Sacred Androgyny & the Bible
“The truth is, a great mind must be androgynous,” says Coleridge, the English poet. It was not in church, of course, but in college that I encountered this idea of a higher human faculty being . . . both? But being male and female—seemed to double the work. And was the opposite of everything I’d been trained to be, back in church.
In Christianity, as it had been presented to me, the more a man is a man, the more God likes him. The more a woman is a woman, the more kids she’s having, and the better dinner tastes.
But great writers throughout history seem to take a different view. Virginia Woolf tries to explain: “In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”
Her incandescence led her to take a stroll through the Ouse River, as I went on a deep dive into the Bible and Bible scholarship, night after night, pondering this treatise in—sacred androgyny?
And God created man in his image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.
In this three-line poem, here in the recent Bray & Hobbins translation, the most obvious fact is an indirect one—about God.
“The poetical structure of Gen. 1:27 clearly suggests that God himself too was both male and female,” as Johannes C. de Moor observes.
Christian commentary doesn’t love to discuss this subject, although the male-femaleness of God, in the Bible, is obvious.
“The one God manifests attributes of both genders, for he both fathers and mothers his children,” as John D. Garr notes in God and Women.
If you want to shock Christians, you could slap them, or show them the verses where God is clearly female.
Or you could do both?
In Ruth 1:21, Naomi wails: “The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
She calls upon two divine names. The first is Yahweh, the second, El Shaddai, which as Dr. Garr discusses, means ‘breasted one’.
In the New Testament, early religious instruction is often discussed as breastfeeding (cf. 1 Peter 2:2–3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7–8; 1 Corinthians 3:1–3; Hebrews 5:12–13, etc.).
This is God the mother, nursing her children.
In Isaiah 42:14, God is the speaker: “Like a woman in labor I groan; I pant and gasp.” In 46:3, God is a mother ‘carrying’ the family of Jacob, which is to say, Israel. God speaks in 49:15: “Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast?”
In Proverbs 6:20: “Listen, my child, to the instruction from your father, and do not forsake the teaching from your mother.”
‘Teaching’ is the feminine word . . . torah.
In the Torah, your mother is teaching you. She births, nurses, teaches—oddly like a human mother?
“The identification of the Torah, the sacred text of the Law, with a female body is not the prerogative of mystic groups alone; every Jewish person can experience it,” notes Claudine Vassas in “Presences of the Feminine Within Judaism.”
Paul certainly understands God as loving parents. In Ephesians 6:1:3, he says “Honor your father and mother” to “enjoy long life on the earth” —working off Deuteronomy 5:16.
He couldn’t be saying that being nice to one’s biological parents will result in extended mortality. As a promise, that would regularly be broken.
The ‘long life’ is the Resurrection. The Mother and Father . . . are God.
In the lost Hebrew Gospel, quoted by early Christian writers, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit his ‘mother’.
The ‘holy Trinity’ as we call it is . . . father, mother, son.
Made in the image of God, each human is understood as both energies, male and female . . . in one.
Let’s look again at Genesis 1:27?
And God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
English translations vary widely on this verse. Many say, in the second line, that God created them, some say ‘him’.
This speaks to an interpretive chasm in reading the Bible, as might be understood as the Jewish vs. Christian readings.
The Christian reading requires the second and third line to be saying the same thing, and finds sex segregation at every stage . . . with the male always first, which means best.
The Jewish view is quite different.
In the second line, an original human person is created who is, like God, male and female. In the third line, this being is split into two.
As Elliot R. Wolfson notes: “God created Adam as male and female concurrently, which has been interpreted through the centuries as an affirmation of the androgynous status of the primordial human being.”
We’d find this in many rabbinic commentaries, like the Genesis Rabbah 8.1. “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first human/Adam, He created him androgynous . . .”
Philo thought so. Reading Genesis 1:26–27, the great Jewish sage “imagined an incorporeal human being who was both male and female, a primordial androgyne,” notes Marianne Blickenstaff.
One thinks of course of the famous speech in Plato’s Symposium, where the first humans are split into two by the gods — as an act of punishment.
“It’s a sad story . . . how we became lonely two-legged creatures,” goes the re-telling in Hedwig and the Angry Itch.
But the story of an original androgyne is known all over the world. Let’s not be troubled by its genitals? Though that seems un-Christian. The first human, in the Jewish view, would be a spirit being. The ‘garments of skin’ that God gives the ‘fallen’ man and woman in Genesis 3:21 would be mortal bodies.
Note Job 10:11: “You clothed me with skin and flesh . . .”
Human creation in Genesis is, then, the story of human spirits—given physical bodies—and being forced out into the world.
I’d suggest, then, a macroscopic reading of biblical narrative.
The original human is the original zygote. The male and female split from that, like cellular division into an embryo.
The Garden is the womb. The child—humanity—grows and is ejected from it, or perhaps . . . born.
There’s an idea one often hears . . . that the Bible is ‘patriarchal’, and insists on the supremacy of the male. This is absurd.
Never in the garden, or anytime after, is the male put in charge.
God is, insistently, on the side of women. The Bible is a feminist book.
An 1898 essay, “The Feminine Ideal of Christianity,” George Matheson, the cleric and hymn-writer, notes the obvious design of biblical narrative.
“It was the choosing of the weak in preference to the strong. It was the passing of the powerful and crushing strength of Ishmael for the gentle and unobtrusive character of Isaac. It was, in short, the selection of the feminine instead of the masculine type.”
Biblical heroes are feminine, as the heroines are active and engaged, powerful and violent—which might read as ‘male’?
I love all the stunning ladies who stride across the pages of scripture, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, the Queen of Sheba, etc..
Though my heart belongs to Yael.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple. (Judges 5:26)
She hits you to daze you, then bludgeons you and pushes—penetrates?—a tent stake into the hole she just made in your head.
“The phallic nature of her banging a tent-peg through Sisera’s temple, which seems obvious to me, is often not even commented on by recent commentators,” notes Christine Mitchell. “Her body, rather than being fixed as a female body, metamorphosizes into a male body, and Sisera’s from a male to a female body.”
We begin to notice a theme that Christianity didn’t? The heroes of the Bible are the subjects of sexual oscillation.
A description of Joseph’s appearance, in Genesis 39:6, is nearly word-for-word the same as the beauty of his mother, in 29:17. Note he’s prone to weeping. And what’s going on with his famous coat? In 2 Samuel 13:18, it’s worn by ‘virgin daughters of the king’.
Jacob, a boy cooking lentils inside, doing women’s work, is favored by God over the hairy hunter Esau. In the Bible, the feminine boy is divine.
In Exodus 3:11, Moses asks if he’s fit to “bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt.” The language is from birthing. In Numbers 11:12, he ‘conceived’ of his people, and ‘gave birth’ to them.
As Rhiannon Graybill notes: “Moses figures his body as female.”
The biblical hero is marked by psychic fluctuation and transformation. Robert Alter finds, in Judges 16:19, a “powerful image of the seductive woman lulling the mighty hero and reducing him to a baby in her lap.”
Cutting Samson’s hair has the odd suggestion of castration, he notes. With her razor, “the seductress cuts away at the source of Samson’s potency.” Marco Derks agrees: “the cutting of his hair symbolizes his castration.”
Samson falls as a male, and rises as a female?—filling with faith a last time, he pushes down the (phallic) pillars of the Philistine temple.
David’s name means ‘beloved’—the passive, female role.
In his life he’ll only have one lover, and that is God. When dancing, for example, he is already doing a female activity, and he does it ‘before the Lord’—as his woman, Michel, waits in the wings, jealous and fuming.
The scriptures overflow with gender problematics, and thinking them over, I realized: this is the re-emergence of the qualities of the first human.
Split into two, the human is slowly re-constituted into . . . a divine whole.
What could Paul mean, in Galatians 3:28, when he says “there is neither male nor female . . .”
For traditional Christianity, he must’ve been having an off day. I checked Chafer’s Major Bible Themes, a go-to reference for many. Galatians 3:28 isn’t noted even once.
If humans aren’t — spiritually — male or female, how is male dominance possible? How can marriage, if understood as structured by gender, work?
If there’s no male or female, how are women kept silent in church?
That the Christian isn’t male or female is the key. The Christian is both—becomes both, again.
This is the case made by Wayne A. Meeks in a classic 1974 essay, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity.” He notes that Paul’s “no male or female” language is a clear textual pointer to Genesis 1:27, as if to say “the act of Christian initiation reverses the fateful division of Genesis 2:21–22.”
Paul is modeling this idea. He’s “all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9:22 — an example of radical possibility, in which his gender often shifts.
In Galatians 4:19, he calls himself a woman in labor. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he’s a nurse weaning a child, and in 1 Corinthians 3:2, a weaning mother.
“With only a few exceptions this striking ‘transgendering’ Pauline self-description in terms of symbolic birth-labor has been ignored — it does not fit into any of the standard Pauline interpretations and stereotypes,” notes Brigitte Kahl, in “No Longer Male: Masculinity Struggles in Galatians 3:28.”
Paul frequently calls his readers women, though we imagine they are, in physical reality, often Jewish men. There they are, in 2 Corinthians 11:3, being called ‘Eve’, the deceived female.
Or try 2 Corinthians 11:2. “I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ,” Paul says, to Jewish men who might think of their circumcised penises as the key to all spirituality.
He says: now you’re a girl.
It’s no simple boy-girl relationship. If humans are the ‘Bride, then the biblical wife must be understood as highly active, engaged, assertive, as in the ‘hymn to a good wife’ in Proverbs 31:10–31.
This ‘marriage’ is a dynamic exchange between two androgynous entities, for Jesus is “himself a feminine power,” as George Matheson notes.
Note how often he comes across . . . like a woman? It’s not just his beautiful long hair of the tradition. It’s his washing and cooking, in the gospels.
In two scenes intended to model Christian leadership, he bathes feet (John 13:1–17), and cooks (John 21:12–13). In the Bible, as in life, cooking is regularly considered a female activity (cf. Lev 26:26; 1 Sam 8:13, etc.).
Washing feet is, even more particularly, the work of a wife (cf. 1 Samuel 25:41). Done between men, it’s widely seen as a tool of humiliation.
This gender trouble might be part of Peter’s protest in John 13:8? “No,” he tells Jesus, “you shall never wash my feet.”
He is trying to prevent Jesus from performing a wife’s function? As noted in later rabbinic sources, a Jewish wife’s duties toward her husband include: “wash his face, hands, and feet . . .”
But Jesus prompts his disciples to do this for each other as well. This is men doing women’s work—feminizing, in order to be . . . everything.
In the Bible, serving is the activity of angels (cf. Matt 4:11), and done far more readily by women. As with Peter’s mother-in-law, the immediate response to spiritual illumination is to ‘serve’ (Mark 1:29–31, etc.).
Speaking to men, Jesus points to women and outsiders, over and over, as the guide (eg. Matthew 21:31; Mark 12:41–44, etc.). He is working to correct a gender imbalance. The female, he insists, is a spiritual mode.
To read the New Testament without a need to defend institutional hierarchies founded in male supremacy, one quickly sees it isn’t there. The opposite is there! It has been an incredible illusion.
In Matthew 23:8–12, Jesus disallows leadership hierarchies, and says those who try to ‘exalt’ themselves will be disciplined. A central teacher of a spiritual community, like a modern idea of ‘pastor’, isn’t envisioned or allowed (cf. Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Romans 15:14, etc.).
In the New Testament, Christian spiritual practice is a cooperative effort rooted in service. The explicit function of gatherings is to allow each person to share and contribute—on whatever terms they are led to do.
An ethos of sharing, and responding, is the ideal.
Along the way, we learn to be everything. In Matthew 12:50, Jesus says, “ For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” He’s saying the Christian can be all three.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” he says in Matthew 18:20. This is sometimes taken to involve a reflection of the Holy Trinity . . . with some connection to the ‘two or three’ legal witnesses in Old Testament law.
I think it’s because with two or three humans present, a mix of male and female is inevitably possible. Thus, God can manifest.
There is never gendered lines in Jesus’ teachings. Even the wildflowers, his models for the human in Matthew 6:28–29, are both male and female.
Matthew 19:12 was a bit of a problem for traditional Christianity.
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others — and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
They developed a brilliant misreading. The eunuch is non-sexual! Thus the non-sexuality of clergy is affirmed.
One little problem is noted by J. David Hester in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities”: eunuchs were “widely perceived as neither chaste nor celibate, but highly sexual and sexed beings.”
They were clearly, in modern terms, transgendered figures. Philo, sniffing with distain, recalls them out on the streets:
Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually
strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at
the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the
mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them
who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to
be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital
‘Strutting’! Eunuchs of the ancient world were fierce.
We’d realize, then, these are the very figures Jesus is praising.
What Jesus’ ‘eunuch for the kingdom’ might involve is different for everyone who’d try it. A detachment from family and clan, certainly. The eunuch is focused on others, hence their sexual skill, perhaps.
The key quality, however, is affront. The eunuch challenges the entire gender system of human societies, as Dr. Hester discusses.
“The eunuch is a figure that not only violates the heterosexual binary dualism, but cannot participate in it at all. Even as a figure of celibacy, it renounces the forms and practices at the heart of binary paradigm.”
If the eunuch is one model for the Christian, the servant is another.
Each are the lowest of the low! Each have qualities of the first human, and Jesus uses each as cues to his Kingdom consciousness.
In “The First Human and the Perfect Human as an Androgynous Character,” Kalina Wojciechowska points to Mark 10:43–45, a prompt by Jesus to become a “servant,” the “slave to all” — after his example.
But she, she suggests, would be the character of the first human in Eden: living “without trying to elevate oneself, rule over others, or impose one’s will on them.”
The trouble comes after the human is split! Adam and Eve act separately (Genesis 3:1–7), disobey, and accuse each other (3:12–13).
As she says: “Humans ceased to be whole, complete or perfect beings. Instead, they became incomplete and imperfect, and much more susceptible to manipulations and lies, which led them to break God’s prohibition.”
The word ‘perfect’ is a guide to psychic fullness, as in Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
‘Perfect’ doesn’t mean ‘flawless’. In the Bible, it means full, complete.
Jesus’ immediate context is teaching the disciples to interact with more people than they’d otherwise want to.
“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” he says in 5:47.
To become ‘perfect’ means to include more—more humanity—more life—more energies into yourself.
The divided human, the fragmented race, begins to become whole.
To become ‘perfect’—with reference to the first human—is the undersong of New Testament narrative, as Alan F. Segal observes in discussing Paul’s ‘man of heaven’ ideal in 1 Corinthians 15:49.
“In some Jewish speculation,” he says, “the pristine human properly has an androgynous, spiritual nature. It stands to reason that a spiritual body might then regain the primal male and femaleness that it lost at the beginning.”
The result of Christian practice is the figure of the ‘Bride’—a female-identifying figure who is, in reality, many humans of many genders.
And that is required, for if God is ‘male and female’, then Jesus’ consort—in order to accomodate and match him, in order to relate—will have to be what he is in an opposite configuration.
If the Bride is a divine being, if she is in the family of God—thus God herself!—she must be the divine state: male and female herself.
The Gospel of Thomas is rarely read by traditional Christians, and for good reason? Here is a Jesus, as Janet S. Everhart notes, who “constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs gender with the result that the gospel supports multiple possibilities, without arriving at a fixed notion of gender.”
I consider it, at least in part, a set of advanced teachings that Paul, likely, has in front of him, and is trying to break down for his readers.
In saying 22, for example, Jesus is asked when he’ll return.
“When you make the two one and make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below, and that you might make the male and the female be one and the same, so that the male might not be male nor the female be female . . .”
Let’s think about that.
When you make the two one . . .
The ‘one flesh’ concept of Genesis 2:24, as Paul notes in Ephesians 5:31, does not in fact concern human marriage, but “a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
The marriage of Jesus and humans. The marriage of heaven and earth.
The two become one when we accept Jesus as husband, when we become ‘one’ with him . . . which is accomplished through the difficult step of loving fellow humans (John 13:34).
All of them. Male and female. And everything in between. Let’s continue with the Gospel of Thomas:
you might make the male and the female be one and the same
Humans, male and female, are to become ‘one and the same’.
Note 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Paul is just elaborating, explicating, Jesus’ mysterious language. The teaching is: become ‘one’ with each other. By this, we become ‘one’ with Christ.
so that the male might not be male nor the female be female . . .”
This is the marriage Jesus and the Bride. He is the ‘male’, she is the ‘female’. In their interweaving, neither become male or female.
They become ‘married’.
Note the dispute over Mary Magdalen in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 114, which is typically read very incorrently.
“Look, I will gather her in so I may make her male, so she may also be a living spirit resembling you males: for any woman who makes herself male will enter the Realm of Heaven.”
Jesus is not diminishing Mary or saying that maleness is the key. He is adding a ‘male’ spiritual energy to the human female — bringing her into an androgynous perfection.
He does the same with the disciples !— adding in femaleness to the maleness they have. The prompt for he human is to be both.
They’d enter, together, a dynamic, multivalent—I am tempted to say Tantric—engagement with the divine.
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you,” as Jesus says in John 14:20, of the end of all faith.
In you . . . you in me. As usual in the Bible, the language is sexual. But what biological bodies could create that combination? Male or female?
You’d have to be both.
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