God Beyond Gender: Gender Diversity in the Bible’s Creation Story

Earlier this week, we shared an interview on our podcast with Kyle Kentopp, a southern preacher who also is an advocate from LGBT inclusion in the church based on his experience as a transgender man.   With Kyle’s permission, we are sharing excerpts of writing by Kyle on Christian theology as understood through the lens of the experience of transgender people.  This is a continuation of that series.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 Gender Diversity in the Bible’s Creation Story

Jesus Redeemer of All CreationThe Creation story is the most influential piece of text in determining how individuals are supposed to be categorized as sexed and gendered beings. As scientific research increasingly comes to prove that both the sexual and gender binary are human constructs, and that nature exhibits a myriad of combinations in a single of individual of elements that are supposedly characteristic of only one or the other, the Creation in Genesis becomes the cornerstone of belief in the binary. Even so, upon critical examination, scholars have found that the text itself might be indicating a larger realm of being than these two categories.

Feminist scholar Carol Meyers is one such scholar who first examines the Creation story in the context of its genre— it was written as a myth, something which serves to provide an explanation for a truth and never intended, when written, to be taken literally. Adam and Eve are not real, historical people, nor is the Garden of Eden a real, geographic location. Rather, this myth serves to address questions of the relation between humans and the Divine, and for why things are the way they are (Why is life so hard? Why is there death? Why are there male and females?) (Meyers, 66-7). Approaching the text first as a myth allows the reader to remove the implications of divine sanction, which those adherent to literalism have assumed color this narrative and therefore take it uncritically at face value. There are, however, many pieces of the Bible that get lost in the many translations from its original language to the English in which it is primarily read in America. This is why a continuing returning to the original texts is important when issues emerge that take its roots in such narratives.

mrs adamMeyers returns to the original Hebrew of Genesis 2:4 when God creates the first human. She notes that Hebrew is itself a gendered language; all nouns are given a grammatically feminine or masculine structure and there is no neutral structure (Meyers, 70). The word for the first human adam is a grammatically masculine noun, but “Adam” is not used as a proper noun to refer to the male until a few chapters later, after God split the one being into two. The first connection being made in the creation of adam therefore does not seem to be to a particular gender or sex, but rather to the earth (adamah) from which adam was formed. Meyers would like to further contextualize this in the setting from which the author of this text most likely arose. The Iron Age was a period marked by difficult agrarian life, and the search for arable land in order to grow food was a constant struggle. Humans during this time recognized much more intimately their connection with the earth, and the necessity of its life to their own. For this reason, Meyers suggests that a more appropriate designation for the first being is that of an “earthling” rather than a sexual man. Further, in order for God to be able to split this earthling into two separate sexed beings, the original earthling would necessarily have had both male and female sex characteristics. Therefore, Meyers goes on to specify that this earthling represents a “sexually undifferentiated being” (72). The scholar supports her claim by noting that the idea of humanity arising from a single “androgynous” being was a common origin myth in ancient Mesopotamia (73). However, it should be noted here that the use of the word “androgynous” to refer to the combination of sex characteristics is outdated. The term is typically used today in reference to a kind of gender expression, while a person who holds a physical mixture of sex characteristics is referred to as intersex. While the intersex community is beginning to claim their own space, many still feel a connection to the umbrella term of “transgender” in that their bodies, and in a significant number of cases their gender, is outside of the binary as constituted by society (DeFranza, 2015). In this way, Meyers asserts that the first earthling held a combination of male and female within them as supported by linguistic analysis, the context of the setting from which the author arose, and through a comparison of other similar creation myths of the time period and geographic region.

Those who hold to the idea of the binary as divinely ordained also refer to God’s response to the humans’ act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden has ordaining a certain gender role, particular for women. Meyers concedes that the literary characters of Adam and Eve serve as both prototypes and archetypes of men and women (68), and so what has been ordained for Eve therefore is interpreted as being ordained for all women. God’s words restrict Eve to a painful life of bearing and raising children under the dominion of Adam’s ultimate rule and command (Genesis 3:16). This has been used over centuries to justify at least two ideas: the first being that women are defined and bound by their procreative capabilities, and second that mother and foetuswomen belong to a separate sphere of life than that belonging to men while men maintain ultimate control over everything on earth. Yet, once again, Meyers encourages readers to place this scripture in the context of an Iron Age agrarian life when the survival and later flourishing of the human species depended on these early humans placing emphasis on their procreative duties. Meyers states, “Inadequate nutrition and the presence of endemic and epidemic disease… to which children are especially susceptible a priori suggest that infant mortality was high…. Consequently, with a survival rate of about 50 percent, having three children survive beyond the age of five would have entailed as many as six pregnancies—or more if preterm losses are included” (98). The agrarian lifestyle of the Iron Age was one in which food supplies were uncertain and there certainly was not a technology of medicine at the time capable of effectively treating sick or malnourished infants. Mortality rates of mothers during birth were similarly high and risk of death became increasingly higher the more a mother gave birth (99). Yet, as seen above, multiple pregnancies were necessary in order to ensure that at least one child survived into adulthood and would then be able to further the human race through their own family unit. Therefore, Meyers sees the emphasis on procreation, and the heterosexual pair-bonding of male and female understood as categories determined by primary sex characteristics, as one of necessity for survival of the human species at this time.

Today, with approximately 7 billon people on the planet, humans are in a markedly different position. The survival of the species (at least through procreative means) in no longer at risk and so it is no longer necessary to place such a strict emphasis on the duty of procreation. With so many people on the planet, it is no longer a duty at all, but a personal choice to be made. Furthermore, a 2014 report from the Children’s workingwomenBureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cites that there were over 415,000 children in foster care in the United States (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System FY 2014 data). These statistics, along with developments of procreative technology such as in vitro fertilization, indicate that there are currently many ways of becoming parents of children and participating in the furthering of the human species without ever being a biological parent in a heterosexual pair-bonding relationship. The assumption that humans are explicitly and inevitably tied first and foremost to their primary sex characteristics in their role as procreators is incredibly reductive. Surely, human capabilities to think and to reason, to dream and to create, are for greater purposes than to simply grow old enough to procreate and then die. If what it is to be human is characterized by our reproductive abilities, then heterosexual, cisgender sterile men and menopausal women would have to also be considered as somehow “less than.” Yet it is known that sterility is largely biological and menopause is natural, neither of which is at the fault of the individual in question. Similarly, a person does not choose to be homosexual or transgender. Certainly, living authentically as such often means having to sacrifice having biological children, but the human species is no longer at a place where such a sacrifice is harmful to the species as a whole. As Meyers articulates, humans are in a much different situation than those who lived during the Iron Age, but even as such, the precedence in the Abrahamic tradition for humans with gender and sex variance outside of the binary goes back as far as the creation of the primal human.

There are two creation stories in the beginning chapters of Genesis. The myth discussed above comes second and is noted for its earthy imagery and the intimacy of God forming the initial human from the ground. The first myth is distinguished by its orality— God calls all that is into creation by voice alone. However, there is something peculiar about this text when one approaches it with the understanding that the Abrahamic faiths have always fiercely attested to monotheism. In the first mention of the creation of humans, God is recorded as saying “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness….” (Gen. 1:26) god in meTwo other instances of God using plural pronouns appears in the book of Genesis, both similarly concerning an interaction with early humans: Genesis 3:22, after the primal couple’s disobedience in Eden (“Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil.”), and at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:7 (“Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one anothers speech.). These texts complicate the idea of a strictly monotheistic faith. If there is only One God in this act of creation, who is the divine speaking to? Or is the use of plural pronouns a literary device to articulate a deity transcendent of the boundaries readers will place on God through fixed and repetitive imageries?

Thomas Keiser, professor at Virginia Beach Theological Seminary, argues for the latter. In a 2009 journal article entitled “The Divine Plural,” Keiser acknowledges that while the idea of plurality in the Godhead has received the least support of the most popular theories among recent scholars, the way in which scholars have been approaching the plurality might need redirection. The idea of plurality has often been linked to the idea of the New Testament Trinitarian doctrine read into an Old Testament passage (the multiplicity of trinitythe Godhead would be that of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), which is seen as an appropriation of the Hebrew Scripture for Christian purposes. However, Keiser asserts another plurality possible within the Godhead, one that he suggests makes the most sense out of the other theories and reflects God’s transcendence of all human boundaries, specifically in the context of the boundaries of gender and sex.

Keiser sees a direct link between the introduction of the divine singular-plural and that of humankind’s own singular-plural as recorded in the text. For instance, when God first speaks in the plural in Genesis 1:26 as recorded above, it is immediately followed by a return to the singular “Him.” Inversely, in the next verse the first pronouns referencing humanity begins with the singular and ends with a plural: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (Gen. 1:27, KJ21, emphasis added). It must be noted that the identification of humanity’s plurality is through the seemingly exclusively separate categories of male and female. Yet in connecting this plurality of male and female with the singular “man” (understood as the universal norm for humanity in an androcentric text written in a highly patriarchal era), the text indicates a unity within the interplay of the plurality (137). Despite the number of differences between the two creation accounts, this interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account fits well into Meyers’ interpretation of Genesis 2 in that Meyers’ sexually undifferentiated first earthling holds within one being both male and female before being split into two separate beings, each with their respective sex. Even while the two newly formed beings are now separated, there is still a strong connotation of connectedness and unity between them as they remain by one another’s side in Eden and beyond, following one another’s actions and misdeeds. Male and female are both understood in their separate entities as well as in their united connection to one another.

However, to remain with Keiser’s argument on Genesis 1, its asserted that the simultaneous introduction of both the human and divine singular-plural indicates that the text itself is advocating for the reader to make hildegard-god-in-all-thingsthe association between the two, as particularly understood in the context of sex and gender (135). This interpretation of association is further supported by the fact the simultaneous introduction of both kinds of singular-plurals first occurs during the creation of humans in the image of God. Humanity’s relationship to the divine is therefore not only constituted through covenantal commitments and responsibilities, but first and foremost through the human being a reflection of a God that holds a number of pluralities within a single, unified Godhead.

The first person to assert a theory similar to this in relation to the singular-plural used in Genesis was John Peter Lange in his 1884 book Genesis, though, Keiser notes, without much development on the idea. Karl Barth spent considerable more time on the subject, arguing in Church Dogmatics: Doctrine of Creation that Genesis 1:27a, in which humans are made into male and female, “must be recognized as the definitive explanation given by the text itself of the image of God” (Keiser, 136). On the side of humanity, however, Barth maintained the plurality of gender is expressed through two sets of humans, differentiated by two separate and fixed sexual structures. It is only through these sexual differentiations that humans are separated, since he goes on to argue that even categories such as race are mere variations of one and the same ultimate human structure. Barth asserts that humans can be vastly different in who they are, what relational roles they come to inhibit, and so on, but are primarily, from birth, “concretely” male or female (Barth, 286). In his theory, the unification of this plurality in a sexualized humanity is through heterosexual pairings in marriage (Barth, 287). This is most clearly supported by Genesis 2:22-4, in which it is stated that woman was created from a rib taken from the side of man and a man must therefore leave his parents’ house in order to become united with his wife— the two become one flesh.

Genesis 2:22-4 creates a circular motion of unity to diversity to a return to unity. In the taking of the rib from one to create another, there is the by now familiar argument that the original human would have to have characteristics of both male and female in order for that initial separation to occur. The becoming of one manhood circleflesh is therefore a pursuit to returning to that initial state of the unified human, holding within one being both male and female. A heterosexual pairing can certainly be one such case in which this unification occurs, though arguably not the only case. Barth’s theory is limiting in that it works within the assumption that sex is a fixed category determined by one’s primary sex characteristics and that gender necessarily stems from that determined sex. Yet in the years since Barth first published the volumes of Doctrine of Creation (1945-51), much more scientific research has come out that complicates that ideal of what constitutes sex, gender, and their relationship to one another.

Laura Kramer, a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University, argues that the binary categories of sex are in themselves socially constructed. Sex characteristics go beyond the primary (genitals) into characteristics such as chromosomal patterns, hormone levels, and so on. Kramer states, “Some people have chromosomal patterns associated with one sex, and they have primary (genital) sex characteristics or secondary (e.g. facial hair) sex characteristics, or both, associated with the other” (3). To further explain with an example, a person may have a chromosomal pairing of XX, the pairing associated with women, but have “male” genitalia, a healthy level of testosterone, and the ability to grow facial hair. The person may identify their gender as being male, even while chromosome testing would reveal the XX pairing. Yet that person may also identify as female, despite the body read male, and may find validation in testing which reveals their chromosomes as the “female” XX. It is therefore found that both gender, sex, and their relationship to one another is much more convoluted than has previously been assumed up until recent decades.

These mixtures in one body of what is thought to solely belong to one sex or another is found to be more widespread than a culture might have one think as well. Chromosomal testing is not commonly performed by doctors on their patients, so the prevalence in America of those who do not have the checklist of assumed coherent and fixed attributes that supposedly constitute the categories of man and woman cannot as yet be determined. However, Kramer notes that several larger athletic organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, have at one time performed chromosomal testing with the intention of insuring athletes are not posing as another sex in order to better their chances in the competitions. In these testings, it was found that at every major event there were at least one or two individuals who were discovered to have “chromosomal sex identities different from their apparently clear-cut genital category” (Kramer, 48). Beyond chromosomes, the complexities of gender and sex are further supported by the mere existence of intersex individuals, whom have already been briefly discussed in the previous section on the second Genesis creation account.

The issue of what constitutes sex in order to determine which competitions a person can participate in has resurfaced in a number of sports arenas over the last year due to transgender and intersex athletes continuing to assert their right to compete as the gender they claim as their own. Mack Beggs, a transgender high school student in Texas, recently came to the forefront of this controversy when, in February 2017, he won the girls’ state wrestling title. A rule issued by the University Interscholastic League, an inter-school organization in Texas which facilitates the school wrestling matches, determined in early 2016 that students are required to compete based on the sex printed on their birth certificate (Windsor, 2017). This presented a problem for Beggs, who had been “assigned female at birth” (a phrase used within the transgender community to emphasize that a certain anatomy does not necessarily denote the assumed corresponding gender) but had never felt female. The dissonance between his mind and body was so strong for him that he admits to having struggled with suicidal thoughts, and he felt transitioning was his only option (Gleeson, 2017). The 17 year old started doctor-prescribed hormone treatments (which the UIL allows on account of being deemed medically necessary by a healthcare professional) to elevate his testosterone levels to that of a “biological” male, which has many affects beyond giving his body a more masculine appearance. Studies in the last decade have shown that testosterone stimulates muscle mass, reduces body fat, and may also act on specific substrates in the brain to increase aggression and motivation for competition(Wood, 2012). It is true that testosterone supplements are sometimes illicitly taken by athletes as performance boosters, and so Beggs’ hormone treatment has caused much controversy as to whether or not he has an advantage over the young women whom he competes against. Despite all this, Beggs refuses to compromise on one part of his life for another and is hoping that his story will make an impact on schools’ policies for transgender students, citing that Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any education program or activity, should protect him (Gleeson, 2017).

While UIL of Texas currently holds to their birth certificate rule, USA Wrestling, an organization which governs non-scholastic wrestling matches around the nation, issued a new policy in late March 2017 which state a mother-and-childplurality of characteristics that others might try to separate and segregate, yet, even with this plurality, he continues to claim a unity of being. Seemingly conflicting attributes are held within one body, and the person in charge of that body claims himself male. A Western society that is predicated on a gender binary does not know where to place him as a transgender student and athlete. However, Beggs is a living example that the human singular-plural is not necessarily confined to the idea of two separate beings, a cisgender male and cisgender female, who come together in a heterosexual, procreative relationship. Rather, the human singular-plural can be embodied in one being alone as exemplified through the transgender experience. It may even be acknowledged that such a unified plurality is closer in the image of a God who similarly discloses Oneself in gendered pluralities that are simultaneously unified in an ultimately transcendent Godhead. To further elucidate this point, the divine singular-plural will now be examined.

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One thought on “God Beyond Gender: Gender Diversity in the Bible’s Creation Story

  1. […] God Beyond Gender: Gender Diversity in the Bible’s Creation Story […]

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