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The Heresies of Non-Males
Where “Woman” Ends and a Genesis of Inclusivity Begins

Isabel Maria Mareş

The concept of “woman as heresy” is nothing new. Our trouble begins with the very word—woman. As a word, “woman” encompasses so much, and yet not enough for honoring the many ways femininity is expressed through different bodies. History reveals that female/ feminine/ androgynous bodies are often conceived as temptresses, witches, and even as alien beings. These bodies are made heretical before they can express otherwise. Their silence is deafening. The role of “mother” remains the most acceptable niche for bodies categorized as “woman.” However, “mothers” are often valued conditionally by their reproductive and caregiving capabilities. Their worth is measured by their submission to patriarchal structures and figures. And if the narrow lens of patriarchy cannot comprehend or control a body—one that is trans or weaves in and out of fixed gender—multiple heresies will be inscribed on that body. Their silence, too, is deafening. Viewing the non-male as heresy is embedded within the framework of Judeo-Christian scripture. The Creation story of Genesis reveals a sharp divide between femaleness and maleness. Honoring the experiences of women-identified and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals is vital to healing this exclusionary rift. This is no attack on biology, but rather a criticism of an ideology of dominance that has shaped the Western notion of masculinity. This ancient ideology continues to divide and subjugate bodies, as informed by white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. As a white, cis-woman (my gender identity matching my sex assigned at birth) who is also queer and differently-abled, I hold the tensions of heresies and supremacies in my own body. Even as an agnostic, I have come to understand myself as differentiated by societal norms informed by biblical ideals. To understand heretical bodies, we must first look at the ideologies of dominion.

Within the context of the United States of America, the nation’s unsubtle Christian foundations reveal themselves in legislation around reproductive rights, sexual assault, domestic violence, and LGBTQ civil rights. The far-right, also known as the “Religious Right,” stands on a moral high-ground built upon ancient classifications of bodies. May it be said that the Bible is not the source of patriarchal constructs, but rather a reflection of repressive systems within humanity. Whether or not people believe that events in the Bible reflect literal or figurative truths, the mores and laws of the dominant U.S. culture echo the die-hard discriminations of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and an overall fear of difference that is enshrined in Scripture. The hierarchy of bodies in the U.S. is incredibly complex in its twenty-first century context, yet it is deeply rooted in a document that does not exceed four pages. These are the first four chapters of Genesis.

Blake,_William_(English,_1757–1827),_'Satan_Watching_the_Caresses_of_Adam_and_Eve'_(Illustration_to_'Paradise_Lost'),_1808,_pen;_watercolor_on_paper,_50.5_x_38_cm,_Museum_o

Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve (William Blake, 1808) (Source)

Here we find the account that in the Beginning, God created the world full of living beings. And somehow in all of that diversity of life, the world wound up with two strict genders within every species. In much of the Bible, maleness is both implicitly and explicitly portrayed as superior to and purer than femaleness. However, looking at the Hebrew text of Genesis 2, the first human, ’adham,[1] was fashioned from “the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7a), adham being derivative of ‘adhama, the Hebrew word for “earth”. This Hebrew word, which offers us an ambiguous term for a human being, has evolved into the name “Adam” in many languages, carrying with it a male gender.

Feminist biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible unearths ancient insights into gender within Genesis 2. She writes that, “Until the differentiation of female and male (2:21-23), ‘adham is basically androgynous: one creature incorporating two sexes.” The Hebrew word for “man” is an entirely different word, ‘ish, and it does not appear until after the creation of woman, ‘ishshah, in Genesis 2.[2] When God created “woman” the word neged is used in conjunction with the word ‘ezer, which translates as “helper,” implying a symbiotic relationship between the woman and man.[3] Yet, by the next chapter the dominion of man over woman is sanctioned by God (Gen 3:16).

We encounter “the woman” in Genesis 3 not as “the helper” or “partner” of Genesis 2:22-25, but as the tempted and the temptress. She eats the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17, Gen 3:2-7), framed as the first human mistake—an act of disobedience, an attempt to be “like God” (Gen 3:5). It is because of this that God punishes the humans by putting curses on their relationships with their bodies, the Earth, and each other (Gen 3:16-19). Three verses of scripture contain the explanations for mortality (“until you return to the ground”), the pain of childbirth (“in pain you shall bring forth children”), a fearful relationship with the Earth (“cursed is the ground because of you”), and female sexuality coupled with male dominance (“your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”). After God grants the man the right to “rule over” the woman (Gen 3:16b), the man names her Eve. Thus the same dominion that God gave the man over the plants and animals—the power to name them (which, too, is problematic in its prescriptive nature)—was given to the man over his wife. The once “partner” becomes ruler. Defined as “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20), her body becomes both her value and her punishment. Her ability to reproduce is also a form of penance. The shaming of Eve is the seed sanctioning male dominance over all non-male bodies.

Heresy is ultimately an act of disobedience. According to the Abrahamic creation story, the first person to disobey God was Eve. So what does it mean for the mother of all humanity—the first “woman”—to be a heretic? What does this mean for the experiences of all women and non-male bodies, both individually and collectively? The Creation story implies that the curiosity of “woman” brought mortal suffering into the world. As the result of her action, the humans are sentenced, shamed, and exiled from the Garden of Eden. Next, the violence of Cain slaying Abel (Gen 4:8b) is linked to Eve’s original bite of the apple, the original sin. If not for that bite, the knowledge of “good and evil,” and therefore violence, would not be possible. Eve’s disobedience becomes a theological rationalization for violence, including violence inflicted upon non-male bodies.

03-gender-neutral.w710.h473Not all blasphemy is called out in the streets as it once was. There are ways in which the unholiness of heretical bodies is written into law, into the consciousness of the societies we live in. There are new pyres constituted in the high costs of birth, legalized discrimination, strictly labeled bathrooms, and in the pews and pulpits of the spaces we were told would be safe. Reduced to hyper-sexualized and/or incubus forms, non-male and non-heteronormative bodies still suffer the schism described in Genesis 3:14-19. God’s curses ripple all the way into the present.

Heretics have historically been punished, by either exile or death for their radical understandings of scripture. Here I would like to propose the radical notion that the oppression of non-male persons is an example of a mass punishment of bodies, so as to ensure that those bodies remain controlled in a patriarchal model that scripture justifies. Non-male bodies are assumed not to have full agency or are deemed as inherently problematic if not governed by males. Some examples of the new ways of controlling these bodies in a seemingly secular model are: taxation of menstrual products and contraceptives, poor or no maternity leave benefits, rape being made a “pre-existing condition,” overall rape culture, discrimination of LGBTQ persons in the workplace, hypersexualized beauty standards, normalization of body-shaming, and less pay for non-males (especially those that are non-white). Lawmakers in the U.S. remain predominantly male, white, and influenced by Christian doctrine. Fear of bodies that do not abide by a binary gender model is ingrained in the strict ideology of superior masculinity, as expressed in Genesis 3. Persons who reveal the fragility of this model commit heresies by defying the biological markers used to classify bodies. Women-identified and GNC individuals claiming free choice over their bodies and demanding the right to exist safely commit both an antiquated and modern-day act of heresy. They want to take back the power of naming themselves as they see fit.

The Old and New Testaments tell us powerful stories of liberation. But when “women” were freed—as in the exodus from Egypt—they were freed from foreign enslavement, but never liberated for the sake of freedom from the sufferings of rape, abuse, sexual enslavement, and forced surrogacy. Many biblical “women” are simply spoken of or for, and their rapes, losses, and demises are fleeting lessons meant only to accentuate a greater patriarchal drama. The fate of Eve becomes that of Hagar, Tamar, and many unnamed. They are the marginalized and the silenced. Today they are transwomen of color abused and murdered, those suffering from domestic/intimate partner violence, those shamed for their sexuality, and those taken advantage of in the name of domination. Their stories, even if fragmented, represent both universal and particular experiences of subordinate bodies.

2015062654transgender.be02aIt does not take biblical scholarship to see that patriarchal society often reads the non-male body as punishable and inferior. Non-male persons have been, and still are in many communities, prevented from speaking about scripture. Perhaps it is because non-males hold the key to another reading, to unlocking voices, to healing ancient scars worn on present day bodies? Their voices are a potential threat to the patriarchal narrative.

Villainizing Eve early in the book of Genesis has long justified the authority over and the abuse of the voiceless or near-voiceless non-male bodies, those who already scarcely populate the sacred plotlines with little more than a name or a violent fate. For as long as these stories have been sacred, non-male bodies have been violated, owned, abused, segregated, and discarded. Acts of violence have been validated by the enslavement and rape of biblical women, such as Hagar and Tamar. Today we can see these “women” in the proud bodies that refuse to answer to a God that tells them to turn back or stay silent to their abuse.

The heresy of Eve tells the story of not only female-identified persons but of those who are GNC—those who fight to be wholly valued as “woman” and those who want to redefine gender categories altogether. Ultimately, Eve reminds us to search for what it means to be valued as fully human. If in our myriad expressions of gender and sexuality we are made in the image of God, then God cannot be simply one specific gender in opposition to another. Yet, if we are to learn anything from Genesis, we find that what happens to some of us happens to all of us. The real exile is not from the Garden, but from each other. The work of illuminating the experiences of non-male bodies heals a rift carried in and by all bodies. This includes those complicit in the subjugation of others, and it reflects a much larger conversation that has been taking place for centuries. The question of whether the experiences of non-male bodies’ are valid has been answered many times over. They are. The task ahead is a large one. We—male-identified, female-identified, and GNC individuals—must deconstruct our notions of dominance within our systems of law and even within our own consciousness. Only then can non-male bodies rename themselves and undo the heresies written on their bodies by the state, history, and tradition. Only then can we be inclusive in our understanding of humanity.

[1] Trible, 432

[2] Ibid. 433

[3] Ibid. 432

 

References

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Fully Revised Fourth Edition. Michael D. Coogan, ed. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010. 13-18. Print.

Phyllis Trible, “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,” Kristen E. Kvam, Linda Schearing, and Valerie H. Zeigler, eds., Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999. 431-438. Print.

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