Jasmine Devadason was originally from the Church of South India and currently works as a learning and development officer for the North West & Mann Region of the Methodist Church. Jasmine served as a tutor of Hebrew Bible/CWM mission partners at the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme (STETS), Sarum College, Salisbury, before moving to Manchester. Jasmine worked for the Diocese of Manchester as a world mission officer and has been ordained by the diocese of Manchester and served as a curate in Christ Church and St. Christopher, West Didsbury. She has completed a PhD at the University of Manchester on examining the Book of Job from a Dalit woman’s perspective. Her academic interest focus on the Hebrew Bible, Dalit Feminist Liberation hermeneutics and the post-colonial hermeneutics.
She incorporates contemporary and contextual issues in her teaching, writing and preaching, and is interested in the liberation of the oppressed. She supports and is involved in local, national and global organisations and institutions that work with grassroots groups.
“Quest for Life: A postcolonial Dalit Feminist Reading of Qoheleth”
Although many studies have conducted postcolonial and feminist readings of the Bible, Qoheleth has not received much attention from this approach. In-depth reading of this book provides an insight into the context of oppression and marginalisation. Hence, this paper intends to read Qoheleth from a postcolonial Dalit feminist perspective, to bring out liberative hermeneutical insights relevant for today.
Although many studies have conducted postcolonial and feminist readings of the Bible, Qoheleth has not received much attention from this approach. In-depth reading of this book provides an insight into the context of oppression and marginalisation. Hence, this paper intends to read Qoheleth from a postcolonial Dalit feminist perspective, to bring out liberative hermeneutical insights relevant for Public sphere today.
The postcolonial Dalit feminist experience is one of resistance and resilience, and a call to defeat all forms of hegemonic power. The purpose of reading in this way is to deconstruct the unbalanced relationships and hierarchical structures that are the origins of the oppression, marginalisation, unfairness and injustice experienced in society.
Qoheleth could be read and heard in two ways. The book portrays a cry of the oppressed and the marginalised, as it considers valuing power and authority to constitute vanity. On the other hand, it can be read as voiced by a coloniser who sees life as something to be enjoyed, by eating and drinking and revelling in companionship. To a certain extent, by separating people into two groups, Qoheleth gives us two voices, and the text could be interpreted to either support the colonised mindset or to read against it. How we read it depends on who we see as the speaker and where we think he/she stands.
By writing under the name Solomon, Qoheleth implies we should see its author as someone from the elite who understands society’s power dynamics, and the way in which the system works and affects the public. This is important to recognise, because the book approaches oppression from that particular perspective; it provides a solution from the elite’s point of view.
Qoheleth offers his readers a coping mechanism – that is, to trust God and enjoy the gift of life by eating, drinking and seeking companionship – which favours the people who have wealth, life and a community they can get together with. It fails to offer an alternative for people who do not have this; nor does it question the underlying oppression and exploitation.
What could be comforting for a subaltern reader is how the Qoheleth speaks against the traditional wisdom and traditional understanding of power and privileges, which have often served as tools to oppress the public majority. Maybe the author himself was not powerless, but his audience surely was.
The question here is who holds the power. Does Qoheleth write from his past colonial mindset, trying to tackle the colonial oppression of the Ptolemies? Or do the answers that Qoheleth gives not apply to the majority of the public? Where does the public stand in the oppressive structure?
What will be the alternative voice? Is there a solution that does dismantle societal oppression and provides not only political freedom but also the economic and social freedom that the public needs in an oppressive context? Enjoying what we have is an answer for people who have already accumulated wealth and status. Where does this leave the marginalised, who have nothing to be enjoyed and constitute the majority of the public?
Does Qoheleth have an answer to these questions? There are passages within Qoheleth where we find proto-postcolonial texts that could be helpful, but they would need to be deconstructed before they can provide an alternative reading. Decolonising the text is to name and acknowledge the fact that the text exists to serve the purpose of the colonisers. It is important to deconstruct it before reconstructing it from the point of view of the subaltern public.
My approach to the Qoheleth is to acknowledge and address the colonisers’ voice within the text in order to decolonise and then reconstruct the book to bring out its liberative potential. Decolonising the text is to make the hidden colonising strategies visible for the reader and to become aware of the worldview of the oppressors/colonisers so that we can find a way to confront their oppression.
A second aspect of my approach is to find any alternative subaltern public voices present in the text, to formulate a postcolonial future for the majority of the public living in the midst of oppression. While the world sees power/authority/kingship as a norm for controlling the public and the ruling hierarchical structure is a place of domination and exploitation, Qoheleth holds a view to an alternative world, where power and authority are considered vanity and of no value, which makes everyone equal.
In my search for subaltern public voices, women voices are important. Colonialism deepens women’s subjugation, since it adds to the oppression already forced upon them by the patriarchal system. Postcolonial studies often sideline gender-based oppression within their methodology, and so it is important to approach the text from the perspective of marginalised women to fully bring out its liberative potential.
Qoheleth is already ‘deconstructionist’ in many ways. It deconstructs hierarchy by questioning many of the dichotomic and hierarchical relationships present in the world, such as stability/instability, rich/poor, nature/culture, spiritual/material, male/female, reason/emotion and power/powerless. In a way, Qoheleth’s voice is revaluing Solomon’s rule as leading to הבל (vanity or futility). In that way, the Solomon of the past not only left a reconstructed legacy but, from the perspective of Qoheleth, Solomon can also provide recommendations for survival, self-monitoring and quiet resistance that will promote the well-being of those in third-century Ptolemaic Judah. As Qoheleth is somewhat of a proto-postcolonial writer, he offers suggestions for resisting and deconstructing oppressive structures in this world. Qoheleth provides glimpses of a postcolonial future, which need to be rediscovered to make them obvious to the readers today.