Maasai Women and the Old Testament

Towards an Emancipatory Reading

by Hoyce Jacob Lyimo-Mbowe (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 226 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 29


The research presented in this book is a critical study of some effects of popular biblical interpretations in the context of an East African ethnic group, the Maasai. The book focuses on parallels between concepts of female inferiority in biblical texts and in Maasai traditional culture. It investigates some parallels and analyses their problems as they are conceptualized in popular Maasai biblical interpretation and how these affect the social transformation of the contemporary Maasai women.
Therefore, this book aims at sensitizing readers of the Bible about popular interpretation of biblical texts that consciously, and more often unconsciously, function as a legitimizing force, which authorizes or reinforces socio-cultural structures that oppress women. However, it demonstrates the potential of reading biblical texts from emancipatory perspectives, both in popular and academic critical contexts. Also, this book demonstrates how some popular Maasai biblical interpretations contributes in the academic works for the emancipation of women. Moreover, this work develops its own contextual hermeneutics approach of woman liberation known as enkitok. The new approach borrows some aspects from social fields and it has been employed in this work on some selected biblical texts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter One Introduction
  • 1.1. Case Presentation
  • 1.2. Research Problem
  • 1.3. Aim of the Project
  • 1.4. Methodology
  • 1.5. Ethical Considerations
  • 1.6. Who Are the Maasai?
  • 1.7. Research Context
  • 1.8. Summary
  • Bibliography and Reference to Informants
  • Chapter Two Theoretical Perspectives
  • 2.1. Terminology Clarification of Feminist and Womanist
  • 2.2. Womanist Hermeneutics
  • 2.3. African Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics
  • 2.4. Examples of African Women Interpreting the Bible
  • 2.5. Action Research
  • 2.6. “Reading Other-Wise,” “Ordinary Readers,” and “Reading With”
  • 2.7. The Enkitok Approach
  • 2.8. Summary
  • Bibliography and Reference to Informants
  • Chapter Three Reading Four Old Testament Texts with Maasai Informants
  • 3.1. Maasai Informants Interpreting Genesis 1:27
  • 3.2. Maasai Informants Interpreting 1 Samuel 1:1–28
  • 3.3. Maasai Informants Interpreting Exodus 21:10 and Deuteronomy 21:15–17
  • 3.4. Summary
  • Bibliography and Reference to Informants
  • Chapter Four Dialogical Hermeneutics: Critical Analysis of the Interpretation of the Old Testament with the Maasai Informants
  • 4.1. Dialogical Analysis of Genesis 1:27
  • 4.2. Dialogical Analysis of 1 Samuel 1
  • 4.3. Dialogical Analysis of Exodus 21:10–11
  • 4.4. Dialogical Analysis of Deuteronomy 21:15–17
  • 4.5. Summary
  • Bibliography and Reference to Informants
  • Chapter Five Summary and Concluding Remarks
  • Bibliography and Reference to Informants
  • Index
  • Series index

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Thank you, God, that you made man and woman equal in your image and execute justice for the oppressed. Thank you for this opportunity to work in this project and for your guidance throughout the research.

This monograph is based on the Maasai and the Bible project at VID Specialised University conducted in Arusha region. It benefited from the inputs of a number of individuals and different institutions. Thus, I would like to offer my sincere appreciation to all who supported its successful achievement.

At VID Specialised University/Stavanger, Norway, I record my gratitude to all those who have contributed to the realisation of this project. I express my profound thanks to the project director Prof. Knut Holter for vigorous support and constructive criticism, which has shaped this book. For the administrators and librarians at VID Specialised University and researcher’s cluster in Stavanger, I thank all for their gracious support -Tusen Takk. I acknowledge with much appreciation my team members: Dr. Beth Elness-Hanson and Rev. Zephania Shila for their creative ideas. For Dr. Beth Elness-Hanson, Anya Hanson, Pastor Dean Swenson, Dr. James Bangsund, and Judy Bangsund who were my English critics, I thank them for editing this manuscript. In connection to VID Specialised University, this project received financial assistance from the Norwegian Research Council. I appreciate this financial support, for without it, this project would have been impossible.

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At Tumaini University, Makumira, I appreciate the assistance of the staff members, especially all who participated in various workshops and seminars. A special word of gratitude is due to Prof. Joseph Parsalaw for his perspective critics of this work. The insights of Dr. Angela Olotu and Dr. Simone Zillich-Limmer are much appreciated. At the University of South Africa, I would like to thank Prof. Gerrie F, Snyman, for reading part of my work, for his response, and for useful comments.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, I would like to thank the leadership of Northern Central Diocese, Bishop Dr. Masangwa, District Pastor, Rev. Ngotoroi, and Rev. Dr. Justo Lemburis for their active support and participation during fieldwork, workshops, dissemination seminars, and Bible studies. I am also thankful to Bishop Jacob Mameo of the ELCT/Morogoro Diocese and Rev. Rebecca Madulei from ELCT/Southern Diocese for their participation and positive comments during the workshops. I also express my indebtedness to the leadership of ELCT/ECD, and especial Bishop Dr. Alex Malasusa, who allowed me to undertake this project.

I place on record my sincere gratitude to all my Maasai informants. Their kindness, consistent input, transparency and interest on my research were vital to the achievement of this project. It is beyond a doubt that this monograph depends on their discussion and responses. Many thanks for those helped with translations. Ashe Naleng! Because of research protocol, the names of the informants and translators cannot be disclosed.

I would like to acknowledge with gratitude, the support of my family. I remember and honour Rev. Jacob Lyimo and Luise Lyimo, my late parents, for setting my academic foundation. Worth a particular mention is Rev. Daniel Mbowe, my lovely husband, for his unceasing prayers, love, care, encouragement, and helpful critiques. My special thanks go to my lovely Lydia Mbowe, Calvin Mbowe, sisters, brothers, in-laws, and friends for their prayers, love and words of encouragement. All these were essential to the successful completion of my research.

With due regards, I express my gratitude to all who have been part of this research and contributed to its success in one way or another. Blessings to all!

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CBS Contextual Bible Study
ELCT Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania
ELCT/ECD Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania Eastern and Coastal Diocese
ELCT/NCD Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania Northern Central Diocese
NT New Testament
OT Old Testament
TEE Theological Education by Extension
VID VID Specialised University, Norway
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Are the popular interpretations of the Bible in Africa improving or downplaying women’s status on the continent? This question is derived from the fact that, despite the effort of governments, some Non-Governmental Organisations1, and some churches to fight discrimination against women in Africa, many women around the continent have yet to experience a tangible emancipation in its fullness. The interpretations of the Bible seem to play some role in this fact. The challenges that some women face in Africa indicate that women still have a long way to go to achieve emancipation in its fullness.

One of the central aspects of the biblical message is the emancipation of the oppressed and the empowerment of the marginalised. However, there are some general allegations that the Bible does not give women the same prestige as men. Certainly, this is the case in some controversial passages in the Bible, which need special attention in their analysis. Yet, a close reading of some other texts from the same Bible divulges the high and positive view of women embedded in the genesis of a human being. It is the hypothesis of this study that an interpretation of biblical texts may facilitate the elimination of the discrimination against women.

Women’s experiences of being oppressed and marginalised have captured many researchers’ attention in doing biblical hermeneutics today in Africa.2 The primary purpose of the African interpreters of the Bible is to transform society rather than to solve exegetical questions in the historical means of the term. ←1 | 2→Masenya asserts, “Liberation is seen as the goal of hermeneutics.”3 Other primary areas of focus within African Old Testament studies include, in the words of Knut Holter, “comparative studies, analyzing various kinds or religio- and socio-cultural parallels between traditional Africa and the Old Testament … and the quest for relevance to Church and society.”4

One of the current fundamental questions in African biblical hermeneutics is how to deal with the concepts of female inferiority. The hypothesis of this research project is that unless African traditional cultures and structures that function oppressively with regard to gender are critically challenged and the androcentric biblical texts are interpreted critically, the emancipation of women will remain impossible.

The focus of the present research project is on the experience of women among the Maasai in the Arusha region of Tanzania, East Africa. The assumed parallels between ancient Israel and that of traditional Maasai, particularly the concepts of female inferiority, are addressed in this work. The project proceeds from a commonly demonstrated claim of popular biblical interpretations, which assumes close parallels between social-cultural experiences of ancient Israel and those of traditional Maasai. Therefore, this work scrutinises how some biblical passages that address women’s issues are and can be interpreted in Maasai contexts.

It is my presupposition that some interpretive traditions to the Bible—both popular and scholarly—which demonstrate close parallels between Maasai and biblical ideas of female inferiority, have actually contributed to the marginalisation of women in Maasai society. With this grounding, this work has two foci: first, to sensitise the reader to the marginalisation of women through popular interpretations of the Bible. Second, to demonstrate how the contribution of popular Maasai biblical interpretation in the academic works for the emancipation of women. In fact, marginalisation of women deprives women of their rights. To show how this marginalisation of women functions in the process of biblical interpretation, this research allows Maasai ordinary readers of the Bible to interpret selected biblical texts and discuss pertinent matters such as traditional meaning and practices that keep women subjugated. These include child marriage (which leads to child mothers), polygyny, widowhood, and inheritance of property, among others.

During my fieldwork in Arusha region, I participated in the discussion on gender issues, particularly the matter of polygamy, and the status of women among the Maasai. We read together and interpreted biblical texts concerning creation, polygamy, and the rights of women in polygynous relationships. I interviewed men and women who will be described further in section 1.4.

However, this monograph begins with a case study presentation of one female Maasai informant. This is one of many cases, which has been selected to highlight ←2 | 3→the situation under discussion. It shows not only how this informant interprets the Bible, but also how she experiences and lives it.

1.1. Case Presentation

Neudawo Lonyamal is a Maasai woman whose age is estimated to be over 65. I interviewed her in November 2015, and she shared her experience as a daughter and as a wife.

When Lonyamal was a small girl, her father denied her the opportunity to go to primary school. Her father chose a husband for her when she was small, and she was supposed to marry him when she reached puberty. Before the age of marrying, her expected mother-in-law accepted Christianity. Due to that, Lonyamal was allowed to join the school. She explained:

Because the mother of the husband my father chose for me when I was a little girl was converted to Christianity, my father, who had already denied me school, accepted the recommendation of the evangelist in our church to bring me to school. They agreed that I had to attend school for one year only and learn how to read and write. Then, when I marry the chosen husband, I would be able to read the Swahili Bible for my mother-in-law … This was the reason that made my father allow me to attend school. However, after one year in school, my father died before he could stop me from continuing to attend school.5

After the death of her father she was able to study further, and she escaped the marriage planned by her father. She added that as an educated Maasai young woman, she could choose a husband for herself. She married a very committed Christian. Her now late husband, although a Maasai, did not choose to marry many wives. Thus, Lonyamal was the only wife to him. As a well-educated person, Lonyamal worked as a full-time employee at an institution in Tanzania until she retired.

The most interesting point in her story is the motive behind her permission to attend school—namely, Bible reading. This indicates how the reading of the Bible is important for the Maasai. They are eager to be able to read it by themselves or with the help of the ones close to them. Another interesting aspect of this story is that after starting school, she ends up studying not only for one year, but for the entire school program from primary school to college. She came out very well educated, engaged, and could have a professional career. This demonstrates that the arrival of the Bible in a society can pave the way for many opportunities, including education. Lonyamal affirmed this as she said that, “the arrival of the Bible in Maasailand changed my entire life.”6 She stated that despite the educational ←3 | 4→opportunities she experienced, she still had concerns that Maasai women cannot experience the liberating message of the Bible in its fullness because of the teachings of the church, insisting on the submission of women and the authority of men. She asserted that these teachings parallel the Maasai tradition that demands women to submit to the authority of men.

After the sharing of her story, we read together Genesis 1:27. Lonyamal read the text aloud. Then I posed the first question, regarding her understanding of the text. She stated:

Lonyamal read Genesis 1:27, which narrates that man and woman were created together in the likeness of God, but she interpreted this message through Genesis 2:18ff, which states that man was created first and the first woman was created out of man’s rib. She perceived an inferiority of women in the text and in her society. She insisted:

Despite the fact that women are perceived as inferior … and have a big load to carry in the Maasai society, I never regret that I was created a woman … I thank God that I am a woman … I think God created a woman with something extra in her that helps her to tolerate whatever situation she is confronting … Men are sometimes too harsh and they beat women without any sound reasons. Traditionally, for example, if a husband tells his wife something, and the wife fails to hear it clearly, she cannot ask him to repeat what he said. She should go to the mother-in-law and ask her to ask him to repeat what he said. Then the wife can understand and do it. If the mother-in-law manages to help, then the wife will be saved. Otherwise, she will be beaten for not doing what the husband ordered, and in case she tries to ask her husband to repeat what he said, that is an indication of disobedience, and she will be beaten. For that reason, women fear men and have to be submissive and obedient to them.8

My next question was about the church teachings of the text we read, in particular what the main points in marital teachings and sermons are. Lonyamal indicated that in the church, women are mostly expected to be respectful and submissive to their husbands. According to her, this kind of teaching makes men feel good and that they are in a high position. However, from the women’s perspective, it makes them feel inferior to men.

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This was the view of some other informants also. For example, in interpreting Genesis 1:27, one older woman shared her feelings about the teachings on creation in the church. She said

As mentioned above, Lonyamal alludes to Genesis 2:18–22 in her interpretation of Genesis 1:27. Thus, I asked her to reconsider the text on hand, and especially the phrase, which demonstrates that both man and woman were created in the image of God. She then reread the text and then she grasped something new. Suddenly, with a smiling face, she said, “Ah! Here it seems like both were created together and in the image of God. I have never reflected on this text in this way!”10 She never had the picture of a woman that she now perceives in the text, a picture of a woman who was created at the same time with a man, and both male and female being created in the image of God.

The above experience might indicate that the more popular creation story among the Maasai is the narration in Genesis 2:18ff. This indicates that the second account of creation tends to cover the picture of a woman and man portrayed in Genesis 1:27. The standpoint of the interviewees above seems to be based on both biblical and cultural grounds, and it makes men assume superiority over women.

Moreover, the status of women described in the above conversations exists in many churches in Africa today. This situation compels any critical investigator to wonder whether biblical interpretations are improving or downplaying women’s status on the continent. The question of the emancipation of women has become quite prominent in many academic disciplines, including biblical hermeneutics. Africans are familiar with speeches, writings, and projects that support the idea of egalitarianism. Despite the remarkable efforts of promoting gender equality and emancipation of the marginalised in Africa by many governments and non-governmental organisations, many women in the continent have yet to experience equal opportunities in their fullness. As mentioned earlier, I suspect that certain interpretive traditions of the Bible play some role here.

However, in spite of the existence of some elements of oppression of women in the life of Christian Maasai women, as presented above, the informants remain optimistic. The spirit of emancipation through the Bible was, and still is, the hope of many women in Maasai-land. The biblical message is expected to transform life for the better. But how? In what way? In what manner? By what means? How can the Bible, which some of its interpretations seems to portray some elements of female inferiority, facilitate emancipation of women? Although the “how and ←5 | 6→what” questions were not directly pronounced by the informants, they were seen in their arguments. The Maasai women seemed to be optimistic about their emancipation through the Bible, but there was an ambiguity about how it can happen. Thus, Maasai readers of the Bible, as many other readers around the continent, seem to be in a dilemma in the sense that they believe in the emancipatory power of the Bible, but they lack mechanisms to make it function in their real lives. In other words, women are searching for the means in which the emancipatory message of the Bible can facilitate their emancipation.

It is my supposition that a positive attitude towards the emancipatory power of the Bible will be possible only if both academic and popular interpreters of the biblical texts will distance themselves from some of their traditional backgrounds. This will help them to move away from interpretations that allow biased traditional cultures to have authority over biblical texts towards emancipatory perspectives. From this hypothesis lies the problem that motivates me to research and write this monograph. In the next section, I will expound this point.

1.2. Research Problem

Lack of critical distance to traditional cultures and structures that function oppressively with regard to gender and sex and uncritical interpretations of the so-called androcentric biblical texts, lead to a problem of great complexity on how to handle the concept of female inferiority.

In this study, I address the problem of sustaining the traditional African concept of female inferiority through inculturation biblical hermeneutics. It is the objective of this work to examine the way popular readers of the Hebrew Bible in Maasailand interpret passages from the Hebrew Bible in their patriarchal context. It investigates how such a reading addresses the issue of female inferiority in the contemporary churches and contributes to the academic emancipatory reading of the Bible.

It is my hypothesis that popular biblical interpretation in Africa, which embraces patriarchal structures and deals with biblical texts uncritically, is partly to be held responsible for many of the challenges that women are facing within the continent. Along the line of this hypothesis, the present research attempts to address the impact of biblical interpretation among the Maasai and investigates its effect on Maasai women.


X, 226
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 226 pp., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Hoyce Jacob Lyimo-Mbowe (Author)

Hoyce Jacob Lyimo-Mbowe is a Tanzanian, currently working in Zambia. She is Executive Director of Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation in Kitwe, Zambia. The present work was written during her time as a postdoctoral fellow at VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway, where she was part of VID’s Maasai Bible Project.


Title: Maasai Women and the Old Testament