Hebrew Bible: Binaries Built, Binaries Broken
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The Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament or First Testament by Christians and the TaNaK in Judaism, is rich with figures to whom trans and nonbinary persons can relate. These figures find themselves in situations of liberation and redemption, led out of oppression by a God who breaks down binaries. As Justin Tanis says of the ways we can be empowered by these accounts,
"Stories of defiance and liberation sustain spiritually people who are oppressed. the Exodus story tells us of a people who refused to see themselves definitively as slaves without hope for freedom. The journey to liberation would not have been possible had the Hebrew people not had a sense of themselves as something other than how the Egyptians defined them” (1).
Likewise, trans, nonbinary, and persons who otherwise do not fit within binary constructs of gender refuse to let those who call us "unnatural," "mistaken," or "sinful" have the final say in who we are. When we recognize the gifts and callings God gives to us, we find our place in and among God's creation.
Note that some of the following accounts center around intersex narratives as well as transgender ones. Intersex people and transgender people are not the same -- some but not all persons who are intersex are also trans, just as some but not all trans persons are intersex. I decided to include intersex narratives on this page despite the fact that this website focuses on trans narratives because I believe that the messages we find in these stories can resonate with both of our communities; after all, both intersex and transgender people are marginalized because we do not fit into the binary sex and gender constructs of our society.
Before diving in, one thing we who are Christian must remember when reading the Hebrew Bible (especially when doing so for the purposes of "Christian history" as I do on this page), is that these stories and figures belong first and foremost to Judaism. Joseph, Sarah, Deborah, Daniel -- all of them were Jewish, not Christian. We can honor them and consider them shared history only when we respect this fact.
Because this history is held in honor by Christian and Jewish communities alike, it is my hope that any Jewish trans and/or nonbinary people who come across this page can find encouragement from it as well. If anything that I have written on this page alienates Jewish people or can be construed as antisemitic in any way, I humbly invite correction. And I put forward the following websites for Jewish-specific trans resources: Transtorah.org, Keshetonline.org, and morethodoxy.org.
THE GENDERFULL FIRST HUMAN
Genesis 1 and 2
The first two chapters of the Bible offer us two distinct accounts of humanity's creation. The first features ha-adam -- the (gender neutral) Hebrew word for humankind as a collective whole or for a single human -- being made in God's image as well as being made "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). The second account rewinds, slows down, and gives more detail: ha-adam, the first human, is formed from soil, and when God breathes into this human's nostrils they (I opt to use gender neutral they pronouns for this first human) come alive (Genesis 2:7). Upon recognizing that "it is not good for ha-adam to be alone," God puts them into a deep sleep and fashions a second human out of their side (not out of their rib; see this article!) (2:20-22).
The traditional Christian reading of this text is that this first human was male by our standards -- that he had a penis and the other characteristics we assign male. The traits we assign female did not exist until the woman was fashioned from his side. However, the Jewish midrashim teach that this first human was androgynous in the literal sense of the term: that their body was both male and female. Christian Hebrew scholar Phyllis Trible, meanwhile, argues that this first human was neither solely male nor both male and female, but was "sexually undifferentiated" -- "It is only after God performs radical surgery during the earth creature’s ‘deep sleep’ that the human male and female emerge simultaneously: ‘two creatures where before there was only one.’" (2). Whether this first human was "androgynous" or "sexless," they did not fit into the sexual or gender binaries our society has set up -- evidence that God created and affirms both intersex persons and trans & nonbinary persons.
[Image description: a piece by Marc Chagall (1912) called "Hommage à Apollinaire, or Adam et Ève," in which Adam and Eve are one being joined down the side, with two legs and two heads. ]
< [Image description: an illustration of the first human being formed from the soil; their skin is the same color as the dust whirling all around.]
I have yet to see any scholar go one step further when discussing the transness of this first human's story: for me, the most exciting moment is when ha-adam, newly-split into two beings, picks his own gender. No longer a sexless or genderless being who can be described only with the gender neutral term adam, this person self-identifies as ish, the Hebrew word for "man":
The human [ha-adam] said,
“This one finally is bone from my bones
and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman [ishah]
because from a man [ish] she was taken.” (2:23)
Up to this point, neither Genesis 1 nor 2 describes any human as a woman (ishah) or a man (ish). In Genesis 1:27, the terms for "male" and "female" (zakhar and neqevah) are used instead. These terms are specifically about genitalia, whether that's phallic or vaginal -- God did create humans with physical diversity, as we see today. (And while Genesis 1:27's "male and female God created them" may sound like a binary, it was not necessarily so!) God created zakhar and neqevah (as well as those persons who fit into neither category or both, like the first human themself); but the text does not say anywhere that God created ish and ishah -- the genders that are typically associated with zakhar and neqevah, respectively.
It is ha-adam, that first human newly split into two humans, who decides to call himself ish, a man. He also assigns a gender to the other human: ishah.
I delve deeper into the Hebrew of this text in this blog post, where I state that verse
"1:27 is simply noting that the humans God created had a diversity of genitalia, rather than being carbon copies of one another. It was not God who appears to assign genders, then, to those human beings, but the first human, Adam, in 2:23. And only later on (in Genesis 3), after what Christians call the Fall, those genders take on roles – the woman bears children (with pain) and the man tills the earth (with toil)."
God creates and affirms physical diversity! Humans created the construct of gender based loosely on that physical diversity. That does not mean that gender is not important or that God does not affirm the genders that we know ourselves to be: Throughout scripture, God seems to roll with this gender construct Their creatures came up with....except for sometimes, when They do not. Sometimes, God challenges the binary gender system wherein men and women have characteristics and roles set in stone and anyone who falls outside of that binary is outcast. We will see examples of God challenging the binary in the next sections, when God calls eunuchs and women and others to fulfill roles that their society would tell them they "weren't made for."
INTERSEX FOREMOTHER AND FOREFATHER
The Babylonian Talmud is a Jewish text compiled some time around the year 500 and is central to rabbinical Judaism. In it, rabbis share their interpretations of Hebrew scripture. In Yevamot 64a, a rabbi argues that Isaiah 51:1-2 shows that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumin, which in our day we would identify as intersex:
"Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were originally tumtumin, people whose sexual organs are concealed and not functional, as it is stated: “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1), and it is written in the next verse: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:2), which indicates that sexual organs were fashioned for them, signified by the words hewn and dug, over the course of time.
Rav Naḥman said that Rabba bar Avuh said: Our mother Sarah was initially a sexually underdeveloped woman [aylonit], as it is stated: “And Sarah was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). The superfluous words: “She had no child,” indicate that she did not have even a place, i.e., a womb, for a child."
In her 1998 article "Intersexuality and Scripture," Sally Gross explains that tumtum and aylonit are intersex categories:
"A tumtum is a person whose physical sex is indeterminable because there are apparently no genitalia, although determinate natal sex can sometimes (but only sometimes) be revealed by means of the surgical removal of an occlusion.
An 'aylonith is a woman without a womb - clearly someone who might suffer from complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. …While the Rabbis knew nothing about the genetic underpinnings almost two millennia ago, they certainly recognised that there were people who were intersexed."
(For passages in Jewish mishnah wherein rabbis describe the six genders or sexes of Judaism, see this article.)
Gross continues with an exploration of the above Talmudic passage, explaining how the rabbis came to the conclusion that Abraham and Sarah were intersex:
"The assertion on the basis of Isaiah 51:1-2 that both Abraham and Sarah was each a tumtum is apparently obscure, but the logic is roughly as follows. Verse 51:1 suggests that Israel owes its existence to the intervention of God, who hewed Israel out from a metaphorical rock, and dug Israel out of a metaphorical quarry. The references to the rock and to the quarry in 51:1 clearly stand in apposition to the references to Abraham and to Sarah in 51:2. Abraham is therefore to be identified with the rock, and Sarah with the quarry.
This raises a question, however: why should God be said to have intervened, and why was the intervention compared to the hewing of something out of a rock (a stone cube, for example, does not emerge spontaneously from a piece of granite, and the nature of the rock has to be overcome in the hewing) or to digging something out of a quarry (where again, the nature of the rock of the quarry has to be overcome in the digging)? Hewing and digging are actions which involve substantial effort. …The gloss therefore reads into this a hint that Abraham and Sarah were congenitally incapable of procreation by nature. …"
[Image description: a photograph of a boulder sitting atop a stone precipice.]
Finally, Gross explains why this whole thing matters to intersex Jews and Christians (and, I would argue, to any Jew or Christian who does not fit into binary sex or gender categories):
"These two glosses about Abraham and Sarah, like many Rabbinical exegetical glosses of an anecdotal rather than of a legal character, are perhaps a trifle far-fetched and quaint; but they do make it abundantly clear that those who, more than any others, cherished and preserved the Hebrew text of scripture and sought faithfully to ensure that no scriptural 'jot and tittle' was changed, did not see intersex conditions as falling under the condemnation of the canon of Hebrew scripture. Quite to the contrary, they contemplated with equanimity the possibility that leading and revered scriptural characters were intersexed."
We have always existed, and we are part of God's plan for Creation. Even when societies ancient and modern attempt to erase or marginalize us, we will be found and uplifted by the One who made us.
SURROUNDED BY GENDER DIVERSITY
One of the most infamous verses thrown at transgender persons to disuade them from "crossdressing" is Deuteronomy 22:5:
"A woman must not put on men's clothing, and a man must not wear women's clothing. Anyone who does this is detestable in the sight of the LORD your God."
Of course, trans men can flip this verse against those who would use it to harm them by saying, "Right! So I should wear men's clothing!" and trans women, likewise, can say, "That's why I, a woman, am wearing women's clothing." But looking back at the people for which this law was actually written, we can explore the reasoning behind it.
Trans scholar Leslie Feinberg notes that
"The patriarchal fathers would not have felt the need to spell out these edicts if they weren't a common practice" (3) -- yet another reminder that people like us have always existed. But, Feinberg continues, "why did they consider cross-dressing and sex-change such a threat?"
The Israelites, zie explains, were surrounded by other societies that worshipped deities like Astaroth and Ishtar, goddesses whose priests and worshippers "cross-dressed." In order to keep distinct, Israel's leaders made rules that would keep their people from looking and acting like the gentiles who lived in their midst and all around. With the rise of class and of patriarchy, Feinberg adds, the "wealthy Hebrew males" who made the rules were "concerned about making distinctions between women and men, and eliminating any blurring or bridging of those categories" (4).
If we would criticize ancient Israel for its emerging stance against gender diversity, we must first take a look at our own society, which is no better (and is, I would argue, worse -- Jewish texts like the Tanak and the talmud sometimes recognize and guard the rights of eunuchs and intersex persons, at least!). Feinberg stresses that
"the Hebrews and Judaism were not to blame for the rise of patriarchy or oppression. ...the Hebrews weren't even the first society to split into classes, or to develop increasingly patriarchal laws" (5).
As class divisions emerged in various ancient societies across the world, so did more rigid gender divisions.
Let's look at some of that gender nonconformity in surrounding cultures, because it's pretty cool.
Sumerian scholar Tikva Rymer-Kensy describes how the deity Inanna (called Ishtar in Israel and Babylon)
"transcends gender polarities and is said to turn men into women and women into men. …[A]t her festivals, men dress as women and women as men, and cultic dancers wear outfits that are men’s clothes on the right and women’s on the left” (6).
The priests of deities like Ishtar across the world are termed hetaira and hierodule by scholars; the term is often mistranslated as "sacred prostitute" because some of them would engage in ritualized intercourse with worshippers, but these gender variant clerics did more than that (7). In the Canaanite and Ugaritic religions, the hierodule of the godess Athirat were called Qadesh, "holy ones," and they
"typically dressed in long-sleeved, multicolored caftans. …Their functions included maintaining the temple grounds and sacred groves as well as making ritual objects, especially pots and weavings. They also appear to have been credited with the power to bring rain" (8).
Rules like Deuteronomy 22:5 prove that the people of the Hebrew Bible were steeped in gender diversity, even if their leaders did not like that fact. The further back in time one goes in the timeline of the Israelite people, the more "mixed" those Gentile religions and the Israelite religion become. The story of Joseph in Genesis is a prime example, as the next section explores.
[Image description: an ancient Sumerian statue of two Gala priests of Inanna with smiling faces; their gender was neither male nor female.] >
JOSEPH'S PRINCESS DRESS
(Note: I will be using she pronouns to describe Joseph in this segment, though we cannot know how Joseph would have identified today. While for most of the figures on this site I stick with the pronouns used in texts about them, I just couldn't use he for Joseph, for personal reasons.)
The telling of Joseph's story begins in Genesis 37, where we learn that she is the 17-year-old child of Jacob and loathed by her older half-brothers. So full of hatred are they that they sell Joseph to slavers, dip Joseph's beautiful garment in blood, and tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
Let's look more closely at the garment that various translations call an "ornate robe," a "beautiful robe," a "coat of many colors," a "varicolored tunic," a "richly embroidered tunic," a "long coat"...and more.
Why all these different translations? The Hebrew phrase for the garment Joseph wears, ketonet passim, occurs only one other time in the Bible, and therefore is difficult to decipher. The first word, ketonet, is easy enough; it's a coat or robe of some sort. Passim, however, is much rarer.
In all of scripture only two persons are described as wearing a ketonet passim: Joseph in Genesis 37, and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.
Tamar is a daughter of King David, who experiences horrific sexual assault. 2 Samuel 13:18 explains her ketonet passim as "how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times." Austen Hartke notes how this comment implies that the ketonet passim therefore "had both gender and status connotations attached to it" (9) -- Joseph is wearing a garment meant for a girl, a princess no less! (For more on what this garment may have looked like and how to translate it, see this webpage.)
"If this is the case," Hartke continues, "the alienation and abuse Joseph receives at the hands of his brothers makes even more sense. As a person assigned male at birth but who dresses in clothes associated with women, Joseph fails to measure up to expected gender expressions.”
Moreover, as Mac Buff puts it, Joseph's coat being a "princess dress"
"opens the possibility that Joseph could have been, instead of an arrogant little twerp spoiled by his father, a transgender kid just trying to survive in the family."
Joseph's brothers cannot tolerate gender nonconformity, so they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt; there, Joseph is purchased by Potiphar, whom the Jewish Midrash tells us purchased Joseph because of the youth's beauty (10). The Midrash also states that Potiphar is a eunuch priest of a pagan goddess; and the authors of Queer Myth speculate that Joseph might also have been linked to goddess-priesthood through her mother, Rachel.
When Rachel leaves her father's home with Jacob, she takes her father's household gods with her (Genesis 31:19). Some scholars speculate that Rachel may have been a devotee of the goddess Athirat, and that Joseph's ketonet passim was once Rachel's own priestly robes (11). This theory too would link Joseph to gender variance -- as described in the above section, goddess worshippers in the ancient Middle East often dressed in nonconforming ways, cross-dressing as part of their devotion to their deities.
Regardless of where Joseph's "princess dress" came from, her gender nonconformity and the hatred she faced from her brothers resonates with many trans persons today. Genderqueer educator Mac Buff writes about the encouragement they find in the story of Joseph's "princess dress":
"In a world where I live in fear of physical violence for who God created me to be, that extra piece of the story is something I can cling to. To be honest, I don’t need to know for sure if that item of clothing was a princess dress or a colorful jacket. I just need the possibility that, amongst all of the heroes and heroines of our faith, is a trans kid showing off her new clothes.
A person like me, loved by God, an integral part of the story of God’s chosen people.
And that is a possibility so radical it brings me to tears."
And it turns out that Joseph is integral to the story of God's chosen people: in Genesis 45, Jacob's sons seek help from Egypt in a time of famine and unwittingly appeal to Joseph, who has risen from the slavery her own brothers sold her into and become a respected official. Joseph saves her brothers and her father from famine, and forgives them when they express remorse for what they'd done. Because of Joseph, Jacob's family lives on to become the nation Israel.
In our own day too, trans people can have happy endings! The transphobia and ignorance that dry up love and leave us hungry for justice can be satisfied by knowledge and remorse. The creative gifts and joy expressed by trans people who are able to live into their true selves enrich the whole world. Families can do the hard work of reconciliation; or, failing that, "found families" who celebrate us and our gifts can be made.
An excerpt from J Mase III's spoken word piece "Josephine," which can be enjoyed in full at the previous link, is below. I am moved to tears and filled with pride whenever I hear this piece; I highly recommend going to listen to it all.
your father must have really loved you
Because he got [your princess dress] for you
and you wore it with pride
when your brothers saw you
in your flowing dress
in your glory
they became enraged
I am sorry for the beating you received
Sorry they destroyed your dress
and smeared it with the red paint of your swollen veins
did you know they told your father you were dead
so he’d never come looking for you...
in Egypt people discovered you
not as fag
not as tranny
They saw you in totality
You went from slave
to leader over lands
there you were Josephine
You looked magnificent
your family couldn’t even recognize you through the glare of divinity
But you saw them shivering in fear
waiting to hear what this regal leader might say
Wondering if your spirit might see fit
to grant them the grain needed to survive
love broke through
the darkness of resentment
And for the first time
your family saw you
for it was your word
that saved them from starvation. ...
[Image description: a painting of Joseph in her ketonet passim, standing on a rock among sheep with her brothers in the background.]
CALLED BY NAME
Selecting a new name is an important and sometimes sacred process for many trans persons, and we can look to a great many biblical figures who experienced name changes themselves.
In his book Transforming as well as in his YouTube video "What's in a name?", Austen Hartke explains that biblical figures receive new names from God for one of two reasons: 1) because God is calling them to something brand new or 2) to emphasize something that was already true about that person -- i.e., "in recognition of an identity somebody already has, or...to recognize a change in identity" (12).
One of the best known examples comes from Genesis 32, when Jacob receives the name Israel after refusing to give up wrestling a strange being until that being will bless him. (And like his child Joseph, Jacob is gender nonconforming himself.)
Not only does the name change resonate with trans persons, but so does the wrestling itself; we too have to struggle, whether it's to be recognized as the gender we say we are, to be respected as we are, or whether
"it feels as if we’re just holding on to God with both hands and refusing to let go until God gives us something. That hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for blessing, and for grace can leave us ecstatic when we finally receive it, but it can also leave us limping” (13).
A few years back, when I was trying to discern God's will for me regarding my genderqueerness, I wrote this poem based on Jacob's wrestling match:
let me be Israel
a while, Father;
take no offense if i
grapple with you
all night or longer –
and do not hesitate
to inflict some damage
on me in the struggle:
let it be a fair fight,
and let me attempt to
beat you (all the while
knowing you go easy on me).
and when dawn’s breaking brings
bones yanked out of place
let me say i have seen
my God face to face
and let me be so changed, Mother,
so intrinsically changed
that i need a new Name.
Another trans person, Darin Isaac Blue, gives a powerful testimony regarding their own name change:
“I asked the great beyond to send me the name I would live with, and weeks later I woke with it heavy on my tongue, as though angels had rested their flaming swords in my mouth while I slept, breathed its syllables into my dreaming head. …In this name I am conceived. The pause between names was pregnant with me. My blood is learning to pulse and flow. My body, raw and red and wet, is taking its shape" (14).
Name changes occur throughout scripture; but there is only one instance in which a human being gives God a name while directly addressing God. That person is Hagar, who is enslaved by a figure we explored above: Sarah.
(As a tangent, how is it that Sarah is both oppressed -- a woman in a patriarchal society, and infertile in a world that values fertility -- while also being an oppressor herself? It turns out that oppressor-oppressed is yet another binary that is not set in stone! The boundaries are fluid and maybe, just maybe we could see a world in which it disappeared entirely. In the meantime, trans persons need to be aware of our own ability to be oppressive despite being oppressed -- we can still be racist, ableist, sexist, and so forth while also facing oppression for our gender identity. I've written a sermon on this topic that also brings trans women in asylum-seeking caravans into the conversation; read it here.)
In Genesis 16, Hagar is forced to conceive a child with Abraham, and then suffers abuse at Sarah's hand, upon which she flees into the wilderness. She assumes that she will die there, but she does not; God comes to her and promises blessings to her and her child, even if there will be struggles as well.
In the meantime, she must go back to Abraham and Sarah -- back to her oppressors. This is a hard calling, but it won't be the end of her story; when the time is right, God will lead her out. This hard calling may resonate with trans people feel called to stay in communion with churches or individuals who have hurt them.
Despite the news that she must return to her abusers, Hagar gives God the name El Roi -- "God sees." This God is the god of her oppressors, of Abraham and Sarah; yet she recognizes now that this god is her God too. This god is a God who sees the suffering of the lowest of society, and responds.
God sees trans people, too, in whatever pain we experience at the hands of transphobia and cissexism. God is our God, not just the God of our oppressors. And God walks with us through the struggle, promising blessings to come.
[Image descriptions: above, a print by Aaron Hicks and Alan Hicks depicting Jacob wrestling with an angel; Jacob's back is to the viewer, while the angel faces us and has big, multi-colored wings
To the right, a painting of a figure like Hagar who is smiling as water pours through her hands; above her is a giant eye.]
"BETTER THAN SONS OR DAUGHTERS"
Tanis argues that eunuchs are “the closest biblical analogy we have" to today's trans community (15), and I'm inclined to agree. Though it is important to note the major differences between the two groups -- particularly that many if not most eunuchs did not consent to the castration that made them such; and that not all trans people go through medical transition -- the eunuchs of scripture and trans persons today both find it difficult to fit into societies not built for them.
In Transforming, Austen Hartke comments on some of the differences between him and the eunuchs spoken of in Isaiah 56, while also recognizing similarities:
“It was hard for me to explain initially why I felt such an immediate connection to the eunuch in Isaiah’s passage. In terms of cultural experience, our lives could not have been more different. I had no idea what it felt like to be taken away from your family and your home; to be forced into slavery; then to have your body modified against your will. But there were elements of the story of the eunuch’s return to Israel that I did recognize: becoming unwelcome in your community of faith, for example.
In fact, eunuchs in the ancient world found themselves in many of the same kinds of in-between spaces that transgender people often experience today. …They lived in limbo between genders, caught somewhere on the social ladder a few rungs below men and a couple of steps above women” (16).
Peterson Toscano has more similarities to add between modern LGBT folks and biblical eunuchs:
"As non-procreative males who did not experience puberty, [eunuchs] stood out. In a world where it seemed everyone was part of a family unit, they were single. In a world where there were clear divisions between male and female, they were neither or they were both."
So we have some things in common with eunuchs -- why's it matter? It matters because trans persons who feel cast out and invalidated and unvalued today can look back at these eunuchs who were brave, who were compassionate, who had a place in God's story of redemption and justice, just as they were -- and sometimes, because of who they were.
In the Book of Esther, eunuchs play key roles -- Esther relies on them to help her navigate palace life and to get messages to and from her relative Mordecai. These eunuchs would not have been able to interact with Esther if they were un-castrated men, nor with Mordecai if they had been women; only as eunuchs could they travel between the two, visiting a man outside the palace and the queen inside the harem.
In Jeremiah 38, it is a eunuch, Ebed-melech, who gets help for Jeremiah after the prophet has been thrown into a well:
"My master the king," he says in verse 9, "these men have made a terrible mistake in treating the prophet Jeremiah the way they have; they have thrown him into the cistern where he will die of starvation."
After securing the king's permission, Ebed-melech lowers a rope down the well for Jeremiah to climb up -- and even thinks of Jeremiah's comfort when doing so, telling the prophet to "put these old rags and scraps of clothing under your arms" to protect from rope-burn (v. 12).
Meanwhile, the prophet Daniel enjoyed the "favor and tender love" of the royal eunuch Ashpenaz (Daniel 1:9).
Toscano believes it might be the eunuchs' marginalized status that allows them to empathize with other outcasts as Ebed-melech and Ashpenaz do; because they know what it is to be "othered," they can relate to the vulnerable and oppressed. Likewise, trans persons today know "the heart of the stranger" (Exodus 23:9) and can be moved to courageous and tender-hearted acts because of it. We know that intersectionality is the only way to secure justice and fullness of life for all.
[Image description: a drawing of the eunuch Ebed-melech pulling Jeremiah up out of the cistern using a rope. Ebed-melech has a yellow robe, bangles, earrings, and blue eyeshadow.]
Finally we come to my favorite passage from the Hebrew Bible, which is God's message of radical inclusion for stranger and eunuch alike -- Isaiah 56:1-8:
The Lord says:
3 Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say,
“The Lord will exclude me from the people.”
And don’t let the eunuch say,
“I’m just a dry tree.”
4 The Lord says:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
choose what I desire,
and remain loyal to my covenant.
5 In my temple and courts, I will give them
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
I will give to them an enduring name
that won’t be removed.
6 The immigrants who have joined me,
serving me and loving my name, becoming my servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
and those who hold fast to my covenant:
7 I will bring them to my holy mountain,
and bring them joy in my house of prayer.
I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
8 says the Lord God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.
That last verse alone should silence any one of us, from any "side" of any debate we might come up with, from claiming that any group might not have a place among God's people or in our faith communities. God is the one who gathers outcasts; God intends to gather "still others" -- groups of outcasts we have not even thought of yet, ones who did not even exist at the time of Isaiah. And so whenever any of us dares to set a wall between "us" and "them," to say that only those within our special circle belong to God...we can trust that God will be on the other side of that circle, with the ones who have been cast out. Always.
In the earlier section on ha-adam, the first human, I noted that God is not necessarily the one who created certain binaries -- such as the male-female hierarchy that arose in ancient Israel as in many cultures, and which left eunuchs in an awkward limbo state -- but that God does seem to go along with those binaries for a time. When the people demand a king, and therefore a new binary of royalty-peasantry, God goes along with it; when Adam declares himself ish and Eve ishah, God goes along with it; when people from cultures all over seem only to listen to what men have to say, God seems to pick mostly men to be prophets. ....until God doesn't. A time always comes when God nudges, challenges, demolishes the binaries that we have built: a people Egypt believes is destined for slavery is chosen to be God's special people. A woman, Deborah, will be a prophet and lead an army (Judges 4). The king shall come from lowly circumstances (as with David, the eighth son of a shepherd). And eunuchs, those queer not-quite-men who are forbidden by Deuteronomy 23:1 from entering the assembly of the Lord, shall have "a name better than sons or daughters" in the very temple they could not enter.
I turn again to Austen Hartke for his explanation of what Isaiah 56 means to him as a trans person:
“I felt an immediate connection to the eunuch and the foreigner. Their fear of separation, fear of being forgotten, fear of being kept out of God’s family — all based on identities as unchosen as the place of their birth and as intrinsic as the shape of their body. Their fears were my fears too. Yet here was God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, quieting those fears and promising an unequivocal welcome” (17).
The world tells us that our transness, our failure to conform, will only bring us rejection and pain -- from other people and from God. But God tells us that what really matters is our faithfulness -- those who "hold fast to my covenant," God promises, will be brought to "joy in my house of holy prayer." No longer cast out, no longer made to feel lesser or unfit.
Again, Hartke hits the nail on the head in articulating just what is so powerful about Isaiah 56 for trans persons, and how having this history of gender diversity empowers many of us to stay in faith traditions and communities that try to denounce and get rid of us:
“It is that combination of affirmation and shared narrative that can give transgender Christians the courage to carve out a space for themselves in a global church that often ignores or actively persecutes them. To know that you belong to a God who gathers the outcasts and who commands doors to open before those sitting outside the gates: this is the kind of love that leads to liberation. God did not ask the eunuchs to pour themselves into the mold of Israel’s previous societal norms, nor to bend themselves to fit by taking on specifically gendered roles in the current system. Instead, God called for a transformed community that looked like nothing the people had ever seen" (18).
I eagerly look forward to the day when we see God's radical in-gathering fully realized: when the compassion of Ebed-melech, the tenderness of Ashpenaz, the leadership of Deborah, the intelligence of Joseph, the determination of Jacob, the creativity of ha-adam, all are celebrated as invaluable gifts, given by a God who intends for us to depend upon one another; and for the people who have been pushed to the margins to become the new center of faith. On that day, God's house will be a "house of prayer for all peoples."
< [Image description: a painting titled "God's Holy Mountain" by Oscar (Asher) Frohlich, who explains it thus: "It is a normal future day on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jews, Muslims and Christians, entering through the Gate of Mercy, are waiting for services to begin, respectively, at the Temple, at the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Friends of all three religions and from around the world greet each other, and some gather around an informal group of musicians from the three faiths who are playing together. The Temple Mount has shed the remnants of destruction and conflict left by the Roman Empire and is once again is a joyous place, in which all worship in their respective holy buildings, but bearing witness to the same One God, creator of all. ]
(1) Transgendered by Justin Tanis, p. 32
(2) Omnigender by Virginia Mollenkott, p. 98
(3) Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg, p. 50
(5) ibid., p. 51
(6) Mollenkott, p. 131
(7) Queer Myth, p. 177
(8) ibid., p. 274
(9) Transforming by Austen Hartke, pp. 68-69
(10) Queer Myth, p. 193
(12) Hartke, p. 76
(13) ibid., p. 82
(14) Tanis, p. 150
(15) ibid., p. 69
(16) Harke, p. 94
(17) ibid., p. 90
(18) ibid., p. 99
Tony de Carlo has a series of paintings featuring "Adam and Steve" that is definitely worth looking at
For more on Genesis 2 and the first human's androgyny, see Austen Hartke's video on the topic.
Austen also has a video on Isaiah 56, which you can watch here.
Another of his videos that focuses on a Hebrew Bible text, Psalm 139, can be found here.
Click here for a blog post I wrote on sexuality in ancient Israel.
And here's one specifically on sexuality in the Book of Ruth.