At the beginning of this month, The New York Times ran an op-ed with the provocative title, “Is God Transgender?” Written by Rabbi Mark Sameth, the essay examined language from the Hebrew Scriptures, noting that God is sometimes referred to as a man, sometimes as a woman, and sometimes as both. Other people in the Biblical stories also display characteristics of the two genders. Here’s an excerpt from Sameth’s essay:
“. . . [T]he Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic: In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as ‘he.’ In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to ‘her’ tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a ‘young man.’ And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as ‘them.’. . .
“In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be ‘nursing kings.’ . . .
“The four Hebrew letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh,’ as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for ‘He/She.’
Sameth, whose cousin Paula Grossman was one of the first people in the U.S. to undergo sex-reassignment surgery (in the 1970s), comes to several conclusions, all of which support transgender equality, but the one I thought was most important was:
“Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the
people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual gendered deity.”
This wonderful essay, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here, recently became the subject of a National Catholic Reporter commentary. After reading Sameth’s essay, writer Mariam Williams speculated why she had never heard of a dual gender god before, especially when the evidence seems to be so clearly embedded in several key texts. Commenting on Sameth’s involvement with a transgender family member, Williams writes:
“I wonder how many people before him had read the same verses and drawn the same conclusions, but — because they didn’t have a cousin Paula they knew and loved and rooted for, or because it was the 1950s or 1890s and not the 21st century — they dismissed their discovery. They would have disrupted the status quo, and they would have been alone in their thinking.
‘How often do theologians and practicing ministers read Scripture in its original language and keep the knowledge to themselves out of fear of what they find?”
Williams, far from being paranoid, acknowledges that human frailty may play a part in why scholars don’t make such challenging discoveries public:
“. . . [I]t could be dangerous for the individual posing the argument, because disrupting the status quo is always dangerous, perhaps especially when you are personally invested in it. Furthermore, bringing counter-arguments into one’s belief system is scary. It means sitting in places where you’re uncomfortable, where doubt, the very enemy of faith, can fester.”
I think Williams is partially correct in this conclusion. Yes, it is uncomfortable to be in a place where uncertainty reigns, where the status quo is challenged. But, isn’t that the place where all of us are every day of our lives? Though things in our life are generally familiar, we never know what each day will bring, and we are often called to make decisions and choices based on how we assimilate dangerous, new knowledge into our more comfortable, secure values. Whether we are aware of this or not, we do it every day.
Sometimes those experiences loom larger in our consciousness because they require a greater risk in our choices. Sometimes we need to wrestle with our consciences in order to arrive at a decision. But the more we act in this courageous way, the easier it becomes for the future–though, admittedly, it never becomes totally easy!
So, my main disagreement with Williams’ remark is that she places doubt as the enemy of faith. Doubt is not an enemy of faith. It’s a step on the way to faith. The enemy of faith is fear–fear of taking the risk of the leap of faith. Such fear sometimes reveals itself as a calcified certainty which prevents us from making a decision because we assume this decision is already made–usually by some other authority.
In the Catholic LGBT world, I have met many people whose courage and risk continue to inspire me. These aren’t reckless people. They are faith-filled people. I believe that it is through these many acts of individual courage, risk, and faith, that our church, as an institution, will eventually be able to make its own such acts.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry