“It’s funny because I never much liked the Scriptures growing up. They always seemed boring. But during these late-night conversation they came alive and I saw people I had never seen before. Men and women and some not male, not female, something in the middle or altogether different.”
–Mary/Marcus, from “Transfigurations: Trangressing Gender in the Bible” (written & performed by Peterson Toscano; directed by Samuel Neff)
I too have transgressed with the Bible.
For some reason, our regular Sunday School classroom at the Evangelical Covenant Church was unavailable, so our high school class was meeting in the sanctuary, usually seen as a place too special and sacred for a high school class. In our best Sunday clothes, we awkwardly tried to form a circle, some of us facing backward in the immobile pews as we went through the day’s curriculum. We had been asked to read from our favorite chapter in the Bible. Others read Psalm 23, “For Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” or I Corinthians 13, “love is patient, love is kind.” But I claimed as my favorite, and read, Leviticus 18: “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.” I had no strong opinions on these commandments. I just thought it was funny to be able to read about gay sex and bestiality in the sanctuary. And no one could stop me, because, hey, it’s in the Bible.
Peterson Toscano transgresses with the Bible. As a Bible scholar and actor, Peterson takes stories of gender-non-conforming characters from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and brings them to life in a one-man performance. As the warrior/judge Deborah (from Judges 4-5) Peterson shows the diverse ways of being a woman in war. As Hegai, an official from the book of Esther, he introduces the in-between spaces eunuchs can occupy. He tells the story of Desta, the Ethiopian eunuch of color from Acts 8 who may have been the first baptized Gentile. From a single line about a man carrying a jug of water in the Last Supper story, he develops a rich story of violating gender norms at the heart of the gospel.
But most compelling to me was the story of the cross-dresser Joseph, told through the character of Joseph’s uncle, the manly-man Esau. Now, I’ve known the story of Joseph and his “coat of many colors” since I taught myself to read using Bible picture books. But it wasn’t until I encountered Peterson’s play that I learned the translation issues around the Hebrew phrase for the coat, “Ketonet Passim.” Peterson shows how the only other place that the word is used in the Hebrew Bible is in 2nd Samuel: “She was wearing an ornate robe [Ketonet Passim], for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.” After poking fun at stereotypical male Biblical scholars completely unable to determine the meaning of the term in the Joseph story, he shows how reading “the coat of many colors” instead as a “princess dress” is a possibility we must consider:
“If you have any intellectual integrity you have to admit that one possible interpretation is that Jacob gave his son this female garment…it doesn’t have to be the only interpretation; it doesn’t have to be the one that you agree with, but it needs to be on the table, because it’s in the text.”
But what does it mean to transgress? To transgress with, in, for, or against the Bible?
Lord knows I’m no Biblical scholar, but when I look up “transgress” in a Bible encyclopedia, I get this definition: “passing over or beyond any law, civil or moral; the violation of a law or known principle of rectitude; breach of command; fault; offense; crime; sin.” The word appears about 100 times in the Bible, represented by the Hebrew “pasha” in the Old Testament, and the Greek “parabasis” in the New. And unlike the cool and edgy connotations the term gained in social theory texts of the last 25 years, every instance is negative. Transgressing in the Bible is something that you avoid, ask forgiveness from, or wish your neighbors would stop doing. It is willfully breaking God’s law. It is unquestionably bad.
This was the moral binary I learned in the sanctuary and Sunday school rooms of my youth. God’s law is God’s law, and breaking it is bad. But I had trouble squaring this binary with the realities of me and my peers. I saw bad people be good and good people be bad. I saw good done for bad reasons and bad done for good. I saw situations with no good responses, and saw that some people had easier paths to good than others. I did my part to question these categories. What was good and what was bad? What law was God and what was man’s? And I found an unlikely ally in my struggles: the Bible itself, both Old and New Testaments. Yes, there were moral absolutes laid out in the text, but we only paid attention to a handful of these. The characters I experienced in the Bible, on the other hand, they struggled with these questions of what was good and what was bad, which laws were of men and which were of God.
So Peterson Toscano’s queering of the gender binary by inhabiting Biblical characters is meaningful for me. Yes, “male and female they made them” is in the Bible, but so are manly women and feminine men, cross-dressing patriarchs and eunuch officials. Yet, conspicuously absent from Peterson’s performance is the main gender-non-conforming character in the Bible, the main character in the Christian biblical story: Jesus. For Jesus did not marry and reproduce children, in a culture that expected such from real men. Jesus spent his time with a bunch of young men, telling them how he loved them. In a world that expected him to solve problems with a sword, he gave the unmanly message of submission and gave up his body without a fight.
Are beloved Biblical characters queer? Is the Bible trans? Are the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures subversive texts undermining the gender binary? These don’t have to be the only questions, they don’t have to be the ones that you ask, but as Peterson Toscano’s “Transfigurations” shows, they need to be on the table–because they’re in the text.
Erik Hanson, a contributing editor of KtB, was once the religion editor at AltaMira Press, but then he was laid off. He taught Math and English at a K-8 Quaker School but then he was laid off from there. He currently advises Anthropology majors at the University of Maryland, where he has not yet been laid off, although he is expecting furloughs.