The Ethiopian Eunuch is our most famous trancestor. However, there are many more scattered through the Bible, both visible and invisible. We shall meet many more later.
The Many Eunuchs Hidden in Scripture
There are numerous trans themes and characters in Scripture. If these are not immediately familiar to us, this is because often, they are simply hidden in plain sight – invisible unless we take the trouble to open our eyes and look. However, I do not wish to reflect too deeply on an experience which is not my own. Instead, I simply share with you some more extracts from a piece by Lewis Reay, “Towards a Transgendered Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs, printed in “Trans/formations” (edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood).
First, I wish to consider Jesus’ extraordinary saying in Matthew 19 (v 12 -13) about different types of eunuchs. To my transgender ears and eyes the meaning of this text is plain …… I would suggest that the Matthew 19 verses are the clearest statement that Jesus makes about the inclusivity of the new realm. This is a realm where no-one is excluded, even the most marginal outsider.
To see the hidden trans people in Scripture, we need to be sensitive to the words as understood when they were written – not as we use them today. A key word here is “chamberlain”, which to modern ears, refers to a senior political or government official. This ignores the significance of the first part of the word – “chamber-“. Reay elaborates:
The Greek word eunocoi comes from the root eune, a bed, and the verb achein, to hold: thus a eunuch is a “bed-keeper”, or more literally a “bed-companion” or “chamberlain” who was responsible for taking care of a monarch’s numerous wives. It also appears as a court “official”. The secondary meaning of the word is an emasculated man, or one naturally emasculated from marriage or having children, or one who voluntarily abstains from marriage.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word çârîyç or saris means “to castrate”l it also means a eunuch or official. The word appears 13 times translated as “chamberlain”, 17 times as “eunuch” and 12 times as “officer”.
And so, many of the trans people in the Bible are hidden behind descriptors like “chamberlain”, or (as other writers have explained) “cupbearer” – which includes Nehemiah.
Let me introduce you to some of my spiritual trancestors – Carcas the severe, Mehuman, the faithful. Hegai, the eunuch, Zethar, the star, Harbona, the ass-driver, Abagtha, the God-given, and Biztha, the booty, all eunuchs of King Xerxes (see the book of Esther).
Ebed – Melech, the servant of the king, an Ethiopian eunuch in the service of King Zedekiah, through whose interference Jeremiah was released from prison; Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch of King Nebuchanezzer, Teresh, the strict, who plotted to kill King Xerxes, Sarsechim, the prince among eunuchs, and Shaashgaz, the servant of the beautiful.
Meet some rabsaris, chief eunuchs and high-ranking Babylonian officials: Hatach, the truthful, Bigthan, the juicy, and Bigtha, the juiciest.
And, not least, the famous Daniel, and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and the defiant Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego (see the Book of Daniel). Finally, our Ethiopian cousin, from Acts, who opens up the possibility of full inclusion into Jesus’ realm to all, not simply the Jewish world.
Most of these transectors named by Reay are minor characters, bit parts in the Biblical story. That’s not the case with his main argument.
The Genderqueer Jesus
Mollenkott (“Omnigender”) proposes that Jesus was chromosomally female (because of the virgin birth) …….. but phenotypically male. Mollenkott ties this in to the Genesis narrative of a God who is both male and female an neither, and therefore a Jesus who is equally both and neither, encompasing the breadth of “natural” human gender and sex diverstity….it is intersex people or female-to male trans-people who come closest to a physical resemblance to Jesus, being chromosomally female and socially male.
Moxness (“Putting Jesus in His Place”) suggests that Jesus occupied queer space by virtue of his social location and th he location of his followers. Jesus’ followers put themselves outside the norms of society by leaving their homes and and their social gender roles to follow Jesus. By leaving their place in the household, ..they rendered themselves liable to the accusation of being eunuchs – their very gender identity was put into question for upsetting the gender norms of their time.
Jesus’ queer identity is not simply to be read in terms of sexuality, but he is truly gender queer. Jesus is our own trancestor: the challenge of eunuchs was that they could not be securely placed, they were in a position of ‘betwixt and between’, in a permanent liminal position (Moxnes).”
(“Genderqueer” was precisely the descriptor I used for Jesus in my own reflection yesterday, before I had read this particular passage).
Moxnes’ discussion of the famous passage from Matthew 19 observes that in Jesus’ day, the word “eunuch” may have been used as a term of abuse (rather like “queer” or “faggot” today). This puts a special light on Jesus’ response.
Bohache argues (“The Queer Bible Commentary”) that if, as Moxnes suggests, the term”eunuch” was used as a slur against Jesus and his disciples, then we have hit upon an essential concept for a queer understanding of Jesus: today there are many for whom the term “queer” is a volatile word, since it originated as a slur among our opponents, but activists and others ahve reclaimed the word and used it proudly.
Isaiah’s Welcome For All.
The Promise of “a house of prayer for all people” in Isaiah is not simply a promise that eunuchs would be allowed. Rather, it is an unrestrained revolution to the existing order of who can approach God.
Koch (in “The Queer Bible Commentary”) suggests that the last chapters of Isaiah commencing at chapter 56 present many instances of gender dissent and social queerness.
The Matthean eunuch verses are a mirror to the Isaiah 56 passage which extends the kingdom of God to eunuchs with a special place greater than that of sons or daughters. …These verses encapsulate the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ message – there is no one who is marginalised in God’s eyes, all are included.
And so, I conclude with the celebrated and important words of Isaiah 56:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
Althaus- Reid, Marcella & Isherwood, Lisa: Trans/formations (Scm Controversies in Contextual Theology Series)
Feinberg, Leslie: Transgender Warriors : Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
Guest, Deryn et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach
Wilson, Nancy: Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible
Related Posts at QTC:
Related articles Elsewhere:
- Transgender and the church (christhum.wordpress.com)
- Trans clergy are finally gaining greater acceptance | Becky Garrison (guardian.co.uk)