Saturday, February 21, 2009

Divine Sex Changes in Genesis

When culture began to believe that men were superior to women, it reinterpreted the queer creation story into a story of a woman coming from a man in order to reinforce cultural assumptions. And for centuries, patriarchal assumptions continued to reinterpret and sometimes guide our scientific assumptions of sex and gender.1

Still, the earliest listeners and readers of our sacred scriptures believed that sex changes were a miracle of God(dess), beginning with the first sex reassignment surgery that was preformed by God(dess) trans-forming the intersexual Adam into a male Adam and female Eve.2

This first sex change was not the final act of creation that ended the need for any other sex changes. Ancient Israelites believed that there were more than two genders: male, female, barren women and Eunuchs.3 While rejecting the assumption that you cannot be fully a woman or man if you cannot procreate, we must continue to lift up the sacred stories of the God(dess) who not only performs sex change miracles but uses gender queer individuals as agents of God(dess)’s work in the world.

The earliest readers of the Hebrew Bible believed that barren women and circumcised men were models of the androgynous ideal (like the Divine Androgen).4 This means that God(dess)’s command that all men be circumcised could be said to be a requirement that all faithful believers undergo a physical sex change. Numerous barren women also received divine sex changes when God(dess) notices them and opens their wombs: Sarai, Rebecca, Leah, Rachael, Zulaikaha, and Hannah.5

While the type of sex change that comes from circumcision or the opening of a womb seems very different then the surgical and hormonal sex changes that some transsexuals undergo, the story of Dinah’s sex change may speak more to the contemporary transsexual experience.6 This story begins with Jacob, a character so gender queer, that even Luther notices.7 But, how could he not notice when the text seems to go out of its way to note that everything that Jacob does is feminine: female pronouns are used to describe him and it is noted that he “dwells in tents” (Gen 25:27) which were known to be the space of women. Even more queer is the fact that this effeminate male is able to amass so much masculine power, which the patriarchy of the time defined as the ability to “take” multiple wives and produce many male children.8

Jacob’s children come as the result of at least two divine sex changes (Leah’s womb is opened in 29:31 and Rachael’s is opened in 30:22) and ultimately produces twelve male offspring, who become known as the twelve tribes of Israel. Though its not recorded in the text, ancient readers believed that after eleven of the sons were born (six to Leah, two to Bilhah and two to Zilpah), that Leah prayed to God(dess) to have a girl so that her sister Rachael could bear Jacob’s final male child, Joseph.9

While some sources believed that Dinah’s sex change occurred in Leah’s womb and others believed it was happened after Dinah was born they all agree that it was God(dess) who changed Dinah’s sex from male to female. Yet most commentators fail to notice that the cost to Dinah for her divine sex change is the loss of the privileges given to men in a patriarchal society.10 As a woman Dinah endures the subjugation commonly endured by other women of her time when she is raped by Sehecham (34:2-7) and “treated like a whore” (34:31). Dinah ultimately dies giving birth to Benjamin.11

Despite Dinah’s unfortunate fate, the prayer of Leah has been used by trans individuals as model for praying to God(dess) for a sex change. Qalonymos ben Qalonymos in Even Bohan (1322) prayed:

Our Father in Heaven! You who did miracles to our fathers by fire and water; you who turned [the furnace] in Ur of the Chaldees [cold] to stop it from burning [Abraham]; you who turned Dinah in her mother's womb [into a girl]; you who turned the rod [of Moses] into a serpent in front of tens of thousands; you who turned [Moses'] pure arm into a [leper's] white arm; you who turned the Red Sea into land, and the sea floor into solid and dried-up earth; you who turned the rock into a lake, the cliff into a fountain - if only you would turn me from male to female.12

The sex changes in Genesis could be read as enforcing strict gender binaries, as God(dess)’s way to trans-form the gender queer into “normal” procreative men and women. But, we have already seen how God(dess) uses Jacob in gender queer ways, without correcting or changing the ways Jacob is queer in gender. Michael Carden, who called Jacob a “pretty-boy nancy,”13 describes Jacob’s youngest son Joseph as “twitling, minicing, in rainbow garb and with painted eyes, Joseph is a flaming young queen.”14 God(dess) continues to use gender non-conforming individuals not only in the book of Genesis, but throughout our sacred texts.

1. See Laquer, Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud, Harvard UniversityPress, 1992.

2. The Jewish midrash argues that: “Men and women were originally undivided, i.e. Adam was at first created bisexual, a hermaphrodite.” [Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: Genesis- A Modern Commentary, 1974, 24.] See also, Gottwald, N. K. 1985. The Hebrew Bible--a socio-literary introduction. Includes index. Fortress Press: Philadelphia

3. Carden, Michael, “Genesis/Bereshit,” The Queer Bible Commentary, Ed. Guest, Deryn, et. al., SCM Press, 2006, 27.

4. Ibid, 33, 35 and 49.

5. Ibid.

6. See Carden, Michael, “Genesis/Bereshit,” 47-51.

7. LW5: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30: Genesis 29:29

8. See Carden, Michael, “Genesis/Bereshit,” 47-51 and Stone, Ken, “1 and 2 Samuel,” The Queer Bible Commentary, Ed. Guest, Deryn, et. al., SCM Press, 2006, 212.

9. See Berakhot 60a and Tanhuma 19:5.

10. Rosen, Tova, Circumcised Cinderella, 89.

11. Carden, Michael, “Genesis/Bereshit,” 51.

12. As it appears in Rosen, Tova, “ Circumcised Cinderella,” 87.

13. Carden, Michael, “Genesis/Bereshit,” 50.

14. Ibid, 53.


Zoe Brain said...


I come from a secular background, so see a different facet of reality.I don't identify as "Queer" or "transgendered", despite being described by a biologist as a homosexual intersexual “endogenously quasi-transitioned” transsexual!

Most "natural sex changes" are from female looking to male looking, due to either the 5ARD or 17BHDD syndromes. These would have been known to the Israelites, as would other Intersex conditions.

But there are some going the other way, less than 1% of them, and these changes are still not well understood. Even though they're probably under-reported, the rate is one in several million, so would not have been known in biblical times. Pity, it might have explained a lot.

Anyway, thanks for the post. Given my peculiar situation, it's given me something to mull over.

Thanks many times more for the work you do though, helping others. That to me is far more important.

Rev. Megan M. Rohrer said...

Thanks so much for your comment. I've written more on this subject that I'm hoping will be published soon. There are fewer examples of people switching from male looking to female looking in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But there are some good ones.

Michael said...

I just stumbled across your blog which I plan to add to the blog roll on my own (biblio)blog

I'm glad to see you've been able to my chapter on Genesis to good use

Michael said...

and I meant to add the URL for my blog which is

BGCfan said...

demons have been changing certain babies sex before they were born makiing them born in the wrong gender.

BGCfan said...

certain people were born with female souls and male bodys or vice versa. god didnt make the this either.

John Terry said...
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John Terry said...
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