Responding to the “Clobber Passages” in Jewish and Christian Scripture

Aug 20, 2018

Whether you’re new to discussions of faith and Gender identity, or whether these are conversations you’ve been having for decades, you’re likely to get tangled up with a few prominent verses in scripture. Christians and Jews who don’t affirm Transgender and nonbinary people will sometimes use these “clobber passages” to argue that gender diversity doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. Conversation about these texts is important, but we should always approach them with compassion and curiosity, leading with questions, telling stories, and making sure we’re treating each other with as much kindness as we can muster!

This post will take a look at some of the passages most often used against gender-diverse people, but for conversations that move beyond the defensive, make sure to check out Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community by Noach Dzmura and Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians by Austen Hartke, as well as the other resources listed on our Faith Resources page.

Genesis 1

The Issue:

When people talk about gender in the Bible, they usually start at the beginning. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV). Some people take this to mean that God only created binary genders, and that no one can or should live outside their sex assigned at birth.

Responses:

“’Evening and morning’ are used to encompass all the times of day, all the qualities of light that would be found over the course of one day. So, too, in the case of Genesis 1.27b, the whole diverse panoply of genders and gender identities is encompassed by only two words, ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Read not, therefore, ‘God created every human being as either male or female’ but rather ‘God created human kind male and female and every combination in between.’” – Margaret Moers Wenig, Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1–6:8) in Torah Queeries

Considering the existence of intersex people, “the simplistic binary model is no longer sufficient. It is dishonest to the diversity of persons created in the image of God.” – Megan DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God

Questions to Discuss:

  • How can we understand the in-between places in creation that aren’t listed in Genesis 1? In this chapter day and night are named, but what about dusk and dawn? What about estuaries and coral reefs—places that are in between land and sea? How might this speak to the in-between places in gender?
  • What does it mean that all people are created in the image of God? What kind of respect must we have for each other given this part of our identity?
  • For Christians: How do we understand Genesis 1:27 next to Galatians 3:28 which says, “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV)?

Deuteronomy 22:5

The Issue:
In Deuteronomy 22:5 we read, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD your God” (JPS). This verse seems to forbid transgender people from wearing clothes that affirm their gender identity.

Responses:

“How do we determine what is naturally ‘feminine’ and naturally ‘masculine?’ The type of dress and articles appropriate for men and for women are culturally determined and change with the times. No one is advocating that modern men and women return to the dress of the seventh century B.C.E., when Deuteronomy was written. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy restates the Law articulated in Numbers in a way more accessible to the people of that time. Surely we should follow that process, rather than attempting to impose an ancient practice on modern people.” – Justin Tanis, Trans-Gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith.

“In the Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a), the Sages argue that it is not plausible to read the verse in Deuteronomy literally, since wearing the clothes of another gender could not possibly be seen as an abomination. Instead, the Talmud understands the Torah prohibition this way: wearing clothes of another gender in order to falsify your identity, and infiltrate spaces reserved for the ‘opposite’ sex, is what is forbidden. The key point here seems to be that cross-dressing is only prohibited when there are ulterior motives involved—in this case, the violation of another person’s space and therefore trust. When it comes to cross-dressing in and of itself, the Talmud is crystal clear: ‘There is no abomination here!’”
Rambam (Maimonides) claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing for the purposes of idol worship. (Sefer haMitzvot, Lo Taaseh 39–40). Rambam—like Rashi and the Sages in the Talmud—argues that the problem of wearing the clothing of another gender is that it might lead to other forbidden practices. In all these classical commentaries, wearing clothes of  ‘the wrong gender’ is proscribed only when it is done for nefarious purposes. The problem with idolatry and adultery is not the acts in and of themselves—Jewish tradition views both the acts of sex and worship as positive acts—the problem is the betrayal of our most intimate loving partnerships with a loved one or with God. In both cases the acts come out of a lack of integrity and result in damage to our relationships or the exploitation of another human being.” – Elliot Kukla and Rueben Zellman, To Wear Is Human, to Live—Divine: Parashat Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19) in Torah Queeries

Questions to Discuss:

  • How do we decide what clothes are for women and what clothes are for men, when clothing changes depending on the time and place?
  • If this law was specifically to prevent certain kinds of idolatry, does that change how we understand this verse’s relevance today?
  • In both Judaism and Christianity there is often a recognition that some laws may have to take a backseat to larger concerns like saving a life. If we know that allowing someone to affirm their gender with clothing reduces the risk for suicide, how do we balance those concerns?
  • For Christians:  How do we understand Deuteronomy 22:5 next to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Deuteronomy 23:1 (Christian Text) 23:2 (Jewish Text)

The Issue:

Just one chapter further into Deuteronomy we read the following verse: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (NRSV). This verse refuses acceptance to eunuchs—Israelites who were castrated. Some people believe this verse forbids gender-diverse people from having gender-affirming surgeries.

Responses:

“[Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:17–21] comes down hard on anyone or anything outside the norm, it seems. Only those who are whole and unblemished in these particular ways may be admitted into the assembly of the Lord or serve God and the assembly as a priest. However, the Hebrew Scriptures also offer another historically later view, one that is much more positive and inclusive. The portion of Isaiah that addresses the Jews held in captivity in Babylon and promises God’s deliverance in the near future reads: ‘Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off’ (Isaiah 56:1-5). The prophet Isaiah, preaching to an enslaved community and promising hope and deliverance by God, includes eunuchs in his description of the broadness of God’s redemption. These heretofore outcasts are not merely to be included in the new Jerusalem that will follow the end of exile, but will also be honored, elevated, and given a ‘name better than sons and daughters.’” – Bishop Gene Robinson, Transgender Welcome: A Bishop Makes the Case for Affirmation

“Extrapolating from conditions that produce psychological pain or distress even in the absence of a recognized psychological diagnosis, in which surgery is permitted, to gender dysphoria, which is not only a recognized, diagnosable condition, but one that can cause distress severe enough to lead to suicide, GCS [Gender Confirmation Surgery] should be permitted. Certainly נפש פקוח , saving a life, would override any halakhic objection to the surgery. But even absent threat to life, symptoms of pain and distress, to the extent they can be relieved by surgery, are certainly enough to overcome objections based on the prohibitions of self-wounding and endangerment. As to whether genital surgery violates the specific prohibition against castration, one need only look at conditions like testicular or ovarian cancer. If the best hope for survival is removal of the testicles or ovaries, surely no one would argue for avoiding this treatment because of the biblical or rabbinic prohibition of castration. Even women who do not have cancer but because they carry the BRCA gene mutation are at increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer, may choose to undergo prophylactic removal of their ovaries. Since in the case of GCS, the removal of the gonads is being done to treat a medical condition, and may in some cases be lifesaving, it should be permitted as well.” – Rabbi Leonard A. Sharzer, Transgender Jews and Halakhah, resolution adopted by Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly

Questions to Discuss:

  • When we talk about the right to make changes to our bodies for the sake of our health and wellbeing, how do we decide what is permitted and what is not? Who gets to make those choices?
  • How do we understand Deuteronomy 23:1/2 in the context of the rest of scripture, specifically the welcome given to eunuchs in Isaiah 56:1-8, and, for Christians, the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40?

Matthew 19:1-12

The Issue:

In Jesus’ speech on marriage in Matthew 19 he says in verse 4, “’Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female…?’” (NRSV). This restating of the creation of gender in Genesis 1 is sometimes used to argue that Jesus held to a rigid binary understanding of gender. This understanding is complicated by the fact that in verses 11 and 12 Jesus recognizes the existence of eunuchs—people outside the Gender binary—when he says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Responses:

“Jesus heals the blind, the paralyzed, the possessed, the fevered, the leprous, the hemorrhaging, even the dead, in every case restoring them to full societal membership. In the case of the eunuch, however, there is no implication whatsoever of ‘illness’ or social ‘deformity’ in need of restoration. Instead, the eunuch is held up as the model to follow.” – David J. Hester, Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities

“Out of his great compassion for outcasts, Jesus took up the shameful identity of the eunuch and turned it upside down into an identity for his disciples — a personal identity that did not conform to the gender ideals of the ancient world. Just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of defeat into a symbol of victory, he brought eunuchs in from outside and raised them up from shame and suspicion to become icons of radical discipleship…” – Megan DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God

Questions to Discuss:

  • Throughout the history of Christian thought some people have seen Jesus’ reference to eunuchs as a metaphor for people who choose celibacy. What parts about this text make us think it might be metaphorical, and which parts make us think Jesus might be speaking about eunuchs literally?
  • How do we understand the fact that Jesus knew about eunuchs—people with changed genitalia—but we never hear stories in which he healed such a person?
  • If Jesus allowed for people outside the gender binary in his own time, should Christians consider allowing for Intersex, nonbinary, and other gender-diverse people today?