Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Gender non conforming people. In the Bible?!

May 9, 2018

It is always a problem for people who are not “something” to write about that “something”. I am not a transgender person and so I write about this with trepidation. However, I am not writing to explain what it means to be trans. I have no business doing that. But I can enter the conversation as someone with an education in theology and biology. It seems to me that cisgender people need to do some thinking about biology and theology. That’s what I am doing here. Mainly writing for other cisgender folks who may be quick to dismiss or discredit someone who is different citing theological or biological reasons.

Sometimes our understanding of a concept, is not the same understanding of the concept that people in the ancient world had. And this is true about gender. Gender, as we use the word- to mean a person is either a man or a woman- is not exactly how people in the ancient world thought about male.

They, of course, knew that there are men and woman. But how they thought about this was different.

“Studies in masculinity in the ancient world have shown that gender in antiquity “was mapped not as a binary of two fixed and “opposite” sexes – but rather as a dynamic spectrum or gradient of relative masculinities”. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the absence of the absolute binary of male and female, there was a permanent and significant concern for the ideal masculinity.

Martti i Nissinen  in Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity  Ilona Zsolnay, editor. Pg 222


There evidently was an “ideal” masculinity and then everyone else existed along an ordered hierarchy.

It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the idea of two sexes male and female was common. Before then people believed there was a “single human nature or sex in which women existed as inferior versions of men” (Introduction, Adrian Thatcher, page 5, in The Oxford Dictionary of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed Adrian Thatcher,Oxford University Press)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

   We need to be careful as we read the Bible. Talking about “Biblical manhood” or “Biblical womanhood” is more complicated than we think. It is not easy to set aside our concepts of gender. It may not be possible. But we do need to recognize that our understanding of a text, or certain concepts may be quite different than the Biblical authors. 

By the same token, when Paul speaks of things being “natural” or “unnatural” he may not necessarily mean nature as in biological processes. He is talking about behaviors that are in line, or not, with cultural expectations. For example:

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it appropriate for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him; 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? This is because her long hair is given to her for a covering.   1 Cor 11:13-15 Common English Bible (CEB)

But, back to our topic. Are there gender non conforming people in the Bible?

Yes, eunuchs.  You may have been told that eunuchs are castrated males, and that is true. However the word “eunuch” may not only refer to castrated males.

In Roman literature, eunuchs signify someone  who did not uphold their proper gender role. Roman masculinity involved penetration of proper partners ( this refers to social status- free versus slave- not gender), masculine body features, the ability to employ reason, to control others,  and to control oneself . At the same time all this needed to appear  effortless, otherwise there were concerns about a “hidden lack of virtue”. while convincing others all this came naturally without expending too much effort.  Eunuchs signify  a destabilization of gender. *

Today, scholars may define eunuchs more broadly as gender non conforming persons. So the meaning of eunuch is not as narrow as we might have thought. Which then makes Biblical references to eunuchs more inclusive.

For example:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,  who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.   Isaiah 56:3-5 NRSV


11 But he [Jesus] said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”   Matthew 19:11-12 NRSV


26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[h] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.   Acts 8: 26-40


Each of these passages, in their own way, speaks for inclusion of eunuchs- gender non conforming people. How can the church not welcome and fully include trans folk?


* Christopher Michael Erlinger “How the Eunuch Works: Eunuchs as a Narrative Device in Greek and Roman Literature, 2016, Doctor of Philosophy, Ohio State University, Greek and Latin.








But really, what about Adam and Eve?

April 29, 2018

It is always a problem for people who are not “something” to write about that “something”. I am not a transgender person and so I write these posts with trepidation. However, I am not writing to explain what it means to be trans. I have no business doing that. But I can enter the conversation as someone with an education in theology and biology. It seems to me that cisgender people need to do some thinking about biology and theology. That’s what I am doing here. Mainly writing for other cisgender folks who may be quick to dismiss or discredit someone who is different by citing theological or biological reasons.

There are, of course, two creation stories. So you may ask what about the story in Genesis 2 of Adam and Eve? Doesn’t talking about Adam and Eve, male and female, tell us there are only two genders?

The answer is essentially the same interpretive process we use when people say “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And actually the answer we gave last week, “This text is not about biology” still applies.  And as always, it helps greatly if we read more of the story than just a single verse or two. The first thing to notice is that people are created, and given life by God and cared for by God. This is actually really important because Israel’s creation stories are markedly different the the creation stories of other nations of the time.

God remarks that “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  Here it is important to understand that the word translated as “helper”, is used in other places in the Bible as “helper” and most of the time refers to God. “Helper” does not mean a lesser, subordinate being. So all the animals are created and the human does not find a “helper as his partner.” And then we have the creation of Eve.

The point to be made here is when the man says “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”, this is not equivalent to him saying, “Look ! Here is the only other gender, the person I can have sex with.” The man’s statement is an exclamation of, “Here is another human being! Another being like me!” We know that because this story is part of the naming of the animals where a partner is not found.

So verse 24 “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”,seems a bit out of place then. It doesn’t fit well with verse 25 and what comes after either. So what is going on here in this verse? It may simply be a comment that human relationships change. People leave their family of origin and begin new families. When we are children our parents are our most important relationship, as we grow up that changes. What is interesting is, that in the ancient world, for the most part men didn’t leave their families, the women left theirs. But we are off topic.

All the discussion here about men and women is focused on kinship and relationship. And it uses the most typical intimate relationship to talk about that, the relationship between men and women. But that doesn’t mean or imply that no other relationships or genders exist. These stories aren’t describing the totality of living beings.  You will notice when the man is naming the animals, he doesn’t name anything that lives in water or, evidently the forest. We certainly have names for those creatures. The text doesn’t have to tell us that humans named the octopus in the sea and bear in the  forest. That’s not the point. Likewise, the text does not have to describe every type of relationship and gender for them to exist. The point of the text is that meaningful relationships between humans exist.

Similarly to return to Genesis 1, we are told there is land and water. But the text does not tell us about different environments. Mountains, beaches, forests, and prairie are not mentioned.  We are also told there is a dome in the sky. Once again, scientific accuracy is not the point. What the text is careful to tell is that God created all of it. Clearly because something is not explicitly named in the text, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

An important question to ask is, “Does the Bible say anything at all about gender non conforming people?” And that is the subject of the next post.


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