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. (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.