Monday, August 30, 2010

Gender Reversal and Sacred Mystery

Long before Structuralism, people recognized a binary feature in the order of creation. Jacques Derrida explored this extensively and noted that in narratives when a gender reversal takes place, the other becomes the dominant voice. Normally, the dominant voice is that of the Male Principle, but when the reversal takes place, the Female Principle is in action. There are many examples of this in the Old Testament.

Claude Levi-Strauss did not invent something with Structuralism. He studied primitive people groups and found that their worldview involved binary sets. His book "The Raw and the Cooked" presents this feature of archaic thought. Both Levi-Strauss and Derrida were exploring "something older" than civilization.

Alice C. Linsley

Genesis 3:15 is one of the most mysterious and fascinating verses in Genesis, if not in the entire Bible. It is here that we find the first suggestion that a savior will be born of “the woman”. We note, as did the Church Fathers, that this is not Eve, as Eve is not named until verse 20 (five verses later).

יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב
He will crush you a head and you will crush us a heel

The verb root שׁוּף means "to crush." The prefix י identifies the subject of the verb as the third person, masculine, singular (he) and the tense of the verb as imperfect indicates action yet to be completed (he will crush). The suffix ך identifies the object of the verb as second person, masculine, singular (you). So, this word would be translated as "he will crush you” and the message is directed to the serpent.

The prefix ת identifies the subject of the verb as second person, masculine, singular (you) and the tense of the verb as imperfect (you will crush). The suffix נוּ identifies the object of the verb as third person, singular (him). So, this word would be translated as "you will crush him".

In the Vulgate, St. Jerome rendered Genesis 3:15: Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem, et semen tuum et semen illius: ipsa conteret caput tuum, et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius.

I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring. She will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.”

Jerome gives “ipsa” which is a feminine pronoun. Later this was changed to “he will crush” in accordance with the other Church Fathers. The appearance of the feminine pronoun in Genesis 3:15 has led some Roman Catholics to find an elevated role for Mary, as seen in images of Mary standing on the globe with the serpent under her feet. Other Catholics recognize that this is not about Mary but is instead the first biblical reference to Christ’s passion whereby He defeats the Devil and tramples down death by His death. This second interpretation fits the trajectory of the entire Bible which is about the fulfillment of the Edenic Promise.

It is apparent that the Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous. This is another example of how the binary distinctions function in the Bible. Gender reversals occur where there is a mystery calling us to delve more deeply into the matter. This is what Cornelius a Lapide recognized in the 17th century in his Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram.  Here he resolved the problem of the verb in the masculine (yashuph, conteret, or crush) citing the interplay of gender in Hebrew: the masculine being used in place of the feminine and vice-versa when there is some mystery, anomaly or singularity. Lapide wrote, “frequent exchange of gender in Hebrew: the masculine being used in place of the feminine and vice-versa, especially when there is present some cause or mystery.” 

What we have here is an indication that the Creator condescends to grant to the lesser a greater role. So it is that a young maiden, from the least of the tribes of Israel, should become the "unwedded Bride" of God and the ever-virgin Mother of Christ our God.

The date nut palm is called a "tamar" and many high-status
women of the Old Testament had this name.
Among Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors, the cure for sterility
was to place a date from the tamar in the vagina of the barren women.
The split tamar coconut (above) resembles the vagina.
Gender reversals are also seen in the demarcation of sacred centers. Sacred centers are indicated by their placement between two holy places. The moreh who Abraham consulted at Mamre and the prophetess Deborah are positioned on opposite polar axes. Genesis 12: 6-8, tells us that Abraham pitched his tent at the oak of the moreh or prophet. This oak was at the sacred center between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. The oak was associated with masculine anatomy and masculine virtues. Deborah judged from her tamar which was at the sacred center between Bethel to the north and Ramah to the south. The nut of the date palm (shown above) was associated with feminine anatomy and feminine virtues.

So we see that the masculine is associated with the east-west axis and the feminine with the north-south axis. A reversal of these would invite us to investigate the anomaly. Likewise the reversal of gender in Genesis 3:15, invites us to investigate the singular promise that was made in Eden.

Related reading: Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; The Importance of Binary Distinctions; Something Older; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions; Trees in Genesis


Ron said...

How accurately does map the locations of Ai, Bethel and Ramah?

Alice C. Linsley said...

The positions of Ai and Bethel appear to be fairly accurate. These are the positions shown on most Bible maps.

Ramah is shown directly south of Bethel at, but on most Bible maps Ramah is shown more to the southwest.

There is a need for cartographic accuracy when studying the Bible. In the case of gender reversal the disprepancy doesn't change the meaning. Ai and Bethel are on an east-west axis and Bethel and Ramah are on a north-south axis.

Of further interest is the reversal of polarity represented by the names Ai and Bethel. Bethel, meaning House of God, would have been associated with the East, the place where the Sun appears to rise. Ai was a great Canaanite city and religious shrine during Abraham's time but was later a heap of ruins (Hebrew meaning of Ai). The name Ai is suggestive of "Aimah" which represents Mother or the feminine principle in Jewish mysticism. The Creator and his emblem the Sun were regarded as masculine. So what we have here is a suggestion of the reversal of gender with Mother moving to the pole associated with Father and Father moving to the pole associated with Mother. This reversal puts the feminine principle in motion. The femiinine principle is characterized by marriage and reproduction. This is significant because it is after meeting with the prophet at the oak between Ai and Bethel that Abraham heads south (the pole associated with marriage and reproduction). See Gen. 12:9. It is probably at this time that he married his patrilineal cousin Keturah, by whom he had 6 sons. Now with 2 wives, one in Hebron (Sarah) and one in Beer-sheva (Keturah,) Abraham is prepared to establish a territory for himself.

Anonymous said...

This is truly an amazing analyses. You have cracked the code of symbology written in the discourse on humanity. The Bible tells us what we need to know when we understand the language of symbols. Thank you for sharing your profound understanding.
Susan B.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thanks, Susan. I appreciate your work also and encourage you to continue to make contributions in Biblical Anthropology.