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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

JUDITH McKINLAY, Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus(Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004). Pp. xiii+195. $US35.00

Judith McKinlay’s beautifully written book provides an accessible introduction to postcolonial biblical studies in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand. She manages to raise disquieting questions about colonialist habits of mind—both in the biblical texts and in the present—without needing to overwhelm her readers with turgid theoretical language. Her method is primarily literary and intertextual, although she recognises that an understanding of ideology may be enhanced by historical perspectives. Redactional hypotheses and socio-political backgrounds are, however, framed as ‘open questions,’ rather than asserted with the confidence characteristic of historical criticism.

Some of the interpretations overlap with what one finds in European and American feminist scholarship or in African womanism (Musa Dube is the most frequently cited author), but McKinlay’s most distinctive angle of vision arises from her Pakeha location, or more precisely, from the cultural exchanges between the Maori and Pakeha (indigenous and non-indigenous New Zealanders). She reflects, for example, on the analogies between the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar stories in Genesis and a CMS missionary couple in nineteenth century New Zealand, who also had to negotiate the complexities of a ‘concubine’ and a ‘mixed race’ child. Another set of issues arises from the nineteenth century Maori appropriation of motifs from the exodus story.

McKinlay’s own experience of cultural hybridity and tension helps to form a series of questions about biblical characters: have the Canaanite features of Rahab’s face been painted over with Israelite makeup, and hence she can be assimilated? Has Jezebel been misrepresented for the opposite purpose—to exclude her? And why does the Gospel of Matthew enhance the Syro-Phoenician woman with ‘Canaanite’ identity? What ‘unfinished business’ is raised by this Matthean allusion to ancient ethnic antipathies? Readers conscious of Australian colonial discourse that configured indigenous people as animals will surely flinch at a Jesus who describes the Syro-Phoenician-Canaanite woman as a kunarion, a ‘little dog/bitch.’ Postcolonial locations inevitably raise questions about hyphenated and hybrid cultures that negotiate the ‘Thirdspace’ (Edward Soja’s term) between binary oppositions like Israelite-Canaanite, Jew-Greek, Pakeha-Maori, indigenous and non-indigenous. Perhaps one could add here that womanism has deconstructed the opposition between male and female by adding the intersections of ethnicity and class. (And ecological perspectives along with indigenous totems conspire to deconstruct the opposition between human and animal.)

McKinlay’s subtle renderings of biblical women set out a range of possibilities in this Thirdspace, from the rewards of partial assimilation to a dominant culture (Ruth) to the borderland spaces that may potentially be liberating (Hagar). It is precisely in the ‘wilderness’ borderland where Hagar experiences theophany and promise, having been expelled from the mainstream covenant. McKinlay draws on bell hooks to describe Hagar’s positioning between Israel and Egypt as a space where the self is recovered in a site with radically new possibilities. The biblical narratives in such a reading are refocussed through the lenses of female characters, and what is discovered is not so much a grand design with revelation borne by the dominant motifs, but rather, a disturbing collage, ironically ‘edged with the sublime.’ Following Trinh Minh-ha, McKinlay suggests, “the exploration of Thirdspace must be additionally guided by some form of potentially emancipatory praxis” (p. 136). This kind of biblical criticism is not without its ‘missiology.’

Sheffield Phoenix Press has provided a cover for the book with a touch of aesthetic genius: a woman’s face is given multiple layers of framing, and the outer edge is made up of fragments from the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) showing Maori signature marks. Situated across the Tasman Sea, an Australian author could not have been given such a cover, since we have no such Treaty to read and dispute. Until very recently, Australian biblical interpretation has heard very few whispers, theophanies or otherwise from the wilderness borderlands—although the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has recently raised interesting questions about what counts as ‘wild’ in Australia, in her book Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (UNSW Press, 2004). Let us hope that McKinlay’s work provokes more Antipodean reflections of its kind.

Review by
Mark G. Brett
Whitley College
Parkville VIC 3052, Australia