Interview: Wil Gafney

Will Gafney photographed in Fort Worth, Texas on March 27, 2015. (Photo by/Sharon Ellman)

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School.  She earned her BA from Earlham, MDiv from Howard University School of Divinity, Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke University, and PhD in Hebrew Bible from Duke University. Dr. Gafney is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. She can be found at her website wilgafney.com and on twitter @WilGafney.

How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.

I started my professional career as a research biologist after having intended to go to medical school. However in college I was captivated by research and decided to pursue that. A renewal of faith in the A. M. E. Zion Church led me to the scriptures for religious reasons and I found myself particularly drawn to the Hebrew Scriptures. I knew on my first day of seminary I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. In my Spiritual Formation class with Kelly Brown Douglas we read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. His concept of the “religion of Jesus” resonated deeply with me. I immediately understood that the Hebrew Scriptures were the wellspring of the religion of Jesus. I was also enthralled by my introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures with the late Gene Rice, also from the first day—the class started with the Enuma Elish. Meanwhile in my religious life I had begun comparing translations of the bible and using lexical tools to engage the underlying Hebrew. I even taught myself the aleph-bet. When I took Hebrew with Dr. Rice, I was hooked.

Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?

In seminary I encountered women who couldn’t be ordained by their churches and was perplexed. I was a member of the AME Zion Church that had ordained Julia Foote a Deacon in 1894 and an Elder in 1900, and in between ordained Mary Small Deacon (1895) and Elder (1898). I also knew that there were women prophets in the bible whom God had called to preach and did not understand why the matter was not settled for everyone else. When Dr. Rice introduced me to the prophet Huldah I was enthralled. I wrote on her for class, for the first paper I presented (at the Regional Society of Biblical Literature), for my entrance essay, and she and her sisters became the subjects of my dissertation and first book, Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel.

The book also allowed me to explore some of my interests in related fields, ancient Near Eastern studies, the Dead Sea scrolls, and rabbinic literature. I found in that work I really enjoyed working with the multiple manuscript traditions of the biblical text and it became essential for me to do my own translations of the text. Both characterize my work today.

The depth of my work is in prophets and prophecy. The breadth is gendered: female characters, use of the text to construct normative female conduct, womanist, feminist and queer hermeneutics. My most recent work combines the two dimensions. I have just completed a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah for the Wisdom Commentary series, the first multi-volume feminist commentary on the whole of the bible. I have also just completed a book on female biblical characters, that includes my translations, womanist exegesis and midrash: Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne.

I hope my work will make critical engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to a wider audience. I endeavor to help lay readers and non-seminary trained clergy access some of the deeper levels of the text that are generally inaccessible without knowledge of biblical languages. I hope to help people think through their claims about the biblical text in light of what it actually says and with reference to its originating context. I also want folk to love this text as much as I do.

Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tells us a bit about it.

I offer lengthy acknowledgements in Womanist Midrash, so I’ll be brief here. The most influential scholar for my work is Renita Weems. Her Just A Sister Away and Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets remain among the most significant works in the field for me. The balance and tension in and between her academic and congregational work serve as a vocational model for me. To her I would add Alice Laffey whom I also read in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor Alice Bellis, and Carol Meyers, my dissertation advisor. The translation work of Everett Fox has also been significant for me.

What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?

Perhaps the most pressing issue in biblical studies from my perspective is the overwhelming and often unexamined whiteness of the guild that results in a bifurcation between those scholars who neither acknowledge nor see any connection between their identity and their scholarship, and those whose work emerges from (or at least acknowledges) their contexts and identities.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

Beyond my religious motivations, I love this literature. It is fascinating, powerful, inspiring, and revelatory—in part and with significant caveats. The complexity of biblical literature is what engages me most, the combination of deeply disturbing and dehumanizing texts with those from which I and others have found inspiration and faith. Beyond that, the use of the bible in and upon the world make them a critical object of study, particularly for me as a black woman from a culture that has been shaped by the bible from within and without.

What do you like to do for fun?

I’m fond of sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows. I also read fantasy and vampire lit. And I love blockbuster action movies.

Do you have a website or blog?

My website, wilgafney.com, hosts sermons and occasional engagements with politics and popular culture. Some will know it for the commentary on each episode of the ill-conceived and poorly executed miniseries, The Bible.

I also use my twitter platform to do biblical scholarship in the public square. I use the hashtag #what2preach to talk about what to preach after moments of national sorrow beginning with the Newtown school shooting. I use the #BriteBible tag to tweet my Introduction to Interpreting the Hebrew Bible course each time I have offered it; some semesters my students have really engaged the public in those conversations.

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