Friday, January 29, 2021

Key Terms in Womanist Bible Interpretation

This is a glossary I have put together with definitions of some of the key terms that are frequently used in womanist biblical interpretation. I begin with "feminist", "womanist", and "womanism", and the rest of the list will be alphabetical.

Feminist / Feminism -  Dr. Nyasha Junior defines a feminist as someone who supports the equality of men and women and works to make that reality, ending women’s subordination. She says a feminist approach exposes and critiques the patriarchy and focuses on women’s experiences. However some African American women do not use the word “feminist” to describe themselves because they see that word as wrapped up in white feminism, more specifically for rich, heterosexual white women. This kind of feminism ignores dynamics of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, etc. (Kindle Loc 132).

Womanist - Alice Walker published In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose in 1983. It is at the beginning of that collection where she gives a four-part definition of “womanist.” 

  1. The first part describes a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” and explains how the term came from a “black folk expression” when an adult would say a girl was acting “womanish” (like a woman), “acting grown-up” or “trying to be grown” (xi). 
  2. Part two of the definition says, “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility...  and women’s strength….  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. [...] Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time” (xi). 
  3. Part three is more poetic, simply saying that a womanist “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” (xi).
  4. Part four goes beyond part one saying “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender” (xii.).

Womanism - Womanism gets its name and guiding interpretive practices from Alice Walker’s definition of womanist. Dr. Wil Gafney says, “most simply, womanism is black women’s feminism.” But it sets itself apart from the “dominant-culture feminism” which is usually “distorted by racism and classism and marginalizes womanism, womanists, and women of color” (6). Womanism came on the scene as Black women’s “intellectual and interpretive response to racism and classism in feminism and its articulation and in response to sexism in black liberationist thought” (6). So while womanism includes aspects of feminism and the Black liberation movement, it is also more complex and intersectional. For Gafney, “Womanism is committed to the wholeness and flourishing of the entire community” (7). Of course, just as feminist approaches are diverse, so are womanist approaches. 

Womanist biblical interpretation applies this intersectional lens to the biblical text, analyzing multiple, intertwined oppressions as mentioned above (racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism, etc.). And womanist approaches also start with Black women's experiences as part of their framework for analysis and interpretation. Just A Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (1988) by Renita Weems was one of the earliest publications explicitly using a womanist approach to biblical interpretation. 


Exegesis - Exegesis is critical explanation or interpretation of a text, making meaning of the text. The verb form is "exegete", to expound or interpret a text.

Hermeneutic - A hermeneutic is a kind of framework for how we establish what we claim to know when interpreting texts. For hermeneutics engaging the Bible we ask questions such as: What is the Bible? Is it authoritative? How? Is it divinely inspired? How? How do you evaluate whether an interpretation is good or bad? What kinds of details are important to you? What is the goal of your interpretation? (I wrote those questions down in my notes from my class on Torah and Former Prophets with Dr. Justin Reed. You can listen to some of his brilliant talks on YouTube. I highly recommend this one on The Consequences of Biblical Interpretation.)

Interpretation (and Translation as Interpretation) - Interpretation is what we understand a text to mean. Wil Gafney has an Appendix in Womanist Midrash on translation as interpretation. Gafney defines translation as “art and science, the product of rendering words from one language into another [...] an act of poiesis" (Kindle Loc 6131). Poiesis comes from a Greek verb which means "to make", as in the creation of poetry. Despite what some may try to say, translation is not neutral and objective any more so than reading and interpreting can be done in an objective manner. When we read, we interpret, we make meaning of the text, and the same things happen when translating the text. Gafney says "interpretation and translation are not polar opposites but two sides of the same coin" (Loc 6147). Of course the translator does not invent new text out of nothing, but the translation is made out of the elements of texts: "communication, language, and ideas" (Loc 6176). There is also the importance of who is doing the translating. As Gafney points out, men (usually white men) are still "overwhelmingly responsible for major versions of the Bible used in congregations and classrooms, even when women are invited (note the passive) to participate" (Loc 6183). [This is why it is significant that Phyllis A Bird, J. Cheryl Exum, Katharine D. Sakenfeld, and Lucetta Mowry were included on the Bible translating committee for the New Revised Standard Version (1974-1988)]

Gafney also points out that Bible translators have mostly been white, therefore, she writes, "this means that until very recently, the Bibles that hold authority in my religious and academic worlds were produced by scholars who do not look like me, do not share my culture, and are part of a culture that has been openly hostile to the scholastic capacity, literary achievements, and even moral agency of my people" (Loc 6190).

Intersectionality -  This term was first used by legal scholar, KimberlĂ© Williams Crenshaw, and it refers to the ways various oppressions intersect and overlap. These areas of oppression include race, class, gender, sexuality, and other issues as “interlocking elements” instead of separate and distinct from each other (Nyasha Junior, Kindle Loc 239).  

Midrash - When it comes to Jewish sacred literature, "midrash" is the main rabbinic term for exegesis, which is characterized by close reading of the biblical text. Gafney explains:

"Traditional midrash is also mystical, imaginative, revelatory, and, above all, religious. Midrash interprets not only the text before the reader, but also the text behind and beyond the text and the text between the lines of the text. In rabbinic thinking, each letter and the spaces between the letters are available for interpretive work. Midrash is rarely comprehensive and occasionally contradictory, raising as many questions as it answers" (4).

Patriarchy - A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. (Lexico)

Sanctified imagination - Dr. Wil Gafney describes the sanctified imagination as "the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text, particularly the spaces in the text, and fills them out with missing details: names, back stories, detailed descriptions of the scene and characters, and so on." Similar to classical and contemporary Jewish midrash, "the sacred imagination tells the story behind the story, the story between the lines on the page." One example she gives is that the sanctified imagination declares that Samson’s locks of hair were dreadlocks. This practice of the sanctified imagination is also a type of reader-response criticism (Gafney 3).

Womanist Midrash - The reason this term is on this list is because of Dr. Gafney. She wrote a book by that title and she explains what she means by it in the introduction:

“My exegetical approach in this project is womanist midrash inspired by rabbinic midrashic approaches to the literal texts of the Scriptures, their translations, and interpretations for religious readers. My approach combines translation-based exegesis with literary and contextual, ancient and contemporary readings of the biblical text as Scripture. [...] Womanist midrash is a set of interpretive practices, including translation, exegesis, and biblical interpretation, that attends to marginalized characters in biblical narratives, especially women and girls, intentionally including and centering on non-Israelite peoples and enslaved persons. Womanist midrash listens to and for their voices in and through the Hebrew Bible, while acknowledging that often the text does not speak, or even intend to speak, to or for them, let alone hear them. In the tradition of rabbinic midrash and contemporary feminist biblical scholarship, womanist midrash offers names for anonymized characters and crafts/listens for/gives voice to those characters. This particular hermeneutic, womanist midrash, is an outgrowth of my experience from pulpit and pew with the sanctified imagination in black preaching; I have come to recognize the sanctified imagination as a type of African American indigenous midrash.” (3)



Crenshaw, KimberlĂ© W. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 139–67; and KimberlĂ© W. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99.

Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 1983.

This is part of my final project for my class on Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. You can see the intro post here which will be a linked table of contents when I am finished.

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