The problem of gender identity, that is, whether a person senses internally to be male, female, or another gender has reached a point in our society where the government has been forced to create a dictionary to identify words associated with gender identity. Here are some examples:
Binary gender: The socially constructed concept that there are only two genders: male and female.
Cisgender (or non-transgender): Non-transgender individuals who are comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.
FTM, or female-to-male: An individual who was assigned female at birth but who may now identify as male or who may have taken medical, legal, or social steps to present in more masculine ways.
MTF, or male-to-female: An individual who was assigned male at birth but who may now identify as female or who may have taken medical, legal, or social steps to present in more feminine ways.
Gender expression: How a person expresses gender through clothing, grooming, speech, hair style, body language, social interactions, and other behaviors.
In order to guarantee social protection to transgenders, the government has intervened by developing some regulations to prevent harassment, discrimination, and violence against transgenders.
In a recent op-ed essay published in The New York Times titled “Is God Transgender?” Rabbi Mark Sameth proposes to defend social discrimination against transgenders by saying that the Hebrew Bible “offers a highly elastic view of gender.”
Rabbi Sameth offers two arguments for the open view of gender in the Hebrew Bible: one based on grammar and the other based on the gender of God. The following is his grammatical argument for the open view of gender in the Hebrew Bible:
In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic: 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.”
Surprising, I know. And there are many other, even more vivid examples: In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be “nursing kings.”
It is a fact that in Genesis Eve is referred to as a “he,” Rebekah is called a “young man,” and Adam is referred to as “them.” However, the rabbi is also aware of the different scribal traditions that shaped the form of the text in the Hebrew Bible. These scribal traditions explain these anomalies in the Hebrew Bible. Unfortunately, I will not be able to address this issue at this time because it would require a long post of its own. I may return to this problem at a later time.
The second argument used by Rabbi Sameth to promote social acceptance of transgender people was the gender of God. Rabbi Sameth wrote:
The Israelites took the transgender trope from their surrounding cultures and wove it into their own sacred scripture. The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters 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.
According to Rabbi Sameth, the name of God in the Hebrew Bible indicates that God is “a dual-gendered deity” or a transgender.
There are several words in the transgender world to identify gender: a dual-gendered person is someone who identifies as male or female depending on the occasion. An androgynous person is a person who cannot be easily identified as male or female. The term “androgyne” identifies a person who is man-woman.
According to Rabbi Sameth, the name of God in Hebrew indicates that God is a dual-gendered God. But, it this so? Before an answer can be given, one must look at the way God revealed his name to Moses on Mount Sinai. I know that most people reading this post do not read Hebrew, however, to show that the rabbi’s interpretation of the name of God does not reveal that God is a dual-gendered God, one must look at the Hebrew text as it appears in the book of Exodus 3:14.
When God revealed his name to Moses, God said to Moses: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ʼehyeh ʼašer ʼehyeh). The name of God comes from a Hebrew verb הָיָה , a verb that means “to be.” So, when God speaks about himself, he says about himself: “I AM.” When people talk about God, people say יהוה (YHWH). The meaning of the divine name without the vowels is difficult to ascertain because its pronunciation was lost in antiquity. However, in seeking to understand the meaning of the name, one must recognize that in Hebrew, the י in יהוה indicates a verbal word in the third person singular, “He is,” “He will be,” or a causative, “He causes to be.” But there is no agreement on the meaning of the name יהוה .
Now to the rabbi’s argument. The name of God is יהוה . In Hebrew the word for “he” is הוא (hu’) and the word for “she” is היא (hi’). In order to say that the name יהוה was understood as He/She as the rabbi insists, the Israelite priests “would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi.” But notice that the rabbi said that the priests “would have read the letters in reverse,” but there is no evidence that they did so.
In addition, notice that the Hebrew consonant א (aleph) appears in the pronoun “he” and “she” but there is no א in the name יהוה . There is no evidence that the priests in the temple read the divine name in reverse. There is also no evidence that they called God “she.” In fact, there is no word for “goddess” in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the rabbi’s view that the name of God was read as He/She must be rejected. His assertion that God was a transgender, a dual-gendered deity, must also be rejected as non-biblical.
The view that the two genders, male and female, is a socially constructed concept finds no view in the Bible. Rather, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
In his article, Rabbi Sameth is attempting to address the social and religious prejudices that are present in society against transgender people. One may not agree or accept their view of gender, but we all agree that there must not be harassment or violence against people who are ambivalent about their sexual identity. On the other hand, one cannot use a false interpretation of the name of God in order to provide justification for their view of gender.
I have written several posts on the name, nature, and character of God. If you interested in reading some of my previous posts, click on one of the links below.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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