Intersexuality And Scripture Essay Research Paper As

Intersexuality And Scripture Essay, Research Paper

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. 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 form itself allows for

the logical possibility that there are in-betweens. Again, examination of the

Hebrew reveals that it is not the best verse to wrest out of context if one

wants a proof-text to prove that physical intersexuality is an offence against

the divine order of creation. On the subject of Rabbinical traditions about

intersexuality, Tractate Yevamot in the Babylonian Talmud (leaf 64a) contains a

tradition to the effect that Abraham and Sarah were intersexed. It states:

‘Abraham and Sarah were [each of them a] tumtum, as it is said: “Look to the

rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged”

(Isaiah 51:1) and it is written: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who

bore you” (Isaiah 51:2). Rabbi Nahman said in the name of Rabbah bar Abuha:

Sarah our mother was an ‘aylonith, as it is said: “Now Sarai was barren; she

had no child” (Genesis 11:30) — she did not even have a womb.’ The terms “tumtum”

and “’aylonith” are intersex categories. A “tumtum” is one 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.

(The Talmudic Rabbis were observant and shrewd, and seldom “missed a trick”.

It is therefore not surprising that there are Talmudic references to other

intersex conditions. A modern commentator speculates that one type of such

Talmudic descriptions refers to “Klinefelter’s Syndrome”. Needless to say,

they had not the foggiest idea about the genetic underpinnings, but certainly

recognised that there were people of ambiguous gender.) The assertion that both

of them were “tumtum” on the basis of Isaiah 51:1 and 52:2 is apparently

obscure, but the logic is something like this: Verse 52, 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 reference 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 suggestion seems

to be that the birth of Isaac somehow required that God miraculously overcome

the natures of Abraham and Sarah in a way which went far beyond the impediment

constituted by their advanced age. The gloss therefore reads into this a hint

that Abraham and Sarah were congenitally incapable of procreation by nature:

this is why one gloss states that they were “tumtum”, and the second gloss in

the passage holds that Sarah was affected by complete androgen insensitivity

syndrome or by some other intersex condition. These two glosses about Abraham

and Sarah, like many Rabbinical exegetical glosses of an anecdotal rather than

of a legal character, are a trifle far-fetched and quaint. I have mentioned them

simply as a curiosity. The main point which I wanted to make, however, is that

there is a syntactic ambiguity in Genesis 1:27 which led Jewish commentators to

suggest that our species was originally created androgynous. The syntactic

ambiguity and this particular Rabbinical gloss were later seized upon by some of

the philosophers of the Rennaisance, who viewed hermaphroditism as a mark of a

wholeness which was subsequently lost. Thus, far from being the result of sin,

the original hermaphroditism of our species on these accounts was viewed as a

mark of the perfection which was subsequently lost, perhaps in consequence of

sin. There is also a gloss on Genesis 1:27 attributed to a Rabbi Shmuel bar

Nahman, also in the Midrash Bere*censored* Rabbah 8, which suggests on the basis

of the syntactic ambiguity that the primal Adam was created Janus-faced –

presumably male on one side and female on the other — and that the two halves

were subsequently severed. The story of the formation of Eve from “Adam’s rib”

does not tell against this, because the word “tselah”, translated here as

“rib”, is used elsewhere to refer to a section, wing (as in “the west wing of

the building”) or half of a stucture. It should be noted that the construal of

these verses depends on the literal sense of the verses: they draw upon the

language. The gloss about the original hermaphroditism of the primal “Adam”

suggests, on a literalist construal, that it is a grave sin against revelation

to view hermaphroditism as “unnatural” or as “the consequence of Adam’s

sin”, for, as the gloss suggests, hermaphroditism predated Adam’s sin. It would

seem to follow that, if one is wedded to Biblical literalism, it is the birth of

people who are not hermaphrodites which might be “the consequence of Adam’s

sin”. Hermaphroditism should perhaps be seen as a reminder of the situation

before sin entered into things and messed things up. Many scriptural

fundamentalists read scripture very selectively, treating as infallible

translations and inadvertently belittling the actual text in the language of

divine revelation, and ignoring untoward implications of particular passages. It

might also be noted that Biblical literalists should also be very suspicious

indeed of genital surgery performed on intersexed infants when no intrinsic risk

to life and physical health is entailed by such surgery. This, too, is on

scriptural grounds. The removal of gonads and such surgery is explicitly

forbidden (see Deuteronomy 23:1, for example), at least where there is no

intrinsic risk to life. The burden of scripture is in fact such that those who

take its exhortations seriously should positively welcome the notion of a

spectrum which includes people who are intersexed. Such people are indeed bound

by Scripture to respect the sense many people who are intersexed have that

violence was done to them in infancy by surgery, and to accept that it is right

and proper that we be able to remain physically as we are and to identify as



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