The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth entitled “Is God Transgender?” You can read it here. In this he argues that “the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender.”
His argument is very thin on the ground (he has a book coming out on the Tetragrammaton which he seems to be promoting and which presumably will include more detailed argument), but I’d like to take a quick look at what he does say. Read on for more!
First, there are a few things he has written which ought to raise flags to the reader. He begins with the words “when read in its original language.” Now I’d say that I reckon about 90% of the appeals to “original languages” in sermons and popular articles are just wrong. So for me this claim is an immediate red flag.
Second, his claims are at odds with the way the Bible has been read throughout recorded history but fully endorse a modern secular understanding of human sexuality.
Third, he has a book he wants us to buy.
In my mind these are all warning signs that what he writes should be taken with a very large grain of salt. So what does he claim? I’ll quote and examine a few parts of the NY Times piece and offer some comments.
some bible verses
In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.”
OK, let’s take these one at a time. First, Gen 3:12:
האשה אשר נתתה עמדי הוא נתנה לי מן העץ ואכל
The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave to me from the fruit and I ate.
Sameth claims that the pronoun הוא is masculine and so Eve is referred to as male. He’s wrong. First, the MT points it differently to the masculine form of the pronoun. Second, while היא is more often used as the feminine singular pronoun, הוא is used as feminine around about 193 times in BH (compared to about 304 times for היא). Sameth is trying to make the Hebrew say something it doesn’t to suit his theory.
Gen 9:21 reads:
וישת מן היין וישכר ויתגל בתוך אהלה
Then he drank from the wine and got drunk, and he uncovered [himself] inside his tent.
The pronominal suffix on tent here is ה which Sameth takes to be a feminine singular pronoun. However, standard grammars of biblical Hebrew list this as a 3rd masculine form (see Waltke & O’Connor §16.4) and, indeed, it is used as masculine in this form around about 218 times in BH. Again, Sameth misreads the Hebrew text.
Gen 24:16 reads:
והנער טבת מראה מאד בתולה ואיש לא ידעה
The girl was very beautiful, a virgin, and no man had known her.
The Hebrew word נַעַר (naʿar) means “you lad, boy,” however the word נַּעֲרָ naʿărā means “young, unmarried girl.” The latter often appears with a final ה, so נערה, but does appear without it some 19 times (only in Genesis and Deuteronomy). Such variation could be attributed to a number of factors and gender fluidity is not high on the list!
Gen 1:27 reads:
ויברא אלהים את האדם בצלמו בצלם אלהים ברא אתו זכר ונקבה ברא אתם
Then God created mankind in his image,
In the image of God he created him,
Male and female he created them.
The obvious point here is that אדם is not used as a proper name. In fact, it isn’t used as a proper name at all until Gen 4. Here it is a collective noun referring to human beings and the plural is used once human kind is collectively defined as “male and female.” If anything, this counts against Sameth’s claim that there is gender fluidity in the Hebrew Bible because it presents human beings in a definite binary gendered form!
gender fluidity in the ancient near east
Sameth proceeds to make some claims about gender fluidity in the ancient Near East:
In Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the gods were thought of as gender-fluid, and human beings were considered reflections of the gods.
He offers no evidence of this. There are no examples of deities changing gender that I’m aware of in ANE literature. If anything, Mesopotamian deities reinforce quite stark gender stereotypes. Throughout the ANE deities engaged in sexual intercourse and bore offspring. They were consistently treated as either male or female, not both or neither! There was no transgender trope in the ANE.
Furthermore, in Mesopotamia human beings were not considered to be reflections of the gods. They were created to ease the arduous work of the gods. We were their slaves. But even to the extent that deities were anthropomorphic, there is no evidence that I’m aware of that shows a gender fluid notion existed for either deities or humans.
The Israelite ideal of the “nursing king” seems to have been based on a real person: a woman by the name of Hatshepsut who, after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, donned a false beard and ascended the throne to become one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.
What Sameth fails to note is that the male pharaoh’s also wore false beards. When Hatshepsut became pharaoh, she adopted the full regalia associated with that position which included a false beard. It is a stretch beyond the evidence to claim that this reflected some gender fluidity on the part of Hatshepsut!
Sameth’s book is apparently about the Tetragrammaton, so his comments here are interesting:
The Israelite priests would have read the letters [of the Tetragrammaton] in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.
Sameth offers no justification for this claim, and I’ve not seen it before. The only thing that pops into my mind that could potentially be used to back up this claim is that there are some Greek manuscripts which transcribe the Tetragrammaton as ΠΙΠΙ, presumably because it bears a reasonable resemblance to the Hebrew יהוה. The argument could then go that Greek is read left-to-right and this somehow supports the notion that the Hebrew of this word should be read that way instead of the normal right-to-left of all other Hebrew, so then we have (reverting the Hebrew to its correct direction) הו הי. This is then apparently to be read as הוא היא or “he she” rather than the “woe, woe” it would be if the two alephs hadn’t magically appeared!
The closer you examine Sameth’s claims, the more absurd they appear. While the above is the only explanation that has thus far popped into my head, I find it thoroughly unconvincing. In Exod 3:15 the Tetragrammaton’s meaning is linked to the verb הוה/היה which clearly contradicts Sameth’s claim. The name יהוה is always treated as masculine. If it were indeed secretly gender fluid, there’s no grammatical clue to this in the Hebrew Bible.
is god gendered?
None of this is to say that I think God is male or female. I believe that gendered language is used in reference to God because the characteristics generally associated with gendered human beings are being associated with God. He is, for example, called “father” because he reflects the best characteristics of fathers in the ancient world, and in the ancient world those characteristics differed from those of mothers. But God is not depicted in the Bible as transgendered or gender fluid. That is an anachronistic imposition on the text and to read it thus is to deliberately impose on it a meaning neither its authors nor original audience would have found in it.
If you’re interested in the biblical depiction of God as male or female, one provocative article by David Clines might be worth a look. You can find it here.