One of the quotes frequently used when discussing gender and sexual orientation matters – which always includes a discussion about unions and marriage, is the first creation narrative, often quoted very solemnly, “… male and female he created them…”, and for those who believe, this is a serious and foundational text, revered as sacred.
Personally, when confronted with this quote, I am not annoyed at the use of this text; it is there and written like that. What irks me is how the text is often selectively utilised – as they say, à la carte … 😉
I also consider this text as important, and therefore, quoting from it should reflect the entirety of its message rather than a pick-and-choose from the obligations listed within the narrative. A more faithful quote would read something on these lines; G-d created them vegan, male and female, stewards of the earth (farmers), and with an obligation to observe and enjoy the Shabbat-rest. Fulfilling these obligations would be more in line with G-d’s vision for heterosexual couples as described in this first narrative, if we want to read this story in a prescriptive manner (so no more steak for you dear heterosexual brothers and sisters ;)).
If for a while, we refrain from reading this text as prescriptive, and engage with it as descriptive, we may extrapolate a few other interesting lessons. Very often, we may (unconsciously) think of this text as somehow predating humanity, but this narrative was written at a much later date, by Jewish author(s), when humans where already around for a while, with their own Empires, civilizations, love affairs, murders and wars – fully active! Maybe, pious, rural, Jewish families inspired the author(s) of this particularly narrative (?), which is also written as a way of establishing Jewish identity and communit(ies) within a very cosmopolitan and multicultural context, where all sorts of things where going on, including all sorts of sexual activity.
Heterosexual union is presented as the preferred form of union in this narrative, within a context and culture(s) that is difficult for us to comprehend, including people’s understanding of gender, sexual orientation, and sexual activity itself – the hierarchy of penetration would be a helpful term to use as a backdrop to the understanding of sexuality when reading this narrative. For these ancient cultures, sexuality and reproduction were very much understood on the lines of landownership, seed and soil. Simply put, one man could own several land properties where his seed could grow. On the other hand, land could only be owned by one man. The culture of who (can) penetrate(s) who, was an important one and a far more complex hierarchical reality than ‘simple’ heterosexual marriages. The author(s) of this narrative attempts at establishing the institution of marriage between one man and one woman for Jewish communities. Pyt Farrugia’s article ‘Love was born at Christmas’ and perspectives offered there, could offer further helpful insights to continue deconstructing the Jewish notion of heterosexual marriage as the pure form of sexual activity as opposed to the rest, as presented to us within this text.
What is rather queer about this story is the fact that what is quoted as male and female – G-d’s plan for humanity through heterosexual marriage, is interpreted by some Jewish and Christian authors as an androgynous creature, both male and female – possibly something similar to the idea of creation in Plato’s symposium. However, within the Jewish narrative, the male-female form is preferred, possibly for procreation reasons, also within the context of a small community that required to populate and have dominion over the earth?
For me, the ‘male and female he created them’ is also very descriptive in terms of how we function alongside and through these two gender polarities. The contended issue is not about male and female polarities, but what they stand for, how men and women are placed on this continuum, and how people fit (or not) in society’s gender expectations (construct?) of them. What is more contended is how men and women behave sexually with each other, within and across their own gender – and how do we make theological sense of all that?
The beauty of this Jewish creation narrative is its openness and gaps. Recently, during a class, I was asked if Adam and Eve were black, white or mixed. I never thought of that possibility and was taken by pleasant surprise at the question. The student asking preferred the mixed-race option, thinking of them as one black and as one white. Therefore, seeing our primordial ancestral parents giving birth to the various skin colours human diversity offers. Would Adam be black and Eve white or would Eve be black and Adam white? Meanwhile, Almamegretta sing Athena was black if we look back!
Back to androgyny and Plato’s symposium, both within the Orthodox and Catholic (and other) Monastic traditions we do find the ‘idea’ of the all-male and all-female closed communities, living alongside the Institution of heterosexual marriage and as an alternative way of life. Many of these communities are inspired by similar sacred texts, like the song of songs; texts which speak of that primordial harmony between the Creator and all of creation, and sacred erotic desire. Of course, these communities oblige celibacy, whereas sexual joy is reserved for married heterosexual couples, but is there something deeper to dig out and learn from these Monastic traditions; lessons about gender, sexuality, intimacy and erotic desire which goes beyond celibacy?
It seems to me that the human (conscious or unconscious) struggle, to make sense of human sexual and erotic desire, and our need for each other, is universal. After all, we are created in this way: in need of each other, irrespective of our sexual orientation, gender identity or belief system. It is also here that we hurt and harm each other most, within and through this need of ours – the place of our vulnerability, that sacred home for intimacy.
Sacred texts attempt to offer us a transcendental perspective on our struggles with erotic desire, but these same texts often become for us texts of terror and moral straightjackets, mandating murder and hell. Often it is also difficult to discern between what is patriarchal desire and G-d’s genuine desire within the text, often the two mixed and presented to us as one and the same within the narrative. Patriarchy also shapes us in its own image. Both Christianity and Islam have fallen, and do fall into these same traps of interpretation, Judaism as well, but, maybe, we do need more Jewish interpretative skills here, especially their ‘playfulness’ at engaging with sacred texts. The two creation narratives could possibly offer Judaism, Christianity and Islam (including all the variations and groups within those categories), the much-needed ground and impetus to not only talk to each other, but work together through these texts and our varied belief systems, to offer our aching and injured world new tools on how to engage with sacred texts in ways that helps people find life, peace and creativity, rather than an encounter with destruction of the self and/or the other. May creation stories become for us the foundations for inclusive peaceful coexistence rather than division.