A New York Times op-ed suggesting the Old Testament supports transgenderism has been classified by Southern Baptist seminary professors as a mischaracterization of Hebrew grammar and theology.
Photo by David Roach, Baptist Press
“It should not surprise any of us that if we want to find something in scripture, then we will twist it to say what we want it to say,” Paul Wegner, professor of Old Testament studies at Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press (BP). “[Op-ed writer] Mark Sameth has pointed out some oddities in the Hebrew Bible, but it is doubtful that they mean what he thinks.”
Sameth, a Reform Jewish rabbi, wrote in an Aug. 12 Times piece titled “Is God Transgender?” that the Old Testament, “when read in its original [Hebrew] language, offers a highly elastic view of gender.” Sameth told of having a transgender cousin and stated he is “particularly saddened whenever religious arguments are brought in to defend social prejudices – as they often are in the discussion about transgender rights.”
Among Sameth’s arguments:
- The Hebrew Old Testament’s use of masculine pronouns, nouns and metaphors to describe women – and vice versa – reflects “well-expressed gender fluidity” in the ancient world. For example, Genesis 3:12 appears to reference Eve as “he” and Genesis 9:21 uses “her” with respect to Noah.
- The four-letter Old Testament name for God, sometimes rendered in English as YHWH, “was probably not pronounced ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh,’ as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi – in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for ‘He/She.’”
- Gender ambiguity or fluidity was thought to make a person more “godlike” and civilized in ancient societies.
In response to the claim regarding masculine and feminine pronouns, Gary Arbino, professor of archaeology and Hebrew at Gateway, noted, “Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language that – in the form(s) we have it – is a written representation of a verbal language and thus is filled with linguistic oddities and variances. To make a theological case – or perhaps even a cultural one – from these grammatical issues is tenuous.”
Wegner explained that the lettering system used to write Hebrew during the period described by early chapters of Genesis – from which all of Sameth’s pronoun examples are taken – “does not appear to have been as developed as it became in latter parts of scripture, and thus the pronouns for ‘he’ and ‘she’ sometimes look alike.” That resulted in confusion when scribes copied manuscripts of Genesis.
Instances early in Genesis where the grammatical gender of pronouns is unambiguous often are assumed to be adjustments made by later copyists or editors, Wegner said in written comments to BP.
In response to Sameth’s claim regarding the divine name, Arbino noted that “some Jewish scholars” influenced by the mystical ideology Kabbalah believe the arrangement of letters in the Hebrew Bible “is malleable” and can be altered to form new readings such as Sameth’s “he/she” reading of YHWH.
However, Arbino said he does “not know of any canonical biblical or second temple literature that shows this reading/understanding. Does the author adduce any literary evidence for his reading prior to the medieval period? Also, of course, the meaning of the Tetragram [a technical term for the name of God] has been discussed for thousands of years, so there is no definitive etymology of the name, thus allowing more theories to be put forth.”
Regarding the claim that ancient people viewed gender fluidity as godlike, Daniel Warner, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP in written comments, “There is no word for ‘goddess’ in the Bible. Hence one needs to do a thorough study of the Hebrew Bible before making assertions.”
Even ancient pagans saw Yahweh as masculine, Warner said, as evidenced by an ancient pagan inscription wrongly suggesting Yahweh had a wife. The inscription is “one of many” pieces of evidence inside and outside the Bible that Israel’s God was not viewed as “transgender,” Warner said.
Wegner said an ancient Egyptian woman cited by Sameth who disguised herself as a man to become pharaoh “shows that the genders were very inflexible.”
The female pharaoh wore a male disguise, Wegner said, “because she would not be taken seriously to rule the country unless she took on masculine characteristics. She was not confused; it was a necessity of the culture and so she made sure that people would respect her.”
Wegner added, “When God is referred to [in the Old Testament], He is referred to in masculine forms and there is no variation in this. But it is also true that sometimes God is said to love or care for His people like a mother cares for a nursing child (e.g., Isa. 49:15), but this does not mean that the concept of gender for God is flexible or confused. It just means that terms that are commonly associated with female characteristics are also sometimes connected with God.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Aug. 15 in his podcast The Briefing that the Times’ publication of such ludicrous biblical arguments illustrates the extent to which some secular media outlets will go to promote so-called transgender rights.
“Why would this article appear in the very precious media real estate of the Sunday edition of the New York Times?” Mohler said. “It’s because this article makes a point that the paper and its editors want made. And that, perhaps more than anything else, tells us what’s really going on here. And it’s one of the things we need not to miss.
“This is the world we live in, a world in which The New York Times all of the sudden gets interested in theology and even ancient Hebrew if the article they’re able to run makes the argument they’re for,” Mohler said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)