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.
Jasmine Devadason, “Decolonising Priesthood: Reconstructing the Priestly Role of Women in the Hebrew Bible”
My journey into ordained ministry has not been a straightforward one. I pursued my ministerial training in the midst of this opposition, only for the diocese to tell me at the end that they did not ordain women, not even if we had completed our training. The only options open to me were to become a religious education teacher in a school or a community worker. It was not possible for me to carry any responsibility within the church’s ministry. And even now, after ordination and having served the church for many years in different capacities, as equally qualified as my husband, it is very much evident that I do not receive the same recognition he does among the Asian communities we serve.
The reasons given to justify male-oriented leadership within the church are often based on biblical passages that have been misinterpreted and misused. We either fail to find female leaders in active religious duty in the Bible, or passages are quoted that speak against the leadership of women. Despite many studies into the subject of women leadership, discrimination against women in leadership roles continues.
Being a student of the Bible, in this paper I would like to decolonise the idea of biblical priesthood that is our basis for supporting or speaking against woman’s priesthood in today’s context. For this, I find the decolonial approach useful, since it challenges political, social, economic and ideological hierarchies.
Decolonising a text, however, goes beyond critiquing all forms of power. A decolonial reading is to critique the biblical text and re-centre the people who the text marginalises. So when we start to tell the history of priesthood in the Bible, it is important to see why a particular group of men dominated religious affairs and why they were in control of the temple and its activities. Recognising this will help us to understand how biblical history has dealt with the concept of priesthood and decolonise those histories so we can rewrite the role of women in religious activities.
Biblical priesthood in the Hebrew Bible is often associated with legal materials found in the book of Leviticus. The development of high priesthood is a later entity, but equating men with religious duties started early in Biblical history. Often, the temple was connected to the ruling class of the time. The empire and colonial power controlled the temple’s affairs. In the post-exilic period, high priests were in charge of the civil system along with the religious system, which led high priests to become rulers in the later period. Since religious affairs were controlled by a certain group of men and often affiliated with the empire, women were excluded from both religious and civil affairs.
The decolonisation process does not stop at asking the right questions nor at recognising the answers: it challenges the traditional narrative of the text with the purpose of recovering the biblical story from the patriarchal/colonial influences and reconstructing it from the voice of the marginalised. Choosing a different starting point, focusing on a different set of characters and retelling a biblical story in a different way are how we create a decolonial reading. To reconstruct the role of women in religious functions (which will help us shape our theology to accept women in church leadership), in this paper, I would like to retell the story of female characters who are given minimal attention in the Bible but played a major role in history, like Miriam, Deborah and the wise women in Samuel.
Firstly, my approach to biblical priesthood is to acknowledge the fact that the Bible was written by men in favour of men. When decolonising the text it is essential to become aware of the worldview of these men, so that we can make the hidden colonising strategies visible for the reader and find a way to confront the marginalisation of women in religious affairs.
Secondly, what is the role of a priest? Who defined the role of priest? How can we deconstruct the role description of the priest in order to reconstruct it and redeem it from the male-orientated worldview? This would help us to expand the priestly role to include women.
Thirdly, I will find alternative subaltern women voices in leadership roles in the Bible, so we can identify the call and vocation of women in religious and pastoral affairs and bring to light the role of women such as Miriam amidst the leadership of Moses and Aaron; Deborah and the functions she held besides being a prophet; and the wise women in 1 Samuel 14 and 24, who had major leadership roles in a place dominated by men.