The Power of Transgression

In many stories which seem to assume or advocate gender binaries and heterosexuality, transgression of those norms is often hiding just below the surface. Is this because queer folks existed in the society, and no matter how hard an author might try, he (male pronoun used intentionally here) could not quite make them go away? Is it because nothing is as orderly as it seems, and human nature resists the very binaries we try to create? Is it more a product of us reading our current social context into historical texts, grasping on to innuendos that the original author did not intend? 

Take, for instance, the creation narrative. In Genesis 2, God does not create a man, but an adam, a creature of red clay. (The Inclusive Bible translates this word as “earth creature.”) This earth creature is not gendered — it’s not until God fashions a second human out of the original one’s side that we encounter the words “male” and “female” to describe the two beings. We also have, even before the earth-creatures, the presence of what Deryn Guest styles as “Mx. Tehom,” a gender-bending personification of the deep. The Hebrew word tehom, usually translated “the deep” in the creation story, has a masculine form but usually appears as a feminine noun. In both these cases, order is made out of chaos — God moves over tehom and from it, creates the waters above and the waters below; God divides the genderless adam into male and female. The arc of the story bends toward binaries, but the presence of androgyny is undeniable. 

Similarly, we see a few different possible expressions of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible. There are condemnations against (male) homosexual acts in the Holiness Codes of Leviticus. There are stories where characters may be understood to homosexually rape (or attempt to rape) another man, and are then punished. Again, this punishment makes order out of chaos. The Holiness Codes separate Israel from the cultures surrounding it. Ham, the Sodomites, and the Gibeahites all transgress implied power structures, and there must be consequences. And yet, elsewhere David and Jonathan love each other“surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). It’s tempting to read this as a queer relationship, and in fact, these passages about David and Jonathan are used in gay wedding ceremonies. How does this narrative fit into the context of the Holiness Codes?

A note on the Holiness Codes: I wonder if there is a parallel here with how some non-U.S. cultures today tend towards homophobia and transphobia. I’m thinking of cases like some first-generation Asian immigrants to the U.S., whose parents reject their queer identity because it’s perceived as evidence that their child is assimilating too far into American culture. Or of the movement in South America to introduce gender-neutral language — a neutral “e” suffix rather than a masculine “o” or a feminine “a”, creating words like amigue instead of amigo/amiga, or Latine rather than Latino/Latina. The backlash against this new grammar is a (false) argument that no one in Latin America is actually transgender, but that these are new social roles imposed by U.S. imperialism. In the same way, were the Israelites trying to establish their own identity in opposition to a perceived imperial threat from a nation with more free sexual identities?

The anthropologist Mary Douglas theorized that when people transgress boundaries, they have power. (I wrote more about her theories here.) That power makes them dangerous. Reading scripture, we can interrogate sources of power — and what those in power are afraid of. I think this is especially true in cases where punishment seems to outstrip actions, like the curse on Ham or the violent reaction of Joseph’s brothers to his “coat of many colors.” Where are boundaries of gender, sexuality, and power being transgressed? In these stories, we find parallels today with how queer people claim power and space, as well as the backlash against queer power.

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