Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
Queering Genesis: Sexuality, Anarcha-Primitivism, and the Bible
Christians often marshal the creation narratives of Genesis as foundational evidence for a vision of sexual morality based on gender complementarity and heterosexual marriage. The dominant interpretations go something like this: God made humans either male or female, for companionship (Genesis 2) and reproduction (Genesis 1), and Jesus referred to these verses while teaching in favor of marriage (Matthew 19). Therefore, to be cisgender (not transgender, but clearly male or female) and heterosexual is to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Case closed, right?
Well, it’s not that simple from an anarch@-primitivist1 perspective, which views all aspects of human flourishing, including sexuality, through the primary lens of earth-based sustenance. This perspective focuses on the environmental and economic roots of all aspects of civilization and culture, including the holy stories that are themselves a product of civilization’s preoccupation with symbolic thought. For example, Christian anarch@-primitivists approach Genesis as the story of a real, material “fall” into civilization. The expulsion from the wild Garden of Eden and the curse of farming in Genesis 3:17 is evidence that at least some Hebrews regretted humankind’s shift from hunter-gathering into agriculture, which had taken place no more than 7,000 years before their writing.
For this series’ work of rewilding civilized sexualities, materialist biblical interpretation is a useful tool for re-examining holy sexuality in Genesis, one that is well-aligned with the concerns of anarch@-primitivism. As a deconstructive or critical approach, materialist biblical interpretation seeks to uncover and name the unholy dynamics of power and hierarchy that influenced the writing (or the “production”) of Scripture. For example, Ched Myers has traced the anti-monarchy strains of political thought in the Hebrew Scriptures that seem to have arisen from pockets of resistance to economic oppression, and the pro-monarchy strains that arose from the ideology of the rulers.2
Materialist interpretation is also well-aligned with the work of queering, which is the questioning of things that appear “normal” and “natural” in order to reveal their social construction in history. The opposite of material is ideal: abstract, ahistorical, seen as generically true then and generically applicable now—like the concept of male or female “essence,” or marriage as one universal human institution. Materialist interpretation, on the other hand, works to reveal the concrete and complex cultures, economic interests, and social relationships that constructed the text.
Rather than being undermined by this analysis, the Bible becomes more authoritative when we hear its many voices and respect its irreducible complexity and distance from our own context. Resistant to domestication, it points to a God whose revelation cannot be colonized by any singular social purpose, for example the dominant sexual agenda of a certain political moment.
In Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible, biblical scholar Gale Yee uses materialist biblical interpretation to help illuminate the gendered and colonial underpinnings of Genesis.3 She identifies several economic sources to the Hebrew Scriptures’ vision of female sexuality as socially dangerous and dependent on the regulation of a certain kind of marriage.
According to Yee’s analysis, the creation narratives in Genesis were written down during the early monarchical period of Hebrew history, in which Hebrew society was transitioning from a family-based tribal model into a native-tributary economy under kings David and Solomon. The newly forming state demanded uncompensated material support from its population in the form of agricultural products, an economic hardship that is critiqued in 1 Samuel 8.
Genesis elevates the individual couple (Adam and Eve) as the basis of human society, in contrast to the traditional Hebrew emphasis on the extended family unit. Genesis 2 concludes, in verse 24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Yee argues that this teaching indicates a shift in ideology, arising from a changing power structure and its material needs, which transfers cultural power away from the extended families that competed with the state in favor of nuclear families that posed less of a threat.
This creation account ends with the story of the Fall, which seeks to persuade the Hebrew people that the hardship of agriculture under a native-tributary system is both natural and God-ordained. Genesis 3:16-19 reads:
To the woman [God] said: I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. To the man he said: Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, you shall not eat from it. Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
That women and sexuality are specifically mentioned in this economic vision is no coincidence. First of all, the Hebrew system of marriage was based on agricultural economics. Both patrilineality and endogamy (marrying other members of the father’s lineage), which necessitated strict male supervision of dangerous female promiscuity and fertility, functioned to maintain the inheritance of agricultural property, land. Secondly, Yee argues that the story of the Fall posits a natural or biological version of social inequality in the subordination of a wife to her husband, as well as emphasizes the consequences of an inferior (humankind) disobeying a superior (God). The depiction of God as the unitary ruler of the garden, capable of dispossession, justified the emerging inequality and unilateral flow of obedience between a Hebrew subject and the king.
In the rest of Yee’s book, she goes on to examine biblical teachings on female sexuality that emerged from the Hebrew people’s experience of foreign colonization, including exile and a foreign-tributary economy upon return. The writings of the Prophets often feature a rhetorical link between women and land, and symbolize the nation’s problems with land tenure in terms of female sexual wantonness (as in the whoreish sisters of Ezekiel). Yee’s analysis of the whoreish woman in Proverbs, dated in the post-exilic period, emphasizes that not just any women are suspect, but especially foreign women who represented foreign power and marriages that threatened land inheritance for the Hebrew land-owning elite.
As we can see from Yee’s historical analysis, every biblical notion connecting women, sexuality, and land results from a particular circumstance in which race and class played a factor. While each is a social construction, rather than a natural phenomenon that links the three realms by essence, they are all deeply rooted in the sedentary lifeway of agriculture and land ownership. Ideologies that link land economics with gender are a common dynamic throughout the history of civilization, precisely because heterosexism and the gender binary system are social technologies that serve state power. They do this to the material benefit of those who have the social power to back their ideologies, at the expense of the bodies of creation. As Susan Stryker writes in Transgender History:
The state’s actions often regulate bodies, in ways both great and small, by enmeshing them within norms and expectations that determine what kinds of lives are deemed livable or useful and by shutting down the spaces of possibility and imaginative transformation where people’s lives begin to exceed and escape the state’s uses for them.4
Because moral teachings on sexuality perform functions for the state, both in biblical times and now, investigating sex and gender oppression is not an optional activity for anarch@-primitivists.
Ultimately, every reader’s engagement with the text is influenced by material interests because we are all embodied (material, made of earth as it says in Genesis 2) and social beings. Recognizing this frees us to critically consider every interpretive possibility in the text that arises from each of our diverse locations. This is the gift of deconstructing the heterosexism in the text, that it allows us to see what else might be in there.
Far from being cut and dry, Genesis hints at its own wild complexity in its very first verses. Feminist theologian Catherine Keller has drawn our attention to the infinite, primordial creativity of the formless deep of Genesis 1:2—the abyss, the void, the wilderness, the wasteland, the waters, the chaos/cosmos.5 It existed as part of God and in cooperative relationship with God before the orderly forming and pairing and taming of creation ever began.
Transgender theologian Justin Tanis has commented that in Genesis 1, the ha’adam or earth creature originally exists as a created transgender being, before being split into male and female.6 Body theologian James Nelson has emphasized that when God created human beings to be sexual, Genesis 1:31 clearly states that God created found them to be good.7 Feminist theologian Sarah Coakley reminds us that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God’s self, which humankind images according to Genesis 1, is a relational community of love among three equal persons, not a heterosexual or an unequal, complementarian dyad.8
From an animal liberation, anti-speciesism perspective, I would add that when God first started looking for an appropriate companion for Adam in Genesis 2, God thought Adam might find adequate love with one of the other animals God had created (Genesis 2:18-20). For anarch@-primitivist Christians who intuit that God’s creation is a little wilder and queerer than just Adam and Eve, “Adam and Steve” might not even scratch the surface!
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