God’s Transgender Quality and Our Call to Take Risks

At the beginning of this month, The New York Times ran an op-ed with the provocative title, “Is God Transgender?”  Written by Rabbi Mark Sameth, the essay examined language from the Hebrew Scriptures, noting that God is sometimes referred to as a man, sometimes as a woman, and sometimes as both.  Other people in the Biblical stories also display characteristics of the two genders. Here’s an excerpt from Sameth’s essay:

“. . . [T]he 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.’. . .

“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.’ . . .

“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.’

Sameth, whose cousin Paula Grossman was one of the first people in the U.S. to undergo sex-reassignment surgery (in the 1970s), comes to several conclusions, all of which support transgender equality, but the one I thought was most important was:

“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.”

This wonderful essay, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here, recently became the subject of a National Catholic Reporter commentary.  After reading Sameth’s essay, writer Mariam Williams speculated why she had never heard of a dual gender god before, especially when the evidence seems to be so clearly embedded in several key texts.  Commenting on Sameth’s involvement with a transgender family member, Williams writes:

“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?”

Williams, far from being paranoid, acknowledges that human frailty may play a part in why scholars don’t make such challenging discoveries public:

“. . . [I]t 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.”

I think Williams is partially correct in this conclusion.  Yes, it is uncomfortable to be in a place where uncertainty reigns, where the status quo is challenged. But, isn’t that the place where all of us are every day of our lives?  Though things in our life are generally familiar, we never know what each day will bring, and we are often called to make decisions and choices based on how we assimilate dangerous, new knowledge into our more comfortable, secure values.  Whether we are aware of this or not, we do it every day.

Sometimes those experiences loom larger in our consciousness because they require a greater risk in our choices.  Sometimes we need to wrestle with our consciences in order to arrive at a decision.  But the more we act in this courageous way, the easier it becomes for the future–though, admittedly, it never becomes totally easy!

So, my main disagreement with Williams’ remark is that she places doubt as the enemy of faith.  Doubt is not an enemy of faith.  It’s a step on the way to faith.  The enemy of faith is fear–fear of taking the risk of the leap of faith.  Such fear sometimes reveals itself as a calcified certainty which prevents us from making a decision because we assume this decision is already made–usually by some other authority.

In the Catholic LGBT world, I have met many people whose courage and risk continue to inspire me.  These aren’t reckless people. They are faith-filled people.  I believe that it is through these many acts of individual courage, risk, and faith, that our church, as an institution, will eventually be able to make its own such acts.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


7 replies
  1. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    Thanks for this ‘new’, scriptural information, and for the link to Rabbi Sameth’s essay (though, if one is honest enough, God’s dual-gender identity should have been obvious from nature).

    As God creates from his very self (not from nothing, as I was taught in Catechism class), then EVERYTHING, including those self-proclaimed macho hetero-males, reflects that duality in some way. What a hoot!

    Sadly, patriarchy has always insisted on using masculine nouns and pronouns when referring to God. No wonder our perception of God (and of one another) is so skewed!

    I’m not a fan of patriarchy: it has too many unresolved issues.

  2. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    A very timely and thoughtful article. As much as Rabbi Mark Sameth is on to something important in reading Scripture passages that see God addressed as He or She perhaps this is less important than “seeing” God as personal presence. What is very important in Rabbi Sameth’s comments about God’s gender is the rebound emphasis on the equality of the sexes here. We always “see” God metaphorically and Rabbi Mark Sameth’s comments are helpful for this “seeing” of ourselves as male and female. The Buddhist emphasis on seeing: ie openness to reality is an exciting dimension of “seeing” God without metaphor. The no god of Buddhism becomes the Christian way, truth and life of being. Being female, male: being human, being equal, “BEING”!

  3. Thomas Smith
    Thomas Smith says:

    I appreciated this concept when you first posted it, but… Somewhat of a misnomer: God is more androgynous. “Trans” infers that God’s gender is changing. Since God cannot create what he/she is not, he/she (human pronouns) is all genders simultaneously.

  4. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Encouraging and scholarly article. Sometimes I can only find peace when I pray, especially at bedtime, “Lord, I don’t have absolute certainty in my perspective. Grant me the grace and mercy to be ever closer to you.” Is that the doubt, faith, and courage of which you speak?
    Thank you. God’s blessings to you.

  5. Barbara J Monda
    Barbara J Monda says:

    Frank, This is one of the best articles you have presented in Bondings and that is saying much because most are excellent. But this challenges the very heart of discrimination based on Gender and for both LGBTQ and hetero MAN – WOMAN imbalance in the Church and in the World. This imbalance forms the basis of fear, hatred and physical and sexual abuse. Yes, of course everyone knows God is gender less but much of the prevalent belief systems still act as if God is male and therefore gives maleness a privilege and leaves women degraded to inferiority. This is also the basis of gay hatred. Why on earth would anyone born male want to act like a woman?? This is threat to all male superiority! And when half the population hates and fears the other half how can we expect a cooperative and loving world.


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