A life well spent in search of knowl­edge

The Rev Dr Ju­dith McKin­lay did not look to the Church for easy an­swers. Her ques­tions were much too search­ing for that, writes her son, Otago Daily Times fea­tures editor Tom McKin­lay.

Otago Daily Times - - OBITUARIES - JU­DITH MCKIN­LAY Bi­b­li­cal scholar

AMONG the trib­utes at Ju­dith McKin­lay’s fu­neral was one emailed by Prof Carolyn Sharp, a col­league in bi­b­li­cal schol­ar­ship from Yale Divin­ity School, in the United States.

She said Ju­dith had given her courage ‘‘many times’’ to con­tinue her work, when she had been afraid to push past ‘‘guild norms’’. Prof Sharp shared part of a pref­ace for a new book, on Joshua, in which she sin­gled out Ju­dith for show­ing how ‘‘fem­i­nist and post­colo­nial schol­ars might in­ter­ro­gate their own po­si­tions of priv­i­lege . . . I have learned much from her’’.

It was a trib­ute the rest of us recog­nised to a woman who con­tin­ued to ask ques­tions, in­clud­ing of her­self, un­til the last.

Ju­dith did not live to read the pref­ace her­self. She died on Fe­bru­ary 9, aged 81, fol­low­ing a pe­riod with can­cer, at home in Dunedin.

Fem­i­nism and post­colo­nial­ism were at the heart of Ju­dith’s jour­ney as a bi­b­li­cal scholar. A jour­ney that saw her be­come pro­fes­sor of Old Tes­ta­ment at Knox The­o­log­i­cal Hall, the first woman to hold the po­si­tion.

So, it’s in­ter­est­ing that when she wrote of her back­ground and how it might have in­flu­enced her life choices, it was the men in her past — colonists, even — that she named first.

‘‘Was I pre­des­tined to enter the Pres­by­te­rian min­istry?’’ she wrote.

‘‘Not only was my fa­ther, Graeme McKen­zie, a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter (ap­pointed Mod­er­a­tor in

1973), but his — and there­fore my — im­me­di­ate fore­bears were mem­bers of a com­mu­nity led by an au­to­cratic Scot­tish cleric

[the Rev Nor­man McLeod], that left Scot­land for Nova Sco­tia in 1817, and af­ter some years there sailed on to New Zealand where, af­ter re­quest­ing land for his close Gaelic­speak­ing com­mu­nity, fi­nally set­tled in North­land at Waipu.’’

The ro­man­ti­cism of the story pleased Ju­dith, I think: Scots leav­ing a land in­fested with English and the ‘‘worldly’’ to fol­low an idea.

Her Waipu fam­ily was one of teach­ers, her great­grand­fa­ther the first teacher and reg­is­trar of the com­mu­nity there. And, in­deed, Ju­dith be­gan as a school teacher — af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a mas­ter’s de­gree (hons) in

Latin from Vic­to­ria Univer­sity in Welling­ton — at Ran­giora High School.

Teach­ing re­mained a pas­sion through­out her life.

JU­DITH was born in Drury, out­side Auck­land, in 1937 to the Rev McKen­zie and his wife, Es­ther, a sharply in­tel­li­gent, York­shire­born woman and also a teacher.

She did not find the

ex­pec­ta­tions at­tached to be­ing a min­is­ter’s daugh­ter easy, but church re­mained im­por­tant and she met my fa­ther, Henry McKin­lay, at a Stu­dent Chris­tian Move­ment camp in Palmer­ston North.

Soon af­ter mar­ry­ing, in 1963, the pair em­barked on a peri­patetic pe­riod, tak­ing in the UK, In­done­sia and the New He­brides, fol­low­ing my fa­ther’s early med­i­cal ca­reer.

In 1971, they set­tled in Dunedin — with three chil­dren by this time: Jane, Richard and me — where Henry took on a med­i­cal prac­tice. In 1974, they had the last of their four chil­dren, my brother Luke.

In the late ’70s, Ju­dith be­came aware of the re­cently es­tab­lished Women’s Refuge in Dunedin, and in 1980 joined the col­lec­tive. Here she met fem­i­nism in ac­tion, she wrote later: ‘‘Gain­ing an un­der­stand­ing of the sub­tleties of con­trol as well as the more overt forms of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.’’

The ex­pe­ri­ence fed into her de­ci­sion to train for the Pres­by­te­rian min­istry with the pos­si­ble goal of work­ing as a chap­lain. She ap­plied to Knox The­o­log­i­cal Hall in 1983 and be­gan train­ing the fol­low­ing year.

They were years in which fem­i­nism was mak­ing its mark in the aca­demic world, Ju­dith recorded. In that same year, a ground­break­ing work, In

Memory of Her, by Har­vard pro­fes­sor Elis­a­beth Schus­sler Fiorenza, ap­peared, re­claim­ing the role played by women in early Chris­tian his­tory.

In the years im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing its pub­li­ca­tion, Ju­dith’s fo­cus was New Tes­ta­ment stud­ies and she quoted Fiorenza’s trans­la­tion of 1 Corinthi­ans in a fi­nal­year ex­er­cise: ‘‘You how­ever are in Christ Je­sus who has be­come for us Sophia from God. We too have heard.’’

Sophia, the wis­dom fig­ure of the Bi­ble, the goddess fig­ure, had some­how sur­vived the mil­len­nia dur­ing which scribes and other keep­ers of the faith had in­sisted on a sin­gu­lar, es­sen­tially mas­cu­line de­ity, to reap­pear as an as­pect of the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of God made flesh.

The Wis­dom fig­ure be­came the sub­ject of Ju­dith’s PhD, be­gun in 1987 and later pub­lished as Gen­der­ing Wis­dom the Host.

‘‘So fol­lowed many years in com­pany with Wis­dom/Sophia, agree­ing with those sug­gest­ing a pos­si­ble ori­gin in ear­lier Canaan­ite and Is­raelite god­desses such as Asherah,’’ Ju­dith would write.

The nu­mi­nous had al­ways been fem­i­nine too, and could be again.

BY 1989, Ju­dith had be­come a tem­po­rary lec­turer in Old

Tes­ta­ment Stud­ies at Knox.

Af­ter years of do­mes­tic duty, Ju­dith had found great rich­ness in her re­turn to stud­ies, work­ing tire­lessly as a stu­dent; among other things, mas­ter­ing the ex­otic scrawl of an­cient He­brew. It seemed now that she might reap the re­wards.

But it wasn’t go­ing to be quite

that straight­for­ward. While fem­i­nist bi­b­li­cal schol­ar­ship had moved for­ward in leaps and bounds, the Church had not.

When, in 1990, Ju­dith was nom­i­nated for the chair in Old Tes­ta­ment Stud­ies, there was op­po­si­tion that con­tin­ued all the way to the Church’s high­est court, the Gen­eral Assem­bly. It looked very much like both Ju­dith’s gen­der and her fem­i­nism were at is­sue. Nev­er­the­less, a vote at the assem­bly con­firmed Ju­dith in the po­si­tion, over ob­jec­tions from the floor, and she be­came pro­fes­sor of Old Tes­ta­ment Stud­ies.

By 1996, the fi­nan­cial po­si­tion of the Church led to the Univer­sity of Otago as­sum­ing full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the teach­ing of the­ol­ogy, fol­low­ing a pe­riod of co­op­er­a­tion with Knox. Ju­dith took up a po­si­tion in the univer­sity’s new de­part­ment of the­ol­ogy and re­li­gious stud­ies.

By this time, her schol­ar­ship was both fem­i­nist and post­colo­nial in its fo­cus, read­ing the bi­b­li­cal texts from the point of view of a Pakeha woman in Aotearoa.

In his eu­logy, Prof Peter Mathe­son, who worked with Ju­dith at Knox, said she carved her own space within the Church’s tra­di­tion, while re­main­ing true to it.

‘‘She is one of those rare the­olo­gians who are gen­uinely orig­i­nal, not only in what she said, but in how she said it,’’ Prof Mathe­son said.

‘‘She taught us that we read the text, or are read by it, ac­cord­ing to where we stand, blink­ered as we are by our com­plic­i­ties, il­lu­mined, if so it be, by hap­pen­stance.’’

Ju­dith took a panoply of women from the an­cient texts and read them through a new lens, restor­ing their agency and sig­nif­i­cance.

Among these was Jezebel. In her 2004 book Re­fram­ing Her,

Ju­dith ques­tioned ev­ery part of the re­ceived un­der­stand­ing of the Phoeni­cian queen who mar­ried into He­brew his­tory. Jezebel the out­sider, the

Other, the wor­ship­per of

Baal and Asherah, the threat to Is­rael’s mythol­ogy in the mak­ing, is as­sessed in a more sym­pa­thetic light.

But the women didn’t get a free pass. Ra­hab and Ruth had to an­swer for their roles in the Is­raelites’ ac­qui­si­tion of land fol­low­ing the Ex­o­dus. In this con­text Ju­dith wrote that ‘‘there is an on­go­ing dan­ger that other dom­i­nant cul­tures, such as mine, will find it all too easy to iden­tify with the dom­i­nant voice, which jus­ti­fies the tak­ing of land, on the as­sump­tion that Canaan­ites are in­her­ently wicked.’’

Ju­dith was very specif­i­cally think­ing of the way in which Maori here have been dis­pos­sessed of their land.

A later ob­ject of her schol­arly at­ten­tion were the Daugh­ters of Zelophe­had, five sis­ters — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — who ap­pear in Num­bers in the He­brew Bi­ble.

Their mo­ment comes as the Is­raelites close on the ‘‘promised land’’. Their fa­ther, Zelophe­had, dies leav­ing no sons, so, stepping out­side tra­di­tion, boldly they ap­proach Moses’ tent to de­mand they be per­mit­ted to in­herit.

Ju­dith writes in her 2014 book, Trou­bling Women and

Land: ‘‘I am in­deed in awe of them.’’

Then she looks again, and re­alises the in­her­i­tance is in fact land taken from oth­ers, those al­ready liv­ing in Caanan. This Ju­dith con­sid­ers along­side the Wake­field set­tle­ments of New Zealand, not­ing Ed­ward Gib­bon Wake­field de­scribed the new coun­try as ‘‘the land of prom­ise’’.

She says to the daugh­ters: ‘‘I find I can­not over­look the fact that the land you were de­mand­ing, as your right, was not yours at all, but other peo­ple’s land.’’

JU­DITH’S work led in 2010 to an in­vi­ta­tion to present a pa­per at Yale on ‘‘The Chal­lenges and Op­por­tu­ni­ties for Fem­i­nist and Post­colo­nial Crit­i­cism’’.

One of her fi­nal es­says will ap­pear in the Ox­ford Hand­book on Fem­i­nist Ap­proaches to the He­brew Bi­ble/Old Tes­ta­ment,

due out this year.

How­ever, the in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment with her work also un­der­lined a grow­ing gulf be­tween where she was and di­rec­tions in the Pres­by­te­rian Church.

These same decades wit­nessed the Church’s fail­ure to ad­dress the place of gay clergy, an­other is­sue on which Ju­dith cham­pi­oned in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity. The weary­ing toll of such strug­gles and the seem­ingly in­tractable po­si­tion of the Church led to a re­al­i­sa­tion that her role as a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter was not ten­able, and it was with con­sid­er­able sad­ness that she re­signed in 2015.

Ear­lier, Ju­dith had been ac­tive in­ter­na­tion­ally with the World Coun­cil of Churches (WCC). In 2004, she pre­sented a key­note speech at the WCC Faith and Or­der Ple­nary Com­mis­sion Assem­bly in Kuala Lumpur.

Ju­dith was al­ways a poet. I re­mem­ber her sit­ting writ­ing in the evening when we chil­dren were younger, on a sheep­skin rug, hug­ging the heater.

Po­etry was wo­ven through her aca­demic writ­ing. In re­cent years, she re­turned to it for its own sake.

Ju­dith cel­e­brated the lan­guage of Wis­dom as ‘‘the tree of life’’ (Proverbs), ‘‘memory of whom is sweeter than honey’’ (Sirach).

‘‘This was, and con­tin­ues to be for me, a po­etry of de­light,’’ she wrote.

Ju­dith dressed the women of her re­search in this lan­guage, res­cu­ing them from the mar­gins and re­liev­ing them of the bur­den of ques­tion­able roles, be­gin­ning with Eve.

She, in the words of one of Ju­dith’s po­ems, was to be found, not guiltily hid­ing her naked­ness, not fallen, but bring­ing the world to life, ‘‘trip­ping and slip­ping to earth

. . . While Wis­dom is danc­ing around her apri­cot tree’’.

Ju­dith McKin­lay is sur­vived by her four chil­dren and nine grand­chil­dren.


Wise words . . . Ju­dith McKin­lay de­liv­ers a lec­ture at Yale Univer­sity.

Ju­dith McKin­lay holds the first of her four chil­dren, Jane, in the mid­1960s.

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