How Feminists Work with Biblical Texts

A Few Beginning Observations/Suggestions
Initially prepared for MCUSA (Mennonite Church US) Women in Leadership Committee – June 2012
(Possible ideas for a working committee so not fully prepared for publishing.)

Although women around Elizabeth Cady Stanton (late 1800s, The Woman’s Bible) and scholars of the 1920s like Katherine C. Bushnell (God’s Word to Women) and Lee Anna Starr (The Bible Status of Woman) interpreted scripture, resources since the ‘second and third waves’ of feminism (1960s and 1990s) are more prolific. As more professionally trained women engage the text, insights limited by patriarchy through the centuries are countered. Although Jewish and Christian texts reflect experience as seen and written by men, women were present. Leonard Swidler’s Women in Judaism The Status of Women in Formative Judaism offers important information about ancient women in the cult and society. The task continues to explore and discover biblical woman’s marginal experience, to ask new questions, to confront and correct traditions that continue to perpetuate views of women as inferior.

In order to present in fairness Divine openness to all people, we need to reconstruct what has been distorted through translation, writing, and sermons. We, as ever, need to find meaning for our day. Our task is to learn from writers and teachers like the following and to be disciplined students of the text, if possible enhanced by study of Hebrew and Greek languages. Within the following list, some writers explain interpreting; others practice with specific texts. Several books include only a chapter or two on biblical content. Phyllis Trible encourages us to retell hurtful accounts like Hagar’s rejection, Tamar’s rape, or the inhuman sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in their memory. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is persuaded that since gospel and early church texts include women, despite patriarchy, many more women were active and influential then. The notes that follow reflect something of what I have garnered from this sampling of mentors expressed as counsel or suggestions, combined with occasional reference to scriptures.

Clifford, Anne M. Introducing Femnist Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.
Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent A novel. NY: Picador USA, 1997.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. Bread Not Stone The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Pr., 1984.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. But She Said Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Pr., 1992.
Fiorenza Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. NY: Crossroad, 1983.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, ed. Searching the Scriptures A Feminist Introduction. Vol. 1, NY: Crossroad, 1993; Vol. 2 1994.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. Wisdom Ways Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.
Isherwood, Lisa. Introducing Feminist Christologies. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Pr., 2002.
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace. The Women of Genesis From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. NY: Crossroad, 1993.
Kwok, Pui-lan. Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Pub.s, 1995.
Newsom, Carol A. and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster /John Knox Pr., 1992.
Russell, Letty M., ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Phila.: Westminster Pr., 1985.
Russell, Letty M., ed. The Liberating Word A Guide to Nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible. Phila: Westminster Pr., 1976.
Schneiders, Sandra M. The Revelatory Text Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Pr., 1999.
Tamez, Elsa. Bible of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982.
Teubal, Savina J. Hagar the Egyptian The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.
Tiffany, Frederick C. & Sharon H. Ringe. Biblical Interpretation A Road Map. Nashville: Abingdon1996.
Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Phila.: Fortress Pr., 1978.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Phila.: Fortress Pr., 1984.

Women Engage and Interpret the Bible—reflecting responsibility, feminist thought, and conviction.

  1. Read as women, especially in relation to God. Interpret through women’s experience of self, institutions, work and volunteerism, family roles, or spirituality. Not to suggest that woman’s experience is normative, as patriarchy has done regarding male experience, but to counter socialization that negates woman as inferior in worth or ability, deserving of being marginalized, or devoid of authority and power. Recognize the influence of one’s personal situation and location in shaping what is seen, heard, or valued in a text. Patriarchy has skewed texts to value men more than women and to stereotype roles by sex, to associate man more with God through using male language for God. But God is neither male nor female. So, honor the Divine by using diverse adjectives and scriptural terms to characterize God’s many activities. Emphasize God’s relational being, in part through using the relational kin-dom term rather than the power/male focus with kingdom. Understand and apply the importance of Wisdom, Sophia, and Spirit from our Jewish heritage. Letty Russell makes further suggestions for reading biblical passages: read without preconceptions; when a woman appears in a story, retell it from her perspective; look for what is omitted as well as included; pay attention to the passage’s context; know about the social and cultural environment of the time; use standard, older commentaries with discretion.
  2. Value difference of views, of time periods, of cultures, of experience. Credit as African American, Hispanic, African, Asian, and Caucasian women, as rural or urban, single or married, variously sexually oriented. As women loyal to diverse religions, including pagan, or as sisters known for different economic well-being. Scripture speaks a great deal to poverty and disadvantage. Difference will shape interpreting, as with the Hagar text: some might reconstruct it aware of deep friendship rather than conflict with Sarah. Some African American or Hispanic women might emphasize her suffering while Muslims will commend her being their source as mother of Ishmael. Be informed. Validate differences, claiming conviction truly but lightly rather than to the detriment of those who differ.
  3. Admit that each person comes to texts indirectly, with bias already established. Not only do changes reflect bias; all of what was previously held or known is also biased. “Every biblical statement about woman must be carefully analyzed and assessed with respect to male bias.” (Schussler Fiorenza, Searching . . .) Examine and understand why you believe or prefer what you do. Why might you think that only Jesus can be a channel of God’s salvation? Does that approach discriminate? Do you realize and care that salvation has distinct meanings in different religions? Do you presume to know God so thoroughly that you freely then choose to limit how God may choose to be inclusive? Acknowledge that any scripture influences adherents, that not only Jews, Christians, and Muslims—called “Peoples of the Book”—honor significant scriptures.
  4. Be a serious student of scripture, not limited to biblical insight. Serious study of Hebrew and Greek languages enables your understanding of cultural dimensions that shaped religious thought for Jews and early Christians. If informed through varied resources, claim the text as yours to study and interpret. Claim your personal authority and worth as a child of God’s. Avoid relying on those who deny your authority, who are dependent on your being dependent on them instead. Convinced of your authority, enable others to claim and practice theirs. In other words, be reciprocal in leading and following, with both roles valued and enabled through strength. And responsibly explore scripture texts of other world religions.
  5. Read and re-read texts. Understand a text’s context for insight into current meaning. Know about ancient household structures, patterns with slavery, the Roman Empire, or purity laws. Find where a text links with other texts; learn where and how it is distinct from other texts or styles of literature. Read from the perspective of God’s mercy. Learn from Jewish understanding of “mending creation.” Know the wisdom of taking control of a situation rather than accept being a victim. Attend to prophetic patterns, to texts that liberate. Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests rejecting texts that elevate one social group over others. Phyllis Trible suggests that through concerns, questions, and sensitivities, feminists approach texts “to promote the full humanity of women and men and to liberate the Bible from patriarchy.” Appreciate that scripture ever needs new and on-going interpretation.
  6. Ask new or riveting questions of texts based on knowledge. Declare when past interpretations or the text itself may be inconsistent. Pay attention to how radical Jesus was, without being anti Jewish or racist. Ponder why Christians have focused more on Jesus than on his prime teaching—God’s inclusive kingdom. Explore how emphasis on the kin-dom of God, introduced by a Hispanic woman decades ago, could strengthen insight into both human and divine relationship rather than promote kingdom’s thrust toward reign, control, rule, war, and opposition. Admit that some women find scripture or interpretations too personally destructive to value while other women wish to re-form how they are explained. Some women wish to uphold very traditional interpretations; some, who doubt women’s worth, wish to depend on a male-oriented God for protection. Receiving each other yet being honest matters. Attend to texts that value broad, including women’s, experience. Teach both girls and boys to credit women and men similarly. Avoid primarily disputing texts that undercut women; know cultural meanings of “being silent,” for example. Or be informed that writers reflect their time—as with negative views toward Jews expressed in John’s gospel—rather than presume freedom to continue negating anyone created by God. Be aware that some women were accustomed to lead—as prophets or house church hosts or with distributing the Lord’s Supper. With a text like the one where Martha expresses conviction that “Jesus is the Christ,” make clear that not only Peter is to be known for that truth.
  7. Interpret imaginatively. Interpreting involves the “imaginative reconstruction of meaning” (Letty Russell), whether the meaning of biblical authority, human dignity, or human relationship. It involves being aware of harmful patterns, being embodied subjects, being truly mutual or radically whole, being aware of what is false or not of the Divine. The Bible is androcentric (male oriented); it does not solve the problem of patriarchy. All need to face rather than evade that fact. Being alert to patriarchy involves naming male domination over female, woman’s being marginalized rather than fully human. When she is silenced rather than verbal about conviction, assigned inferior roles, or physically controlled or oppressed, to do feminist biblical interpretation becomes a political task. It entails suspicion, critically evaluating texts, and moving beyond the androcentric to celebration and ritual, via equity. To interpret means to claim scripture as God’s invitation to participate, to restore wholeness.

Rather than complete this working task with the same format, I now highlight several points and quotes related to interpreting by writers, rather than develop themes.

From Tiffany & Ringe Biblical InterpretationMeaning is intended by the writer and received by the reader. It occurs in the interaction between text and reader. . . Perception is filtered through interpreter’s perspective. Diversity is a problem for those who think that their context is universal, who fail to recognize or refuse to deal with the fact of diversity.  In patriarchy, men prescribe how women are to behave.  When looking at a text, ask Who is excluded or silenced and by whom? Ask what is going on?. . . Admit what you expect to find, why you might be uneasy. . . Read – feel (imagine how others might read it or perceive life) – question – react. Identify your own assumptions, questions, and problems with a text. Attend to structure, patterns, and key words. “Close reading” involves a process of dialogue: of question and answer, of hypothesis and test, of suggestion and correction. . . Examine resources with varied perspectives, from different historical times and races, by both women and men. . . Utilize conversation partners.

From Schussler Fiorenza In Memory of Her — “Our words reflect the nature of reality as we see it.” Four models of biblical interpretation: doctrinal; factual objective historical exegesis; dialogical hermeneutics (intent to establish meaning); liberation theology (All theology is either for or against the oppressed.) Early Christian women, as women, were part of a submerged group; as Christians they were part of an emergent group not recognized by the dominant society and culture. “Ideas of men about women do not reflect women’s historical reality.” (85) Patriarchal inferiority/oppression is rooted in the patriarchal household, in the relationship of marriage with woman seen as property, not in biology. Both women and men deserve to be defined by discipleship, to be empowered by the Spirit. Gal. 3:28 suggests that within Christian community, there are to be no structures of domination. (213)

From Pui-lan –Discovering the Bible in the Non-biblical World. A problem for Christians in the ‘non-Christian’ world is to hear God speak in a different voice: Hebrew, Greek, German, English. . . Terms like “sin, atonement, salvation, Trinity, Godhead, incarnation suggest the superstitious or speculation for the average Chinese person.” (11) . . . The idea of divine revelation is culturally conditioned (western), not known to Hinduism or Confucianism. . . “People of other faiths deserve to be known as dialogue partners in the ongoing search for truth,” not targets for conversion. (12) . . . Stories from different cultural contexts are as “sacred” as biblical stories. . . In Islam, recitation of the Qur’an (in sacred Arabic) is far more significant than the study of the written text. . . In popular Buddhism, scripture sometimes has a magical character as with relics; at other times, a deep suspicion of texts and words can exist. The suggestion of three different worlds in a written text—behind, of, before—overlooks the predominant oral nature of Jesus’ stories within community. Kwok suggests a new image for the process of biblical interpretation—“dialogical imagination.”

From Schussler Fiorenza, ed. Searching the Scriptures. . . Attend to ways that women have read or used the bible through the centuries. While the Bible is written in androcentric language, within a patriarchal culture that perpetuates patriarchal values, it also inspires and authorizes women and other non-persons in their struggle against patriarchal oppression. The ethos of feminist critical interpretation: inclusion, ecumenism, multiculturalism. In scripture it looks for hidden meaning, lost voices, and vision that authorizes.

From Clifford Introducing Feminist Theology — African American women read the Bible via social location shaped by their history of slavery and experience of racism. . . “Womanist” – names the African American woman’s resistance to oppression plus their self-affirmation and will to survive with human dignity (79)
Mujerista” – theology done by Hispanic women in the U.S. . . The bible is peripheral to daily life for many Hispanic women. (81) For Elsa Tamez, the bible, such as Hagar’s story, becomes a source of hope and courage. . . The starting point for Mujerista theology is woman’s struggle for survival, for which she turns to popular religious devotion as to God, Mary, and saints. . . For them, the “Word of God” suggests the belief that God is with them in the daily struggle.

From Schneiders. The Revelatory Text – “Every act of knowledge is achieved through interpretation. . . Interpretation is ‘the road to meaning.’ Meaning is what is understood, what expands our human being. Therefore, interpretation is a primary object of inquiry.” 18 . . . “Interpretation is both process and product: textual meaning. . . No single meaning alone corresponds to or constitutes the meaning of the text.” (164) . . . “Valid interpretation: 1. accounts for the text as it stands; 2. is consistent with itself; 3. explains anomalies; 4. is compatible with what is known from other sources; 5. uses responsibly all appropriate methods.” (165-6)