So much of the Bible has been used to harm people in the name of God. It’s important for us to query what the Scriptures and the very grammar of faith that have been handed down to us over millennia are talking about - and where they are giving inspiration - in their unique context.
Once such verse that has been used to harm folks - especially our transgender neighbors and siblings is out of the Creation narrative, as it is written in Genesis 1:27 (CEB) "God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them."
What’s helpful to remember is that the Bible is an ancient library of books written over generations and its stories, poetry, history and more were collected and curated over millennia by a diversity of voices - that often times disagreed.
When God calls God’s people to “smite the Amelekites” (1 Samuel 15:3) we might agree from a distance and with important scholarship that God would never call people to acts of genocide but that in fact people that claimed to follow God did horrible things in the name of God.
But what do we do with this verse out of Genesis that by its very grammar is poetry reaching out to explain the unexplainable?
We know this Genesis verse has been used to harm people - especially as it has been used to catalog human siblings into categories the Hebrew poetry wouldn’t even understand or accept. When the Biblical storytellers talked about being made in the image of God, they were talking about the wide and expansive diversity of all human being created fearfully and fabulously in God’s image as they are. The Hebrew poets that pieced together and shared the creation story in Genesis would never have signed up for the hateful things that Christians have done to LGBTQIA2S folks over the years.
Jewish Hebrew scholar Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Genesis writes:
“There is only one human species. The notion of all humankind deriving from one common ancestry directly leads to the recognition of the unity of the human race, notwithstanding the infinite diversity of human culture.”
Transgender Christian theologian and author Austen Hartke powerfully reflects on this Biblical verse in his game-changingly important book Transforming: the Bible & The Lives of Transgender Christians.
In conversation with the Reverend M Barclay - a transgender United Methodist pastor - they talk about the liberating poetry in the text as it was originally conveyed.
M shares with Austen:
“My understanding of Scripture became filtered through this question: ‘Does this behavior, or identity, or way of being in the world create life? Within a person or within the community?’” When we read about the way God creates life in Genesis 1, it begins with the separation of light and darkness and, by extension, the creation of day and night. Next, God divides the waters of the deep into two categories: the waters above the sky and the waters below the sky. Then those waters below the sky are parted and gathered together to create two separate domains: the land and the sea. God populates the sky with birds, the sea with fish and other ocean creatures, and the earth with plants and land animals.
With each act of creation, from verse 1 to verse 25, God is separating, categorizing, and bringing order out of chaos.
For the Hebrew people of the ancient world, these acts of separation and ordering were intimately familiar. The Torah laws that defined them and identified them as God’s people were based on these acts of separation between the sacred and the profane, and between the commendable and the abominable. In Deuteronomy 14, a chapter full of examples of this kind of separation, we find one of God’s commands to the Hebrew people regarding food. In Deuteronomy 14:9–10 we read that sea creatures that have both scales and fins may be eaten, but if they have only one of those below the sky are parted and gathered together to create two separate domains: the land and the sea. God populates the sky with birds, the sea with fish and other ocean creatures, and the earth with plants and land animals. With each act of creation, from verse 1 to verse 25, God is separating, categorizing, and bringing order out of chaos.
Scholars and Jewish leaders have debated the reasoning behind the rules God lays out in the first five books of the Bible, and there are dozens of plausible theories. What’s obvious is that rules like these not only made it easier for God’s people to identify good food from possibly dangerous food, but also created ideological boxes that helped people understand the world around them.
So imagine you’re an ancient Hebrew fisherman, out casting your nets into the sea one day. When you drag up your net you find a few mackerel, some jellyfish, and a lobster. You take one look at the scales and the fins on the mackerel and think “fish.” You know without a doubt that’s a fish, and it’s good to eat. But what if you’ve never seen a jellyfish or a lobster before? Are they fish? Well, you can’t see any fins or scales, so therefore they are outside the category of “fish,” and can’t be eaten. Though you may live your whole life without experiencing the wonder of garlic-butter lobster tail, you also miss out on being stung in the mouth by that jellyfish. These categories kept people safe and helped order the world.
Because these categories applied to every part of life—from the grain in the fields to the dinner table to the temple -sacrifices—it’s not surprising to find the same kinds of separations in the Genesis 1 creation account. Almost all of this first chapter deals in dualities like light and dark, earth and sky, land and water. Then, we get to verse 27:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Based on the dualities we’ve seen in this chapter, chapter, it’s not surprising to find humans broken into two groups here: male and female God created them.”
Based on the dualities we’ve seen in this chapter, it’s not surprising to find humans broken into two groups here: male and female God created them. But this verse does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about the separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk. As M Barclay puts it, “This chapter talks about night and day and land and water, but we have dusk and we have marshes. These verses don’t mean ‘there’s only land and water, and there’s nowhere where these two meet.’ These binaries aren’t meant to speak to all of reality—they invite us into thinking about everything between and beyond.” In the same way we call God the Alpha and Omega, implying all things from first to last and in between, the author of Genesis 1 is merely using the same dualistic poetic device to corral the infinite diversity of creation into categories we can easily understand.
The reality is that, for as long as there have been humans, there have been people who fall outside of the male/female binary. In a creation story from Sumer, another Mesopotamian society and neighbor to what would become Israel, we find references from 1600 BCE to humans who are created with sex organs that are not immediately identifiable as “female” or “male.”2 In the Mishnah and the Talmud, the Jewish compilations of oral law put together between 200 CE and 500 CE, we see several examples of individuals who don’t fit male or female categories within Jewish culture, including those whose sex is indeterminable, those who have characteristics of more than one sex, and those whose characteristics change over time.3 This tells us that even the descendants of the Hebrew people who recorded Genesis 1 did not necessarily assume that the gender or sex categories seen in verse 27 were all-encompassing.
In concluding thoughts on these words that have been used to harm, Hartke and M share:
When we attempt to box God’s creation in by looking to Genesis 1:27 and expecting every person on earth to fall into line, we’re asking the text the wrong question. If Genesis 1 was meant to describe the world as it is, the biblical authors would have needed a scroll hundreds of feet long! Thank goodness we don’t have to slog through verse after verse that reads like a biology textbook on taxonomy, naming creature after creature from the elephant down to the paramecium. Just as we wouldn’t expect astronomers to cram things like comets and black holes into the categories for sun or moon, we shouldn’t expect all humans to fit into the categories “male” and “female,” just because those are the only two listed in Genesis 1. Instead of asking the text to define and label all that is, we can ask God to speak into the space between the words, between biblical times and our time, and between categories we see as opposites.
When I asked M Barclay if they identified with the concept of in-between places in space and time, their answer surprised me. I had always assumed that all nonbinary people identified somewhere between male and female, and as M explained, that’s a fairly common misconception. While the term “nonbinary” has become a simple way to refer to someone who doesn’t have a strict male or female gender identity, the term is intrinsically flawed. “To say that you’re nonbinary innately suggests there is a binary, and my whole point is that there’s no such thing,” M clarified. “We’ve created this formula and forced our understanding of gender into it.”
Instead of seeing themselves as halfway between male and female, M and many other nonbinary people identify as something completely different. “I’m very convicted to speak about my own nonbinary identity not as an ‘in-between,’ but as a ‘more,’” M told me. “So, for instance, as someone who’s bisexual, I don’t think of myself as half gay and half straight. I’m something else. I know some nonbinary people think of themselves as half man and half woman, but I don’t. When we open the [gender binary] boxes, it’s much more a scattering of things than a line.”
For more from Austen Hartke, visit: austenhartke.com