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Postcolonial Approaches

The adjective “postcolonial,” like “gender,” can be fluid and difficult to define. There are many discussions about what the prefix “post-” means, as well as who, when, and where is the postcolonial. Just as gender must be understood beyond binaries (male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexuality/homosexuality), postcolonial studies must challenge its dualistic categories (colonizer/colonized, center/periphery, metropolis/colony). Both “gender” and “postcolonial studies” are also umbrella terms: each involves a variety of approaches and a range of emphases.

Gender and Postcolonial Studies.

Gender and postcolonial studies share more than an analogical relationship. The terms “gender” and “postcolonial” are similarly slippery, and both fields function to resist domination—in terms of gender and empire, respectively. Rather than seeing gender and postcolonial studies as parallel but separate, studying gender is indispensable to postcolonial studies because colonial domination is often engendered through gender constructions.

White men (and women) saving brown women from brown men.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) emphasizes how gender is used to justify colonialism with her catchy phrase, “white men saving brown women from brown men.” While Spivak’s example is the British attempt to abolish Indian widows’ practice of sati, colonial men and colonial women have pointed to various practices concerning women (e.g., foot binding, veiling, genital mutilation) as evidence of a society’s, religion’s, or culture’s deficiencies to justify colonial interventions. Read as objects of patriarchal oppression from within and benevolent salvation from without, colonized women are not known and their agency not acknowledged.

Saving self from and through other(ing) wo/men.

Colonialism and its objectification of colonized women are engendered by colonial desire and fear. Anne McClintock (1995) begins her book on “race, gender and sexuality in the colonial context” with three vignettes—a bestseller about hidden treasure in Africa with a map that looks like a female body; Columbus’s description of the world as a woman’s breast with a nipple; and a painting of America as a naked woman being literally “dis-covered” by Amerigo Vespucci—to discuss “a long tradition of male travel as an erotics of ravishment” that she calls “porno-tropics,” where women, often hypersexualized, “served as the boundary markers” in colonial contacts (22, 5). If this tradition reflects a colonial desire to rape, it also betrays colonial anxiety. Agency of the colonized, even colonized women, is not always unacknowledged. It can be amplified as threatening and brutal and embodied in female figures, like the Amazons in early writings of European colonialism (Loomba, 1998, p. 154). Representing foreign lands as dangerous female natives justifies colonialism as necessary for the colonizers’ security. The allure and peril of a foreign people is seen by their hypersexualization. “Deviant” sexuality (and hence the awkward “wo/men” in the heading above) can be simultaneously menacing and enticing (Aldrich, 2003; Boone, 2014). The native or “other” wo/man functions in multiple ways in colonial imaginations as a boundary marker: it both projects colonial fantasy and anxiety to the outside and provides definitions for propriety and identity at home.

Saving white women from brown men and brown women from white men.

Colonial identity is constructed through gender, race, and class. Gender is crucial in colonial space because (1) European citizenship is idealized as an “honorable” or “reputable” adult white male, (2) the domestic rather than the public sphere is key to forming the young into proper citizens, especially in colonial contact zones, and (3) women are responsible for birthing and raising children for family, nation, and race. In order to make and maintain racial, class, and cultural differences between colonizers and colonized through a cult(ivation) of domesticity around “values of monogamy, thrift, order, accumulation” (McClintock, 1995, pp. 167–168), an empire needs white women to perform their service properly as transmitters of colonial culture. This justifies the management of women’s activity and sexuality. White women in colonial spaces would not necessarily ally with colonized women to resist patriarchy, however, since doing so would risk losing advantages that come with their position as colonizers. White women may also use a colonial situation (“saving brown women from brown men”) to negotiate and change the class and gender restrictions they face at home (Sharpe, 1993, pp. 27–55).

If colonial readings of gender function to justify imperialism, imperialism also functions to fashion European identity and justify disciplining gender. Alongside white women’s need to perform national service as mothers, white boys, as tomorrow’s citizens, must learn “essential dispositions of manliness, bourgeois morality, and racial attribute” (Stoler, 1995, p. 108). This both explains and engenders “the figure of the weak, irresolute, effeminate [native man as] a special target of contempt and ridicule” (Chatterjee, 1993, p. 69). White men must prove their identity and citizenship too; none can be polluted or corrupted by the colonized to go native.

The potential of pollution in colonial contexts justifies gender restrictions for colonial and anti-colonial reasons and turns Spivak’s catchy phrase to “white men saving white women from brown men” and “brown men saving brown women from white men.” This problematizes the simplistic “colonizer-as-male-and-colonized-as-female” metaphor. Franz Fanon talks about “the woman of color and the white man” and “the man of color and the white woman,” showing how gender, sexuality, and racial purity also preoccupy colonized men (1967). His work on Algeria’s veiled women shows how women become the battleground between colonialism and anti-colonial nationalism (1965; see also Yeğenoğlu, 1998). Women, as mothers who birth and raise children, become mothers of the nation or race. They are boundary markers for both colonizers and colonized and must be “protected” to ensure the nation’s/race’s purity. The complex relations between women and nation have generated numerous important studies (e.g., Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989; McClintock et al., 1997). Hypervisuality, like hypersexuality—for women, native, and particularly native women—does not necessarily signify inclusion or power (Chow, 1995, 2007).

Saving sex from culture or culture from sex.

While postcolonial studies originates with Edward Said’s use of Foucault in Orientalism, it has not fully engaged a field that Foucault’s work also helped originate: queer studies, especially its critique of heteronomativity and gender categories. This might have something to do with Foucault’s inattention to race and empire (Young, 1995), but it also has much to do with how queer sexuality and nonwhite culture are often presented as mutually exclusive (Aydemir, 2011). Queer sexuality is presented as being free from cultural constraints and an expression of autonomy, individuality, modernity, and westernization. Culture is understood as monolithic, unchanging, and constraining. Culture thus comes to differentiate those who are “enlightened” about sexuality from those who are not. Although the modern West is itself a culture, it is different because, as Wendy Brown explains, “‘We’ have culture while culture has ‘them,’ or we have culture while they are a culture” (cited in Aydemir, 2011, p. 15). Sexual identity and cultural identity are, therefore, antagonistic. Both are presumed to be all-consuming: if you embrace one, you cannot embrace the other. This framework creates two seemingly opposing but ideologically linked figures: (1) the desirable queer asylum seeker from the Third World whose sexual individuality is threatened but deserves to be protected since it is, by definition, queer, modern, and Western and (2) the undesirable homophobic immigrant into the First World who remains bound by his or her culture’s unenlightened sexual mores. What is seldom acknowledged is (1) how state policy, like relying on family reunification to maintain a low-wage workforce but simultaneously refusing to provide a social safety net, may actually strengthen the heteropatriarchy of immigrant life; (2) how homophobia might become a form of resistance to safeguard some cultural, racial/ethnic, or religious particularity, since the demand to accept queer sexuality becomes a kind of forced assimilation; (3) how many will assume and fantasize that a Third World or immigrant person only has a repressed, unemancipated, perverse, and possibly excessive and exciting sexuality; and (4) how postcolonial studies and queer studies end up being embraced by different groups of people and develop along separate tracks. Fortunately, attempts are being made to break out of this framework and put queer and postcolonial studies into productive conversations (Hawley, 2001a, 2001b; Puar, 2007).

Gender and Postcolonial Biblical Interpretations.

Postcolonial criticism appeared in biblical studies in the 1990s. Several mappings of postcolonial biblical criticism are available, including those by Stephen Moore (see also Sugirtharajah, 2013). Moore (2000) distinguishes postcolonial readings that view biblical texts as (1) subverting or resisting colonialism; (2) supporting colonialism; or (3) both subverting and supporting colonialism in ambivalent manners. Moore also discusses postcolonial approaches to the Bible that (1) emerge out of contextual hermeneutics and engage lightly with the larger field of postcolonial studies; (2) emphasize “empire” without engaging the larger field of postcolonial studies; and (3) engage the larger field of postcolonial studies heavily (2006, pp. 14–23). While Moore’s two mappings share a three-pronged structure, they are not mirror images. Moore recognizes, for instance, that critics from different paths in his second mapping may share the view that biblical texts are ideologically supportive of colonialism.

Developed a decade or so after postcolonial studies emerged in the larger academic world, postcolonial biblical readings tend to be attentive to gender questions early on, though not across the board (e.g., Sugirtharajah 1998; Segovia, 2000). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s (1992) feminist concept of kyriarchy already recognizes that domination works at intersections. In her introduction to an early anthology on postcolonial biblical readings, Laura Donaldson insists that colonial and gender considerations not be isolated in biblical scholarship (1996; see also Donaldson, 2005; Kwok, 2005, pp. 77–99). Referring to Shakespeare’s The Tempest—particularly how a colonized native called Caliban and a white woman named Miranda fail to support each other even though both are victims of the colonial patriarch—Donaldson identifies a “Miranda complex” in how white feminists read violence against the concubine in Judges 19 apart from violence against Gibeah’s Benjaminites in Judges 20, when New England’s settlers read both chapters together to legitimate massacring the Pequot people in 1637.

Scholars have read various New Testament books to scrutinize empire and gender dynamics, including how Roman colonial authority destabilizes gender in Mark’s Gospel, especially its depiction of masculinity (Thurman, 2003); how Mark’s narrative of a widow’s offering in the Temple might signify colonized women’s response to foreign imperialism or native patriarchy, or both (Kim, 2010; Liew, 2008); how John’s Gospel is an anti-imperial but patriarchal nationalist discourse from a “woman-and-nation” framework (Kim, 2004); how Jesus’s incarnation in John involves transgendering as well as racial/ethnic drag (as an Ioudaios) to put into crisis both Roman colonialism and anti-Roman nationalism that is built on patriarchy and purity (Liew, 2009); how Galatians shows Paul’s transformation from internalizing the Roman ideology of masculinist conquest to identifying with the conquered and “effeminized” nations of the Roman Empire to become a “s/he” to birth a movement of solidarity and resistance (Lope, 2008); how Philippians inscribes imperial and patriarchal hierarchy (Marchal, 2008); how translation of 1 Peter is influenced by imperial and patriarchal assumptions of translators (Dube, 2009); how Revelation’s Rome-Roma-Babylon motif betrays the author’s ambivalence toward a sexualized empire (Moore, 2009); and how methodologically queer and postcolonial theory might inform New Testament interpretation (Punt, 2011).

There are similar readings of the Hebrew Bible, including the following examples.


Donaldson authored a postcolonial biblical reading that examines Zora Neale Hurston’s rereading or rewriting of Moses and Exodus (1992, pp. 102–117), which Hurston describes as “look[ing] like a bloody rape to the Canaanites” (cited in Donaldson, 1992, p. 104). Citing Gloria Anzaldúa’s work on the mestiza and Riane Eisler’s on power as a circle of connections rather than a pyramid of hierarchical domination, Donaldson proposes that Hurston’s novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain—published in 1939 during a time of German, British, and U.S. imperialism—hybridizes and destabilizes Moses’s ethnicity and even God’s gender to discourage a quest for freedom from turning into an ethnocentric, patriarchal, and militaristic nationalism.

For Musa Dube (2000), Exodus shares a colonial literary strategy with ancient texts like Virgil’s Aeneid and modern ones like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: travel is encouraged for God, gold, and glory to dominate a foreign people or land. Using Mary Louise Pratt’s work on “contact zone” and “autoethnography,” Dube argues that the Exodus replicates empire-building strategies of Israel’s colonizers by also using gender in its conquest narrative: (1) stories of women only move the plot toward the promise of conquest; (2) Israelite women suspend their gender roles to participate in Israel’s struggle for freedom, but patriarchy (re)emerges with the giving of the law to Moses when women are identified as property of men (Exod 20:17) and sources of pollution (Exod 19:15); and (3) intermarriage is forbidden because women, both Israelite and non-Israelite, play crucial roles in Israel’s future as wives and mothers.

Joshua and Judges: Rahab, Jael, and Samson.

Linking Exodus with Joshua, Dube (2000) turns to Rahab, a prostitute known for hiding Israelite spies and facilitating their conquest of her town and people to secure her future among the Israelites. Like Pocahontas, she becomes a representative of her culture, people, or land to “feminize” what is “native” and indicate the natives’ willingness to welcome, consent to, and collaborate with colonial advances. Dube is adamant, however, that Joshua’s Rahab was written by her colonizers. With what she calls “Rahab’s reading prism,” Dube suggests a decolonizing feminist strategy that acknowledges layered dynamics of oppression and approaches biblical texts from various angles to resist both imperial and patriarchal ideologies, “resurrect” women who are doubly colonized in terms of gender and race to speak for themselves, and realize a different future of interdependence.

Focusing on references to Rahab as prostitute, Lori Rowlett (2000) stresses the tendency of colonizers to “feminize” a foreign land and people and accuse them of “excessive sensuality” and “heightened sexuality and infidelity” (pp. 67, 68). Juxtaposing Rahab and Pocahontas (Disney’s cartoon version), Rowlett reads Rahab’s collaboration with and conversion to Israel’s God as “a symbol of…the transformation of the land from sexually lascivious paganism (in Hebrew eyes) to colonized docility” (p. 68). She notes the gender polarity that is found in Rahab: a female prostitute who proclaims the “machismo of the Hebrews’ god” in Joshua 2:9–10 (p. 69). Since “colonizing powers telling the story have given [Rahab and Poncahontas] words to speak in praise of themselves as conquering heroes,” Rowlett concludes that both are “cartoon figures” (p. 75).

Dube (2003) also compares Rahab with Judith, concluding that both figures are products of patriarchy and imperialism, though in contrasting ways. Unlike the Canaanite prostitute who betrays her people to side with Israelite invaders, Judith is a faithful Israelite widow who stands for land and people under threats of Assyria’s imperial invasion. She is able to remain pure, resist, and rescue her people by posing as a traitor to kill the Assyrian general. Both women are reductive representations of their land or people by patriarchal Israelites for patriarchal Israelites, whether the purpose is colonial or anti-colonial.

In another, more affirmative reading of Rahab, Dube identifies her own situation in Africa with that of Rahab: she is caught in a (neo)colonial situation “where the powerful threaten to wipe out the cities” and a colonial-type conquest in the AIDS epidemic (2005b, p. 177). Rahab tying a crimson cord in her window becomes for Dube a choice for life after an honest assessment of reality. Dube does highlight a difference between herself and Rahab; instead of waiting for the colonizers to knock down the walls that divide the world into powerful and less powerful, Dube’s article is her red ribbon that invites the world to acknowledge the impact of imperialism and HIV/AIDS and “stand in solidarity with Africa and all other people…to save life” (p. 178).

Reading the 2004 U.S. presidential election by another triplet of G-s (“God, guns, and gays”), Pui-lan Kwok (2006) underscores connections among Bible, empire-building through militarism, and gender and sexual mores to interpret Rahab. Citing Foucault and postcolonial theorists like Said and Homi Bhabha, Kwok emphasizes that “sexuality is always embedded and inscribed in larger societal structures and political discourses”: Rahab as a prostitute “symbolizes not only the availability of her female body and reproductive power, but also the domestication of the land, the licentious behavior of the Canaanites, and the unequal position between the colonizers and the conquered” (2006, pp. 29, 45). Rather than highlighting her agency positively as a heroine (as many white feminists do) or negatively as a sellout (as Dube does in her earlier work), Kwok compares Rahab with sex workers in Asia and focuses on social forces that limited Rahab’s choices.

Erin Runions (2008) reads Rahab as a hybrid and queer figure. Building on the work of scholars like Randall Bailey and Ken Stone, Runions suggests that Rahab, as Canaanite and prostitute (thus not a mother, wife, or monogamous), embodies racialized nonheteronormativity. Arguing that this hybrid, queer figure has the potential to undercut the affective value of colonial heteronormativity, Runions refers to a wide assortment of resources. She appeals, for example, to Althea Spencer Miller’s work on orality as corrective to colonial preferences for the literary and Spencer Miller’s humorous but subversive story about a Jamaican nanny, who, to protect her rebel colleagues, bares her behind to distract British soldiers and nonfatally absorb their bullets. Runions also refers to historical-critical scholarship to argue that there was, behind the book of Joshua, an earlier indigenous story about Rahab that functions like the nanny story. Removing Rahab’s confession of faith and negotiation with the spies, Runions suggests that the earlier tale consists of Joshua 2:1–8, 15–16, and 22–23. In this earlier tale, the spies are irresponsible (they visit a prostitute when told by Joshua to scout out the land), incompetent (their exact location is known to Jericho’s king), and impotent (their desire for sexual conquest by visiting a prostitute is not only frustrated but reversed, as they become objects of Rahab’s commands), and they thus come across as idiotic, silly, and laughable. The king of Jericho and his men do not look much better. Tricked by Rahab, they spend their time on a wild-goose chase. Rahab comes across in this tale as a nonheteronormative Canaanite trickster in control of her life and situation. For Runions, the reversal from the Israelites spying to invade the land and oust the Canaanites to Rahab becoming the subject who sends away the spies is both funny and disruptive of the Deuteronomistic redaction that turns Rahab into a turncoat collaborating with the colonization of her city/people. Humor is disruptive in Runions’s view because it is also queer; it works by making odd connections.

Highlighting tropes from their experiences as Asian Americans, Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan and Mai-Anh Le Tran (2009) read Rahab as moving from a “hybrid subject” living epistemologically and physically in a liminal space between Canaanite and Israelite worlds, to a “model minority” but simultaneously objectified and “sexualized other” who betrays her people for her own survival, to finally a “perpetual foreigner” who is “figuratively and literally returned to Canaan”—Rahab and her kindred were all sent “outside the camp of Israel” after the conquest (Joshua 6:23). Rahab’s story does not just use a native woman to represent the land and the complicity of the native people in their own colonization. It also keeps the native woman “outside” during the conquest and ousts her afterward.

Marcella Althaus-Reid’s (2007) reading of a “post-colonial Rahab” makes two points about queer reading and postcolonial reading: (1) they share a commitment to challenge the “tyranny of custom” and (2) they have different understandings of “frontier”—the postcolonial frontier refers to the border that colonizers use to construct the imperial self, but the queer frontier is transgenderism. Althaus-Reid notes how the text locates Rahab at the frontier; her house is not only in the wall that defines the boundary of the city but also between the public (as a business) and the private (as a domestic home). Reading Rahab’s story alongside a novel by Lázaro Covadlo and a poem by Anzaldúa, Althaus-Reid suggests that Joshua’s text asks Rahab to give up her frontier existence and independence to live by “a heterosexual, mono-loving, mentality of only one nation, one God and one faith” that “silenc[es]…the right to difference” by calling “the imperial destruction of trangressive [sic] women…salvation” (2007, pp. 134, 139, 140).

Recognizing that colonizers and colonized use a native woman figure for different purposes, Steed Davidson (2013) suggests that Rahab is presented as a woman with agency to “feminize” and shame native men. The inability of native men to control their women indicates their inability to protect their land. Besides bringing native men into this discussion, Davidson brings into the mix two other women: one native and one Israelite. Davidson points to similarities between Rahab and the Kenite woman Jael of Judges 4. Like Rahab, Jael is a native woman who betrays her own people to serve the interests of the invading Israelites: by killing Sisera (the military leader of Canaan’s King Jabin)— even though Sisera is supposedly under the protection of Jael’s husband—Jael facilitates Jabin’s destruction and Israel’s victory. Davidson then points to differences between Jael and Deborah. Jael is an extension of Deborah, an Israelite “prophetess” who gives Barak the plan to defeat Sisera and “arose as a mother in Israel” (Judg 4:4; 5:7). However, Jael performs the violent act of murder and remains a tent-dwelling Kenite. Jael is, in the language of Bhabha’s exploration of colonial mimicry, “almost the same as Deborah but not quite” (Davidson, 2013, p. 85). The apparent agency of Jael, like that of Rahab, is thus only another manifestation of brown women being saved from brown men. These two native women not only subvert non-Israelite patriarchal authority but also reveal the weaknesses of all natives, men and women included.

Davidson is not interested in repudiating native women as pawns or focusing on their agency in colonial discourse. Citing Althaus-Reid’s “queer epistemology,” Davidson emphasizes reading these textual images of native women as already fractured because these images are almost the same as native women in flesh and blood but not quite. Similarly, Davidson questions the binary construction of native men and native women in these texts. A postcolonial approach to the Bible in general—and to native women in the Bible in particular—involves for Davidson a destabilization of the text and its constructed images into ambiguity. Finally, Davidson suggests that the hope of postcolonial biblical readings lies in the postcolonial reader. “Precisely in the tension between text and reality, between woman and Woman,” Davidson writes, “the image shatters because real women read these texts” (2013, p. 90).

Instead of focusing on non-Israelite women, Uriah Kim (2014) looks at a male Israelite, Samson. Reading Judges within the framework of the Deuteronomistic history, Kim (1) stresses the imperial context of this corpus’s writing, with Israel struggling to survive under three successive empires (Assyria, Babylon, and Persia), and (2) suggests that Samson could be read as a representative of, and a metaphor for, Israel, particularly its ruling elite males. If Samson’s death represents Israel’s victimization at imperial hands, his life might tell more about life in the shadow of empires. Pointing out how Samson’s father is ignored and sidelined as his wife and the angel anticipate and plan for Samson’s birth and future, as well as how Samson is humiliated or “feminized” by Delilah (she shaves his head) and other Philistines (they force him to do what is generally done by women and sexually suggestive: grinding at a mill and performing to entertain), Kim argues that this reflects what Israelite elite males were feeling during their exile: loss of male identity and patriarchal authority. In fact, Kim states that women in Judges “function as threats to [Israel’s] identity, either as instruments or as causes,” so male characters sacrifice, kill, and rape women characters (like Jephthah’s daughter, the unnamed concubine, and the women of Shiloh) in the book to protect or reestablish their identity and authority as “sons of Israel” (2014, pp. 7–8).

Beyond lamenting this loss, Samson’s story also protests against imperial cruelty. Kim suggests that throughout the “tit-for-tat” contest between Samson and the Philistines, Samson behaves with a sense of fairness and a “concept of proportionality” while the Philistines do not (2014, p. 14). For example, the Philistines solve Samson’s riddle by blackmailing Samson’s wife, while Samson’s retirement to Etam after slaughtering the Philistines in revenge for their burning of his wife and her family indicates Samson’s readiness to call it even. Considering the translation of Samson’s request to God in Judges 16:28 as “so that I may be avenged upon the Philistines for one of my two eyes,” Kim proposes that we see in the unevenness of this equation the colonized’s protest against abuses they suffered at the hands of their colonizers.


Another woman who attracts postcolonial readings is Ruth. Davidson observes that Ruth, a gentile like Rahab, becomes part of the Israelite lineage by separating herself from native land and culture (2013, p. 74). In her reading of Ruth, Donaldson (1999; see also McKinlay, 2004, pp. 37–56), noting that native women among the Quiché Mayan would prefer the tale of Judith to that of Moses and Exodus, highlights a reading process by the colonized that “actively selects and invents, rather than passively accepts” colonial texts through a persistent American Indian tradition or “Native ‘survivance’” (1999, p. 22). Donaldson then (1) connects Ruth with Rahab and Pocahontas, (2) contests intermarriage that Ruth went through not once but twice as a strategy that Thomas Jefferson proposed to assimilate Native Americans, and (3) compares the different paths taken by Ruth and her Moabite sister-in-law, Orpah. While Ruth’s assimilation leads to her own displacement (her child with Boaz is given to Naomi), Orpah, though only mentioned twice in the book, provides a counternarrative and a more important model than Ruth by returning to her “mother’s house” and hence her own nonpatriarchal heritage and racial/ethnic identity. For Donaldson, Orpah’s is “a courageous act of self and communal affirmation: the choosing of the indigenous mother’s house over that of the alien Israelite Father” (1999, p. 36).

Agreeing with Donaldson about the need for postcolonial readings to be informed by a reader’s cultural traditions, Dube (2005a) takes Donaldson’s proposal for postcolonial inventive readings a step further by imagining four letters that Orpah wrote to Ruth after their tearful goodbye to each other. Dube literarily allows Orpah and Ruth to tell their own version of their story. In these letters, Dube imagines (1) an origin story regarding the Moabites that is different from Genesis 19, where, as Donaldson points out through Bailey’s work, Moabites were hypersexualized as descendants of an incestuous affair between Lot and his eldest daughter (Donaldson, 1999, pp. 23–24), (2) Orpah and Ruth as sisters and princesses, (3) Orpah becoming a queen and priestess upon returning to her mother’s house, and (4) Orpah encouraging Ruth to instill in her children a respect for the Moabites. In another article on Ruth, Dube (2001) reads the relationship between Ruth the Moabite and her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, as symptomatic of unequal relations between nations: (1) Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is not reciprocated by Naomi, so it signifies not a mutually loving but a slave-to-master relationship; and (2) the land of Moab is associated with death (Naomi lost her husband and sons there), but its resources are used to benefit Naomi (Ruth’s service as an obedient daughter-in-law, including bearing a son for Naomi). Ruth’s story is thus for Dube “unusable as a model of liberating interdependence between nations” (2001, p. 194).

Gale Yee’s (2009) reading of Ruth as “model minority” and “perpetual foreigner” notes that Ruth vanishes at the closing of her story and focuses on economic and class issues in the story. For Yee, readers must remember that Ruth is an impoverished woman whose actions are compelled by economic urgency. Like Dube, Yee reads Ruth’s pledge to Naomi as “a verbal contract” between subordinate and superior (p. 130). This explains for Yee why Ruth does, and Naomi does not, go out to glean; why Ruth gleans “without resting even for a moment” (Ruth 2:7)); why Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions so readily; and why Naomi displaces Ruth as Obed’s mother. Yee also discusses Boaz’s economic exploitation of Ruth. Like Naomi, Boaz does not need to labor physically; he only gives commands. Boaz’s desire to keep Ruth working in his field might have more to do with Ruth’s tireless productivity, not to mention the piece of land that Boaz gains by taking Ruth as his wife. If Ruth’s marriage strengthens Boaz’s economic status as a landowner in Judah, Ruth’s child preserves the lineage of Naomi’s husband and hence secures Naomi’s economic place in the community. Ruth’s story, for Yee, “becomes an indictment of those…who live in the First World who exploit the cheap labor of developing countries and poor immigrants from these countries who come to the First World looking for jobs” (2009, p. 134).


Yee mentions the possibility that Ruth was written during the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, when marriage with foreign women was condemned for Israelite males. For Roland Boer (2013), the condemnation of foreign women in Ezra-Nehemiah is part of a collective political subjectivity construction, since the lists in these books indicate a desire and anxiety to separate people into identifiable groups, both from and within the inside (see also Boer, 2005). Beside emphasizing the importance of Marxist analysis in reading these books (since the lists divide people into groups that labor and those that do not), Boer argues that a “spiral of exclusion” (2013, p. 224) is necessary and endless for constructing a collective political subjectivity because boundary, whether between insider and outsider or between the process and product of subject construction, is always fluid and leaky.


While Runions is interested in the individual reader as subject, her reading of Micah (2001) shares many of the features found in Boer’s reading above. Boer’s interest in collective political subjectivity is close to Runions’s interest in the question of nation in Micah. Like Boer, Runions investigates postcolonial, gender, and class concerns in a biblical text and highlights a text’s instability or indeterminacy to question binary assumptions. Specifically, Runions argues that the scholarly tendency of reading in Micah “the nation as a punished, passive and suffering woman waiting for her divine male hero to lead her into a glorious future of dominion over other nations” results more from a reader’s ideology about gender hierarchy and Israel’s divinely ordained nationhood than the text of Micah itself. Pointing out that the text is incoherent in its depiction of the nation—especially how Micah 4:8–14 and Micah 5—6 portray the nation as both male and female, human and divine, colonizer and colonized—Runions suggests that, if read carefully, Micah’s nation as a hybrid figure might sensitize a reader to his or her own ideology and subject position and hence carry the potential of shifting a reader’s ideology and subject position.


The question of subjectivity returns us to the difficulty of defining who, when, where, and what is postcolonial as well as the instability of gender identity. Just as gender and postcolonial concerns might bring about a productive tension, the ambiguity of gender and the instability of the postcolonial can create a momentum to keep asking new questions and bringing new angles to old questions (Trinh, 1989). The intersection between postcolonial and gender concerns in biblical interpretation remains open-ended, which explains the diversity, elasticity, and intertextuality demonstrated in the illustrations above.




  • Aldrich, Robert. Colonialism and Homosexuality. London: Routledge, 2003.
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  • Aydemir, Murat. “Introduction: Indiscretions at the Sex/Culture Divide.” In Indiscretions: At the Intersection of Queer and Postcolonial Theory, edited by Murat Aydemir, pp. 9–30. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.
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