Friday, 1 April 2011

Queering Genesis: "Male and Female (And Others) He Created Them"

The first, most obvious, feature of Genesis 1 & 2 has to be that it is a celebration of God's creation - all of it. Before we get to the "male and female" bit, let's consider the rest.
On the first day, "God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness night." Does this imply that there is nothing in between? Of course not. There is twilight, there is gloaming. Night can be well lit by a full moon, day can be dull and cloudy. But still, there is night and day, darkness and light - which do not deny the existence of intermediate states.

On the second day, God "made a dome that separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome...and called the dome Sky". We know from science that there is not a "dome" above, as a fixed object, but we accept the existence of something we call "sky", even though we cannot say where precisely it begins or ends.
On the third day, God separated the land from the waters. "God called the dry land Earth, and the waters he called Seas." Again, we know from simple observation that this simplifies the picture. On the land there are also rivers and lakes, as well as marshes, swamps and deltas that are not clearly either wet or dry, or may vary in state with the seasons. At the coast, there are intertidal zones, which are land at low tide, and sea at high. On the oceans, there are arctic zones where frozen sea creates ice shelves, a form of "dry" land. Yet none of this negates the concept of a difference between dry land and sea - and the use of the concept does not deny the existence of intermediate states. Also on the third day, God created the plants:
Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with their seed in it." And so it was.
But where, in this description, are the plants that do not bear seeds or fruit? Are they not also part of creation?
On the fourth day, God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night", and so he created the sun and the moon and the stars. From science though, we know that this does not complete the picture: what we commonly call "stars" include the real stars of astronomy (which in fact are all suns, like the one which is familiar to us, but vastly more distant), but also includes nearby planets showing only a reflected light, and galaxies so distant from us that to the naked eye they resemble single stars. At times, the sky also includes what seem to be shooting stars, meteorites entering the atmosphere, and comets. Here too, the reality of creation shows an abundance of forms beyond those included in the simple description "the sun, the moon and the stars".
On the fourth day, God created the animals. Here, there appears to be recognition of the diversity of life:
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Yet even here, the list is not in fact complete. By specifying the "creatures that move", what provision is there for the mussels and limpets of the sea that do not move, but cling to the rocks for stability? What of those living creatures we sometimes prefer not to think about, the bacteria and viruses? Are they not also part of God's creation?
Of course they are. The point is, that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is a literary work not a scientific catalogue. To list every single life form would be frankly impossible - even today, there countless species not yet discovered. The writer of Genesis does not attempt to name every part of creation, and exclude that which is not named. Instead, he uses a literary device to form an impression of the diversity of creation - and what a fine work it is, too.
As minister of the word at Mass, this has always been my favourite reading, as the first lesson in the salvation history that begins the Easter Vigil. Read aloud, there is real grandeur in the simple repetitions and cadences of the piece, and the pauses that bring to an end each day. It begins with a description of the void,  but by adding day by day, it ends with an impression of having recounted the full grandeur of all creation, with humankind at the apex - even though, as outlined above, it has not identified every part of creation, but just some key components. Visual artists understand the technique - no painter would attempt in a landscape to show every leaf, every blade of grass, every twig in a landscape. In art, less is more. The writer of Genesis 1 has used artistry to create an impression of the full diversity of creation, by careful selection.
So it is with the description of the sixth day.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (1: 27)
From a heterosexist perspective, reading this verse in isolation, it is natural that the reference to "male and female" should be used to support the heteronormative view that there exist only two biological sexes, and by extension two associated gender roles, and a single, heterosexual erotic orientation. Such a narrow reading however, is contrary to the advice on Scriptural interpretation by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, to the knowledge we obtain from science - and even to the earliest traditions of Biblical exegesis on the passage.
The Commission warns strongly against superficial interpretation of single verses. Instead, it is important to consider the broader context of the passage as a whole, the literary form and careful attention to language. All of these lead to a diametrically opposed interpretation. To take "male and female" as restricting all understanding of sex, gender and orientation to just the single model described is no more valid than denying the existence of rivers, estuaries and marshes because only the Earth and Seas are named to represent dry land and water, or to deny the planets, comets and galaxies because only the sun, moon and stars are explicitly named.   Read in its entirety, as an expressive and powerful passage of literature rather than a scientific catalogue, this is a celebration of the diversity of creation. This includes the diversity of biological sex, gender and orientation that we as the queer community embody - and all are made "in the image of God".
For a scientific view on the matter, we need to look not at the words of Genesis, but to the findings of empirical research. These show clearly that humankind includes two primary biological sexes, but also a small but measurable proportion of people with one of a range of intersex conditions. It is simply not true that there are only male and female sexes, and that all humans are one or the other. It is also not true that there are only two genders, or that these are identified with biological sex. In many historical periods and geographical regions, some societies have recognized other possibilities. There are males who take on female gender, women who take on male roles - described for Africa as "boy wives and female husbands", for example, or by the Native Americans as "two spirits". Nor is sexual orientation necessarily determined by any combination of sex and gender, or even  a simple matter of either/or. In societies where social recognition is given to people living as genders differing from their biological sex, their sexual relationships are in some cases with same sex / opposite gendered partners, and in some cases with opposite sex / same gendered partners. Even restricting each of these dimensions of  sex, gender and orientation to just two possibilities, leads to a eight possible combinations - but we know that on each dimension, there are many more than just two possibilities.
This is especially true of orientation. Although in modern Western culture, we tend to think in terms of a hetero/ homo dichotomy, with some recognition of a bisexual minority, consideration of history, social anthropology and psychology suggest that in fact we are all innately placed somewhere on a bisexual continuum, from which by social conditioning and personal circumstances we end up forging a personal life which is more closely identified with one or the other.
Science, then, supports the reading of Genesis as a celebration of diversity, including sexual and gender diversity.
Even the earliest Jewish and Christian writers did not view Genesis as restricting humankind to just a male and female dichotomy, as Michael Carden notes in his commentary on the Genesis 1& 2:
"Sally Gross points out that in Rabbinic Judaism there was recognition that not everyone was born male or female. Rabbinic texts use two terms, tumtum and 'aylonith, to designate people of intermediate gender.....Similarly, in Christianity, the hermaphrodite was a recognized human category".
This is deeply ingrained in the Genesis creation text itself, in the alternate version contained in Chapter 2, in the verse usually (mis)translated as
"then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a human being" (2:7).
In fact, as both Carden and Salzmann & Lawler make clear, the Hebrew word which here becomes "man" is 'adam - not, as we might expect, the name of the man Adam, but a gender-neutral term for a groundling, a proto-human androgyne formed from the ground. Only later, recognizing the need for a human to have companionship, did the Lord separate the single genderless proto-human into two distinct genders.
So, is the notion of "queering" Genesis a distortion of Scripture? I leave you to judge. My sense though, is that the distortion has come from the heteronormative interpretations, which have ignored the context as a whole, and with their natural bias, have quite inappropriately read a powerful literary presentation of the creation story as a scientific account of natural sexuality - which it quite clearly is not.

Guest, Deryn et al: The Queer Bible Commentary
McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

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