Insights from African American Interpretation

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Mitzi J. Smith
Editor(s): 
Mark Allen Powell
Reading the Bible in the 21st Century
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     2017.
     154 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506400174.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Insights from African American Interpretation, Mitzi J. Smith introduces readers to the history of African American interpreters of the Bible and the reading strategies that they have privileged. The first chapter, “Introducing African American Interpretation,” explores many of the premises that have animated African American interpretations of the Bible since the era of slavery. Among its characteristic features is a fundamental hermeneutic of suspicion. Quite sensibly, in Smith’s words, “Enslaved Africans were suspicious of the religionists of the book (and for not a few, the religion itself), the interpreters and interpretations of the book, and portions of the biblical text itself” (6). Rather than deferring to Eurocentric interpretations, African American interpreters have often been guided by personal convictions about freedom, justice, and equality. Accordingly, they have stressed both the continuity of their intuitions about a loving God with the presentation of God in the Bible andthe discontinuity of slave ideology with biblical themes of liberation. Additionally, Smith explains, African American interpreters often prioritize the recovery of African identity and characters within biblical texts, with an emphasis on affirming their value and dignity.

Chapters 2 and 3 function as literature reviews covering much of African American biblical scholarship from the 20th and 21st centuries respectively. These interpreters regularly challenge both the biblical texts themselves—recognizing that “the biblical text is not synonymous with God” (66)—and the contexts “traditionally” regarded as most salient. Echoing the themes outlined in the first chapter, Smith explains that two major tasks of African American biblical scholarship have been recovering the “black presence and significance ... in the biblical texts” (especially with respect to Africa and African individuals) and reconstructing and affirming “black self- and communal identity and self-worth, as well as black experience” (36). In addition to familiarizing readers with the landscape of African American biblical scholarship, these reviews also—very helpfully—direct readers toward literature that they may want to add, for example, to their summer reading lists and course syllabi.

Smith illustrates the interpretive principles that characterize African American scholarship with two original arguments in the final two chapters.

In chapter 4, “Slavery, Torture, Systemic Oppression, and Kingdom Rhetoric: An African American Reading of Matthew 25:1–13,” Smith presents an African American reading of the parable of ten virgins that addresses both how best to read this parable in its ancient context andhow best to read it today in a manner that promotes justice and equality. With respect to its ancient context, Smith challenges the assumption of many interpreters that the designations “wise” and “foolish” reflect the perspectives and interests of the virgins themselves. She argues instead that the wise/foolish distinction reflects the male/patriarchal interests of the groom—or slaveowner. This parable, she observes, is situated between two parables that are explicitly about slaves and reflect the interests of the slaveowner (Matt 24:45–51; 25:14–30), and so it may be more credible to understand the virgins as slave-girls. Doing so would certainly make sense of an odd situation—ten girls waiting to consummate their marriage to one groom. The identification of the virgins as slave-girls, however, may be the least compelling element of Smith’s argument, perhaps because it is more asserted than argued. As such, this plausible suggestion may be developed further in the future. Nevertheless, she makes a compelling case for interpreting the logic of this parable as reflecting the interests of the groom rather than the virgins (i.e., “wise” virgins act according to the groom’s interests), and so interpreters can no longer responsibly assume otherwise.

With respect to reading Matt 25:1–13 today, Smith challenges the parable’s logic by connecting its expectation that the virgins be ready for the groom’s unscheduled arrival with “respectability politics” that blame African Americans for their own victimhood. She notes, for example, the parallel of the virgins’ expected sleepless anticipation of the groom with the regular lack of sleep experienced by African American slaves. Smith also objects to Matthew’s use of slavery parables to explain the kingdom of God, which “mollifies and normalizes the cruelty of slavery, sanctifies the language that signifies the oppression, and makes it difficult for the (neo)colonized, oppressed, and/or marginalized ‘people of the book’ to fully name, reject, and heal from oppression and oppressive systems” (94). Indeed, she proposes that “the iconic kingdom rhetoric should be rejected” as well (97).

In the final chapter, “Dis-membering, Sexual Violence, and Confinement: A Womanist Intersectional Reading of the Story of the Levite’s Wife (Judges 19),” Smith presents an interpretation of the story of the Levite’s “secondary wife” that is attuned to the intersecting oppressions associated with race/ethnicity, class, and gender. In order to confer honor and dignity upon the Levite’s secondary wife, Smith gives her a name—’Ênmishpat, meaning “there was/is no justice” in Hebrew (102). The majority of this chapter is devoted to the many ways that ’Ênmishpat is “dis-membered”—or “revictimized” through the denial of rights and protections—in the narrative: (1) she is taken as a secondary wife (or concubine); (2) she is denied the agency of self-protection and sanctuary at her father’s house; (3) she is victimized by those closest to her; (4) she is eclipsed by the male characters in the narrative; (5) the Levite speaks to her, not with her, at her father’s house; (6) she is taken from her father’s house against her will; (7) her body is made available to a mob of rapists in exchange for the hospitality provided to the Levite; (8) she is, accordingly, regarded as less valuable than the Levite; and finally (9) she is physically dismembered—cut into twelve pieces—by the Levite, who simultaneously obscures his own culpability. Throughout this reading, Smith reflects on similar acts of dis-memberment experienced by people today due to social status, lack of wealth, race/ethnicity, gender, or some combination thereof.

Concise and affordable, this volume both demonstrates and exemplifies the value of African American biblical interpretation and scholarship, and it will be a useful addition to the libraries of scholars and clergy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash has a Ph.D. in Religion/New Testament from the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
June 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mitzi J. Smith is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary, the author of Womanist Sass and Back Talk: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (2017), I Found God in Me. A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (2015), and coeditor of Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (Fortress, 2014).

Mark Allan Powell is a Lutheran pastor and Bible Professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. He is also one of the authors of Opening the Book of Faith.

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