Hebrew Bible scholar the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney puts the psalms in the mouths of compelling biblical women
September 10, 2022
“The language of feasting is often the language of the church,” the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney said to open a recent lecture in Watts Chapel at Union Presbyterian Seminary. “The expectation in Black church culture is you go to church to be fed to do the work you’re called to do.”
Gafney, the Right Rev. Sam B. Hulsey Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, had been speaking on “Translation Matters: Who Translates God Words and How?”
From the earliest days of seminary formation, Gafney said she was focused on the women prophets in Scripture. “I was also interested in women in the text. That’s what I was hungry for,” she said.
Gafney asked her listeners: Of the 1,426 names mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, how many belong to women? Those hearing her in person guessed 25, 50 and 365. In reality, it’s 111, Gafney said, about 8% of the named humans in the Hebrew Bible. More than half of the 205 women named in the Bible come from the Hebrew Bible.
Then Gafney asked: How many of them can you name? “I’ve had lay people go up to 40,” Gafney said. “I was very impressed.”
The preachers in the crowd were invited to do the math: 111 names with 52 Sundays in a year. Even throwing in a few special services, “You could preach on a woman every Sunday,” Gafney said.
Any womanist lectionary worth owning belongs to the whole church, and not just to those entrusted to preach. Gafney knew a cleaning man at the seminary who each week taught Sunday school for his congregation. “He would ask professors what he needed to know to teach the class well,” including, “What’s the most common name in the Hebrew Bible?” None of the faculty knew. It turned out even more common than “Mary” is “Maacah.”
“We would not have known without that interested layman asking a question so he could be a better Sunday school teacher,” Gafney said.
Gafney said she was “determined to write, preach and teach about these women,” and her book “Womanist Midrash” was born.
“My intention was to lightly massage the [New Revised Standard Version] and just fix its most egregious problems,” Gafney said. “I wish people had told me” that it wouldn’t be that simple. “I wound up translating every text in the lectionary, four or five lessons every Sunday,” as well as every day of Holy Week and feast days.
Gafney found a pattern for her work: What if the woman or women in the text were praying that week’s psalm? “Then I would go to the gospel reading and then pick an epistle off the roulette wheel,” she said. “If the point of the story is to say that ‘God saves,’ we can do that — we just do that with women.”
Scriptural pairings can produce eye-opening results. Gafney put together the Genesis account of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away with the Philippians description of Christ emptying himself, taking the form of a slave and assuming human likeness.
Hagar, “raped by Abraham and forcibly impregnated, had no right over her body to do anything about it,” Gafney said. When the NRSV says Sarah “dealt with Hagar harshly,” “it’s the same verb as what Egypt did to the Israelites. It communicates sexual violence,” Gafney said. “Christ took on the form of a person subject to wanton indiscriminate sexual and physical violence. Now we can talk about incarnation.”
Gafney also pairs the rape of Tamar with Psalm 27. Imagine Tamar praying portions of this psalm, Gafney said: “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh — my adversaries and foes — they shall stumble and fall. … Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off; do not forsake me, O god of my salvation! If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up … I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Hebrew Bible scholar
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Lindy Ebbs, Administrator, Constituency Relationships, Relationship & Development Operations, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Jeffrey Eddings, Associate, Coaching & Spiritual Formation, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
God, we thank you for Jesus’ faithfulness, which involved suffering. Thank you for accompanying us in our suffering. Give us the passion to walk alongside others when they suffer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.