Fortress Press

The Woman Babylon and the Marks of Empire: Reading Revelation with a Postcolonial Womanist Hermeneutics of Ambiveilence

The Woman Babylon and the Marks of Empire

Reading Revelation with a Postcolonial Womanist Hermeneutics of Ambiveilence

Shanell T. Smith (Author)


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The "Great Whore" of the Book of Revelation—the hostile symbolization used to illustrate the author’s critique of empire—has attracted considerable attention in Revelation scholarship. Feminist scholar Tina Pippin criticizes the use of gendered metaphors— "Babylon" as a tortured woman—which she asserts reflect an inescapably androcentric, even misogynistic, perspective. Alternatively, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza understands John’s rhetoric and imagery not simply in gendered terms, but in political terms as well, observing that "Babylon" relies on conventionally coded feminine language for a city. 
Shanell T. Smith seeks to dismantle the either/or dichotomy within the “Great Whore” debate by bringing the categories of race/ethnicity and class to bear on John’s metaphors. Her socio-cultural context impels her to be sensitive to such categories, and, therefore, leads her to hold the two elements, "woman" and "city," in tension, rather than privileging one over the other. Using postcolonial womanist interpretation of the woman Babylon, Smith highlights the simultaneous duality of her characterization—her depiction as both a female brothel slave and as an empress or imperial city. Most remarkably, however, Smith’s reading also sheds light on her own ambivalent characterization as both a victim and participant in empire. 
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781451470154
  • eBook ISBN 9781451472431
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 192
  • Emerging Scholars category Bible
  • Publication Date October 1, 2014


"Dr. Shanell Smith offers a fascinating, sophisticated, and complex imaginative reader-engaged interpretation of the multilayered characterization of the woman/city Babylon as whore. She reads Revelation in a state of ambivalence and with ‘ambi-veil-ence.’ Dr. Smith both builds upon and reads differently from other Revelation scholars including African American interpreters, interrupting the conversation with her postcolonial womanist perspective. As an African American female scholar who embodies the tension of hybridity, Dr. Smith’s entrance into the tension of the ‘masculinist minority report’ about the woman/city Babylon demonstrates that reading Revelation can be a complex and liberating experience for black women."
—Mitzi J. Smith
Ashland Theological Seminary

“In this book, Shanell Smith articulates a postcolonial womanist approach to address one of Revelation’s most troubling images—the Great Whore. In so doing, she adds an important dimension to our approaches to the text. Her writing modulates between personal insight and careful navigation of scholarly debate. This will be a book to return to multiple times!”
—Lynn R. Huber
Elon University
"Shanell Smith takes the reader on a journey through the multiverses of John’s Apocalypse. She sounds an ethical call for readers who attempt to make sense of this biblical book that is so thick with oppressions. In new and creative ways, Smith cracks the codes of traditional masculinist and feminist interpretations of the Apocalypse. As the woman of Babylon continues in her veiled dance, Smith shows how to render these veils to expose the mirror to her own self. She sees her own story in the Babylon slavewoman/queen’s story and traces her own genealogy back to Babylon, through the history of slavery and (the new) Jim Crow. Can the woman Babylon be freed from John’s prison house of language and theopolitical agendas? The woman Babylon speaks on her own accord in this important book, and Smith shows us how to listen. Smith makes metaphor, this woman, and this dangerous book of the bible recognizable and relatable and shows us why this text, and the interpretive act, matters."
—Tina Pippin
Agnes Scott College
"Shanell Smith’s provocative and pioneering study breaks new ground in Revelation scholarship. Her incisive and meticulous postcolonial reading destabilizes theoretical notions of the ‘Great Whore of Babylon’ as either the scion of a symbolic sex-gender system imaged by a misogynist male author, or more centrally, the cryptic embodiment of staggering Roman imperial power.  Smith’s groundbreaking and convincing ‘womanist hermeneutics of ambiveilence’ establishes a robust conceptual raison d’être for revisiting this symbolic figure, with a provocative hermeneutical strategy that privileges the epistemological necessity of attention to gender, race, and class as essential elements in decoding the interpretive  matrix and range of the letter’s meaning and legacy. She argues that the interweaving of a simultaneity of seemingly disparate perspectives—often held in creative, disruptive, and irreducible tension—provides essential clues for unlocking the key to Revelation’s tenacious and ubiquitous hold on the human imagination."
—Clarice Martin
Colgate University