MARK SAMETH/Pahichan – In the 1970s a cousin of mine, Paula Grossman, became one of the first people in America to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. As Paul Monroe Grossman, Cousin Paula had been a beloved music teacher in New Jersey. She was fired after her surgery, and she subsequently lost her lawsuit for wrongful termination based on sex discrimination (though a court did rule that she could receive a disability pension). The story was all over the news back then; I’d like to think it would have ended differently today.
Why would the Bible do this? These aren’t typos. In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person. Such a person was considered more “godlike.” In Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the gods were thought of as gender-fluid, and human beings were considered reflections of the gods. The Israelite ideal of the “nursing king” seems to have been based on a real person: a woman by the name of Hatshepsut who, after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, donned a false beard and ascended the throne to become one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.
The Israelites took the transgender trope from their surrounding cultures and wove it into their own sacred scripture. The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, 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.” Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.
It may come as a surprise that scientists view gender as anything other than a simple binary. But thousands of years ago, as a review of ancient literature makes clear, that truth was known. In court challenges, administrative directives and popular culture, the issue is playing out in real time, before our eyes. But behind the unfolding legal drama lies the reality of human nature: the fact that gender is not, nor has it ever been, a matter of “either/or.”