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My contribution to the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog looks at the creation of queer theology, and how one of the best starting points is to see and name who is clearly queer in the text.

If you go to almighty Google and type in a search List of Men in the Bible, you will find loads of sites that give you an exhaustive outline of all the biblical men. Similarly a search for Women in the Bible will cough up hefty results. But try googling List of Eunuchs in the Bible. You will get web results, no doubt, but no simple listing of the names of the many biblical eunuchs and where they appear in the text. For that list you will have to do more digging and likely compile your own.

Consider virtually every sermon you have heard about the Book of Esther or any Purim celebration you attended, even in super queer-friendly churches and synagogues. Off the top of your head name the characters speakers highlight related to this story. Esther/Hadassah. Mordecai. Haman. These are the big three people can name from memory. Then there is some king, a deposed queen, oh, and a eunuch.

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The king, (known as Xerxes, Ahashuerus, or Khshayarshan depending on the Greek, Hebrew, or Persian form of the name) plays a key role in the story as the easily offended ruler waiting for things to happen. Vashti, the queen, who refuses to parade around in front of the king’s male guests, sometimes gets a shoutout for being a strong woman in a man’s world. Then there is the eunuch in charge of the royal harem.

Actually there are a dozen eunuchs in the Book of Esther each with a delicious name that fills the mouth. I like to read their names out loud.

Mehuman
Biztha
Harbona
Bigtha
Abagtha
Zethar
Carcas
Hegai
Shassshagaz
Teresh
Bigthana
Hathach

Eunuchs appear in every chapter of the Book of Esther and take on many different roles. Sure Hegai oversees the women’s quarters and puts Hadassah/Esther through a rigorous beauty and diet regime. Hegai even tells Esther what to bring into the bedroom chamber when it is time for her to perform for the king as part of the Persia’s Next Top Queen competition. But the eunuchs have much more latitude, roles, and responsibilities in the text than most retellings of the story reveal.

20130928-100408.jpg Eunuchs serve as messengers, advisors, guards, assassins, and soldiers. In fact, on the chess board of the Persian court, all non-eunuchs are mostly stuck in place. The king stays in his section of the palace, Esther in hers, and her kinsman, Mordecai, has to sit outside until escorted in. The only people who get to move freely from place to place, in and out of the palace and into every palatial space are the eunuchs.

In the ancient world a eunuch was a non-procreative male, usually castrated, and often castrated before puberty. This means they typically did not experience puberty with the rush of testosterone bringing about the lowering of the voice, the development of body hair, facial hair, muscles, and over time, a prominent brow. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them. They would have stood out in Persia. In some places of the ancient world others considered them, and perhaps they considered themselves, another sex or a third gender. In the olden times there were men, women, and eunuchs, not a simple binary. In scripture eunuchs pop up throughout the Hebrew Bible and make brief but important appearances in the Christian Bible.

Most people in the ancient world likely did not willingly choose to become a eunuch, even if being one meant service in a royal court with access to powerful people and information. This is likely true for many of the eunuchs in Bible stories. Perhaps because of painful experiences in life, they empathize with “the other” alongside them in the text; they relate to the vulnerable. Jeremiah is rescued by Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch (Jeremiah 38.) Daniel, like Esther is parented and trained by a royal eunuch, Ashpenaz. Some scholars say there is evidence that Daniel and his friends serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. These are a handful of the dozens of eunuchs in the Bible.

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But back to Esther. I recently heard a sermon at an LGBTQ religious gathering where the minister spoke about Esther, who “for such a time as this” is made queen of Persia so that she can save her people against the evil plot of the very evil Haman. It is a good story, and we can make lots of modern applications for how we too can take a stand today and put our lives on the line for justice. It is also a story about a woman with power (even if it is limited power that comes with great risks) within ancient texts where women typically do not have much power. BUT (yes I have a big BUT) once again, in a queer-friendly sermon, the gender variant, sexual minorities in the text were completely overlooked, much like they are in our modern society and our LGBTQ-friendly religious spaces.

Yes, Esther saves the people by appearing before the king pleading her case, but without the eunuchs she would have been far from the court, an unknown orphaned Jewish young woman. Even in the palace she cannot speak directly with her kinsman, Mordecai, who urges her to act. She needs eunuchs to ferry messages back and forth, to set up the lunches for the king, to help her save her people.

In queering a text, one of the first steps may simply be to acknowledge those individuals already in that text who are presented as sexual minorities. It is not terribly radical actually, but it can go a long way to open up a discussion about otherness in the Bible and the essential roles that non-gender normative people play in it and in the world today. If you see yourself as an LGBTQ ally, the next time you talk give a sermon or perform a skit about the Book of Esther, go out of your way to include the eunuchs. Do not overlook the gender-variant, sexual minorities all over the page.

Special thanks to Janet Everhart and her excellent dissertation, The Hidden Eunuchs of the Hebrew Bible–Uncovering an Alternative Gender
and to Jane Brazell for her editorial help, inspiration, and feedback.

Check out the other synchroblog entries:
Queering Our Reading of the Bible by Chris Henrichsen

Queer Creation in art: Who says God didn’t create Adam and Steve? by Kittrdge Cherry

Of The Creation of Identity (Also the Creation of Religion) by Colin & Terri

God, the Garden, & Gays: Homosexuality in Genesis by Brian G. Murphy, for Queer Theology

Created Queerly–Living My Truth by Casey O’Leary

Creating Theology by Fr. Shannon Kearns

Initiation by Blessed Harlot

B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation by Emily

Queer Creation: Queering the Image of God by Alan Hooker

Queer Creation by Ric Stott

Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano

Valley of Dry Bones by Jane Brazelle

Queer Creation: Queer Angel by Tony Street

The Great Welcoming by Anna Spencer

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Most people who read my blog & tweets know that I am a quirky, queer Quaker. In my Quaker meeting we do not have pastors or an program planned for the meeting. Rather we sit in silence for 60 minutes. Sometimes people share a message out of this silence. It’s a quiet sort of anarchy.

Recently someone asked me how I settle down for an hour of silence (perhaps skeptical since I can’t sit still for five minutes.) To quiet myself at Quaker meeting I do a number of things. I try to stay off-line on Sundays, particularly before meeting. I also try to arrive a few minutes early if possible. I sit and focus on my breathing for about 5 minutes. I’ll breath in through my nose for a count of four. Hold my breath for a count of seven. Breath out through my mouth for a count of eight. Sometimes I just breath and count to 300. Basically I’m trying to clear my mind and focus on the present. Sometimes though I panic thinking I might hyperventilate or worse that I have halitosis.

I also bring a note pad with me and a pen for when I get distracted–“You must renew your subscription to Bitch Magazine ASAP!” I write the thought down so I don’t have to obsess about it any longer. In addition, I meditate through writing. This week, for instance, I entered meeting with a query in my head–If I created a Scratch & Sniff Bible, what smells would it contain? I sat still then and began to write bizarre & stimulating ideas. The bloody birth of Jesus there amongst livestock must have been ripe with odors. The fishermen followers of Jesus may have looked so sexy, all muscular and hairy, but likely smelt like a vat of fish awash in body odor. Do the resurrected have that new-born human smell about them? Do their bodies smell fresh and new while their grave clothes reek of rotting corspe?

All this musing in meeting eventually brought me to a message that I shared outloud. I considered a phrase often spoken in my kitchen, usually by my husband Glen to me. Opening a jar tucked away in the back of the fridge or uncovering a bowl of leftovers, he’ll turn to me, “Smell this. Does this smell bad to you?” Thinking of that exchange led me to another phrase I often say to him while I am cooking. I ladle a spoonful of the stuff I’m creating (recipe? What recipe?) and guide it towards his mouth, “Taste this. What do you think it needs?”

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In both cases, Smell this/Taste this, we seek discernment, the input from another who may have a different, and potentially useful perspective that may either deter food poisoning or enhance the flavor of meal. In both cases the person seeking discernment exercises humility, inferring, “I may have this wrong. I don’t want to be guided solely by my senses.” The exchanges remind me of Proverbs 11:14,

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

In other words, there are times when we are making decisions–in the kitchen, in our lives, in our work, etc–and we would be wise to seek discernment, get other people’s input and perspectives. Then we can make informed, balanced, wise choices.

So with that in mind, what do you think, should I concoct a Scratch & Sniff Bible? If so, what fragrances/odors should I include/avoid?

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Recently I received an email from a student at a major divinity school asking the following question,

I would like to do a queer reading of the fourth gospel (John). As the foremost – that is, only – person I know of who works extensively with gender non-conformity in Biblical texts, I was wondering if there were any resources for this that you were aware of that I shouldn’t miss. Articles, books, etc.

I have to admit that John is my least favorite of the Gospels. I prefer the action and starkness of Mark’s gospel. Perhaps that is because I am an actor and have much more action to play with. John’s gospel is wordy, lots of teachings and lessons that appear no where else in the other gospels. Also, the resurrection gets so campy and divine compared to the chaos of Mark. I prefer chaos.

In my play, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible, I reference Thomas’ Gospel.
<Simon Peter said, 'Make Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, "Look I shall take Mary and make her male, so that she too may be a living spirit.

Simon Peter said, ‘Make Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, “Look I shall take Mary and make her male, so that she too may be a living spirit.

Now likely this closing statement was a tag on used as a swipe to women with too much power in the church, particularly the camp of Mary Magdalene. I instead use it as a transgender narrative saying perhaps that this Mary would feel more alive living as male. I then reference Luke and John’s Gospel, and the stories of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

I love how in Luke’s Gospel the character Mary takes the role of a male disciple, learning at Jesus’ feet and affirmed by Jesus for doing so. I think there is something there in that narrative and the resurrection of Lazarus in John (especially when looking at the Secret gospel of Mark) A Very queer family. Martha is the take charge head of the family not afraid to confront Jesus, standing up to the rabbi. Lazarus, the young man who Jesus loves enough to bring back to life. And Mary who perhaps would be happier as male. These are just a few of my thoughts about these characters. See John Henson’s book, The Gay Disciple for more.

Sadly there are not a lot of resources out there yet about gender transgressors in the Bible. It is a growing field. For too long It’s all been about gay defensive theology and somewhat dodgy speculative queer theology about who might be gay in the Bible. I like to look at stories where we have more to go on–gender transgression in particular.

If you look at the recent anthology, Gender Outlaws, The Next Generation (edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman) I have a piece called Transgressing Gender at Passover. It is a midras about the “man with the pitcher of water” who appears in Mark and Luke (and as a certain man in Matthew’s Gospel.) I also blend this narrative with that of a woman who transition from male but hadn’t seen her family for a long time and decided to come out to them as a woman at Thanksgiving dinner. She said she cleared that room. Men carrying water in gospel times was a rare gender (and class) transgressive act. Only women, children, and slaves carried water. The gospel account refers specifically to a man carrying a pitcher of water. We do not know why, but when they needed a room, they turned to a gender non-conformist for help. John’s gospel of course does not have this story. I see it more as propaganda ladden fan fiction than a proper gospel. (again I don’t like John lol)

No doubt, John is beautiful. The sweeping teachings and metaphors, but it is such a disembodied text. It is concerned with so many spiritual matters that it ends up ignoring the body. I like Gospel stories that get us right in the mess of human bodies. Example: Mark chapter five. I love that passage–so much human body action in it with Jesus being pulled and tugged by nameless people and their needs and desires.

Another great resource to consider is The Anarchist Reverend. He is a queer trans* theologian who writes about many of these issues.

Also, check out The Queer Bible Commentary edited by Deryn Guest and others. And if you are in Chicago on November 18, check out my presentation at the Society for Biblical Literature Conference when my scholarship will be peer reviewed (terrifying!) Here is my schedule with the details.

Good luck on your presentation!

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