womanist work in the public square. The former is a collection of tweets from my Introduction to Interpreting the Hebrew Bible course at Brite Divinity School. The latter is my response to national tragedies from the Newtown massacre to the aftermath of Ferguson, to and for preachers struggling with what to preach.


A huge thank-you to Dr. Gafney for taking the time to so thoughtfully engage us! Be sure to check out her Web site, read her books, and follow her on Twitter.

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