Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation

By Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest
Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation book coverIn this brief but excellent book, two Bible scholars describe and prove their thesis that the Bible has always been read through “a gender-binary lens with a heteronormative bias” (p. 11).  They do so by taking responsibility for their biblical interpretation—meaning that they question “texts that make some lives ‘unspeakable’.”  Those lives would not routinely be permitted to speak for themselves in theological discussions, and they are unspeakable because they are often repudiated and rejected (p. 22).

The first illustration of interpreting the Bible responsibly is “reading Genesis backwards,” a journey that takes us away from the binary pairing of man and woman to the undifferentiated “earthling” of Gen. 1:26, and then further back to the pairing of creation and chaos.  Genesis 1:1-3 describes “the formless fluidity” that exists “before God speaks.”  But the Hebrew term translated “deep,” “abyss,” or “waters” is a queer noun: masculine form, usually appearing as a female noun, occasionally given a masculine suffix.  In other words, “a gender-shifting word” (p. 25).

Most biblical interpreters are content simply to emphasize the dreadfulness and darkness of this formless space.  But the darkness and the chaos are shown in Genesis to be responsive to the command of God, terrifying only if God should withhold all boundaries and containment (as in Noah’s flood) but the source of all material creation when coupled with God’s wishes (as in Gen. 1:2-3).  In reality, therefore, “the Divine is to be found within the deep, dark, fluid presences that are not all about order and boundaries” (p. 40).

Like the dark chaos, transgender bodies stir up boundary anxiety in many people.  Consciously or unconsciously, people who fear uncertainty are alerted by transpeople to the awareness that “the binary cannot hold; the monstrous is already always within the ordered.  It lurks.  It coexists” (p. 31).  To some degree, God’s creation also seems fluid, opaque, and unruly; it “deconstructs the center” (p. 31).  And that instability explains the intensity of the violence against transpeople: many human beings detest ambiguity.

I have oversimplified the beautiful logic by which the argument was built, and I have done so in the hope of whetting your appetite to read the book for yourself.  “Gender and sex are an illusion. . . . Clearly, materially, biblically, nothing is either-or” (p. 19).  Do you have the courage to read the evidence by which Hornsby and Guest make their case come to seem self-evident?

And are you brave enough to confront the Jehu of II Kings, noting that his masculinity is not in any way female-identified, but connected solely to killing and violent male agency (pp. 58-60)?  And then to confront Jezebel’s “female masculinity,” in which she uses defiant language that matches Jehu’s for tone and irony (p. 70)?  Yes, Jezebel does paint her eyes and style her hair—but she does so as she boldly approaches her window for the violent death she knows she is facing.  And when her body is consumed by dogs, we learn we are witnessing the overthrow of the warrior goddess Anat, who is as bloody as Jehu (p. 74).

Comparing Jehu and Jezebel, we get a sense of ancient gender norms.  Projected against the female-scorning masculinity of Jehu and the feminized masculinity of Jezebel, neat schemes of male-female complementarity shrink away into the shadows where they belong.  When I was young, I was told repeatedly that any woman who attempted to interpret Scripture in public would be a Jezebel.  Get the picture?

Furthermore, can you confront the implications of King David’s dance as described in I Chronicles 15:29?  David’s wife Michal called his dance shameless (II Samuel 6:22), but David insists that he was playing “before the Lord.”  He danced for a “masculine Yahweh and a textually feminine people of Israel” — “from man to woman, and back to man” (p. 89).  Later, Jesus speaks of dancing with the child-like people of Israel in the marketplace (p. 90; Luke 7:31-32).  “Like David, Jesus danced in the lacuna between heaven and earth to make the two as one” (p. 93).  Again, I have left out details in the hope of luring you into the book.

If you can face learning “a new apocalyptic response, one that embraces ambiguity, a trans hermeneutic if you will, “then you will also know that the real threat our culture faces is “a neoliberal capitalism born of greed.”  By contrast, a trans hermeneutic “imparts a means of survival: to embrace the ambiguous and purge the illusion of a gender binary.  No more binary, nor more monsters” (p. 103).

That sounds hopeful to me.  How about you?


© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today

Please read this important FTC disclosure statement.


Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (1932-2020) is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott was married to Judith Suzannah Tilton until her death in 2018, and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. In 2017 she was awarded the inaugural Mother Eagle Award. Even in her late 80s, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continued to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek Community educational programs. She deeply regretted that her severe arthritis forbade her presence at the social justice protests during the Trump presidency.


  1. So glad to read this from Virginia Ramey Mollenkott! She continues to be a voice in the wilderness. Thank you for this review.

Comments are closed.