Reading the Bible Scriptures While Womanist

Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

~ Alice Walker, 1983

Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” in 1980: “Womanist encompasses feminist as it is defined in Webster’s, but also means instinctively pro-woman.”[i] This and her more expansive 1983 definition provide the etymology for “womanist” from the word “womanish,” as it is used in Black, primarily African American and Caribbean, culture to describe precocious Black girls.

Womanism and feminism ask some of the same questions; sometimes they ask the same questions. But womanism is always intersectional — that is, involving members of multiple social categories. Feminism, particularly white feminism, has rarely been intersectional, though this is slowly changing.

Before exploring a womanist perspective on the scriptures, I must acknowledge the despicable antisemitic statements and writings Walker has generated over the years and has refused to disavow. In addition to the pain those words have caused within the Jewish community, particularly among Black Jewish women, they have caused no small amount of anguish among womanists such as myself, including religious Christian, Muslim, indigenous and African/Afro-Caribbean womanists, as well as non-religious womanists. Those of us who continue to identify as womanists with this knowledge do so absolutely rejecting and repudiating that antisemitic discourse.

With that very necessary prologue, I turn to a womanist reflection on the scriptures. I prefer “scriptures” to “bible” because scriptures encompass every canonical formulation of sacred writing without casting a singular one as normative. The scriptures on which I will reflect are my own, the Hebrew Bible and the Deutero-canonical texts which I teach professionally in classroom and congregation, and on which I preach, and the Christian Second Testament which is also part of my religious formation and on which I also preach.[ii]

A womanist view of anything is as varied as the individuality of the womanist who is reading/writing/hearing/speaking. In my volume Womanist Midrash,[iii] I offer a set of womanist interpretive principles drawn from Walker’s definitions (modified here):

  1. The primary source of womanist work is the lived experience of Black women, troubling the rigidity of the category “woman”;
  2. The legitimacy of Black women’s biblical interpretation is normative and authoritative [for all reader-hearers];
  3. Intersectional analysis accounting for the differing types of oppression Black women experience based on the varied elements of their/our identities, most often race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, gender, orientation, dis/ability and economic status, among others;
  4. The inherent value of each member of a community in the text and its interpreters

and, interpreting the text while privileging those on the margins;

  • Seeking the well-being of the entire Black, transnational and global communities;
  • Talking back to the text [that is, when it or its presentation of God is untenable]; and
  • Making it plain, the work of exegesis from translation to interpretation.

In the last category, “making it plain” is a womanist proverb drawn from an African American axiom. In this context, it refers to democratizing and demystifying the work of biblical translation and interpretation, and conducting that work publicly in conversation with non-specialist hearers and readers. As is the case with other liberative interpretive practices, womanist biblical interpretation privileges characters on the margins of the text, often reading against the text and the nation and characters it valorizes — for example, reading with the Egyptian dead and dispossessed Canaanites, reading with the enslaved women used to breed heirs for the patriarchs, reading with stigmatized women, conjuring missing women and reading with them and, following the rabbis and generations of feminist interpreters, naming anonymized women. Womanists also read the dominant characters, including male characters, reinterpreting traditional or normative interpretations. A womanist reading (across disciplines and literatures) is interested in the ethical issues raised by the text and how they redound to Black women and our communities. Womanist readings engage the text vigorously, conversing, questioning and occasionally, rewriting. By way of illustration, I offer the following womanist readings; the translations are my own.

Mothers of a Murderer

Now Yiftach the Gileadite, the son of a woman — a prostitute — was a mighty warrior. Gil‘ad (Gilead) was the father of Yiftach. 2And Gil‘ad’s wife gave birth to two sons for him and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Yiftach away; they said to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman. (Judges 11:1) 

The horrific story of a daughter murdered by her father in a blasphemous act of human sacrifice is preceded by this vignette of that man’s childhood. In that vignette is the brief mention of his two mothers, his birth mother and his stepmother.[iv] These two women exist, nameless, between the magnetic poles that are Gilead and Jephthah.

The birth-mother’s sex-work is used to discredit Jephthah (Yiftach). Curiously, she is not identified as a foreign woman, a favorite trope and target of the biblical authors and editors. Neither is she identified as an Israelite; sex work is verboten among the people of Israel. She is a national orphan (though were she “foreign” she would have actually more likely been indigenous, her relationship to her own land annulled by the Israelite conquest story). Her ethnic identity will not matter because ancient Israel is patrilineal. Her son will be an Israelite. The reasons for her sex work are not disclosed. One can reasonably conclude that poverty and lack of family, particularly male family, were instigating factors.

Curiously, there seems to have been sufficient relational exclusivity between Gilead and this woman that the child’s paternity is not in doubt. So, she may well have thought that she had finally gained a measure of stability with this man and this child. Then Gilead takes her child from her. While it is more likely he took the child after weaning, we do not know how long this woman was able to mother her child or whether removal of the child was welcome or devastating. I wonder if he ever saw his mother again, perhaps running away to her when the conflict with his brothers became too much.

The introduction of Gilead’s domestic family, his wife and two sons, leaves open the possibility that his relationship with the sex worker overlapped with his marriage. The stepmother likely had no say in the arrival of another woman’s son into her household. While plural marriage was normative and can be imagined to have been accepted without much objection, bringing home an outside child conceived with a sex-worker is an entirely different matter. Her sons would eventually drive her stepson out. Did they do so in response to their mother’s feelings? Did she cultivate a climate of hostility towards the child she may not have wanted in her home?

A womanist reading calls attention to these women because they are likely to be overlooked by other readings and because there are folk in all of our communities raising children they did not choose and may not want. Complicated parenting and blended families are not unique to Black women and our families any more than are stories of prominent men with multiple sexual partners and children with more than one woman. One of the principles of womanist biblical interpretation is that our experiences resonate with those of others and our conversation partners benefit from experiencing the text through our eyes.

Lastly, a womanist scholarly reading takes note of the positioning of these prequels to the Jephthah story and notes that these women are being used literarily to present the butcher Jephthah in a sympathetic fashion, not entirely successfully. They are used by Gilead in the text and by the authors and editors of the text.

Saving Susanna

Now Susanna was an exquisite woman, very much so. 32Scoundrels commanded her uncovered, so that they might sate their lust on her beauty. 33Those who were with her — her mother, father, five hundred enslaved women and men, and her four children — all who knew her wept. (LXX Susanna 31)

In spite of its full adoption into the Christian canon, Susanna — one of the expanded portions of Daniel in the Septuagint — is a quintessentially Jewish piety tale. Manuscript plurality has left us with multiple versions. In all, the major lines of the story are the same: A pious Jewish woman is the object of lust, false accusation (and the subsequent threat of stoning or other censure), Divine intervention and salvation. In the dominant version above, an angel saves her. In the one preserved by Theodotion, God responds to her prayer. (In both, Daniel is the ultimate source of her deliverance, urged by the Divine. Canonically, Susanna has served to credential Daniel in advance of his own story.)

A womanist reading, like a feminist reading, might read this text in conversation with the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke, the Black woman whose founding role was initially erased in media coverage in favor of famous white actresses. Susanna is a woman whose physical appearance falls into the parameters of beauty as constructed by those around her. Like many women, in and out of the scriptures, she will be blamed for her apparent beauty and treated as a temptress. Men will use her beauty to excuse their bad behavior and blame her for their desire and actions. Missing from this episode: Some women will also blame her for her beauty, and the desires and actions of men in the community. Her face, her body are a problem.

In that way, Susanna is like a Black woman whose physical form was grounds for rape in the antebellum South (and North and in the following periods) and who was blamed for her assaults, perpetually labeled promiscuous, a Jezebel, without regard to the lack of sexual transgression on the biblical Jezebel’s part.

Susanna’s rescue by Daniel through the prompting of the Divine is troubling. Her safety from false accusation and its potentially lethal consequences, or even censure and extirpation by her people, is in the hands of yet another man and subject to his religious ideation pronounced as the judgment of God (playing off the meaning Daniel’s name). Even though Daniel’s character is unassailable — the canonical point of the story — he cannot be everywhere and Susanna, by virtue of being a woman, is assailable, no matter how pious.

Becoming Jesus’ Auntie

While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his siblings were standing outside, seeking to speak to him. 47Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your siblings are standing outside, seeking to speak to you.” 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus said, “Who is my mother, and who are my siblings?” 49And pointing his hand to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my siblings! 50For whoever does the will of my Abba in the heavens is my mother and sister and brother.” (Matthew 12:46)

“Auntie-hood” marks a revered status and cherished relationship in the African diaspora, as it does in Asian, Desi, Arab, Hawaiian and other cultures. Extending far beyond the female siblings of one’s parents, aunties are sources of supplemental nurture, affection, co-parenting and discipline. The term has become more prominent with its association with California Rep. Maxine Waters as a near constant prefix. (The reception of this public use by folk outside of the Black community has been mixed.) One’s aunties (and uncles) can be close friends of one’s parents or all of the adults in the neighborhood or community. Aunties can be “other mothers.” Other mothers in Black culture provide external or supplemental maternal nurture where there is a lack of or inadequacy in mothering, and sometimes, as an abundance of mothering.

In this theological rearticulation of family — of his family, in particular — Jesus creates a category that I, as a womanist, interpret as auntie-hood. In identifying his disciples with and as biological relatives, siblings and mother, Jesus places himself in relationship to them in a family model. Identifying his followers as siblings is not a surprise; Jesus has used the egalitarian term “friends” before and taught that his Father was also the Father of his disciples. Equating some of his disciples with his mother signals a different relationship, a hierarchical one, hence my use of the term auntie. I use auntie because the functional equivalent of multiple mothers beyond a two-parent, two-mother household is a collection of aunties. In my own culture and every other one in which I have experienced auntie culture, aunties have something to say, and expect and are entitled to deference from their nieces, nephews and (non-binary) niblings.

Jesus chose a family structure that would put him in conversation with and potentially subject to his aunties no matter who his Father was. Acknowledging and sometimes subjecting oneself to the knowledge and experience of elders and ancestors is also a womanist tenet. In creating this category of other mothers in a family system in which paternal parenting was distant in terms of the divine and absent in terms of the human, Jesus further reifies the status and authority of these women whom I understand as aunties in the broader cultural sense. Reading this text in terms of Black church culture, I find congruence between it and the status of elder Black women as “the mothers of the church.” Even in a rigidly patriarchal church denying women ordination and recognized leadership roles, the mothers of the church, the congregational aunties, often run a church, making ministry impossible without their contributions and consent.

Womanists and feminists often refer to the anticipated reign of God anticipated in the Christian Scriptures as the kin-dom of God, eschewing the masculine monarchical language with its hierarchies. That language is well in keeping with what Jesus describes here, a kin-community that preserves the social status and authority of aunties.

Conclusion

Womanists read scripture through the lived experiences of Black women. We do not replace or negate the ancient or literary cultural contexts of the text. Rather, we read with them in concert, knowing the fundamental human experience of Black women, often missing from biblical translation and interpretive discourses, is a crucial conversation partner for hearing the ancient text in the contemporary world. Womanists offer our readings as a dish on the shared table of the feast of biblical interpretation that communities and individual readers might benefit from — and enjoy!


[i] “Coming Apart” in Laura Lederer, Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, p. 100, though the most familiar definition hails from 1983, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, Frontmatter.

[ii] I engage the scriptures of ancient Israel as Hebrew Bible and not Old Testament because my aim as scholar and professor is to foster knowledge of the text in its own cultural context. That is also my aim as pastor, priest and professor; subsequent Christian interpretations need not and should not supplant contextual interpretation.

[iii] John Knox/Westminster Press, 2017, p. 22.

[iv] I write on them for the second volume of Womanist Midrash in progress, focusing on women in the Prophets.