Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) is Professor of Old Testament Studies in the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies at the University of South Africa, Pretoria. An NRF B-rated researcher, a member of the Academy of Science in South Africa (MASSAf), she has published numerous scientific articles and chapters in specialist books in the area of the Hebrew Bible and gender, especially in African contexts. She is the editor of several books and journals. She served as one of the associate editors of The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Fortress-Augsburg) Her book, How Worthy is the Woman of Worth? Rereading Proverbs 31:10-31 was published by Peter Lang. She has co-edited with K.N. Ngwa, a volume titled, Navigating African Biblical Hermeneutics: Trends and Themes from our Pots and our Calabashes(Cambridge Scholars Press, 2018). Since January 2021, she has been seconded to the Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor where she now serves as the acting Executive Director.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My research journey started immediately after the completion of my Master of Arts degree (Biblical Studies-Old Testament specialization) in 1989 with the publication of my first scientific journal article. Since then and even through my PhD studies completed in 1996, I have been fascinated by researching on Old Testament Studies especially with the intersection of gender, culture, Africanness(race) as these impact the lives of African and South African women. With the book of Proverbs as my area of expertise, and having become the first Black South African woman to obtain a PhD in Biblical Studies in South Africa, and the first person to approach the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from a womanhood perspective at the University of South Africa, I basically walked the lonely journey of un-chartered territory mainly self-mentoring. In the area of feminist and womanist Biblical hermeneutics, I drew particular inspiration and motivation from the gender-conscious scholars in the US, African women theologians within the Circle of Concerned African women and theologians, and South African feminist theologians.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
What sparked my interest in moving away from Biblical Studies that focused only on the Biblical text and its past was the introduction to contextual approaches to Old Testament Studies by my White male study leader. I then embarked on a Masters dissertation with a theme: In the School of Wisdom: An interpretation of Old Testament Proverbs in a Northern Sotho Context. A major shift happened just before I could register for my doctoral research. After being asked to present a paper of a feminist perspective on theology with reference to Black feminist theology, and being introduced to feminist and womanist works, I was never to be the same again as It became clear that not only was Biblical hermeneutics a political process, even the Biblical text itself, was not innocent in terms of ideologies that were, among other things, androcentric and elitist. I was also conscientized to the political nature of my own South African context as well as the role of the Christian Bible in the oppression of Black people and women.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
As already noted, the burden of being the first, in a racially charged South African context, had to be navigated with determination, resilience and perseverance.Doing Old Testament Studies that challenged Eurocentric Biblical Studies meant that one would get an ideological push-back. I did a reading of the Prophet Jeremiah encouraging the exiles to settle down in Babylon. I read this through the trope of “being in exile at home as a Black woman.” The peer-reviewer, agitated by my “deviant ideological stance,” commented that my article had a story to tell but not in a scientific journal, in a magazine! A push-back also happens within the androcentric Black scholarship as well as in the Black church. Although it has been a lonely road, for the sake of leaving a legacy for generations to come, I did not have the luxury to give up. An opportunity given to supervise graduate students also enabled me to transfer the skills.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
Through the years, I have always read the Book of Ruth, in the Hebrew Bible, as informed by the varied experiences of South African and other Continental African women. For example, the theme of emptiness, the challenges experienced by single Christian women, reading the book informed by the pandemic of HIV and AIDS, challenging the idolization of hetero-sexual marriage relationships both in the book and in the Bible readers’ contexts, I have always wished to produce a book whose content would be shaped by the experiences of African-South African women as reading lens.
I have also started work on the theme of race, the Cushite, and an idelogical reading of the text in Jeremiah 13 through the lens of African people. I am considering this work as a book project. In recent years, I have also developed interest in masculinities studies. Informed by the bosadi (womanhood-redefined) approach I would like to read the Book of Proverbs in African contexts through a masculinity optic.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
In order to do justice to the experiences of (African) Black women in my liberationist reading of the Biblical text (Christian religion/ the sacred texts of Christianity), I have developed a bosadi (womanhood-redefined) approach. This allows me to navigate from feminism through to womanism as a gender- conscious approach that is closer to home. My research engages issues of Africanness (race), liberationist gender-conscious Biblical hermeneutics (gender and religion). I have used the bosadi approach to engage with the book of Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible (my Masters dissertation and Doctoral thesis) and several OT texts. My thesis was modified and published as the book titled, How Worthy is the Woman of Worth? Rereading Proverbs 31:10-31 in African-South Africa, published by Peter Lang, NY, USA. Recently, some of my doctoral students have applied the bosadi concept to their different contexts. This points to the impact of my scholarship in various African women’s contexts among others.