If I May…

Standard

I appreciate that Margaret Moers Wenig troubles the image of God rhetoric that envisions humanity as male and female. Wenig troubles the “God image” in three ways. First, she argues that not all human beings were created wholly male or female. Second, she argues that not all human beings identify with the gender it which they appear to have been created. Third, she argues that not all people fit neatly into the categories of male and female. Last, she argues that Jewish tradition does not assume gender dimorphism because it understands that there are six genders and that humans, even by rabbinic standards, don’t fit into the binary categories of male and female. In other words, Wenig appears to be heading towards a trajectory that renders Genesis 1 and its account of ‘creation’ problematic and contests the gender assumptions of it.

However, it is disappointing when Wenig concludes her reading of Gen 1:27-30 by analyzing the phrase, zachar u’nikvah bara otam “male and female he created them” as a merism, a biblical figure of speech in which a whole is alluded to by some of its parts. The notion of God creating the whole of humanity in his image and that all of us bear some image of the sacred is appealing, especially to the social justice person inside of me. It is a text that many queer people use as a means of advocating for their inclusion in religious institutions. At the same time, it’s hard for me to read that phrase as inclusive, or that somehow male and female can be read as merely a spectrum rather than two distinct gender-identities. To be sure, I am not saying that we should read the gender dimorphism in the text as an accurate depiction of gender or the sexed body. Rather, it appears troubling to me that a human being can identify with the “God-image” without seeing that integral to the text is the dimension of dimorphous gender-identities (or sexed bodies) and that humans created in that image are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” In other words, Gen 1:1-2:4a depicts gender in a way that is unintelligible without reproduction. It appears to me that rather than arguing, “this is not a text that we can accept without creative appropriation and, yes, queering,” reducing gender to a merism in the text allows it to stand as a sacral text without much critical disagreement with the way the text constructs desire, sexuality, gender, and ultimately, the human body.

In this text, God genders humans ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the human body is made intelligible through the commandment to reproduce. This is hardly surprising as Priestly narratives and legal materials, which Gen 1:1-2:4a is part, envision women as an extension and a commodity to men. Particularly, the purpose of women in the Priestly social vision is for their ability to reproduce. Various narratives are retold in which where women had a voice in earlier text, are rendered silent by the Priestly social order. This commandment could be—and has been—conceived as a teleological goal for human sexuality is reproduction, meaning that humans who have no desire to reproduce or do not identify with ‘male’ or ‘female’ categories in the ‘traditional’ sense are rendered as unintelligible within that cultural text (or at the very least, rendered as a chaotic force that threatens the social order which protects the Israelites from YHWH’s wrath).

While we might not think of it as such, inferences to the human body in Gen 1:1-2:4a are historical constructions. Genesis 1:1-2:4a might seem like a normative account for the human body and this makes sense, as the text itself is not legislation or narrative in the typical way. It does not appear to be historical but rather it can give the appearance of providing transcendent categories about nature. It is easy for us to believe that because God created those categories, that is the way the universe works: humans are categorized into binaries with the purpose of reproduction.

I agree with Judith Butler (and Foucault) that the body is not natural. Rather, like Butler, I agree that there is no ahistorical, natural body and that the human body is constructed through cultural norms, taboos, conventions and even laws. That is, all we know and experience is a historical body constructed through specific discourses of meaning and cultures. Even though, much of Western discourse has located a ‘biological sex’, it cannot exist outside of culture and that it is constructed specifically within culture. As such, ‘sex’ is an effect of gender norms and the effect of specific power relations.

The body in Gen 1:27-30 is not constructed as a merism because the sexed body in this text is understood through specific power relations, in this case, the importance of reproduction in ancient Israelite (hegemonic) texts. Moreover, it is understood through what the priestly writers convey throughout their writings. Gender differences are maintained in priestly writings because of the importance of reproduction and the dominance of supposedly male bodies over female bodies. I guess the issue I see, in the end, is whether this text can actually be resolved without deconstructing its supposed assumptions. Wenig moves in that trajectory but doesn’t do a ton to talk about how bodies are constructed through culture and how the ‘image of God’ rhetoric itself is gendered.

I do think that the image of God rhetoric can be appropriated, however. Such rhetoric was already appropriated from the Priestly authors who appropriated such concepts from the monarchical tradition in the ancient Near East, where the King was envisioned as being in the image of the deity. In that sense, the priestly rhetoric moves towards democratizing autocratic rhetoric and I think we should be able to appropriate that rhetoric and queer it even more. At the same time, I think we need to be clear that standing in God’s image, at least in this text means something very specific and it means ritualization in a way that inevitably excludes and renders others culturally unintelligible. It means that if we seek to appropriate that language, we should do so carefully and not without contesting the gender norms already assumed within the text. Perhaps it means allowing ourselves the ability to produce a more inclusive Image and at the same time recognize that any Image can and will be appropriated for exclusionary purposes.

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