Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with Dr. Wil Gafney: Womanist Midrash Perspective on the Biblical Text

In this episode, Jared & Pete talk to Dr. Wil Gafney about the Womanist interpretation of the Bible. In their discussion, she brings out fascinating nuances in the text and challenges the predominantly patriarchal interpretation of the past.

Read the transcript

Pete Enns: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Serious talk about the Sacred Book. I’m Pete Enns…

Jared Byas: [00:00:08] and I’m Jared Byas.

Pete Enns: [00:00:11] Welcome everybody to this week’s episode of our podcast and our topic today is something called Womanist Midrash. And we have, as our guest, someone who knows an awful lot about that. Her name is Wil Gaffney. She is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, which is in Fort Worth, Texas. And she’s written a number of books. One of which is going to be big in our top ic today, called “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne,” which are the two halves of the Bible. The first half is Torah and the second half is what happens when Israel becomes a monarchy. She’s written a commentary on Nehum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. She also has a book called “Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel.” So, we had a great time talking with Wil, didn’t we.

Jared Byas: [00:00:58] It was…yeah…it was really enlightening. I learned a tremendous amount in this.

Pete Enns: [00:01:03] We don’t say that like just to be nice and stuff because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know. You know? And one thing that’s fun for us about doing podcasts is that we learn things from every single person we have on because they have expertise in areas we don’t. And they have lives that we don’t have and experiences we don’t have and we all learn from that together. And that’s the fun part of doing this podcast.

Jared Byas: [00:01:25] Yeah. It’s you know…

Pete Enns: [00:01:26] That and the fame, unfortunately.

Jared Byas: [00:01:28] I hope my pastor doesn’t listen to this, but you know oftentimes in church I find myself sort of getting to that place where you’re like, “Oh, I think I’ve heard this before.”.

Pete Enns: [00:01:35] Well, he’s a horrible preacher anyway. Isn’t he? What’s his name again?

Jared Byas: [00:01:38] I’m not going to tell you. But, I think that’s what it is. What I love about the podcast. And particularly this one, where you kind of–your ears perk up and you start saying, “Wow, this is fascinating.” Things that I’ve never seen in the Bible before. And you know, we talked about it in the in the episode of, how many times have we read Genesis in Hebrew and then new things are still coming out.

Pete Enns: [00:02:01] Right. And I think you know the one thing that I carry away from this and I say this at some point during the discussion with Wil is learning to be uncomfortable with certain texts where you just don’t see the discomfort of it because you read it with particular lenses on. And we all read with lenses and, like Jared likes to say, there is no theology that doesn’t have an adjective in front of it. There’s no normal way of doing it. And, you know, rather than theology being a competition and biblical interpretation–like who’s got it right? It’s actually learning from this diverse, rich, deep, historic text about ourselves and each other and really how to live together and how to be humble and not think that we rule the world. And listen to what other people have to say and be changed by it.

Jared Byas: [00:02:52] Alright. I think it’s time for us to stop talking.

Pete Enns: [00:02:53] Yes.

Jared Byas: [00:02:54] Let’s get into it.

Pete Enns: [00:02:54] Alright.

Wil Gafney: [00:02:56] When it comes to scripture, we have veils over our eyes, as the apostle says. It’s like we can’t read critically because of our devotion to the text and the God of the text. Which is a good thing. For me, part of being a feminist, part of being a womanist is to say I need to step back and look really frankly. And sometimes that’s not doing a lot of Hebrew homework. Sometimes that’s just reading a thing out loud in context.

Pete Enns: [00:03:25] Wil, thank for being on our product. It’s great to have you here.

Wil Gafney: [00:03:27] Great to be here.

Jared Byas: [00:03:28] We’re excited to talk with you about the Bible. But before we do that, maybe you can take a minute. Give us a little bit of your background and how you became interested in biblical interpretation.

Wil Gafney: [00:03:39] Well I grew up in the black church and the Bible is the singular most important text in African-American Christianity, as is the case in some other church traditions. But, in the black church we have a particular familiarity with it that when I was in seminary, some of my classmates didn’t have. One of my favorite stories is that when I was learning Hebrew, sometimes I didn’t actually know the grammar but I knew all the stories and so I could fill in what was going on even if I hadn’t quite figured out the verbs were doing. So I travel with this knowledge of biblical texts and particular love for the stories in the Hebrew Bible. I once said that I think my Bible was the Hebrew Bible stories plus Jesus and that was where my heart was centered.

Wil Gafney: [00:04:29] So when I was in seminary I started doing academic study of the Bible and I started taking Hebrew. I always loved languages and had studied some others and just fell completely in love with the text and the language. And as part of what I think was an excellent seminary education at the Howard University School of Divinity, learned that reading Bible–and it’s true for other literature–is not as simple as reading the words on the page. It means reading yourself, reading the culture, reading and context. And that opened the text up even as some of the things I used to think about the text, used to believe about the text, had been taught and preached at about the text. I was discovering not to be true, but that was exciting because so many . ..opened up.

Pete Enns: [00:05:21] Yea, I was wondering about that, because for some people that’s very very unsettling. But it seems like where you were before was like a trajectory and a springboard and you found your education to be really a positive thing that expanded your consciousness, but also maybe even further rooted where you came from.

Wil Gafney: [00:05:39] Absolutely. And it sort of spiraled back on itself. I like the idea of a spiral better than a circle because with a spiral, like a spring, like a slinky, you go back over the spot where you started but not exactly in the spot. So you’re not like a hamster in a wheel going in an endless circle. You’re actually making progress on a path in which you circle back round and sort of touch base like when we play tag as kids. And so I think of my development as a biblical scholar that spiral, that slinky.

Jared Byas: [00:06:12] And maybe say more about biblical interpretation in general. But you recently were talking today some about womanist biblical interpretation. So maybe give us a background in terms of where you became familiar with that and maybe define what that means.

Wil Gafney: [00:06:28] Sure. I think the first thing for us to understand is that everyone interprets everything they see, hear, and read. And we all interpret through who we are and what we know. So even when we say, “this is what that means,” that is an act of interpretation. And we may have seen it with art, where two people look at a painting and one person describes what they see and someone else says, “Well, I don’t see that at all.” So when we approach a text, even a sacred text, we bring stuff with us and some of that stuff is the preaching we’ve heard, what we’ve already thought about God. And so interpretation is the work we do to make meaning of the text and womanist biblical interpretation, like other forms of academic and cultural interpretation, tends to be honest about who we are and what we bring with it and do the work of interpretation through a set of lenses or intellectual postures. Womanist biblical interpretation is rooted in the experience of black women. It asks, to make it very simple, how does the experience of being a black woman, particularly in the Americas, because womanism is an American black phenomenon. There are similar reading strategies in Africa and other places where persons of African descent are located. But womanism is uniquely American. It asks what does it mean to read, see, and hear this text through the life and experience of a black woman.

Wil Gafney: [00:08:07] And one of the principles of womanist biblical interpretation is that that experience is not just useful for black women. It’s useful for anyone who engages the text, because when you look from your perspective, which is not my perspective, you are lacking what it is I bring to the text and that’s an essential part of the story.

Jared Byas: [00:08:29] That’s well put. Kind of bringing different experiences within the body of Christ to bear on all of our experiences. If we have ears to hear that.

Pete Enns: [00:08:38] Instead of it being a competition.

Jared Byas: [00:08:39] Right.

Wil Gafney: [00:08:39] What goes unsaid in other parts of the body of Christ, as you put it, in other academic spaces were biblical studies is being done on the professional level, is that the text has always been interpreted through a cultural lense. But, in the past, and to some degree in some places in the present, interpreters don’t say I’m reading this through a dominant culture, white, Protestant, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-embodied perspective, right? People say, well, this is the way it is. This is the way we’ve always understood it. And, as with any “we” statement, you have to ask well who’s the we?

Jared Byas: [00:09:19] Right. Yeah, I remember the moment when I realized that–I think they call it kind of the unmarked theology that I had assumed I just do theology and other do, you know, Womanist theology or Native American theology but I just do theology. And realizing what a mistake that kind of thinking is in this, you know, in the act of interpretation.

Wil Gafney: [00:09:40] And that’s something that permeates our society. It’s March. So, some people are watching basketball and other people are watching women’s basketball and that naming signals the degree to which the male framework is considered the normative framework and doesn’t have to have language in front of it like American, Black American, right? So we find those unnamed centers of thought in every aspect of our common life.

Jared Byas: [00:10:09] Right. Yep. Yea, I often say all theology is done with an adjective.

Wil Gafney: [00:10:13] Oh that’s a great line.

Jared Byas: [00:10:15] So with that, you know one of the things–as far as the topic. We’re talking about womanist midrash. And midrash would be a term that, for me, when I hear that term I get really excited. I get excited about creativity and imagination but I think a lot of our listeners may not know what that word means. So maybe can you unpack what midrash means a little bit in the context of how you use it?

Wil Gafney: [00:10:37] Absolutely. So womanist is a black feminist interpretive practice and midrash is a term that comes from classical Jewish exegesis and it means, literally, to interpret the biblical texts. In classical Jewish practice, midrash is done in a particular way. There are a couple of classical rabbinic fathers who laid out rules for how it is to be done. And so that’s the classical practice. There is currently the tradition in many forms of Judaism that all subsequent interpretive practices can be called midrash. I’ve spent a significant part of my life as a member of a synagogue and it was very common in that community to refer to teachings, biblical studies together, the sermon element called the D’var Torah as midrash. And so I use that term with some cultural and communal sense to it.

Wil Gafney: [00:11:38] But there is another sense to the term that I think has become problematic. Because classical Jewish midrash can engage in filling the blanks in a text, adding material to the tradition of a text that’s not in the biblical texts, some people have used the expression midrash very loosely to say that any reimagining, any rewriting, any tinkering with the biblical study is midrash. It is a slightly more complex term than that. And really links back to careful biblical interpretation in light of the original text, particularly in Hebrew. But it does include the notion of going beyond the text. But going carefully beyond the text.

Pete Enns: [00:12:21] Do you think it’s fair to say going carefully creatively beyond the text? Can we combine those two words?

Wil Gafney: [00:12:29] I think we can. And what counts as creative is going to vary depending on the century, the particular rabbi doing the work in the classical tradition, and the scholar or lay interpreter during the work in our time.

Pete Enns: [00:12:43] Because the heart of this is–I mean to getting back to–any theology with an adjective to it, which is all our theologies, it’s a matter of bringing this into our own world and seeing ourselves through the lens of the text. It’s sort of a back and forth which requires some creativity, right? When you’re looking at the text from the point of view of the experience of African-American women, there is creativity in that, isn’t there?

Wil Gafney: [00:13:12] Yes. And I talk about translation, in particular, which is something I do in this book, as both art and science. And I think that applies to biblical interpretation. Writ large. And the back and forth you described–I tell my students that we must attend to two sets of contexts. The ancient context, which are the originating context of the text but also the contents of the text and sometimes a text is set in one period and produced in another. And then contemporarily our context. The context on which we are right now and engage these texts and the context in which we may write or preach or teach. We talked together today–the three of us–about your audience what kind of context that is, which is different than my seminary classroom, for example.

Pete Enns: [00:14:08] Well, lets…Can we get into some texts here?

Wil Gafney: [00:14:10] Absolutely.

Pete Enns: [00:14:10] I think it would be fun to just look at what your perspective with womanist midrash–what that would bring–what they would add to the conversation in understanding text that maybe some of us, including myself, read in a way that we just sort of don’t see things. Right?Because we’re coming with a certain perspective. So anything in Genesis?

Wil Gafney: [00:14:32] Absolutely.

Pete Enns: [00:14:32] Let’s talk about Genesis.

Wil Gafney: [00:14:34] At the beginning, so to speak. So womanist midrash is a feminist practice. The difference between womanist and feminist, as Alice Walker said, is the difference between purple and lavender. In other words, that womanism is a richer deeper thicker feminism. So some of the insights of womanism are shared with feminism and you’ll see that in my translation of Genesis 1, verses 1 through 2. In beginning, he (God) created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while she the spirit of God pulsed over the face of the waters.

Pete Enns: [00:15:15] Huh, that’s different than what I’ve heard. Bringing out the gender of both the creator and the spirit. Because the spirit is gramatically feminine. Right?

Wil Gafney: [00:15:26] Yes. And so if we’re going to have a conversation about the spaces in which black women engage the text, church. And we’re going to look at a context in which, in many black churches, only masculine God language is used and people, some people may say, well, that’s just what the Bible says. Then we have a conversation about the fact that at the beginning of the beginning of the story, God introduces God’s self using masculine and feminine language. And then later in the story when God says I’m going to create some people like us, using plural language, those people come out representing what was in the first verse masculine and…

Pete Enns: [00:16:13] So, when later when when God says, “Let us make humanity in our own image,” one way of understanding the “our” is the he and the she at the very beginning of Genesis.

Wil Gafney: [00:16:25] That’s one way and I don’t even suggest that that is necessarily it or limited or to it. Just that God uses the language of plurality, which signifies that we should not try to reduce God to any one thing. There is a old Mary Daly quote that says, “God is not a Ken doll and a Barbie doll scotch tape together.” So, even if you want to say, oh, there’s feminine language and masculine language. Even gluing those together in our best human work, that’s still not enough to say what God is. But at the very least, some of the plurality of God is accounted for in masculine and feminine language, not only here in Genesis but throughout the Hebrew Bible and some in the later testament.

Pete Enns: [00:17:15] I mean this sincerely and I’m especially speaking to our listeners here, what what you said about Genesis 1:1 and 2–I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Genesis, in English in Hebrew. That never dawned on me. It just didn’t it. And I feel like, oh. I think we’re illustrating the point that I’m gonna go back and look at that. And, you know, when I engage students I’m going to say hey look at this over here. Here’s something that sort of is lying buried perhaps that it’s, you know, and if we take this into account. . .and how does that change how we might even approach the beginning of this book? I think that’s mission accomplished, I guess, right Wil?

Wil Gafney: [00:17:52] Sure. And if you take seriously that women have heard throughout the centuries that what is masculine in some context is more closely identified with God, that what is feminine is other, and we even go back into church fathers like Tertullian for whom women were the devil’s gateway. I mean, there’s a whole lot of theological work that’s heavily invested in God being male and exclusively male. In fact, there’s a text that says men are the image of God and women are the image of man or something. That sets up a whole world of church and theology that marginalizes women. Yet for people who come out of the community that I did–the black church–for whom it really matters, what does the Bible say? It matters that the biblical text says repeatedly that God’s gender identity is complex. Binary language is used because the Hebrew Bible has two options. Masculine and feminine. But God is presented in a much more complex way. And that matters when we’re talking about people and hierarchy, particularly when those earthly hierarchies are entrenched in gender which is then claimed to be based on God and the Bible.

Jared Byas: [00:19:14] Yeah I just really appreciate the way you say that because that is often the conversation that I would have, you know, where it’s like, well, we use “he” to refer to God because that’s what’s in the Bible. And I just appreciate highlighting these areas where that’s not true. And for an audience and for people who want to take the Bible seriously, it’s great to have these things come to light. To say that that is being biblical, perhaps even more so than talking exclusively about God in masculine terms.

Wil Gafney: [00:19:41] I do say from time to time I’m a literalist, which makes some people itch. But it also puts on the table how we as readers access the Bible which is something I address in the book we’re talking about today, Womanist Midrash. And that is most people access it through translation and don’t think about the translation or the translator. So they’re not focusing on the fact that their translators, up until maybe the common English Bible, have been exclusively men–men who were cultured, not to think about God in feminine terms like Pete, even if they read it in Hebrew. Just turn the page in their head and kept going with the masculine language. So we are encountering what is, for many of us, a sacred text through the gender, racial, and cultural legacy of the translators who are actually between us in the text. And that’s why I did this project.

Jared Byas: [00:20:40] We’re sorry to interrupt the podcast but we’re going to take one minute to mention two simple ways to support the work we do with the Bible for Normal People. First, head to iTunes, rate us, give us a review. But please only do this if you like us. If not, rethink your life choices and then just ignore this message. Second, check us out on patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where you’ll find ways to jump into the conversation, join the community, and offer support at various levels. Last but not least, we want to give our deepest thanks to some of the members of our producers group. These folks give us feedback through email, calls, and overall just helped make the podcast what it is. So thanks to Ted Cole, James White, Scott Smith, Darlene Sinclair, Jonathan Beck, Marilyn Johnson, Daniel Wesley, Darin McKenna, Sharon Rowland, and Dee Forrest. We couldn’t do what we do without you. So thanks so much. Now back to the podcast.

Pete Enns: [00:21:34] Well there are several hundred texts I want to ask you about right now. But the thing that’s coming to mind is a rather obvious point and this–this is on my mind now because it came up in a class on teaching on wisdom literature about, you know, Proverbs Chapter 8. And there is an identification between wisdom and Yahweh. And wisdom is a feminine concept in the Bible. And that close identification between–there’s actually nothing closer to God in the Old Testament than wisdom, as far as I’m concerned.

Wil Gafney: [00:22:06] That’s true. And as you know, as a technical reader of the text, that there’s a passage in there that can be translated a couple of different ways. One of which is I was the first thing created by God and the other is that I was a master worker creating along with the God.

Pete Enns: [00:22:23] Right.

Wil Gafney: [00:22:24] And let me say because I know I’m going to have some of my students and perhaps some of my congregants from the synagogue listening. And it’s hard on me and I have always taught not to vocalize the divine name. So if we were live right now, I’d have students passed out on the floor. And I’d also have some of my Jewish extended family wincing at that.

Pete Enns: [00:22:47] My feeling is that when I say Yahweh, I’m actually not pronouncing the divine name.

Wil Gafney: [00:22:51] I know. Again, I’m speaking as a person who belonged to a synagogue for ten years and I’m very sensitive.

Pete Enns: [00:23:00] I have not had that experience. So I–but I hope to. Maybe not for ten years but at least for some…

Jared Byas: [00:23:06] Can I ask a question about that is a little off that topic but I think it’s helpful. So in terms of that–in terms of being respectful of people of Jewish faith or people who wouldn’t want to use the divine name, what would be the appropriate thing to say instead?

Wil Gafney: [00:23:18] So one of my first days of class on an intro to interpreting the Hebrew Bible is to allow the students to come up with their name of choice. And we look at some of the ones that are used in Jewish and Christian tradition. And just as I showed you in this text, there’s so much God language we haven’t even explored. But some of the traditional Jewish ones are Hashem, which means the name. You know, in reading people say Adonai. But since I tend not to say Lord even in English, I love the Holy One. Students get creative. Fountain of Life is one that comes out of Judaism. Creator. The sovereign. I let them choose a name that speaks to them. I have a couple students who’ve used the word LOVE in all caps, which I thought was interesting. Others shape it around the text. So if God is making covenant in a text, they may translate the four sacred letters that make up God’s name as The Faithful God. So even in rabbinic tradition, there is flexibility and there are a number of options offered depending on what text you’re reading.

Pete Enns: [00:24:18] Excellent. Thank you. Appreciate that.

Pete Enns: [00:24:19] Well, it’s hard to talk about this without getting into what is normally called the Patriarchal Period. So…

Wil Gafney: [00:24:27] And that’s not normal. That’s a choice. We say ancestral period and people know what we’re talking about.

Pete Enns: [00:24:32] Right.

Wil Gafney: [00:24:33] So, it’s a choice to call it Patriarchal.

Pete Enns: [00:24:35] So, could you pick an episode of your choice from this portion of Genesis and maybe bring something out of that story that, you know, we might not always see.

Wil Gafney: [00:24:49] Sure. So let’s talk about the matriarchs and the patriarchs and talk about that group of women who are responsible in various ways for birthing the children–their sons–who will then be known as the patriarchs or the fathers of the Twelve Tribes. And so when I do that work, I like to start with the lesser known of the matriarchs and there are three. We won’t get to all of them today. But those three are Bilhah, Zilpah, and Asnat. So Pete, you probably know who those are. Anybody else in the house know?.

Pete Enns: [00:25:31] [laughing] I don’t know, we could poll our listeners. But why don’t you tell us?

Wil Gafney: [00:25:37] So, I’m going to start with Bilhah. Zilpah’s story is very similar, but I’m going to start with Bilhah in Genesis Chapter 30, verse 3. I’m going to read my translation and then we’re going to immediately need to talk about one translation choice. Rachel said, “Look my womb slave Bilhah. Come in her and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build babies through her.”

Pete Enns: [00:26:04] Hmm. What is the term? Womb slave?

Wil Gafney: [00:26:06] Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:26:06] Okay.

Wil Gafney: [00:26:07] I use that to translate the Hebrew words amah and shivhah. Both of those words are often translated as “maidservant.” The differences between the two are non-existent because biblical authors use them interchangeably and sometimes in the same narrative. But we need to not translate them as servants. I, as a busy professional woman, have someone who cleans my home. I don’t get to impregnate her with the man of my choice and own that child is my own. The fact that in this American context translations which have been produced by predominantly white men are not naming slavery as slavery is a problem and it shouldn’t take a womanist reading, reading from the positionality of African-American women who are the descendants of slaves, to point out this isn’t Bilhah’s job as a servant. This is trafficking of human persons. Forced pregnancy.

Jared Byas: [00:27:07] So I think there’s probably going to be a lot more good stuff around that but can you maybe name why do you think, you know, you said it shouldn’t take a womanist interpretation. What is it about the white men, probably, who translated these texts over the centuries that they would have missed naming it that?

Wil Gafney: [00:27:25] It’s interesting. Sometimes Hagar is referred to as Sarah’s slave. So I’m certainly not claiming that no predominately male or predominately white male translation does that. But the practice of slavery in the biblical text, once we got past the generation of people who used it to normalize their own enslaving practices, once we got beyond that, interpretation, in my experience, that has been glossed over as just the way it was back then. But given that we have not finished dealing with our own legacy of slavery in this country, that gloss sort of participates in our not dealing with slavery in this country and its legacy. Or what it means that slavery was absolutely normalized in the biblical text. And if we’re honest, it’s not a misreading of the text in every case to say that the text endorses slavery and that sometimes God endorses slavery. And I think people have not and willing to do that deep wrestling and..

Jared Byas: [00:28:26] So the translation would force sort of wrestling with–it would confront us with this reality on a regular basis. It feels easier sort of morally to just kind of sweep that under the rug. And maybe even in an unconscious or subconscious way that it wouldn’t be confrontational not to translate as slavery.

Wil Gafney: [00:28:45] Right. And in addition reading…whether Jews or Christian, the tradition is to read the text through the heroes and the occasional heroine, right? The slave whose body is used to get Abraham’s descendants to the promise isn’t as important. It’s black women who read through the Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rizpah, who is much later. Saul’s secondary wife. That’s a story many black women are familiar with so I’m moving out of Genesis for a moment.

Wil Gafney: [00:29:13] But even as you may have grown up or participate in preaching that it encourages to engage the text from different perspectives, people don’t just sort of naturally situate themselves in Bilhah’s spot. And so we’re talking about this story as a way to engage the ancestral stories of ancient Israel through a womanist lens. So if we use the patriarchal formula–God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–what does that formula sound like when we put the women in it? And what are the implications? Can you do it, Pete? Can you put the women in that formula?

Pete Enns: [00:29:49] Well, Abraham and Sarah and Keturah.

Wil Gafney: [00:29:51] And Hagar?

Pete Enns: [00:29:51] And Hagar. That’s correct. And, well, Isaac just has the one wife, Rebecca.

Wil Gafney: [00:29:57] Yeah, it’s interesting. Isaac seems to be the only person in the Hebrew Bible who practices monogamy. Moving on.

Pete Enns: [00:30:04] But he gets no press, really. There isn’t much going on there, right? You know, Jacob and his, you know, four partners, I guess we can say, including Bilhah and Zilpah.

Wil Gafney: [00:30:14] Right. And calling the names of characters, saying a person’s name is very important in Afro-derived cultures. So, it’s important to say the names and one of the ways I got into this project was interest in women in the biblical text who were not well known, but realizing there are roughly 111 named characters in the Hebrew Bible–named women–and so many of us don’t know those. So then if we say that God is the God of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Keturah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Bilhah,

Wil Gafney: [00:30:51] and Zilpah. That’s a wonderful theological claim to make about God, but would Bilhah identify the God of the man who used her to breed babies to fulfill a promise that wasn’t made to her, would she recognize that as God?

Pete Enns: [00:31:07] mmhmmm. See, what I’m hearing…I guess what I’m feeling is the translation matters.

Wil Gafney: [00:31:12] It does. In fact, we have a section in the book called “Translation Matters.”

Pete Enns: [00:31:16] Oh, really? Okay. I didn’t know that. Just footnote me as thinking your thoughts along with you. But, you know, it’s…I guess it’s a way of sharing the discomfort of the texts.

Wil Gafney: [00:31:26] Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:31:27] That, for people who don’t normally…would not normally feel that discomfort because of glossing over things, that…I mean, I’ve told this…I won’t go into this story at length, but when I was teaching seminary I remember an instance where–it was something in the Abraham narrative, I don’t know what it was–but afterwards–these were all male students–but some from Korea and from Africa came up to me after class and they wanted to talk about what this has to do with ancestor worship. And I remember thinking to myself nothing. But it was years that went by before I thought myself, now wait a minute. They’re reading texts from their experience. And I sort of was thinking, like Jared said before, that I have an adjectiveless theology. An adjectiveless hermeneutic. It was sort of a moment where I saw that, at least for myself, point blank I said, oh goodness, I have some thinking to do here.

Wil Gafney: [00:32:19] Yes. And depending on what edition of the Bible they received in their cultures of origin–there is a biblical scholar named Musa Dube, whose practice is African biblical hermeneutics. And she studies the way Bibles are translated and presented to people in African languages, like Shona and Xhosa, which I can never pronounce because I can’t click. And what she found is that missionaries who were targeting indigenous spiritual practices like veneration of ancestors would write those into the translation so that in places where Jesus is say casting out demons, that their translation would read that he’s casting out the spirits of their ancestors. So sometimes there are intentional, quite frankly malicious, translations doing cultural imperialistic work. By which I mean making Christianities around the world not simply Christian but emulating again white Protestant American ethical values.

Pete Enns: [00:33:20] Absolutely true.

Wil Gafney: [00:33:22] And erasing indigenous cultures. So yeah. So we got into all of this because of one word I chose in this sort of nation-building narrative. So I’m insistent about it. So every time we read about Bilhah and Zilpah and some other figures that this language of womb slave, not just slave woman or slave girl, but reducing her to reproductive function. Bilhah is, in my reading as a scholar, the woman in the Hebrew Bible who has the most identified sexual partners, none of whom she chose. She comes to Rachel as her slave that she was gifted by her father. And in Rachel’s household there’s no mother present. And so I do argue that Laban used Bilhah and Zilpah sexually. That was normative behavior even if you were married. And so I suggest he’s their first sexual partner. Bilhah is then given to Rachel who then passes her to her husband. That’s her second sexual partner. And you may not remember that Reuben acting out against his father acts out raping Bilhah later. And so this woman, like many enslaved women, many trafficked women, is multiply abused in this so-called first family of faith. So in contemporary interpretation, we might talk about sexual sins in church and among church families and pastor’s families. That having this role in the story doesn’t mean that everything is neat and pristine. So this story can be a way of talking about sexual violence.

Pete Enns: [00:35:04] Well, speaking of which–I can’t let you go without hearing your thoughts on David. And maybe Bathsheba.

Wil Gafney: [00:35:12] Sure. So what I think I will do is you and your readers to the second half of my book, Womanist Midrash, which deals with royal women in Israel in Judah and fairly near the beginning of that I do a section on all of the women who are, in my language, dominated by David in their presentation of the narrative. And so this comes out of my teaching and when my students think about Batsheva, I ask them to think about all of the women that are in David’s life before she is introduced. And so bear with me, Merab bat Ahinoam was engaged to David and then the engagement broke and then given to someone else. Michal bat Ahinoam, also Saul’s daughter, married to David. That marriage was broken up. She was married to someone else. David marries Abigail. A verse later–they haven’t even got home–he picks up Ahinoam, apparently on the side of the road somewhere. They run around as a threesome for a good long time. He then marries Maacah bat Talmai, who is the daughter of a local king. He picks up Haggith somewhere. She gives birth to his first son Adonijah. He picks up Abital somewhere. His fifth son, Shephatiah comes out there. Eglah–she gives birth to a son. So David has all of these women to whom he’s married. To whom he has legitimate sexual access and, as a monarch, he had access to slaves and yet and still he has Bathsheba abducted and brought to him. The language in the biblical texts that he sent men to take her. So there is no possibility of consent there, not even in the ancient world. And, of course, when God gets angry about this, God doesn’t punish Bathsheba for having committed adultery because God knows she did not commit adultery. God punishes David for his crime. And then after Bathsheba, David inherits Saul’s former wives. Then right before he dies, he has this woman Abishag, whom the biblical text tells us he’s impotent and can’t have sex with her. And in other side notes, he has other primary and secondary wives that he took in Jerusalem. So when I introduce David, I introduced him through what I call his sexploits. David’s sexual potency goes hand in hand with his military potency. And so I help my students not to romanticize or idealize David. And one of the exercises I do with them in critical reading is to read Psalm 38 after having read through this list. And I don’t know if you’ve read Psalm 38 recently. Well, it has this line in it where we’re going to follow the traditional attribution to David because I really do think David wrote this one. In verse 5, my wounds grew foul and fester because of my foolishness. I’m utterly bowed down and prostrate. All day long I go around mourning. My loins are filled with burning. David has a sexually transmitted disease. And if you take seriously that he has multiple partners, some of whom have also had multiple sexual partners, then we’re not surprised that he’s itching and burning over here.

Jared Byas: [00:38:30] That’s amazing.

Wil Gafney: [00:38:33] But…

Pete Enns: [00:38:33] Yeah, I can tell you I have never thought about that.

Wil Gafney: [00:38:37] This is how we opened our conversation. This is not simply reading as a woman i st, but learning to read critically, which I know you know how to do, Pete. When it comes to scripture, we have veils over our eyes, as the apostle says. Like, sometimes we can’t read critically because of our devotion to the text and the God of the text. Which is a good thing. For me, part of being a feminist, part of being a womanist is to say I need to step back and look really frankly and sometimes that’s not doing a lot of Hebrew homework. Sometimes that’s just reading a thing out loud in context.

Jared Byas: [00:39:11] Yeah, that’s amazing. As we wrap up our time here, I just had a question for you about something really practical. For those of us who do have these–we all do–have these filters–you talk about reading critically–what would be a practical advice? Like, what’s one step someone who reads the Bible might take to read it more critically? What would be a practice or exercise or activity that you might recommend?

Wil Gafney: [00:39:37] Sometimes creative activities–now we’re back to a kind of midrashic thought–are really helpful. So, take the outline of a story you have. Write it another way. Change the gender the characters. Change the outcome of this character. Write in all of the people who would need to be there for that story to happen. Who are the missing women? If you’ve got this one begot that one and he begot the other one. Oh, what happened in those two generations? They started this town, they get to that town. Well, how many miles between those towns? Try to fill in the blanks with what you can and keep track of all of the unanswered questions. But sort of slowing down the text. And sometimes reading out loud and reading out loud from a translation you don’t normally use is helpful. So those are some starting practices.

Jared Byas: [00:40:25] That’s excellent and maybe here, as we wrap up, give us a little bit of where people can find you online. And one of the projects that we’ve been talking about this book, Womanist Midrash. Maybe say a little bit more about that and where people can interact with you.

Wil Gafney: [00:40:39] So you can find me online at wilgafney.com. You can find me on Twitter @wilgafney. This book, Womanist Midrash is an introduction to the women of the Torah and of the throne. The second half focuses on royal women of Israel and Judah. All of the queen mothers, Jezebel. You can find it at Amazon. I would also recommend people who are just starting to think critically about the Bible and those who have been doing it for a while to the Bible and companion to the Bible that I edited the People’s Bible that I co-edited, I should say. And you can find all of my work on Amazon. I have an author page there.

Jared Byas: [00:41:25] Excellent thank you so much, Wil, for being on the podcast and really bringing a lot to the conversation in terms of insights. I think Pete and I have never really thought of or had considered.

Wil Gafney: [00:41:35] Great.

Pete Enns: [00:41:35] Thank you, Wil. Appreciate it. It’s great to have you here. Hey, friends. As always, thanks for listening to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. And if you have a chance, we really recommend you check out Wil’s book, Womanist Midrash. It’s something that I haven’t used it in my classes but I plan to because it really opens eyes for young people to look at the Bible from maybe a different perspective from what they’re used to.

Jared Byas: [00:41:58] Yeah. Thanks again for everyone who already is supporting us on Patreon. It allows us to do what we do. And if you haven’t already, we would just encourage you to check that out as well. Patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. Check out a lot of the essays that Pete writes and others write on peteenns.com. Lots of good stuff up there as well as we’re talking about how to read the Bible in new ways.

Pete Enns: [00:42:20] Alrighty. See ya, folks!

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The Old Testament is Part of Our Bible with Brent Strawn

Interview with Brent Strawn: The Old Testament is Part of Our Bible and You Can’t Avoid It

October 8, 2018

This week, Jared & Pete talk to Brent Strawn about the Old Testament. They discuss some of the common criticisms of the Old Testament and how the modern Church has over-emphasized the New Testament much to its detriment.

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