Gender-bending in the Bible

See Also: Dangerous Sisters in the Hebrew Bible

By Amy Kalmanofsky
Associate Professor of Bible
The Jewish Theological Seminary
June 2015

Although many readers would agree that gender defines the world the Bible constructs, few may argue that the Bible intentionally constructs this gendered world, or that the Bible perceives gender to be a constructed as opposed to an innate category of human experience. Many perceive gender construction and performance to be contemporary ideas imposed anachronistically upon an ancient text.[1] Like Harold C. Washington, I contend that gender is “an organizing category” in the Bible.[2] I also contend that the Bible intentionally constructs a gender-defined world that privileges and protects masculinity.

In the Bible, qualities and behaviors that define what it means to be a man or a woman are not fixed.[3] Readers, I argue, can witness gender construction in the biblical narratives that overtly play with conventional gender norms. The Bible’s conventional gender norms distinguish clearly between men and women, associating qualities and behaviors with specific genders.[4] The Bible’s normative gender dynamic preserves this difference, and constructs a hierarchy that privileges males. Narratives that display unconventional gender norms, such as the story of Eve and Adam, reveal that gender dynamics and behaviors are not innate, but must be carefully cultivated and monitored.

I contend that many biblical narratives intentionally challenge the Bible’s conventional gender norms and expectations, and label them as gender-bending narratives.[5] I use the term gender-bending descriptively to distinguish the biblical texts that overtly play with gender norms, and acknowledge that some readers associate this term more specifically with queer theory and its efforts, as Stuart Macwilliam describes, to destabilize gender by identifying “a new identity distinct from both heterosexual and homosexual labels” or that “fall outside the boundaries defines by heterosexuality.”[6]

In my reading, the biblical gender-bending stories are not interested in challenging heterosexuality or heteronormativity. In fact, I argue, they work to support them. I contend that the Bible’s gender-bending narratives have a social agenda. They protect the gender hierarchy that privileges the Bible’s men by revealing the dangers of destabilizing gender norms—either by challenging the gender hierarchy, or by depicting men who behave like women and women who behave like men. I also contend that the Bible’s gender-bending stories have a religious agenda. They work to secure the hierarchy between Israel and God by protecting masculinity and by communicating the value of submission.

In the biblical gender-bending stories, Israel’s women learn to submit to Israel’s men, and Israel’s men learn to submit to Israel’s male God. Deborah F. Sawyer makes a similar argument about the biblical narratives “that allow pre-eminence to particular women,” and in which “male characters can be denigrated to positions of powerlessness.”[7] Sawyer argues that the Bible destabilizes gender in these narratives “in order for the supreme manifestation of patriarchy—the power of the male god—to be triumphant and unchallenged.”[8]

Perhaps the best evidence to support my premise is the Bible’s first narrative in which gender norms are fixed, and the hierarchy is established between men and women, and between men and God. Adam and Eve’s story offers three distinct models for gender dynamics. In the first model (2:21-24), Adam and Eve enjoy a complementary, relatively non-hierarchical relationship. In the second (Gen 3:1-6), Eve assumes a position of authority over Adam. In the third (Gen 3:16-19), Adam assumes a position of authority over Eve. Though God and the Bible sanction the third model, the existence of the other two models suggests that a male-privileged gender hierarchy is not the only option for human society—or, for that matter, even the most natural, since it was the post-transgression default model.

The lessons to be learned from Adam and Eve’s story are fundamental to the Bible, and provide a lens through which to read other biblical gender-bending stories. In my reading, Adam and Eve’s story is about maintaining distinctions and securing a hierarchical relationship between men, women, and God. The social and the religious hierarchies clearly intertwine in this narrative. By obeying Eve, Adam disobeys God. Their story testifies that men and women are not interchangeable counterparts, as they were immediately after Eve’s birth.[9] Rather, men and women have distinct social roles to fill, and a social hierarchy to adhere to. From Eve’s transgression we learn that women should not assume authority over their husbands, as Eve did when she gave the fruit to Adam, and that women should not behave like God, as Eve did when she assessed and consumed the fruit.[10] From Adam’s transgression we learn that men should not obey women. Nor should they cling to women as Adam did to Eve.[11] Adam and Eve’s story teaches that women, men and God are distinct from one another, and that, in the hierarchical world constructed by this narrative, women must obey men, and men must obey and cling only to God.

Along with the other biblical gender-bending narratives, Eve and Adam’s story promotes the social hierarchy that privileges men and secures their authority, and ensures the religious hierarchy that privileges God and secures God’s authority. The Bible, I argue, is invested in the social hierarchy because it serves the religious hierarchy. It protects and privileges masculinity in society because it wants, above all, to protect and privilege God’s masculinity and authority. The social hierarchy that should exist between men and women mirrors the religious hierarchy that should exist between God and Israel. If the social hierarchy is compromised, as it is in Eve and Adam’s story, the religious hierarchy is also compromised. The Bible’s gender-bending stories protect the Bible’s preferred hierarchies by depicting a world in which both are threatened. The Bible wants men to behave like men, and women to behave like women. Above all, it wants women to submit to men, and men to submit to God.


[1] I adopt Judith Butler’s idea of gender performance. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 185.

[2] Harold C. Washington, “Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Hebrew Bible: A New Historicist Approach,” BI 5:4 (1997), p. 345.

[3] David J. A. Clines makes a similar point when he observes that male honor which “is essential for male identity,” is “a competitive matter.” See David J. A. Clines, “He-Prophets: Masculinity as a Problem for the Hebrew Prophets and their Interpreters,” in Sense and Sensitivity: Essays on Reading the Bible in Memory of Robert Carroll (eds. Alastair G. Hunter and Phillip R. Davies; London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 316.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:5 illustrates that gender determines behavior in the biblical world. See Harold Torger Vedeler’s analysis of this passage in “Reconstructing Meaning in Deuteronomy 22:5: Gender, Society, and Transvestitism in Israel,” JBL 127:3 (2008), pp. 459-476.

[5] I currently am working on a book that analyzes biblical narratives that present unconventional gender dynamics. Along with Genesis 2-3, I look at Judges 4; 13; 16, 1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 4, and the Isaac and Rebecca narratives found in Genesis. I also consider the gender identity of the prophet Jeremiah.

[6] Stuart Macwilliam, Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield and Oakville: Equinox, 2011), p. 45.

[7] Deborah F. Sawyer, “Biblical Gender Strategies: The Case of Abraham’s Masculinity,” in Gender, Religion and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (eds. Ursula King and Tina Beattie; London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), p. 163.

[8] Ibid., p. 164.

[9] Adam’s declaration in Gen 2:23 that “This one, now, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” makes it clear that the substance of “this one,” repeated three times in the verse, is the most like his own. Eve’s lack of a proper name at this point also indicates that Adam does not see her as an “other,” but rather as one that is barely distinct from his self.

[10] The phrase in Gen 3:6, “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating,” hearkens back to the first story of creation in which God observes what God created, and declares it to be good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

[11] Genesis 2:24 describes a man clinging [דבק] to his wife and becoming one flesh. The use of the verb דבק, to cling, is striking since the verb often describes how Israel clings intimately and whole-heartedly to God or to God’s commandments. See Deut 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 30:20.

Comments (4)

Thanks for this interesting article. This is well outside my area of study, so I'm hoping you can excuse what may be an obvious question.

Of the three social orders you note in Genesis, wouldn't the "very good" created order of gender equality be the most desirable, revealing God's intention for the creation?

In my reading of the text, I see the examples of women as champions pointing back to this ideal order. Tamar, Rahab, Deborah, Jael, Abigail, and Ruth all come to mind.

#1 - Sam Lufi - 06/17/2015 - 15:14

Sam, I think there is an argument that the "egalitarian" model is the ideal since it was established first both in Gen 2:22-23 and, arguably, in the first creation story in Gen 1:27. Phyllis Trible makes a similar observation. She suggests that the ideal is "restored" in the Song of Songs. Despite the fact that gender equality may be the ideal, it is not sustainable in the Bible's worldview. Whereas the women you mention are powerful figures, and many of them do defy gender norms and invert the gender hierarchy, I don't see them as champions for gender equality. My reading of their stories sees them more as agitators who defy norms ultimately to restore them. This is what I will be arguing in my book. Ruth may be the Bible's most interesting female figure. I offer a reading of her complex narrative in my book Dangerous Sisters.

#2 - Amy Kalmanofsky - 06/18/2015 - 13:14

What do you think of Barbara Walker's idea that the pre-monotheism, the Garden of Eden was the Garden of the Goddess? Pagan and pre-patriarchy?

#3 - Constance Anais - 07/02/2015 - 16:10

All I know is what we got! And I see/read the Garden of Eden narrative as a text concerned with establishing male authority. I don't see a prepatriarchal, goddess tradition within it.

#4 - Amy Kalmanofsky - 07/02/2015 - 18:02

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