Womanist Midrash

A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne

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Wilda C. Gafney
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , August
     2017.
     340 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664239039.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Wilda C. Gafney cordially invites a diverse group of readers to a meal at which the table—and everything on it—is womanist biblical interpretation. Gafney explains that Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne is written for those who read the Bible as a religious text, who look to it for teaching and preaching, inspiration and illumination; to offer religious readers an exegetical and hermeneutical resource that delves deeply into the canon(s) and draws on marginal and marginalized women as scriptural exemplars” (2). The special ingredient on Gafney’s menu is womanism, which asks questions about power, authority, voice, agency, hierarchy, inclusion, and exclusion, but does not privilege the concerns of black women at the expense of other members of the interpretive community (7). She foregrounds the idea that womanism resists methodology as a category while at the same time being ideological, phenomenological, and analytical. Employing her meal/meal preparation metaphor, Gafney admits that she has as much difficulty accepting the idea that methodology functions as a recipe that will yield a repeating womanist product as she does accepting the notion that following a published recipe will reproduce your grandmother’s sweet potato pudding.

Throughout Womanist Midrash, Gafney assumes the reader’s general knowledge of the Bible, transliterates Hebrew words, and references extra-biblical sources (i.e., rabbinic texts, Qumran texts, and material from the early church fathers). Gafney puts her work in conversation with widely accessible English translations such as the New Revised Standard VersionA Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Torah, and The Inclusive Bible. She uses the tools of textual criticism, linguistic and literary analysis, and historical-critical approaches to the biblical text. Readers who are not familiar with these tools of biblical scholarship may initially find Womanist Midrash challenging, but should quickly be able to adapt and dine to their satisfaction at Gafney’s supper table. 

In Womanist Midrash, Gafney offers her own womanist midrash on the texts, narratives, and characters of women found in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the throne (the eras associated with the monarchies of King Saul and King David). Structurally, Gafney translates the story of women and then, depending upon the contours of the story itself, attends to matters such as language, gender, social custom, and social structure. 

Womanist Midrash is divided into two major sections. In the first section, “Womanist Midrash on the Torah,” Gafney examines the stories of the women of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In chapters 1 through 5 (named after the first five books of the Bible), she revisits the stories of familiar characters such as Sarah and Hagar, Miryam, and the daughters of Zelophehad anew, and introduces readers to lesser-known characters such as the consecrated firstborn daughters (Exodus 13:1), the women of Gad and Reuben (Numbers 32:25), and the rebellious daughter (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In the second section, “Womanist Midrash on Women of the Throne,” Gafney then takes up the women associated with the monarchies recounted in Kings and Chronicles. Here she examines the stories of the queens of Israel and Judah, the wives, daughters, and sisters of Saul and David, and other women associated with these kings. After discussing the royal women of Israel and Judah (Chapter 6), Gafney examines the stories of Saul’s wife Ahinoam, his daughters Merev and Michal, and his secondary wife Rizpah in “Overshadowed by Saul” (chapter 7). She then explores the stories of Avigail, Ahinoam of Jezreel, Maacah, Haggith, Ahital, Eglah, Bathsheba, Avishag, Tamr, other female members of David’s family, and anonymous women connected to his reign in “Dominated by David” (chapter 8). She concludes the second section with chapters on “Israel’s Maligned Queens” (chapter 9), and the “Royal Women of Judah” (chapter 10). Womanist Midrash includes two appendices: a chart of David’s offspring and four short chapters addressing the biblical text.

Readers should be aware that Gafney orders the women of the throne according to the king to whom they are connected because “many readers will not know who they are without reference to the men in the lives” (187). While Gafney is reluctant about this, I wish she had found a different way to present these women. Although presenting them alphabetically or canonically might have moved Womanist Midrash to become more of a compendium than an interpretive companion piece, the currentpresentation structure foregrounds the men of the text. This highlighting of the men seems at odds with the womanist approach to the work. I applaud Gafney for encouraging her reader to call the names of the women. This sort of push to the unfamiliar or uncomfortable may give many readers pause, but I found the practice of listing the names and highlighting even those women who were only briefly mentioned in the text helpful. Calling the women by name forced me to slow down and appreciate the contributions of each of the characters.

Throughout the book, Gafney takes up questions often asked by close readers. For example, she ponders whether women were part of the Abrahamic covenant because they were not circumcised. This is a question with which I have watched Bible study and seminary students wrestle. Gafney broaches the subject in a way that affirms the reader’s sense of inquiry and encourages them to ask other questions about the sacred text. This sort of responsible questioning makes the reader’s study all the more rich. What makes Gafney’s offering so powerful is that it gives the reader an opportunity to think deeply about familiar and unfamiliar characters.

Womanist Midrash is appropriate for use in different classroom settings. I have assigned portions of the book for an undergraduate course, and the entire book for a seminary course. Womanist Midrash would be a powerful complement to advanced adult Bible studies in local churches. Furthermore, those who preach regularly should adopt Womanist Midrash as a companion piece for their sermon preparation. Gafney’s responsible use of her sanctified imagination sparks creative treatments of the text. 

Womanist Midrash is much more than a hospitable gathering around the large family dining room table. Instead of an invitation to join her for supper, Womanist Midrash is a call to meet Gafney at her restaurant where she offers customers an expansive buffet. The book is an intellectual culinary experience that warrants multiple trips to the many food stations and encourages lingering with associates around good food. This meal of Gafney’s is not one to schedule into your day if you have somewhere else to be. No. Womanist Midrash is best experienced when one has time to sit and savor the delights, to ruminate and reflect upon Gafney’s insights. Bon appetit

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Russaw is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Christian Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wilda Gafney is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel and coeditor of The People's Bible and The People's Companion to the Bible.

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