Intersexuality And

Scripture
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.

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(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
intersexed.

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