In what has to be a new low for the New York Times, the Gray Lady (or should we now say the Bearded Lady?) has published an op-ed piece titled “Is God Transgender?” by a New York rabbi named Mark Sameth. Cousin to a man who “transitioned to a woman” in the 1970s, Sameth contends that “the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender.” He marshals many purported examples of gender fluidity in the Hebrew scriptures, in order to argue that religion should not be put in service of “social prejudices” against transgendering. But his treatment of the Bible amounts to propaganda, not scholarship.
Proposing that the God of Israel was worshipped originally as “a dual-gendered deity,” the rabbi asserts, untenably, that the etymological derivation of Yahweh is “He/She” (HUHI). His argument requires that the Tetragrammaton be read, not from right to left (as Hebrew always is), but from left to right:
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.”
But biblical scholars are in general agreement that “Yahweh” is derived from the third-person singular of the verb “to be” (hayah), whether a qal imperfect (“he is” or “he will be”) or the causative hiphil imperfect (“he causes to come into being, he creates”). This view is confirmed by numerous lines of evidence: the interpretation given in Exod 3:14 (“Say to the sons of Israel, ‘ehyeh [‘I am’ or ‘I will be’ (who I am/will be)] sent me to you”); the use of shortened forms of Yahweh at the end (“Yah” or “Yahu”) or beginning (“Yeho” or “Yo”) of Hebrew names; the spelling “Yabe” known to the Samaritans; and transliterations “Yao,” “Ya-ou-e,” and “Ya-ou-ai” in some Greek texts. No historical evidence supports Sameth’s reading—only his own sex ideology.
It is true that the Hebrew Bible describes God in both masculine (predominantly) and feminine imagery (for the latter, see Isa 42:14; 49:15; 63:13; Hosea 13:8; by inference Num 11:12; Deut 32:11, 18; Hos 11:1-4). However, for God to transcend gender is not the same as his being “transgender”—which refers to a person’s abandoning his or her birth sex for a self-constructed and distorted self-image. It is no mere coincidence that God is never imaged as Israel’s (or the church's) wife, but always as her husband, nor that God is never addressed as Mother.
Sameth’s purported evidence for a “highly elastic” view of gender in the Hebrew Bible is anything but. For instance, Sameth alleges: “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.’” While the feminine participle ‘omeneth refers to a woman who nurses a child (2 Sam 4:4; Ruth 4:16) the masculine participle ‘omen can simply designate a male “guardian,” “attendant,” or “foster father” of children (i.e., someone who cares for all their needs), as the very example cited by the rabbi from Isa 49:23 indicates (so also 2 Kings 10:1, 5).
This is not to say that feminine imagery couldn’t be appropriated positively by a Jewish male in the ancient world. The fact that Paul could describe himself in 1 Thessalonians 2-3, in relation to his converts, as a brother, father, nursing mother, and even an orphaned child is no indication that he approved transgendering. In fact, his reference to “soft men” (malakoi) in 1 Cor 6:9, men who actively feminize themselves to attract male sex partners, among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God makes pretty clear where Paul stood on the question of transgendering.
Similarly, the ancient Israelite figures known as the qedeshim (literally, “cult figures” or self-named so-called “sacred ones,” connected with idolatrous cult shrines), men who thought themselves possessed by an androgynous deity, were condemned for assuming female appearance (sometimes including castration; so also the Greco-Roman galli). Indeed, the authors of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Judges thru 2 Kings) characterize them as having committed an abomination (Deut 23:17-18; 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7). The same tag is applied to any man who dresses like a woman (Deut 22:5).
Sameth’s further evidence mostly amounts to indefensible misreadings of orthographic variations. He claims: “In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as ‘he.’” But this is an orthographic matter. The Hebrew consonantal text suggests hu’ (“he”) (with later scribes providing vowel pointing for hi’ [“she”])—an artifact of an early stage in writing, when hu’ was used generically of both sexes and the feminine form hi’ was used sparingly. By assigning her the pronoun hu’, Genesis is not imaging Eve as a man. This point is underscored by the fact that the verb form following this pronoun, nathenah, has a feminine ending (“she gave”).
Similar fallacies proliferate. Sameth writes that “Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a ‘young man.’” On the contrary: Here and elsewhere where the masculine/generic noun na'ar is used (of Dinah in Gen 34:3, 12; of young women in the legal texts of Deut 22:15-16, 21, 23-29) the context makes quite clear that no ambiguity of gender is implied by the non-use of the feminine na’arah. This instance constitutes either a generic usage (like Greek pais “child” for both male and female) or an orthographic variation in which the use of the final –h to indicate a feminine “a” is optional.
Again, Sameth claims: “In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to ‘her’ tent.” The use of the suffix –h (usually feminine) with reference to men is common enough in the Hebrew Bible (it is used some fifty-five times) and associated only with a handful of specific words (such as the word for tent)—suggesting not “gender fluidity” but orthographic variations. Outside the Noah-Ham episode (which likely has to do with Ham emasculating his drunken father), the contexts for these other occurrences suggest no ambiguity of gender (e.g., of Abraham pitching his tent in Gen 12:8 and 13:3; and Jacob doing the same in Gen 35:21). By the rabbi's reasoning, half of the protagonists of the Hebrew Bible were presented by biblical authors as candidates for transgender surgery.
Sameth’s propagandistic reasoning goes back to the very beginning. The image of the first human in Genesis 2, who is either male with a female element or sexually undifferentiated (the adam or earthling), from whom God then extracts a part to form woman, is no endorsement of attempts to erase one's birth sex in order to transition to the opposite sex. Sameth's statement that “Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as ‘them’” is true, but Sameth overlooks the fact that “Adam” is here not a proper name but a description of “the human” or “humankind”: “God created the adam in his image.” Genesis 1:27 goes on to say, “male and female he (God) created them,” which is simply to acknowledge what Sameth denies: the significance of sexual differentiation for humanity.
Sameth opines that in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, “well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person,” and “the gods were thought of as gender-fluid.” In point of fact, there were many strictures against “gender fluidity” in the ancient Near East (e.g., men who assumed the role of women were generally denigrated). That opposition was ratcheted up in Israel, where any toleration of transgenderism was viewed as a mark of infidelity to Yahweh and an idolatrous concession to pagan religion.
Sameth has based his arguments on his left-of-center sex ideology, and not at all on a credible historical reading of the biblical text in context. His Times op-ed piece is historical revisionism at its worst.
Robert A. J. Gagnon is associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice.