Scriptural insights from reading in original language

by Mariam Williams

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The New York Times recently published an op-ed in which a rabbi named Mark Sameth argued, "[T]he Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender." According to Sameth, gender pronouns referring to well-known biblical characters like Adam, Eve, Noah, Rebecca and Mordecai are, on occasion, inconsistent, and these inconsistencies aren't typos, but rather, they reflect beliefs of the time: that "well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person. Such a person was considered more "'godlike."

This led Sameth to conclude that "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."

I don't know enough about the Hebrew language or the Hebrew Bible to argue the veracity of Sameth's claims. What's interesting to me is that never before had I seen or heard of gender fluidity attached to any Old Testament Scriptures.

That could be because the idea of humans, let alone God, being transgender wasn't such an issue when I was growing up. (Or it might have been, but people didn't have the language for it then.) Why argue for the existence of a dual-gendered deity, and by extension, the humanity of transgender people, when no one is obtaining court orders over bathroom usage?

It could be a reflection of Sameth's scholarship. Rarely do scholars truly stand alone in their claims; if God is, in fact, dual-gendered, surely someone else in the thousands of years of the Scriptures' existence and hundreds of years of its study would have come to the same conclusion.

Or it could be that Sameth, like every scholar before him, reads the Scriptures with his own biases. He begins his op-ed with an anecdote about his cousin Paula, one of the first people in the U.S. to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It's clear that he loves Paula, who grew up as Paul, and wants her to enjoy all the same rights as any other human being. He is close to a transgender person and has a positive view of her. This, too, is a bias.

I would argue, however, that within Sameth's pro trans-rights bias lies insight that may not have been available to previous scholars. I wonder how many people before him had read the same verses and drawn the same conclusions, but -- because they didn't have a cousin Paula they knew and loved and rooted for, or because it was the 1950s or 1890s and not the 21st century -- they dismissed their discovery. They would have disrupted the status quo, and they would have been alone in their thinking.

How often do theologians and practicing ministers read Scripture in its original language and keep the knowledge to themselves out of fear of what they find? I had a similar thought when I saw the play, "The Christians." The play is about the fallout that occurs in a non-denominational (but presumably evangelical) Christian megachurch after the pastor concludes there is no hell. As the pastor explains to his congregants, the meaning of what we call "hell" in the original language is trash heap, a literal pile of garbage at the edge of Jerusalem. The pastor acknowledges he has known this for years but built his church on a different philosophy.

The play wrestles with why he would teach something to thousands of people every week when he knew it was wrong. One possible answer: without hell, there was little reason for people to go to church, and without people in the pews and giving money each week, the church would cease to exist. If it didn't exist, the pastor would be out of a job.

I don't mean to say there's a conspiracy to keep laypersons in the dark. I only suggest that if a re-interpretation of Scripture disrupts the status quo, it could be dangerous for the individual posing the argument, because disrupting the status quo is always dangerous, perhaps especially when you are personally invested in it. Furthermore, bringing counter-arguments into one's belief system is scary. It means sitting in places where you're uncomfortable, where doubt, the very enemy of faith, can fester. If this part of what I believed isn't true, what else might be false?

Nonetheless, I believe such rigorous investigation and sharing of its discovery is always necessary. I read Sameth's op-ed the same day I read a story about Rae'Lynn Thomas, a 28-year-old Columbus, Ohio, woman who was murdered by her mother's ex-boyfriend. According to the victim's mother, her assailant was transphobic and often called Rae'Lynn "the devil."

I'm not sure Sameth's op-ed would've stopped Rae'Lynn's assailant from harming her. I'm not sure it will help anyone who has already decided to use the Bible to support their hatred. But I'm encouraged by Sameth's interpretation and his willingness to share it, and all the more if he's willing to stand by it alone. Imagine what can happen when we read the Scriptures in their original language -- and aren't afraid of what they say.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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