Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney: Womanist Midrash (Introduction)

Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Twitter: @WilGafney

The summary of the book on Goodreads says: “Womanist Midrash is an in-depth and creative exploration of the well- and lesser-known women of the Hebrew Scriptures. Using her own translations, Gafney offers a midrashic interpretation of the biblical text that is rooted in the African American preaching tradition to tell the stories of a variety of female characters, many of whom are often overlooked and nameless. Gafney employs a solid understanding of womanist and feminist approaches to biblical interpretation and the sociohistorical culture of the ancient Near East. This unique and imaginative work is grounded in serious scholarship and will expand conversations about feminist and womanist biblical interpretation."

In the introduction, Gafney says this book is an invitation to other readers, hearers, and interpreters of Scripture to read and interpret with her (2). She explains that her exegetical approach which she calls "womanist midrash" was inspired by rabbinic midrash (exegesis) (2). Rabbinic readings reimagine the dominant readings and craft new interpretations to "stand alongside—not replace—former readings" (2). Midrash asks questions of the text, raising as many questions as it answers, often leaving it up to the reader to answer the questions (2, 4). Gafney employs her womanist midrash using the customary tools of the trade for a biblical scholar: "textual criticism, linguistic and literary analysis, even historical-critical approaches," but she does so as a womanist (8).

Main points:
  1. 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" (3).

  2. Gafney uses her "sanctified imagination", which she describes 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 (3).

  3. Gafney says, "most simply, womanism is black women’s feminism," (6) but it is also much more: "It is a richer, deeper, liberative paradigm; a social, cultural, and political space and theological matrix with the experiences and multiple identities of black women at the center" (12). Womanism sets itself apart from the dominant-culture feminism, which is too often only concerned with white women of a certain class (6). Womanists privilege the intersection of their "Afro-diasporic identity (embodiment and experience)" and "gender (performance and identity)". Womanists interrogate "power, authority, voice, agency, hierarchy, inclusion, and exclusion" in the text (6).

  4. Gafney's primary womanist principles that shape her interpretation are:
    1) "the legitimacy of black women’s biblical interpretation as normative and authoritative,
    2) the inherent value of each member of a community in the text and interpreting the text,
    3) talking back to the text
    4) making it plain, the work of exegesis from translation to interpretation.
    " (8)

  5. Gafney also includes a list of 12 questions to ask when interpreting the Bible. I included those questions in this post: Key Questions Womanist Bible Scholars ask when interpreting the Bible.
Works Cited

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


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

Key Terms in Womanist Bible Interpretation

Other essay summaries:

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