Late Tuesday of this week, Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to define “woman.” Everyone watching the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation hearings knew it was a loaded question.
Judge Jackson stated that she wasn’t a biologist and did not feel qualified to answer. This question from Sen. Blackburn came among national conflict over LGBTQ rights and a sudden national interest in collegiate women’s swimming.
For many, the question “What is a woman?” appears to be straightforward. Culturally, Americans regularly acknowledge two genders, male and female. American Christians who want to affirm the two-genders system point to Genesis 1:27 — “So God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
On the face of things, upholding binary genders seems sound, unassailable even. However, a close reading of Genesis 1 reveals that this creation account is all about the extremes and not the in-betweens.
God creates animals for the sky, sea and land. The categories are clear. Amphibians are nowhere to be found. But I have yet to find a Christian who would contend that God did not create the salamander or that such a creature is deviant or in violation of God’s design.
Additionally, Christians may do well to realize that the discussions of sex and gender in the Bible do not end with Genesis 1. In fact, unlike our cultural system that regularly identifies only two sexes, the Bible has more than these two categories.
Jesus himself provides three exceptions to the two sexes system by pointing to eunuchs: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others — and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Most Americans keen on the two-gender system would struggle to accept this teaching.
Importantly, Jesus recognizes that not everyone is born with characteristics that clearly identify them as male or female. In the ancient world, these people were eunuchs from birth. In our modern configuration, these people are classified as intersex. Estimations vary but about one in every 2,000 births results in a bundle of joy with an intersex condition. (See Megan DeFranza’s book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God.)
Culturally, Americans tend to think in terms of genitalia being the deciding factor in biological sex: penis = male, vagina = female.
This binary system is rather new. In ancient times, there were not two options but rather a scale of options. The ideal person was masculine. Women were merely a corruption of the ideal male form, and individuals could be located anywhere along this scale from ideal male to corrupted male.
“While ‘penis’ vs. ‘vagina’ may seem like an easy way to identify the two sexes, this method is neither historical nor universal.”
So, while “penis” vs. “vagina” may seem like an easy way to identify the two sexes, this method is neither historical nor universal.
Additionally, as Judge Jackson indicates, biologically there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?
What about chromosomes? Should they be the deciding factor? And what of those who have chromosomes that would indicate “male” (the presence of a Y) but genitals that indicate “female” (a vagina) or vice versa? Should we measure sexual identity by the amounts of testosterone or estrogen individuals have? In the ancient world, one deciding factor was the presence of gonads. Should we revert to that since it seems to be the system Jesus used?
What of those who “fit” our male/female classifications genitally, chromosomally and hormonally but intuitively believe their gender assignment at birth simply doesn’t fit them? I’ve often heard these individuals referred to as “biologically” male or female to suggest that their preferred identity is somehow at odds with their biological identity. Are we then to assume that our genitals are more important aspects of our biology than our brains?
Maybe a biologist could help us sort all of this out. As a Bible scholar, I see no reason to define “woman” by the rules of modern American categories.
Jesus didn’t play by those rules, so why should we?
Anna Sieges serves as associate professor of religion at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. She loves shopping, discussing the Bible and romantic comedies.
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