cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
[personal profile] cjbanning
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in God's image; in the image of the gods, God created them; male and female God created them.
Needless to say, the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 I give in my recent post On Being Straight is not the only interpretation which exists in the cultural sphere. All too often, I think people read it as actually affirming binary gender as something which is somehow divinely ordained--that God personally, actively, and deliberately separated the human species into male and female, all by Godself. But I think that's a bad interpretation.

Now admittedly, the hermeneutic criteria I take with me to Scripture--that an interpretation of Scripture is true (good? correct? best?) if and only if it is empowering to oppressed classes (women, queer people, the impoverished, etc.)--rules out the "divinely ordained binary gender" reading right from the get-go. But I don't think you need to be actively seeking to re-vision the text as I am in order to recognize that that interpretation doesn't really make sense when viewed in the greater context of what Genesis 1 is attempting to accomplish.

Some background: the reference to the imago dei in Gen. 1:27 comes towards the end of what is the first of two creation narratives in Genesis. Gen. 1:1-2:3 is called by scholars the "Priestly" account; Genesis 2:4-25ff is called the "Yahwist." Both stories represent the result of many generations of oral tradition which were ultimately compiled together in the work that would come to be known as the Book of Genesis.

The primary purpose of both narratives, but especially the Priestly account, is etiological: it explains how and why the world came into being. I don't think it's intended to explain what came into being at all; the ancient Hebrews simply could look around to see that. Of course, the "what" needed to be described in order to discuss the how and the why, and the ancient Hebrews did so in the languuage which was available to them, but I don't think the Priestly account is really making an ontological point at all. The Priestly account doesn't tell us that God created birds on the fifth day in order to explain that there is a such thing as "birdness" which all those flying things have in common (leading one to wonder whether non-flying birds like ostriches, and fying mammals like bats, were created on the fifth or sixth day); it does so to explain where all those flying things (whatever we want to call them and however we wish to classify them) came from. Trying to force metaphysics onto the myth seems to be doing it a great disservice, especially if one believes (I do not) that ideologically-neutral "textualist" or "functionalist" readings are available to a reader.

I'd argue that the mention of gender in 1:27 is functionally equivalent to the mention of avians in 1:20-24: "men" and "women" were categories which were already experientially present to the ancient Hebrews. That men and women existed was already stipulated, rightly or wrongly; they didn't need oral tradition to tell them that. The creation narrative would thus have functioned to explain where both genders came from--from God--rather than to assign them some type of eternal, unchanging essence.

If we assume the opposite, that Gen. 1:27 is detailing some sort of deliberate "creation" of gender and/or gendered differences (prominent marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher describes it as "the idea that God himself [sic] made man [sic] as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God"), then we're left with the uncomfortable question of just what was the deal with all those birds and fish that were created (the story goes) on the fifth day. Did the ancient Hebrews assume they just sort of existed genderlessly until the sixth day?

Why mention gender in 1:27 at all, then? Part of me thinks this question is wrongheaded--we might just as well ask why 1:20-24 mentions birds specifically. But insofar as we read Genesis as making a more profound point about men and women than it is about fish and sea creatures, I think the point is to make it explicit that men and women shared equally in the imago dei. Granted that the overall culture would have been a patriarchal one, I don't think this reading is in any way anachronistic, or at least not inherently so. Since Genesis is a compilation of often contradictory oral traditions, we shouldn't be surprised to find a proto-feminist sentiment lurking among the patriarchalism. Furthermore, there's plenty of patriarchal notions which are simultaneously deeply sexist but still (arguably) compatible with the notion of equal participation in the imago dei--for example, the notion of two separate but equal spheres.

Of course, as moderns and postmoderns we do not look to Genesis as etiological in the same way as did those who were actually shaping those oral traditions. For us, the spiritual truth testified to in Genesis 1 that all of creation is God-breathed is in some sense divorceable from any sense of Genesis 1 (or Genesis 2) as historical or scientific fact. But the spiritual truth is still a truth about a relationship between God and the world--that God is the ground and source of all being--and not one about the contents or structure of that world.

We don't construct our taxonomies of nature based on a division between "flying birds," "sea creatures," and "land animals," but based on (if you accept evolution, which I'm hoping you do) DNA and evolutionary processes and so on or (if you don't accept natural selection) fundamental similarities in anatomic structures, so that (for example) bats and whales are both mammals, ostriches and penguins are birds, etc. We recognize that the storytellers which passed down the Priestly creation story were expressing a profound spiritual truth using a pre-scientific language.

Furthermore, we don't consider even our more scientific classifications to represent ontological essences, but simply convenient ways of structuring our knowledge of the natural world. That the platypus is a mammal which happens to lay eggs isn't something that many lose all that much sleep over, nor should they. It's an example of the limitation of human systems of categorization, not a transgression against some law of nature, be it divine or scientific.

It seems to me that the same approach is appropriate in terms of gender. Male and female are categories which we use, for good or ill, to structure the way we think (and which the ancient Hebrews certainly used to structure the way they thought) of human (and non-human animal) diversity, in much the same way that "bird," "fish," and "mammal" are used to structure our understanding of a different type of animal diversity. But these are no more divinely-ordained categories than are "bird," "fish," and "mammal," and nothing in Genesis 1 should make us think that they are. Rather we recognize that they were using their own flawed patriarchal language, lacking the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer," to express a powerful truth as best as they were able, that every human being--male, female, intersexed, and/or genderqueer--is reflective of the divine.

Date: 2010-08-25 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This is a really interesting post. I've read a lot about those beginning passages in Genesis lately through the debate about same-sex marriage, and as I start to dig into theologies for my thesis. I think you hit on a great point: that the wording of that passage is based on how the ancient Hebrews interpreted things -- if they did not have the words to express an idea they used to closest words possible. However, as I read your post, one question came to mind. If the Hebrews lived in a patriarchal society with patriarchal customs much like ours, would it have been their intent to say that every human being was reflective of God? I'm having trouble separating the fact that they recorded these accounts based on oral traditions and that it is recorded from their own understanding of the world. If their customs are patriarchal, then wouldn't their understanding of the world be that as well, meaning that they would exclude women/intersexed/queer identifying people as being of equal status with men?
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