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Intersexuality And Scripture

Intersexuality And Scripture Intersexuality and Scripture Sally Gross As a brute physical phenomenon, the bodiliness of people like us who are born intersexed challenges cherished assumptions about sex and gender made by many people within Western society. A variety of social institutions, including the dominant canons of medical practice and conceptions, much of the domain of the law itself, and some of the religious teachings which have loomed so large in the history of the West, tend strongly to support the notion that sex and gender is a dichotomy, and that any given human being is either deterninately and unequivocally male or determinately and unequivocally female. Congenitally intersexed physicality gives the lie to this dichotomous model of sex and gender. It is scant wonder, therefore, that fundamentalist Christians, who could be expected strongly to support the dichotomy which looms so large in the idealised model of the family, should feel threatened by the phenomenon of intersexuality and should seek to find religious arguments against it. It is not uncommon for Christian fundamentalists, faced with intersexuality as a brute fact, to adduce scriptural grounds for the condemnation of avowed intersexuality, at least, as “unnatural” and as something which is at odds with the will of God as expressed in the order of creation.

This theological condemnation of lived intersexual identities also finds expression in unconditional support for surgical interventions, as early as possible, aimed at making the unacceptably ambiguous bodies of intersexed infants and children conform to the dichotomous model, in which there is no room whatsoever for ambiguity. This apparently religiously-motivated endorsement of surgery is insensitive to the fact that in most cases surgery is not necessitated by any real threat to the life or health of the infant, so that it is purely cosmetic in character. It is also insensitive to the fact that such aesthetically-driven surgical interventions frequently give rise to medical problems later in life, and can therefore be directly detrimental to the health of an otherwise flourishing intersexed person. Two Biblical proof-texts in particular tend to be cited as part of this rejection of intersexual identities and to show that intersexed bodies must be cut into conformity with the male/female dichotomy. The first of these texts is Genesis 1:27: “So God created man [the Hebrew is “Adam”] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is claimed to show that human beings are, by virtue of the divine ordering of creating itself, either male and not female or female and not male, and that nothing intermediate or ambiguous is sanctioned. The second of these proof-texts is Numbers 5:3 which, in connexion with those who contract particular ritual defilements, commands that “you shall put out both male and female”. Those who brandish this verse note that “both male and female” means everyone, and that this implies that there can be no-one who is not unambiguously male or unambiguously female.

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Both proof-texts, but particularly Genesis 1:27, are cited in defence of an absolute division between the sexes which will not tolerate anything in between. Let us therefore look at Genesis 1:27. I am not personally a Biblical literalist, and doubt that the two Biblical stories of creation (a priestly account, in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, and what is called the Yahwist’s account, in Genesis 2:4 – 2:24) were even intended to be taken literally. For all that, it is interesting to note that Genesis 1:27, the proof-text for Biblical literalists who wish to argue that hermaphroditism is somehow unnatural or unscriptural, is perhaps more “herm-friendly” than many Biblical literalists realise or than translations suggest; and there are early Jewish exegetical traditions which undermine its use as a scriptural rejection of intersex identity. Genesis 1:27 and Numbers 5:3 (which also has a section which the RSV translated as: “both male and female”, used as synonymous with “everyone”) have sometimes been thrown at me in order to argue that God created all human beings determinately male or determinately female with nothing in-between. It has been used, in my experience, to argue that a person like me does not satisfy the Biblical criterion of humanity, from which it was inferred that I am unbaptisable and could therefore not have been baptised validly.

The use of either of these passages in this way is in fact odd and indeed rather comical, for there is a Rabbinical gloss on Genesis 1:27 which suggests that “Adam”, at least, most certainly did not have a clear and unequivocal gender identity, and indeed that Adam was an hermaphrodite. The verse states, in the language of its revelation: “va-yivra’ ‘elohim ‘et ha-adam be-tzalmo, be-tzelem ‘elohim bara’ ‘oto, zakhar u-neqevah bara’ ‘otam”, “and God created the man in his image, in the image of God he created him [‘oto, masculine singular, matching the gender of the noun “adam”], male and female he created them [‘otam, masculine plural this time, which can also be used for sets of nouns which include masculine and feminine nouns]”. The shift from “’oto” (singular) to “’otam” (plural) with reference to “ha-adam” (“the man”) is odd, and attracted attention. It is against this background that the following tradition is found: ‘Rabbi Yirmiyah [Jeremiah] ben ‘El’azar said: When the Holy One Blessed be He created the primal man [“the primal Adam”], he created him an androgyne, and it is therefore said: “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).’ (Bere*censored* Rabbah, 8). This is an anecdotal gloss, of course, but it responds to the undeniable oddness of the grammatical shift from singular to plural in the Hebrew.

The very fact that the language of the verse gave rise to this gloss in a context which paid careful attention to the fine detail of the text is surely telling. It does suggest that to use the verse in support of a razor-sharp division of humankind between male and female is perhaps misguided. What, then, of Numbers 5:3? The phrase which tends translated as “male and female”, and which is taken to imply that the division between male and female is an all-inclusive dichotomy rather than a continuum, reads “mi-zakhar ve-‘ad neqevah”, “from male to female”, in the original Hebrew. The form “from A to B” suggests a continuum of some sort — precisely the kind of continuum which Colson alleges to be unscriptural. The f …


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