1 Defining feminist biblical interpretation
I always start my classes with the slogan, ‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people’. I first heard this definition used by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, but once when tracing back the origins of feminist slogans for an opinion piece in the newspaper, I found that this definition is attributed to Marie Shear in her May–June 1986 review of the Feminist Dictionary in the New Directions for Women feminist newsletter. Shear’s catchy definition of feminism, which for a while erroneously had been attributed to the editors of this dictionary, Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler, travelled the world, becoming a battle cry for equality, justice, and freedom for all (Claassens 2023b).
This most basic definition of feminism – which centres on the recognition of women’s right to be treated with respect – is a good point of entry to consider the expansive contributions by feminist biblical interpreters that, throughout the past decades, have been intent on validating and restoring women’s dignity in a context in which women’s rights have sadly not been recognized as a given (for a discussion of the relationship between human rights and justice, see Justice and Rights). On a scholarly level, Carolyn Sharp’s succinct definition of feminist biblical interpretation, which she most recently employs in her commentary on Jeremiah, further helps to clarify the goals of feminist biblical interpretation as follows:
- ‘to honor all subjects’,
- ‘to interrogate relations of power’, and
- ‘to reform community’ (Sharp 2021: 49; cf. also Sharp 2017: 151).
With this definition in mind, one could thus think of feminist biblical interpreters as curators: much of feminist biblical interpretation in the past has been centred on attending to the missing voices of women and other negated individuals both in the text and its interpretation – collecting, commemorating, and sometimes conjuring up the lost stories and histories of women characters and interpreters rooted in the commitment of inclusivity and equality.
However, beyond drawing attention to what is hidden, bringing out of storage, selecting, and organizing the stories and histories of women hiding in the biblical and socio-historical records, feminist biblical interpreters are also creators, exhibiting a constructive role, generating new knowledge that has shaped the field in new and exciting ways. Over the past decades, feminist interpreters have been applying a range of hermeneutical and exegetical approaches to offer novel interpretations of biblical texts in which female characters feature; but sometimes they have also been reading against the grain and between the lines to imagine women’s voices that are silent, or have been silenced.
Feminist biblical interpretation, moreover, is profoundly concerned with context, cognizant of the challenges faced by particular women in particular communities, which adversely affect their health, safety, and wellbeing. However, as Monica Melanchton has argued,
[t]o 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). (Dempsey et al. 2017: 26).
In this regard, similar to other contextual approaches such as postcolonial and queer biblical interpretation, feminist biblical interpreters are critics. They adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion, probing and challenging the various ways in which power intersects with the performance of gender – in both the biblical text and in our contemporary contexts – which also includes the manifestation of power in interpretative processes that insist on so-called objectivity and neutrality (cf. Sharp 2021: 46–47, 51).
A further distinguishing characteristic of feminist biblical interpretation is its commitment to complexity: it embraces ambiguity, paradox, contradictions, and tensions as a central feature not only of biblical interpretation but also of the world in which we live (Claassens 2023a: 259; Sharp 2017: 151). For feminist biblical interpreters, it is thus essential to ‘resist[s] homogenization’, in the process ‘open[ing] up multiple possibilities rather than shutting them off’ (Dempsey et al. 2017: 26).
Finally, through their writings, teaching, and social engagement, feminist biblical interpreters are committed to cultivating community – quite often, counter communities on the fringes of academia and society at large. They are kindred spirits who are committed as well to reading from the margins, against the grain, and between the lines. Melanchton says it well: to be a feminist is to believe that ‘change and transformation are possible, and works for its possibility at whatever level’ (Dempsey et al. 2017: 26).
2 Mapping the field
Trying to capture the depth and breadth of feminist biblical interpretation over the past forty years truly is impossible. Several introductions and historical treatments of the field of feminist biblical interpretation have already sought to gather and classify the early beginnings of feminist biblical interpretation that includes its correspondence with the early feminist movement, as well as the prominent figures of the feminist biblical interpretation movement who have individually and collectively tried to make a way for themselves in a male-dominated world.
For instance, in the first volume of the expansive Bible and Women project, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (2014a: 11) gives a historical overview of the origins of the feminist biblical interpretation movement. She considers its journey to critiquing the interlocking kyriarchal systems of power, a critique that also increasingly take seriously the importance of intersectionality (which shows how gender intersects with factors such as race, class, sexuality, and imperialism). In this same volume, Judith Plaskow (2014) and Susanne Scholz (2014b) tell the story of feminist biblical scholarship in the United States context – Plaskow focusing on the early period (1970s) and Scholz on the later history (1980s–2000s). Moreover, in her book, Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (2007), Susanne Scholz interviews some of the pioneers of feminist biblical interpretation – including Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Athalya Brenner, Marie-Theres Wacker, and Elsa Tamez – as an example of the embodied nature of interpretation. Scholz’s interviews show how the personal histories and professional struggles and achievements of these early feminist interpreters intersect as, by trial and error, they forged pathways of feminist biblical interpretation in which many of us still follow. Helen Leneman’s chapter  includes more interviews with feminist mothers such as Phyllis Bird, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Esther Fuchs, Carol Meyers, Mieke Bal, Dana Fewell, Athalya Brenner, Carol Fontaine, Toni Craven, and Claudia Camp. However, as several reviewers point out, these lists of feminist mothers being interviewed do not include a single woman of colour – for instance, trailblazers such as Renita Weems and Gale Yee (Dempsey et al. 2017: 11).
In terms of the definition of feminist biblical interpretation cited above, several anthologies have, over the years, sought to gather together contributions of feminist interpreters. In the process, they have not only cultivated a substantial body of work but also forged an alternative community of scholars. By showcasing the diversity of voices and the rich perspectives yielded by feminist approaches to biblical scholarship, these anthologies make an invaluable contribution to setting the parameters of feminist biblical interpretation.
For instance, Athalya Brenner has been responsible for a multivolume Feminist Companion to the Bible, which created space for gathering the work of early feminist scholars on various parts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament since 1993. The first edition was so successful that a second edition followed (twenty volumes in total), including a volume that focuses on ‘Approaches, Methods and Strategies’ (1997). As a whole, the Feminist Companion to the Bible series attests to the growing influence of feminist criticism in biblical studies as scholars, individually and collectively, sought to figure out what this approach is and what it can do. (For a complete list of these volumes, see the publisher’s website: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/feminist-companion-to-the-bible.)
Another early project that brought feminist perspectives into mainstream biblical interpretation is the Women’s Bible Commentary (with editors Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe), which first appeared in 1992, was revised in 1998, and was revised and expanded again in 2012 with Jacqueline Lapsley joining the editorial team (see Newsom, Ringe, and Lapsley 2012). The Women’s Bible Commentary, with short essays on the entire library of the Old and New Testaments, later also including the Apocrypha, offers an excellent resource for demonstrating how feminist interpretation has enriched biblical interpretation in general. In particular, the Women’s Bible Commentary compelled scholars to think how feminist insights could be applied to books that do not have an overt gender focus, such as Joel or Jonah. In addition, its European equivalent, the Compendium of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (edited by Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, published in German in 1998 and translated into English in 2012), has given non-German speaking students and scholars access to the rich conversations taking place in the German world regarding the integration of feminist interpretation with classical exegetical approaches (see Schottroff and Wacker 2012).
These one-volume women’s Bible commentaries fed into the expansive Wisdom Commentary Series spearheaded by Barbara Reid, which sought to offer detailed feminist commentaries on the entire biblical canon. The authors of the respective volumes follow diverse exegetical approaches, giving varied expressions and emphases to the task of writing a commentary from a feminist point of view. But also, in more traditional commentary series, one finds feminist scholars like Carolyn Sharp (Jeremiah 26–52, International Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament [IECOT], 2021), Christl Maier (Jeremiah 1–25, IECOT, 2021), Julia O’Brien (Nahum, Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries [AOTC], 2011), Juliana Claassens (Jonah, Old Testament Library [OTL], Forthcoming), and Rhiannon Graybill (co-author of Jonah, Anchor Bible Commentary, 2023), who have been attempting to bring feminist biblical interpretation into some of the other more mainline commentary series.
The expansive The Bible and Women: Encyclopedia of Exegesis and Cultural History series, with Irmtraud Fischer at the helm, consists of twenty-one volumes covering recent feminist approaches to various parts of the Bible. The series also offers several volumes that specifically focus on the interpretation of the Bible and its history of interpretation throughout the early church, Jewish interpretation, medieval era, and the Reformation. This unique series – which has simultaneously appeared in four languages (English, German, Spanish, Italian) – is intentional about expanding the reach of feminist interpretation but also emphasizes the enduring influence of the Bible in various interpretative contexts throughout the ages.
Finally, Susanne Scholz has been responsible for several projects in which she seeks to define and describe developments in feminist biblical interpretation. For instance, in addition to her Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (2007) referenced above, Scholz and her team of contributors have produced an expansive three-volume compendium entitled Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect (2013–2016). This work seeks to give an overview of what has been done on the various books/literary sections of the Hebrew Bible in the past decades in volume 1 (‘Biblical Books’, 2013), but also on ‘social locations’ (the title of volume 2, 2014a) and the rich diversity of methodological approaches utilized by feminist biblical interpreters (volume 3, ‘Methods’, 2016). More recently, Scholz edited the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible (2020). The handbook more deliberately seeks to show intersections between feminist biblical interpretation and novel approaches to the field – including, for instance, Womanist, queer and trans studies, ecofeminist, and migration theology – in addition to contemplating the role of the Bible in popular culture from a feminist point of view.
These compilations illustrate, in various ways, the depth and breadth of feminist biblical interpretation scholarship since its earliest inception and its coming of age in terms of nuance and scope. What remains consistent throughout these works is the emphasis on liberative readings as set out at the very beginning of the movement by Letty Russell (1977), in her work The Liberating Word, and Phyllis Trible (1973), whose work on ‘Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation’ found expression in the ongoing quest to interrogate power relationships fighting patriarchy, kyriarchy, or heterarchy – both in the text as well as its interpretation.
What is interesting to note in many of the above contributions is the way that these early feminist treatments move beyond merely focusing on women in the Bible. This is evident across the history of feminist biblical interpretation, from the proto-feminist treatment by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Woman’s Bible (1895–1898) to the more in-depth gender-critical analysis that attends to an intersectional understanding of gender, race, and class (Schüssler Fiorenza 2014a: 2–12). It is evident from these various overviews of feminist scholarship regarding the Bible, especially in the more recent compilations, that feminist interpreters utilize a variety of critical hermeneutical and exegetical tools to think of gender as a mode of inquiry when it comes to reading the Bible. Feminist scholars have come to the study of biblical texts utilizing a rich diversity of exegetical approaches associated with feminist biblical interpretation with the tools they have acquired along the way, whether it be more historical or literary, or a focus on the text’s reception history. Different approaches yield different results, making for an even richer exposé of what feminist biblical interpretation can be (Sharp 2017: 151; 2021: 14).
Moreover, these treatments that collect, curate, and contemplate the nature, scope, and significance of feminist biblical interpretation increasingly understand that intersectionality and geography matter. Whereas early feminists were very much focused on white middle-class North American and European positionality, as feminist biblical interpretation was coming of age, feminist scholars increasingly realized that race matters, that class matters, and that geographical matters when it comes to feminist biblical interpretation. In the United States, Womanist and Mujerista interpreters developed their own brand of feminism that, in terms of Alice Walker’s classic definition of Womanism, can be described in terms of the difference between lavender and purple (Gafney 2017: 6). And yet, as evident in Elza Tamez’s description of feminist biblical interpretation in her context of Latin America and the Caribbean (Tamez 2014: 37), Mujerista interpretation is a uniquely United States Hispanic term belonging to a particular generation: it is associated with the work of Ada María Isazi-Díaz, as well as with a new generation of Latina scholars in the United States and in the various locales in Latin America who are finding their own ways to express feminist interpretation of the Bible (see also Theology in Latin America). Moreover, in their respective reviews of Scholz’s Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Retrospect compendium, Wilda Gafney and Monica Melanchton have pointed out that the absence of any Womanist scholars is glaring – as is the lack of attention to female interpreters around the world (Dempsey et al. 2017: 11). The collection of essays on Asian Feminist Biblical Studies, edited by Maggie Low (2023), is an essential corrective that draws our attention to the rich diversity of Asian voices in feminist biblical interpretation: it demonstrates both the geographic and methodological diversity of Asian feminist biblical interpreters that offer new and exciting ways to read the biblical text through a feminist lens.
Similarly, in terms of the intersection with sexual orientation and gender identity, feminist biblical interpretation has been informed – and at times challenged – by queer biblical interpretation, as the LGBTQI+ community has helped feminist interpreters move beyond essentialism and a narrow binary understanding of gender. As evident in postcolonial feminist biblical interpretation, the fruitful insights generated by scholars who take the ensuing impact of empire seriously in communities (whether ancient or contemporary) have helped feminist biblical interpreters to grasp the importance of the intersection of categories of race, class, and geography for a gendered reading of the biblical text (Schüssler Fiorenza 2014a: 12–14).
In different contexts around the globe, feminist scholars have found creative ways to describe the struggles in their own communities that are at times very similar, but also quite different in tone and substance. However, except for the Bible and Women series and Susanne Scholz’s respective projects, which seek to be more global in scope, these attempts to map the field are very much centred on the United States, with only a sprinkling of global figures here and there. For instance, in the first volume of the Bible and Women project, Dora Mbuwayesango (2014) reflects on the origins of feminist biblical interpretation on the African continent, Elsa Tamez (2014) in Latin America, Monica Melanchton (2014b) in Asia, and Mercedes Navarro Puerto (2014) in Southern Europe.
Also, Susanne Scholz has been committed to including various perspectives from different parts of the world, with scholars like Musa Dube (2014) surveying African biblical hermeneutics and Monica Melanchton (2014a) outlining feminist contributions in her South-Asian context. Yet more work remains to be done in bringing the unique representative of feminism to different parts of the world. Yet, in terms of the definition of feminist biblical interpretation introduced in section 1 of this article, there are always other voices that need to be recognized; further power relations, also in particular centres or approaches, that need to be interrogated; and community continuously being constituted, or one could say, reconstituted.
3 Trajectories and trends
From these anthologies and compilations listed above – that seek to define feminist biblical interpretation and compile some, but not all, of the fruits of this interpretative approach these past decades – it is evident that it is impossible to do justice to all the rich treatments and contributions by feminist biblical interpreters around the globe. For the purpose of this encyclopaedia article that also seeks to define, curate, and critically engage with the vast topic of feminist biblical interpretation, I have chosen four themes that one could say are central to feminist biblical interpretation: voice, gender-based violence, agency/resistance, and identity. Grouped around these four themes, this section will provide readers with only a glimpse of what has been done in feminist biblical interpretation, focusing on the last decade or so. In so doing, it will attempt to showcase some of the recent trajectories and trends that this last decade has brought to the fore.
Within each of these themes, I have chosen a couple of examples that best represent a particular theme. Inevitably, like some of the other curators of the field of feminist biblical interpretation cited above, these examples will draw on the people and ideas that have shaped my own work and networks. Given my social location, I will include examples of how these four themes have also found expression in my context of (South) Africa, where I live and teach. In addition, due to my training and research interests, this contribution will naturally lean more toward the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible; however, similar themes and feminist concerns and principles could also be identified in New Testament scholarship.
A couple of observations regarding the choice of these themes are in order. One could imagine the vast contributions of feminist biblical interpreters being organized under any number of different themes; however, given the context where I live and teach, these four were selected for the following reasons.
First, given the South African context with its long history of silencing voices based on race, gender, and class, the theme of giving voice to the voiceless is a critical concern. It one that is shared by postcolonial biblical interpretation, which is intent on resisting all modes of silencing with the subaltern who can and should speak. Second, in light of the fact that South Africa has been dubbed the rape capital of the world, the theme of gender-based violence was essential to address. I have found that when we get to this theme in class, students really start to comprehend the importance of feminist biblical interpretation. Third, despite the widespread reality of individuals devalued based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation having little power and no voice, women and other marginalized individuals still have agency. The theme regarding agency or resistance may help readers grapple with the theme of (relative) power amidst powerlessness. Finally, given an increasing acknowledgment of the importance of intersectionality that has helped feminists comprehend the fluidity of gender construction and the impact of race, class, and sexual identity in how gender is portrayed in the biblical text, identity is highlighted as a category important to feminist biblical interpretation.
The first category of ‘giving voice’ is at the heart of the definition of feminist biblical interpretation referenced above, that is, the desire to honour all subjects – in the words of Johanna van Wijk-Bos’s seminal article, to bring women ‘out of the shadows’ (1988). Feminist interpreters have thus been drawn to stories not just of the patriarchs but also of the mothers of the nation, including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. And – if one takes into consideration the notion of race and class, as some feminist and, in particular, Womanist scholars have done – also the handmaids, Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah, as well as the unnamed slave women of which we read, or do not read, in the biblical text (Dempsey et al. 2017: 67–71; Claassens 2020a). Reading between the lines, and within the cracks and fissures in the text, feminist biblical interpreters have focused on seeing the unseen and hearing into speech those who do not have a voice.
Eve, the paradigmatic female character who is called ‘mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), is an interesting figure with which to note the development of feminist biblical interpretation. Feminist interpreters have done important work in challenging distortions rooted in stereotypical assumptions of women as the weaker sex or as evil, as evident in Gale Yee’s ‘Poor Banished Children of Eve’ (2003). Feminist scholars from a variety of exegetical and hermeneutical approaches have sought to ‘discover, rediscover, and reclaim Eve’ – as shown in the work of, for example, Carol Meyers (1988; 2013), Phyllis Trible (1978), Judith McKinlay (1999), and Lynn Bechtel (1995), all of which are widely read and cited to this day (cf. Claassens 2022: 376–380 for an overview of these groundbreaking works).
In a contribution on ‘The Gendered Life in the Hebrew Bible’ (Claassens 2022), I explore the intersection of trauma and gender in terms of the narrative portrayal of Eve, considering themes such as subjectivity, vulnerability, and relationality for viewing Eve in Genesis 2–4 as a body in pain. For instance, I argue that the judgment regarding suffering involved with giving birth (Gen 3:16) represents the widespread anxiety and fear of dying in childbirth, as well as the maternal grief of the loss of children that has become encapsulated in the image of Rachel weeping for her children (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18). In addition, I demonstrate how one of the clearest expressions of Eve as a body in pain is evident in her portrayal in Genesis 4 as the mother of a slain child, but also the mother of the murderer. Drawing on the imaginative work of Brigitte Kahl, my analysis shows how initially, in Gen 4:1, Eve is shown to participate in patriarchy, celebrating the birth of her firstborn son, Cain. Joyously she exclaims that she has given birth to a man! When Cain kills this ‘nothing’ brother of his (cf. the translation of Abel as derived from the Hebrew hevel, meaning ‘nothingness, vapour’), Eve is portrayed as silent. She is silent also in the rest of the chapter when violence begets violence with Lamech’s revenge (Gen 4:23–24). However, in Eve’s final appearance in Gen 4:25–26, she finally finds her voice; she remembers her slain son Abel and names the terrible thing her little boy man, Cain, had done. Moving from connecting God to the strong man Cain (Gen 4:1) to the helpless brother Abel (Gen 4:25–26), a distinct change has occurred in Eve. According to Kahl, it is only with the birth of Seth ‘that Eve becomes truly the mother of all living (Gen 3:20)’ (Kahl 1999: 28; Claassens 2022: 391).
The richly divergent interpretations produced by feminist biblical interpreters are especially evident with reference to the Book of Ruth, which has attracted a multiplicity of diverse readings showing the various ways the characters can be interpreted. In class, when teaching Ruth and Naomi, I always show cartoonist W. E. Hill’s illustration of an old woman/young woman to demonstrate the importance of ambiguity, contradiction, and multiple ways of perceiving an image or text, which is helpful for considering the various contradictory interpretative possibilities associated with the story of Ruth and Naomi (cf. Lapsley 2006: 102–103; Hill’s ambiguous image, entitled ‘My Wife and My Mother-In-Law’ , can be viewed at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.00175).
For instance, one could think of Ruth and Naomi as exemplary characters, inhabiting a peaceable kingdom: two widows working together to make a way out of no way (Sakenfeld 1999: 8). Or one could perceive their story as one that encourages the reader to truly see the face of the other, respecting the marginalized and dejected (Claassens 2012b). In my book on biblical and contemporary trauma narratives (Claassens 2020b) I return to this story, reading Ruth as a continuation of the troubling account of the Mothers of the Moabites, who in Genesis 19 are portrayed as sleeping with their father, Lot. In conversation with Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop, the story of Ruth might be viewed as an example of a later generation revisiting the haunting memories of past trauma (Claassens 2020b: 25, 46). Interpretations such as these emphasize the theme of healing and restoration of the community – which Jacqueline Lapsley beautifully describes in terms of the image of a tapestry in which the various characters whose lives have unraveled at the start of the narrative are called ‘to pick up the threads of that life and weave them back in community’ (Lapsley 2005: 103, cited in Claassens 2020b: 43).
However, there have also been some more ominous interpretations that focus on Ruth’s identity as a foreigner or the ideal migrant, hence serving as a cautionary tale of the dangers of assimilation and loss of identity as a prerequisite for being accepted in a new country (Honig 1993: 54, 71). Carolyn Sharp (2017: 155–156) views this narrative as a story of exploitation in terms of ‘Ruth’s body as a source of labour’ or as ‘a producer of children’. As she describes the relationship between these women that so often is couched in terms of loyalty or steadfast love, ‘[f]idelity? I see only manipulation, commodification, and erasure’ (2017: 156).
In my context of South Africa, Madipoane Masenya has sought, in her interpretation of the Book of Ruth, to give voice to the real-life experiences of ordinary women in her context who have been struggling with the complex constellation of factors associated with racism, sexism, and classism that combine with some of the oppressive aspects of (African) culture (see also Theology in Africa, section 3). In terms of what she describes as a ‘bosadi’ approach (which draws on the meaning of the North Sotho term for ‘woman’), Masenya seeks to challenge ‘disempowering notions of womanhood as embedded in African cultures’ (2012: 206). Through this lens, Masenya repeatedly returns to the story of Ruth and Naomi: for instance, reading the story of these two widows in the context of poverty, that has hit women especially hard in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa (2004); but also from the perspective of ‘single African Christian women’s lives’ (2017b: 164) as well as in light of the HIV-AIDS pandemic (2009). And in an article that considers the multiple identities of Ruth (2023), Masenya rereads the story of Ruth in terms of the intersection of her identity as a foreigner, as a migrant, and as a widow on a symbolic level as a way for African women to on the one hand ‘to reclaim our heritage and to rise’, while being at the same time in the spirit of Ruth’s ‘easy migration from one country to another’, ‘to be comfortable in our own skins’, hence ‘remaining true to our real selves and the continent that has given birth to us’ while also ‘exchang[ing] ideas with scholars from other global contexts’ (2023: 199).
In light of the increasingly popular phenomenon in (South) Africa of ‘sugar daddies’ or what is called the ‘blesser’, Gerald West and Beverly Haddad (2016) give new significance to the age-disparate relationship between Ruth and Boaz. This aspect of the narrative is particularly troubling when viewed in terms of precarious socio-economic contexts in South Africa in which age-disparate relationships have been shown to be a contributing factor to young women’s increased vulnerability to contracting the HIV virus. Meanwhile, in her article ‘Korean Feminist Reading of the Book of Ruth as a Migrant Queer Family’, Yeong Mee Lee (2023) provides – in addition to her intriguing interpretation of Ruth and Naomi’s non-traditional family arrangement – an overview of Asian feminist voices who have been drawn to the book of Ruth (Lee 2023: 87–90).
Feminist scholars have also been attentive to the minor characters that may not be so minor after all. For instance, Kathleen O’Connor (2006: 16–17) draws our attention to the nameless widow in 2 Kgs 4:1–7 through whose tireless efforts ‘to feed and protect her family, the power of God [is] made manifest’. For O’Connor, this story, which speaks of a widow being encouraged ‘to negotiate her way bravely and freely in the world’, provides (feminist) readers with ‘a model of courage, fidelity, and community building’. Similarly, Gina Hens-Piazza, through her work in The Supporting Cast of the Hebrew Bible (2020) and also her earlier book Nameless, Blameless, and without Shame (2003), draws our attention to seemingly minor characters such as the two women before the king who are accused of eating their children (2 Kgs 6:24–33). Hens-Piazza insists that every character deserves a hearing – a critical perspective also in today’s world, in which gender and class play a determining role in who counts and who not.
In terms of hearing the voices of characters not typically heard, Funlola Olojede (2021), another interpreter from South Africa (originally from Nigeria), has written beautifully regarding the power of storytelling to bring the voiceless voices to our attention in one of the publications emerging out of the labours of the Gender Unit. For instance, in her treatment of daughters of Zelophehad as narrated in Numbers 27, she gives voice not only to the daughters who stood up for their rights but also to the number of different feminist scholars who have written on this story. Similarly, in her contribution to Feminist Frameworks, Olojede (2017) also seeks to give voice to Moses’ Cushite wife, helping us to think about Miriam’s failure to understand the importance of solidarity amongst sisters-in-law – her ‘idea of sisterhood’ not being able to ‘accommodate race or the Other’ (2017: 138). As Olojede asks:
How does Moses’s Cushite wife then feel, seeing that she is not even worthy enough to appear on the scene or elsewhere in the text? She lurks in the shadows, confined to a liminal space in which she remains unseen, unheard, excluded, and scorned even by a fellow sister. (Ọlọjẹde 2017: 138)
Olojede takes this fraught relationship between sisters-in-law further as a metaphor for thinking about contemporary relationships between Black and white feminists, pondering whether Miriam does not
epitomize the dominant feminist voice, while the voice of Moses’s Cushite wife who remains in the shadows continues to be repressed? In terms of opportunities for publications, employment, and other academic privileges, does Miriam still frown at Moses’s Ethiopian wife? (Ọlọjẹde 2017: 141)
In her essay that offers an overview of Asian feminist voices in her context of Hong Kong, Sonia Kwog Wong gives voice to Asian scholars who have given voice not only to the unseen, unheard characters in the biblical text but also the rarely noticed members of the community from which they write. For instance, Wong (2023: 35–36) draws attention to Wai Ching Angela Wong’s essay ‘“Same Bed, Different Dreams”: An Engendered Reading of Families in Migration in Genesis and Hong Kong’ (2010), which draws an intriguing reading of the theme of migrants’ dreams in the Ancestral narratives (Gen 15:12–16; 20:1–18; 28:10–22; 31:10–13; 31:24), as well as a Chinese novel The Flying Carpet by Xixi (1996). In this ‘cross-textual reading’, the notion of ‘dreams’ serves as a ‘useful literary device to convey the migrants’ aspiration for upward mobility while also reflecting their resistance and struggles for survival’ (Wong 2023: 36).
Finally, this feminist principle of giving voice to the text’s unnamed, unseen, unheard characters morphs into the next theme important to feminist biblical interpretation, that is, facing gender-based violence. For instance, hidden in the story of Esther and Vashti (the book of Esther), one encounters traces of a great many virgin girls whose sole purpose was to pleasure the king while he searched for a new queen after Vashti was de-crowned. Reading the book of Esther through the lens of sex trafficking, Ericka Dunbar (2019: 33) describes these virgin girls as ‘enter[ing] the story world as they are transported from their native homes to the king’s palace for the purpose of sex’. The feminist biblical interpreter is thus not only concerned with giving voice to those characters in the text – and the world – who are silent and silenced due to the intersection of gender, race, and class, but also to resist wherever violence is normalized through the patriarchal and imperial structures informing the biblical writings.
3.2 Gender-based violence
Feminist biblical interpreters have, for the past four decades, sought to interrogate what famously has been described by Phyllis Trible (1984) as ‘Texts of Terror’: the manifold stories of rape and sexual violence that are to be found in particular in the Hebrew Bible.
Several collections of essays have been published in recent years that seek to consider the enduring influence of the Bible’s troubling relationship with (gender-based) violence and what has been described as rape culture. This refers to the tendency to normalize gender-based violence in all spheres of societies around the world which has been brought to the fore with the #MeToo movement, as well as protest movements such as #EndRapeCulture or #TakeBackTheNight (Claassens 2019). Unleashing the power of narratives to create the space for moral reflection, feminist scholars have sought to raise awareness of the pervasive reality of gender-based violence, giving voice to the voiceless and considering creative avenues for resistance and transformative change.
One story of rape in the Hebrew Bible that, in particular, has attracted the attention of feminist scholars is the rape of Dinah, as told in Genesis 34. The subject of vigorous debate, one finds in the plethora of interpretations by numerous scholars, many of whom identify as feminist biblical interpreters, readings that reflect divergent opinions regarding whether Dinah was a victim or an agent; whether Genesis 34 really is a love story gone wrong or a story in which the rape of Dinah led to the further violation (rape) of the people of Shechem (see Claassens 2020b: 99–101 for an overview of these positions by, e.g., Scholz 1998; Fewell and Gunn 1991; and Van Wolde 2002). From these various interpretative possibilities, it is evident that preconceived ideas and cultural assumptions of (feminist) interpreters very much inform what one highlights in the text, where one’s sympathies lie, and whom one blames (Scholz 1999: 195).
In this regard, Susanne Scholz, who has written extensively on this text, reads Dinah’s humiliation, objectification, and lack of consent into contemporary manifestations of gender-based violence. For instance, in her numerous essays on Dinah gathered in the collection of essays, The Bible as Political Artifact, Scholz (2017b) considers how the story of the rape of Dinah in the context of Title Nine in the United States draws our attention to the prevalence of rape culture on college campuses. And in another article in this volume, Scholz (2017a) brings the story of the rape of Dinah into conversation with a contemporary film La Genèse by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a film maker from Mali, who sets the story of Dinah in an African context. Although in this film version Dinah plays a more prominent role, Dinah is portrayed as the one who initiates a sexual relationship with Shechem and is hence held responsible for her violation. Scholz also points out that a significant lacuna in the biblical text is the notable absence of any reference to the terrible atrocities of gender-based violence associated with war, such as has been prevalent in, e.g., Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone (Scholz 2017a: 125).
Moreover, feminist scholars like Caroline Blyth have sought to give voice to Dinah, and also to other rape victims, by invoking the testimonies of contemporary rape survivors, whom Blyth describes as Dinah’s silent sisters whose voices have not been heard (Blyth 2009: 486, 491). In my own work on trauma narratives, I have brought into conversation the story of Dinah’s violation with the contemporary novel Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018), which portrays the stalking of the young female narrator in the context of the collective trauma experienced by the people of Northern Ireland (Claassens 2020b: 98–126). This creative engagement with Milkman not only helps one imagine what a young woman who has fallen victim to sexual violation might think and feel, but also illuminates the multiple levels of trauma represented in Genesis 34. On the one hand, there is an individual story of sexual violation experienced by Dinah; however, the story of the rape of Dinah may also represent the vulnerability of a nation that feels as vulnerable as a violated woman (Claassens 2020b: 102). This interplay between individual and collective trauma – and particularly the symbolic nature of gender-based violence as a rhetorical strategy to capture the violence associated with the Babylonian invasion and exile experienced by the people of Jerusalem, imaged as a violated Daughter Zion – has been documented by feminist scholars such as Elizabeth Boase (2016), Christl Maier (2011), and Deryn Guest (1999). (For trauma-informed approaches to biblical hermeneutics within a Christian theological context, see Trauma Theology.)
Read through a postcolonial feminist lens, Musa Dube (2017) argues that the relationship between Shechem and Dinah in Dube’s interpretative context of colonized (Southern) Africa could be read as an interethnic encounter. Given the close association of gender, race, class, and sexual violence in colonial contexts, Dube argues that Shechem is portrayed as a colonized man targeting the body of a female colonizer (cf. also Graybill 2021: 42). As Dube describes ‘the ideology of colonial contact zone narratives’, which she proposes also inform the Dinah story:
They depict natives as people with some sexual passions that are uncontrollable. The indigenous people are also depicted as desiring/loving traveling colonial heroes as attested by their yearning for their wives and the amount of wealth they give to the brother/husband. Consistent with the dynamic tension of the contact zone colonial ideology, their desire to have and to hold the body of the woman of the colonial travelers is denied. (Dube 2017: 53)
Another creative engagement with the theme of gender-based violence in the Hebrew Bible is Rhiannon Graybill’s innovative monograph, Texts after Terror (2021). As the title suggests, this work is in conversation with Phyllis Trible’s seminal Texts of Terror (1984). Employing the colloquial terms ‘fuzzy’, ‘messy’, and ‘icky’, Graybill (2021: 8–17) facilitates a creative conversation between a number of biblical stories of rape and contemporary novels to show how complexity and ambiguity are central to telling a rape story and its aftermath, particularly when it comes to questions of consent and how one thinks of victimhood and agency (cf. her description of the rape of Dinah as a good example of ‘fuzzy’ that explains the vastly different interpretations generated by this text, some of which were referenced above). Citing Trible’s classic quote that ‘sad stories do not have happy endings’ (Trible 1984: 2), Graybill (2021: 150–152) turns our attention to the unhappy readers of sad stories. Reading and dealing with all the fuzziness, messiness, and ickiness of rape stories imitating life helps us move ‘after terror’ (Graybill 2021: 2, 146–147).
In terms of an intersectional understanding of gender, Wilda Gafney once more draws our attention to the importance of race and class. For instance, she raises awareness of the violation of the slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah, which receives new significance in the context of slavery that continues to stain the history of the American people. Gafney describes Bilhah and Zilpah as ‘casualties of nation building’ when she writes that ‘through the wombs of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel’s people were birthed by choice and by force’ (Dempsey et al. 2017: 70).
Also, the story of ‘the trafficked princesses’, which tells of the capture of the royal princesses in Jeremiah 40–44, is read by Gafney through the lens of the #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName campaigns. In so doing, Gafney connects the pain many Black women in the United States continue to experience by being overlooked or only regarded in terms of their sexual value with the plight of these unnamed/unnoticed princesses (Gafney 2016; cf. also Claassens 2019). Indeed, this very minor biblical story of a group of women, whose silence and lack of agency as they are passed along from one male leader to the next, could quite easily be missed (cf. the renegade leader Ishmael, who takes members of the Judean king’s household captive and sends them into exile to Ammon [Jer 41:10]; and Johanan, who ‘liberates’ the captives by leading the royal princesses and other survivors of the Mizpah massacre to Egypt [Jer 43:4–7]). However, the hidden story of the plight of the trafficked princesses illustrates the ability of stories to forge a common connection rooted in a shared sense of suffering. This story demonstrates how gender-based violence then and now forms an integral part of imperial subjugation and political power plays that often occur in wars between men.
In addition, Madipoane Masenya also attends to the pervasive reality of those who find themselves at the bottom of the ladder to be trapped in the power dynamics between more and less powerful men, who nonetheless hold power over victimized (female) bodies. In her essay on hegemonic masculinities in the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11), Bathsheba represents, for Masenya, (South) African women who find themselves ‘on account of the harsh migrant labour policies’, doing whatever they can to survive ‘in the absence of a husband who had to depart (was sent out) to do male business for the welfare of both his family’ (2019: 414). These women often fell prey to more powerful men, their bodies being controlled by those in positions of influence (2019: 402). At the same time, Masenya reminds us that neither Bathsheba nor the Black women and men in her context are powerless but instead ‘have the capacity to navigate life with success even as they have the capacity to defy, either covertly or overtly, those who are more powerful than they are’ (2019: 415).
From an Asian feminist point of view, Sonia Kwok Wong (2023: 56–57) focuses on the theme of nakedness and exposure as a means of humiliation in Leviticus 18 and 20, which she relates to the phenomenon of public stripping in the context of adultery that is used to humiliate the mistress. The importance of an intersectional understanding of gender is evident in that the assailant wife, who is considered to be the real victim, plays an active role in perpetrating violence, with videos being placed on social media to further the public humiliation.
Finally, Amy Cottrill draws our attention to a broader understanding of violence as structural violence. For instance, Cottrill (2021: 63) reflects on the image of Sisera’s mother in the window (Judg 5:28–30), which serves as a powerful metaphor that helps us to consider the widespread effects of the violence of war, in which rape has become so normalized that the general’s mother assumes that this is what is responsible for her son’s delay (cf. also Sakenfeld 1997; 2008: 12–13). In addition, returning once more to the story of Ruth, which was highlighted earlier as a prime example of generating greatly diverse (feminist) interpretations, Cottrill reads this story also in terms of violence; however, in terms of the slow violence associated with poverty and as an example of the looming effects of a devastating environmental crisis that will increasingly be yielding what are known as environmental refugees (Cottrill 2021: 41).
A key theme in feminist biblical interpretation regards women’s agency in the context of subjugation. Even in situations of profound powerlessness, dehumanization, and violence, women and other vulnerable entities possess power that manifests itself in acts of resistance. In my monograph, Claiming Her Dignity (2016), I explore this theme of female agency in a number of stories of women resisting the violence of war; the violence of rape; the violence of poverty or precarity; and the violence of heterarchy – a term coined by Carol Meyers to reflect the complex intersectional relations of power associated with patriarchy (cf. also Schüssler Fiorenza’s comparative term ‘kyriarchy’). These stories testify to the women’s tenacity and resilience, that they ‘did not just passively accept the status quo’ but by means of their resistance, they fought back, transcended their suffering and, ‘in the process, moving from being a victim to becoming an agent’ (Claassens 2016: 14).
A central theme in this regard is the notion of lament, which has often been the only avenue for resistance open to women in desperate situations. From the wailing women in Jeremiah 9 whose laments capture the grief of a nation in the face of devastating imperial violence (Claassens 2010; 2012a: 26–30), to Hagar’s tears in the wilderness (Gen 16), to Rizpah’s mourning her lost sons (2 Sam 21), to Rachel’s cries in the face of reproductive loss (Jer 31) that has come to represent the suffering of the community as a whole, lament constitutes a clear sign of refusal not to acquiesce to one’s circumstances, no matter how seemingly insurmountable (Claassens 2016: 4–16, 106–120; Claassens 2020b: 61–62).
The motif of Daughter Zion has offered feminist scholars the opportunity to explore this connection between lament and resistance. Her bitter weeping and honest challenge to God regarding the lack of a comforter and the suffering of her children (cf. Lam 1:16; 2:18–19) has led Carleen Mandolfo (2007: 85) to describe Daughter Zion as one of ‘the Bible’s most intrepid female voices of resistance’. Clearly expressing her subjectivity, Daughter Zion protests the harmful stereotypical constructions of her. In the process, she not only helps future generations to voice their suffering but also starts challenging the prevailing system of theodicy that assumes such an easy conflation of God, sin, and suffering coupled with self-blame as a coping strategy as highlighted for us by trauma theorists (O’Connor 2014: 217; Frechette 2015: 33).
A further image associated with female agency is that of the trickster, which has been a popular theme in feminist biblical interpretation. From Johanna Van Wijk-Bos’s early interpretation of Ruth and Tamar of Genesis 38 (1988; see section 3.1) to Jacqueline Lapsley’s portrayal of Rachel’s double-voiced discourse in Genesis 31 after she and her sister Leah took their household gods (see the double meaning of the phrase used by Rachel ‘the way of women is upon me so I cannot rise before you’ in Gen 31:35), female characters found creative ways to outwit and outsmart those who hold power over them (Lapsley 2005: 27–33).
In this regard, Melissa Jackson (2012), in her book on comedy and feminist biblical interpretation in the Hebrew Bible, describes the trickster’s strategic significance as one of the few options available to women and marginalized people who found themselves in situations of subjugation. She argues:
For a society that saw itself as different and superior and chosen, yet marginalized and oppressed within its wider culture, the trickster offers what successful comedy offers: triumph, defense, escape, survival. (Jackson 2012: 60)
Fellow South African Charlene van der Walt takes this idea of the trickster further when she applies this image to her experience of coming out/not coming out in a traditional heteronormative church context. She finds a kindred spirit in Tamar’s actions of revealing and concealing associated with the motif of changing one’s clothes that ultimately forces Judah to see, really see her, and to act in justice that almost alludes Tamar. As van der Walt argues:
To a certain extent, Tamar is left with no other choice but to explore, albeit it devious, alternative options. The story thus illustrates that where no other means are possible (where people are rendered voiceless and powerless, nullified by the social structure), trickery is inevitable. (Van der Walt 2015: 69)
It also is significant how many of the treatments of female agency focus on the life-giving rather than life-denying nature of women’s resistance in biblical narratives. This is particularly clear in the example of the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who in Exodus 1 resist the Pharoah’s order to kill the Israelite baby boys. Their courage not only in letting the babies live but moreover defending their actions in a personal encounter with the Pharoah have been noted by feminist scholars. For Jacqueline Lapsley, the midwives and the other women in Exodus 1–2 (Moses’ mother, sister, and the Pharaoh’s daughter) form ‘a cooperative network of care and nurture of those most vulnerable to violence’ that prefigures God’s deliverance, which only commences at the end of Exodus 2 when God is said to hear and see and know the suffering of the people (Lapsley 2005: 85, 87). Mercy Amba Oduyoye (2002: 6), the mother of African women’s theology, hails these midwives’ compassion, competency, and wisdom as they ‘refused to be coopted by the oppressor’. Also, Madipoane Masenya (2002: 111) is drawn to this story in her Bosadi reading of Exod 1:1–2:10, saying that the courage of the midwives reminds her of a proverb in her Northern Sotho context: ‘Mmago ngwana o swara thipa ka bogaleng (The mother of the child holds the sharp part of the knife)’. She argues that this proverb communicates the very particular, though also universal truth ‘that in times of trouble, it is the mother of the child who will see to it that her child gets out of trouble’.
Once more, the way this female resistance is narrated in the biblical text is complex. Renita Weems (1992) has long since challenged us to consider the gender and racial stereotypes in this narrative when boys, quite ironically, are thought to be more of a threat to the empire than girls. Or even worse, in the statement that Israelite women are not like Egyptian women but that they are ‘animal like’, or as Lapsley (2005: 73) describes it, ‘they swarm’, or one could say ‘they procreate like bunnies’. The midwives use these gender and racial stereotypes to play on the king’s sentiments, thus ‘playing’ the king to save themselves and their future families. While Weems is sceptical whether this story could be used as ‘a positive example’ in the struggle of women and minorities for liberation, Masenya (2002: 108) argues that despite the patriarchal and racist underpinnings of the phrase ‘... but you shall let every girl live’, ‘if reread and reheard from a Bosadi point of view’, these words can be used against the Pharoah and could well ‘have the capacity to empower women’.
Another example of the life-giving nature of female resistance is Abigail’s act of providing food to the bloodthirsty David and the group of men who had gathered in 1 Samuel 25. She does this not only to ensure the survival of her own family but also, in the process, feeds the disenfranchised whose destitution threatened the safety of the entire community (Claassens 2017). It is no wonder that Abigail’s actions to avert a war have been taken as a symbol of wisdom, further embodied in the image of Woman Wisdom hosting a banquet in Proverbs 9 (McKinlay 1999). And yet, Amy Cottrill (2021: 144–145) reflects on the complexity of women’s resistance within a patriarchal context, according to which women and other minorities who find themselves in proximity to violence have learned to embrace what she describes as ‘poisonous knowledge’, that is, the innate sense that one sometimes must utilize the language and the gestures of those in power to survive. Cottrill describes Abigail’s submissive language in response to David ‘as the result of what seems to be a lifetime of learning how to recognize, react, and act effectively in a matter of moments and in the presence of a violent and powerful man’. Having lived a life with a fool of a man (cf. the meaning of Nabal’s name), ‘in a state of violent potential’, as Cottrill says so well, has ‘seeped into her body and mind, shaping her insights and responses’ (2021: 145). It is the ‘kind of violence that was’, and still is today, ‘simply there in the air that women breathed’. And it is ‘the violence of knowing and recognizing the fragility of volatile men who have power’ (2021: 146; cf. also Claassens 2016: 149).
Furthermore, the complexity associated with female resistance is evident in the ever-so-brief appearance of Queen Vashti (book of Esther), which serves as a setup for the story of the Jewish orphan girl Esther who would become a Persian queen. Vasthi has been hailed by some feminist scholars as a model of resistance, refusing to subject herself to being paraded before her intoxicated husband and his equally drunken friends. However, this story is also about the consequences of such resistance, as Vashti is banished from the court and the rest of the book of Esther (Claassens and Gouws 2014: 474–476).
Madipoane Masenya reflects on Vashti’s resistance in a South African context in which many African women are exceedingly vulnerable in a context in which HIV-AIDS is, to a large extent, a gendered pandemic due to a wide range of factors – including harmful cultural and religious practices associated with the unfortunate link between patriarchy, colonization, and religion (2017a: 538). Masenya points out that, as a queen, Vashti was an upper-class, affluent woman who, as a result, could ‘speak her mind and even dare to refuse to build a kraal around the king’s voice’. However, reading the story of Vashti’s resistance in the context of HIV-AIDS, Masenya wonders,
How many poor African women could dare to take their cue from Vashti's courage, and dare not to support their husbands (read: kings), even if their behaviour, especially in light of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, could be out of line? How many poor women can dare to negotiate safe sex? (2017a: 540).
Masenya’s interpretation helps us see that women’s agency looks different in different places and is very much informed, or impeded, by factors such as race, class, and social location. Nevertheless, as evident in the examples of women resisting situations of violence, precarity, and subjugation cited above, they find a way to bring life for themselves and those around them.
A final concern significant to feminist biblical interpretation regards the persuasion that identity constructions in the biblical text, as in life, are more fluid and complex than narrow binary categorizations of male/female, white/Black, heteronormative/everyone else on the LGBTQI+ spectrum. In this regard, feminist biblical interpretation has benefited from its collaboration with approaches that take the intersection of race, class, and sexual orientation seriously in their efforts to move beyond the binary (Schüssler Fiorenza 2014a: 6–9).
For instance, Asian feminist interpreters have helped us to consider the intersection between gender and ethnicity, which often is blurred – both in the biblical text as well in many of the interpretative contexts that inform the interpretations featured in this essay. For instance, in her Dalit reading of Potiphar’s wife, Sweety Helen Chukka (2021: 147–148) expounds on the ambiguity associated with the ethnic identity of Zuleika – as she calls the quintessential foreign woman in the Joseph narrative (Gen 39), inspired by the name the rich Muslim tradition has given her. Drawing attention to the way Zuleika is Othered by the narrator and interpreters, reviled and degraded in terms of sexual and ethnic stereotypes, Chukka (2021: 159) seeks to read with compassion, restoring respect for this biblical character whose ‘literary sexual exploitation’ can be said to be reminiscent of the sexual degradation experienced by many Dalit women in her context of India (see also Theology in India). Also, Gale Yee (2022: 245, 251–253) offers a minoritized reading of the story of Jezebel, whose depiction as ‘the shameless, scheming, homicidal’ foreign woman is reminiscent of the Asian-American stereotypical figure of the Dragon Lady, which in the American mindset has come to represent a threat to male hierarchies with her ‘beauty, sexual ruthlessness and cruelty’ (Yee 2022: 252).
Several gendered metaphors in the biblical text have been conducive to troubling, expanding, blurring, and undoing gender constructions and roles. For instance, the portrayal of female warriors, such as Deborah and Jael, in Judges 4–5 is a classic example of challenging or undoing narrow gender categories. The earliest feminist interpreters have highlighted the gender reversal underlying this story, proposing how Jael’s tent peg serves as a phallic symbol and her act of killing Sisera as an example of reverse rape (Niditch 1999). Gale Yee (1993: 105), in particular, explores the breaking of norms of women as weak, nonviolent, and submissive, with the woman warrior emerging as a liminal figure, ‘neither female nor male as these are customarily defined, although she shares qualities of each’. In addition, Deryn Guest (2011: 26, 30) further troubles this story as she argues that ‘Jael is a figure who unsettles and destabilizes’, who, in the process, inadvertently challenges the hierarchical structures thought to be set in stone.
In the context of South Africa, Charlene Van der Walt (2017) finds helpful this blurring of gender categories concerning this image of the woman warrior Jael as she reads the story of Jael as a warrior together with the portrayal of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the cinematic version of The Long Walk to Freedom (2013). Inspired by the story of Jael that troubles narrow gendered lines, Van der Walt finds new significance in the portrayal of Winnie as a single mother and mother of the nation who challenges the complex gender and racial expectations and norms of her day (2017: 127).
In terms of a postcolonial feminist perspective, Musa Dube takes up the story of another female warrior in the form of Judith, another femme fatale who uses her feminist wiles first to seduce Holoferness and then to cut off his head as an act of anti-imperialism. Dube (2006: 152) describes Judith as ‘a champion in resisting imperialism’, arguing that ‘Judith demonstrates unwavering anger against imperialist structures that have condemned her people and her land to gross injustice, facing either the surrender of all human dignity or death’.
Dube (2006: 156) imagines Judith in conversation with another story that, on a symbolic level, may represent land. In her interpretation, Judith and Rahab are seen ‘bump[ing] into each other outside the city, and “both women are startled to see the self reflected in the other’s face”’. Whereas Rahab, representing Jericho and Canaan, lives up to her profession as a sex worker and is entered/taken by invading people, the beautiful Judith – who quite literally cuts off the head of the imperial representative – signifies Israel, a land desired and invaded but who refuses to be taken.
This blurring of gender categories also extends to the metaphor of a woman in labour. This image, in the context of the devastating trauma inflicted by the invading armies of the Babylonian Empire, is used particularly in the book of Jeremiah (4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6) as a way to express the extreme vulnerability and anxiety of a people who felt like a woman trapped in labour without end. These images of women in labour are applied to warriors who ought to have been strong, so conveying just how dire the situation is in which the people of Judah found themselves (Claassens 2021: 321; cf. also Claassens 2013). Conversely, in several ancient Near Eastern texts, women in labour are often also considered warriors, bestowing associations of strength and power on the birthing process amidst vulnerability while conscious of the dangers of childbirth (Bergmann 2007: 655–666).
Feminist biblical interpreters have been interested in considering how Israel used these images that merge vulnerability and strength to capture, on a collective level, their experience of living in the shadow of one superpower after another. Like the image of the violated woman in the story of Dinah or in Daughter Zion in the book of Lamentations, the image of a woman in labour and the female warrior served as a way to capture the profound sense of feeling vulnerable in the face of being invaded by enemy forces. However, on the other hand, stories like that of a female warrior who fights back function on a symbolic level as a compelling symbol of power amidst vulnerability.
So it is significant how, especially in Deutero-Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42:13–14), one finds examples of the blurring of gendered categories when God is portrayed simultaneously as a mighty warrior and as a woman in labour (and also a nurturing mother in Isa 45:9–10; 49:13–15). This image functions as a way to convey Deutero-Isaiah’s overall message of restoration and renewal (Claassens 2012a: 49–63; Dille 2004). (See also my monograph, Mourner, Mother, Midwife, that explores female metaphors for God as liberator [Claassens 2012a: 41–63].)
This blurring of gender categories, which has been taken to represent the experience of vulnerability and resolve of the people of Judah in the time during and after the exile, can also be said to extend to the portrayal of the prophetic body that is rendered fluid (Claassens 2023c). For instance, Rhiannon Graybill (2016: 15) demonstrates how the prophet Jeremiah encapsulates traditionally male- and female-gendered expressions in the prophetic body to help us embrace a more fluid understanding of gender. In this regard, Graybill (2016) argues regarding the presence of the language of lament or weeping that typically has been associated with females in the book of Jeremiah (cf. the wailing women/weeping prophet/weeping God), Jeremiah subverts the gender construction of its time ‘by offering an alternate, nonmasculine gender performance through sound’ (2016: 15).
Also for Corrine Carvalho, the blurring of gendered categories in the book of Jeremiah offers rich possibilities for imagining both the trauma experienced by the community as well as the hope for restoration. For Carvalho, the ‘wounded male body’ of the prophet Jeremiah serves as a bridge between the suffering of the community as well ‘as a symbol of divine revelation’ (Carvalho 2019: 617; cf. also Graybill 2016: 11–13). It is thus not surprising that a female metaphor of a Mourner God (Jer 8:22–9:1), who calls upon the wailing women (Jer 9:17–20) to mourn the loss of life, livelihood, and land, is such an important image that brings together the themes introduced above: giving voice, facing violence, and reclaiming resistance as key principles of feminist biblical interpretation.
In the past decades, the field of feminist biblical interpretation has grown from a few individual scholars who have sought to apply to the Bible the feminist principles outlined above (see section 1) so that their voices could be heard; so that they could challenge the power relations in academic institutions, places of worship, homes, and the society at large; and so they could, in the process, cultivate a community of kindred spirits.
What is presented here is just a small sample of the rich legacy offered by feminist biblical interpreters who have written on all the books of the Bible and the Apocrypha, employing a wide range of exegetical approaches and hermeneutical frameworks, and by means of their labours definitively changed the face of the field. All of these feminist scholars also have students, and students of students, so continuing the process of cultivating the next generation of feminist scholars who come with renewed energy and who will write the next instalment of what it is that feminist biblical interpretation is and does.
What was offered here in this particular exploration, therefore, is by no means exhaustive, and as noted in section 1, it is very much an embodied reader representing my own positionality as a South African feminist scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the networks I represent. Nevertheless, this process of feminist biblical interpretation as set out in this article opens up avenues for further exploration in other areas, most notably the New Testament, in which feminist biblical interpretation has taken its own unique direction. A very few suggestions that align with the themes highlighted in this essay are as follows.
One could think of the presence of the five women (Rahab, Ruth, Tamar, Bathsheba, and Mary) that have found their way into the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, which constitutes a good example of the Matthean writer giving voice to these women as well as by feminist interpreters to come. See, for example, the essential essay by Jane Schaberg (2005), as well as the monograph by Anne Clements (2014). Representing some very different contexts are the treatments by Margaret Aymer, who gives voice to the ‘Outrageous, Audacious, Courageous, Willful’ slave girl in Acts 12 (2016), and Yak-hwee Tan (2023), who in her Singaporean reading of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John (John 13:31–16:33) draws our attention to the faceless, invisible, voiceless female disciples who also formed part of the crowd listening to Jesus’ last address.
Several scholars have been drawn to the agency exhibited by the Syro-Phoenician woman who, in Mark 7:24–30 (also Matt 15:21–28), is shown to be talking back to Jesus. For instance, both Mitzi Smith (2016) and Hisako Kinukawa (2023) employ this story to consider the theme of female resistance against empire in their respective contexts. For instance, Smith uses this story to challenge police brutality that has informed the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the USA. Kinukawa contemplates the Syro-Phoenician woman’s resistance amidst the ongoing imperial presence of the Japanese empire that has had far-reaching implications for its neighboring countries (cf. also the collection of essays on Jesus and the Samaritan women [John 4] in the volume on Reading Biblical Texts Together, edited by Benny Liew and Fernando Segovia, 2022).
Beyond the gains made and the wealth of interpretations mentioned and those sadly omitted, there continues work to be done in being earnest in hearing all voices and interrogating power relations within the guild as feminist biblical interpreters work closely with, and learn from, other contextual approaches, such as Womanist, queer, and postcolonial feminist biblical interpretation. Additionally, it continues to be important to find ways to tap into networks such as the Circle of Concerned African Women theologians, not only to be aware of the lived experiences of women around the world but also to see the creative interpretative strategies scholars and ordinary readers engage in to yield new insights further to enrich the already rich field of feminist biblical interpretation.