In The Beginning
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”(Gen. 1:1). From the very first sentence, the book of Genesis proclaims that, before there was anything, there was God, the creator. This is a being in whom all creations has its being; this includes the animals, the plants, and the human race, “male and female.” In Genesis 1:26, God says “let us make humankind in our image.” This word from God raises many questions on first reading.. What image is God referring to? How does one possess the image of God, and how is God’s image found in what has been created? The author of Genesis continues in 1:27:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
Here God is creating humankind in God’s own image, which includes both male and female. Yet, God is still “he” to the writer of this text. What does this say about the gender of God — and about our own understandings of and relationship to gender?
How has this story traditionally been read?
This text has been utilized throughout the history of the Christian tradition to uphold a dichotomy between men and women. This dichotomy has created a kind of boundary between the two which must not be crossed: men are born men and women are born women. In this reading, trans and gender nonconforming people of faith are an affront to the very order which God has put into place.
This way of reading the text, sometimes called “essentialist,” does not account for what we know and are learning about gender in the 21st century. This interpretation skims over the way that humanity is created “male and female, both in the image of God. The implications to how we think about the divine found in this text are ignored by a traditional reading.
Second, such a reading assumes that humanity’s relationship to gender and sex is simple. This assumption is proved wrong simply by the experiences that we know people have. Roughly one in two thousand babies are born with external sex characteristics (specifically, genitalia) that are not easily categorizable as “male” or “female.” In such cases, doctors usually make a decision on how to categorize the child; in extreme cases, doctors may perform surgeries or other medical interventions to make a baby’s genitalia conform to the assigned gender. The existence of intersex people contradicts the assumption that men and women are easily divided into two very separate categories. What does that mean for how we understand being made “male and female”?
In addition, the experiences and witness of transgender people has an effect on how this passage is read. Trans people have gender identities or expressions that do not “match” the sex they were assigned at birth. If gender is not as simple as genitalia, how does that inform how we read this biblical story?
What does it mean to be transgender and Christian?
How do new understandings of gender and gender identity add to the creation of “male and female”?
If we read Scripture with a mind and heart informed by the experiences of queer, intersex, and transgender people, it is sometimes called a “queer reading.” A queer reading of this story does not believe that God’s creation of humanity as “male and female” describes a strict dichotomy which people must subscribe to.
Theologian Margaret Moers Wenig offers a way to think through this text which offers a kind of affirmation to trans* people of faith. In the anthology Torah Queeries, she takes up this very question of gender in the story of creation. She refers to this reference to God as a merism, that is, a rhetorical device where “a whole is alluded to by some of its parts.” She uses the example of God creating day to night to further explain this idea. When the Biblical text claims “there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” it includes also dusk and dawn, late morning and early afternoon. She argues that “‘evening and morning’ are used to encompass all the times of day”. Another biblical example of a “merism” would be the title “Alpha and Omega” or “beginning and end.” When these phrases is used to refer to God, it is not that God is only these two things. Much to the contrary; God is rather all things, not just the beginning and the end but everything in between.
Wenig suggests that the same may be done with the creation of men and women. Rather than describing simple binary describing two distinct absolutes, the phrase “male and female” reflects a spectrum of gender. Just as evening and morning encompass many different times of day,, the terms male and female indicate a full spectrum of the possibilities of gender identity. It is a gradient from one beautiful piece of creation to another and, as the God of Genesis says, it is good.
How do our understandings of gender and gender identity affect the way we think of God?
Human creation was rendered in the image of God, in God’s likeness. Male and female are created in the image of God — meaning that God is not strictly male, but both male and female.
If the and between male and female describes a spectrum of gender in humanity, what does it reveal about God? A queer reading of this verse could see God embodying a spectrum of gender. God, having created humankind in God’s likeness, is part of the gender spectrum along with us. Not only is God not strictly male, but God is not strictly male or strictly female; God encompasses all of the gender spectrum.. What this means for creation is that, in a way, God finds us where we are. Feminist theologians have been expressing God in feminine forms for quite sometime. Queer theologians may find in this openness of God that they now have the holy freedom to do the same––to think of God in trans or gender nonconforming ways.
To turn this idea of gender back to creation, God refers to God’s creation in the story as one thing in particular – good. Most notably, God looks at all of creation at the end of Genesis 1 and sees that it is not only good but “very good”(Gen 1:28). This status applied to all of creation – including the newly created humans – is a profound truth indeed. In this text, God is not claiming that what God has created is good at that moment but that it continues to be good, even in all of its diversity. If one reads Genesis in such a way, the diversity of human gender expression is not an affront to the order of creation; rather, in a profound way, it is to live into the truth of creation. A queer reading of creation reveals to the reader what nature itself has already affirmed to us through scientific study – creation, or nature, is a vastly complex thing. It does not exist in singularities or binaries. Rather, it exists in unlimited quantities of combinations of traits and appearances. A reading of the story of creation that notes the existence of queer people, as opposed to a traditional heteronormative and cissexist reading, affirms such a complex and diverse creation.
The truth is that queer people, especially those who subvert expectations of behavior and existence, complicate creation; or rather, they complicate a traditional image of creation. The fact that there are people for whom male and female are categories into which they do not fit shows that creation, at its core, is not a simple phenomenon. Rather, it is a large, diverse, and complicated system that includes bodies that do not make sense to a traditional understanding. An understanding of creation which takes into account these complex, queer bodies affirms this truth of nature. Furthermore, this idea of creation points, also, to a divine who is not as simple as we may prefer. Rather, we find a God who is as complex as the creation in whose image it is made.
Further Reading: Online
Rev. Layton E. Williams, “The They God (a sermon for Pride)” (2017)
Austen Hartke, Transgender and Christian YouTube channel, “Does the Image of God Have a Gender?” (2017)
Austen Hartke, Transgender and Christian YouTube channel, “Reimagining Genesis 1” (2015)
Gwynn Kessler for Lilith, “Gender in Genesis” (2002)
Keshet Online, “Queerly Created”
God Our Mother, a liturgy on the divine feminine, by the Liturgists
Dr. Ralph Blair, Evangelicals Concerned, “Genesis 1:27”
Metropolitan Community Church Oasis, “In the Beginning… Transgender Study Session 1” (PDF)
Further Reading: Books
Christian Beardsley and Michelle O’Brian (editors), This Is My Body: Hearing the theology of trans Christians (2017)
Margaret Moers Wenig, “Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2012)
Virginia Mollenkott, Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach (2001)
Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (editors), Trans/Formations (Controversies in Contextual Theology) (2009)