Seeing the White in Their Eyes

I hope that my reading of Ruth will function as a form of learning that will enable Native people both to understand more thoroughly how biblical interpretation has impacted us, and to assert our own perspectives more strongly.

Laura E. Donaldson, “The Sign of Oprah: Reading Ruth Through Native Eyes.”

Recently, I read the work of a white female feminist biblical scholar on 1 Samuel 25. In the text, David uses the most courtly language imaginable in, it appears, a bit of extortion. Nabal, a wealthy farmer, is about to celebrate a sheepshearing. David suggests to Nabal that, but for him and his men, his shepherds would have nothing to sheer and suggests a payoff for their services (1 Sam. 25:6-8).

Nabal, whose very name means “fool,” is not so willing. He openly insults David (10-11), who, in turn, gathers 400 armed men to confront the ungrateful farmer (25:13). For good measure, David curses Nabal, too, threatening him and his line with wholesale extermination (25:22).

Enter Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who saves the household (though not her husband) by making obeisance to David (18, 23-31). She loads herself down with bread, wine, meat, and baked delicacies. She delivers the goods to David, along with some pretty fulsome flattery (25: 18-31). In the end, Nabal is conveniently struck dead, and Abigail becomes another of David’s wives (37-40).

The scholar in question seeks to point out Abigail’s limited opportunities and choices, so she points out that Israelite wives shared experiences of physical subjugation with enslaved people. Indeed, even as a wealthy farmer’s wife, Abigail must navigate a violent hegemonic masculine system. Biblical law does not offer women “human rights” but largely focuses on organizing male access to female bodies. A woman is always under the control of some man. Indeed, wives and enslaved women are often grouped together, and women are also referred to alongside a man’s material possessions (Exodus 20:14, for example). Wives and enslaved women are both physically dominated and controlled by men. This is a condition they have in common, she explains.

Her explanation serves to justify using a particular text as a jumping off point for her discussion of the biblical Abigail. This text was written by Hannah Crafts, a formerly enslaved woman. In it, Crafts describes how she must constantly attune herself to the moods of her mistress and master. Living in violence forces her to accommodate and assimilate, to propitiate and placate. Those are her survival skills. They do not always succeed in protecting her from her owners’ violent tendencies.

The scholar assumes, as far as I can tell, that when her readers confront the texts of a formerly enslaved Black woman, they will better understand Abigail’s situation. She, too, so her argument, had to navigate the violent potential of male power figures.

But when a white scholar uses the experience of people of color who have been historically subjugated, colonized, and oppressed (and still are) to try and help explain Tanakh, there is another kind of violence at work, and that is the violence of appropriation.

It needs to be said: any white person – whether scholar or spiritual leader or any other person of power – who uses the trauma of people of color to elucidate the very literature that regularly served to justify their enslavement and oppression is perpetuating trauma.

White people cannot read through indigenous eyes. They cannot read through enslaved ones.

Scholars and spiritual leaders have the task of making these biblical texts real for their readers. They need to interrogate the texts and challenge the violence they contain rather than normalize it. But if they are white, they need to do that work without reinscribing the exploitation of people of color. That means seeing the white in their own eyes.

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