In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared revisit their discussion with Megan DeFranza about what it means to be intersex, what the Bible has to say about gender, and how we can responsibly shape our theology in ways that include everyone as they explore the following questions:
- What is intersex?
- What’s the difference between being intersex and transgender?
- How has the church thought differently about sex and gender throughout history?
- What got Megan DeFranza interested in gender and sex difference?
- What does Augustine’s City of God have to say about intersex folks?
- What does Jesus have to say about sex difference and gender?
- Why is it important to look at the whole Bible (not just Genesis) to develop our ideas about sex and gender?
- What does the Bible say about people who do not fit into the sex or gender binary?
- What do ancient rabbis have to say about gender?
- How does the Bible continually push for inclusion?
- What sort of things has Megan DeFranza seen people in the church afraid of when it comes to sex difference?
- What do eunuchs tell us about the understanding of gender and sex difference in biblical times?
- What is faithful improvisation?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Megan DeFranza you can share.
- “It doesn’t say, ‘God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall’ and yet that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make.” @MKDeFranza
- “We’re not called to be first century Christians in Rome, or in Corinth, or in Ephesus; we’re called to be twenty-first century Christians living where we live.” @MKDeFranza
- “I think we’re afraid of being outsiders ourselves.” @MKDeFranza
- “You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful. It doesn’t work like that.” @MKDeFranza
- “If we’re not already having these conversations in our churches you will be next year or the year after that.” @MKDeFranza
- “We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that often times we do nothing.” @MKDeFranza
- “We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.” @MKDeFranza
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God
- Book: City of God
- Book: The New Testament and the People of God
- Website: Megan DeFranza
- Website: Intersex and Faith
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the Bible for Normal People.
Before we jump in, just want to remind you that we have a campaign going on. We’re trying to shoot for 1,611 patrons. One, we want to keep the podcast ad-free, but two, we want to be able to transcribe this podcast just so that people can have more access, people who need access and also people who just want that access.
We’ve had that request over and over. We want to be able to provide that, not only into the future and all future episodes, but we want to go back into the archive and transcribe all of those episodes as well.
If you feel so inclined, head to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.
Speaking of archives, today, you’re in for a treat. We’re looking back at Season One with Megan DeFranza, the Bible and Intersex Believers. This is one of my favorite episodes from Season One and frankly, one of the favorite episodes that we’ve done. A lot of appreciation for Megan’s insights. I hope you enjoy this.
The Bible and Intersex Believers.[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hello everybody! Welcome to the Bible for Normal People
podcast. Our topic today is the Bible
and Intersex Believers and our guest is Megan DeFranza. She is a theologian and she’s currently
serving as a visiting researcher at Boston University School of Theology. That’s pretty impressive, folks. Don’t know if I have to tell you that, but it
She’s written a wonderful book to sex difference in Christian theology. This topic, the Bible and Intersex Believers, what does that even mean? Megan’s gonna help us understand that. I know I can speak for myself and for Jared a little bit. I’m 56 years old. When I was in high school, this wasn’t even on the radar.
Last year, this wasn’t on my radar screen. It wasn’t until Megan came to speak at Eastern University where I teach, where she’s talking and I was like, “Oh. I didn’t know any of this. It’s really interesting. It affects people’s lives in ways that I can’t even imagine.”
Jared: After she spoke at Eastern, Pete was telling me about it over dinner and I had to talk with her. I got on the phone right after that and said, “What is this that you’re doing [laughter]? I don’t understand.” It is just very fascinating, so I was just really excited to have her on the podcast and just explain it, even for me to better understand.
Pete: Right. It’s one of these issues that is all around us in the sense that it can be somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable and even divisive among people because you have to engage the Bible at some point. That’s exactly what Megan does. All she does is engage the Bible and the history of the interpretation of the Bible and theology and all those—
Jared: The ancient church.
Pete: —the ancient church and ancient readings of biblical text to show a rather surprising story that intersex is not a new issue. People have been thinking about that and commenting on it for a long time.
For us, today, people like me and Jared, for who it’s new, where we’ve been, we were never taught this in seminary. I never really thought through it and never had to, because it wasn’t brought to my attention.
This is an issue, like other issues (for example, gender equality or same-sex marriage), it’s so potentially volatile, it actually forces you to go back and re-examine your own thinking, your own theology and the biblical text. You actually can’t get around that once you start listening to people who actually know the topic, how much there is in the Bible that can help us think through some of these kinds of issues that sometimes lay buried or sidelined, because it’s not where we are.
We come at the Bible with our questions already premade. What these issues do is they force us to ask different kinds of questions we would never have thought up on our own.
Jared: And unearths our assumptions. I appreciate how when you look at the Bible through a particular lens, it helps you understand that you’ve been making assumptions all along that you didn’t even know.
Pete: Right. Right.
Jared: Good. Let’s have this conversation with Megan.[Jaunty Music]
Megan: We’ve done our theological reflection. We’ve done our biblical study, only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female. That’s not good enough. We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.
We haven’t done that yet. Let’s start a new conversation.
Jared: Welcome to the podcast, Megan. It’s very nice to have you.
Megan: Thanks so much for having me.
Jared: The topic today is the Bible and the Intersex Believer. This term, neither Pete nor I had ever really come into contact with that term before we met you, Megan, last year or a few years ago.
Bring us up to speed on what it is we’re talking about—
Pete: If we don’t know what it is, nobody knows about this—
Jared: Clearly. Clearly—
Pete: That’s the way I look at it. Enlighten us all—
Megan: That’s really common. The reason it’s new is because it’s a fairly new term for a very old phenomenon. Intersex is just a broad umbrella term that talk about bodies that don’t fit the medical definitions of male and female. There’s a mix of male and female characteristics in the same body and that can happen in a lot of different ways.
Jared: What would be some common things, just concrete examples of—
Jared: —where this term might be appropriate for people?
Megan: Yeah. One of the most common kinds of intersex is something called androgen insensitivity. You have a baby that’s born with XY chromosomes, which is your typical male pattern and they make the gonads, which are neutral in the first few weeks of gestation, go and become testes and starts secreting the typical level of male hormones.
But, at the cellular level, the cells can’t process those male hormones. The body defaults to female. On the inside, it looks like male anatomy and on the outside, it looks like female anatomy. That’s a fairly common kind of intersex.
You can also have the opposite with XX chromosomes and ovaries, with extra production, or higher-than-typical production of androgens that can make a female body look more masculine or anywhere in-between. Something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia. All these fancy medical terms, which is why we use the generic “intersex” most of the time.
Pete: Thank you. [laughter] Yeah.
That’s very helpful to distinguish intersex from other terms that float around like—
Pete: —the alphabet soup. Right?
Pete: This is something that is a new term that people are maybe beginning to see and maybe come to terms with, for the sake of a population that probably feels, I would imagine, rather isolated and misunderstood.
Megan: An older term would be hermaphrodite or androgyne. But those are mythological creatures that have full sets of male and female anatomy, which is humanly impossible, which is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from that language towards stuff that’s more precise, to the particular variations of individual people.
Pete: You’ve written a wonderful and tremendously scholarly and well-researched book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and you have a website that is just very informative. It’s a wonderful thing to visit if people—if you want to know anything, folks, that’s where you go.
To me, it raises a question of curiosity. What is it in your life that is driving you to be passionate and supportive of the intersex community?
Megan: I started this work because I grew up in a very conservative church, where being a woman with a mind was a problem. I started studying gender and sex difference and biblical scholarship and history and all of that, to try and figure out how I could serve God and not sin, because I happened to have a female body.
That led me to research, to talk about, that there are not just male and female in the world, that there are all these intersex variations as well.
It was hearing those stories, the stories of individuals, particularly recent medical history, where with our advanced technology, we here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, have tried to fix intersex. Doctors come in to a baby that is born with ambiguous genitalia. They’ll say, “We can figure this out.” They’ll do plastic surgery on the genitals of a child to make them look more typically male and female.
These surgeries have lasting harm, pain for life, for many many people. Hearing their stories of physical pain, of feeling unsafe to share their stories in their own faith communities, pastors saying, “Thanks for telling me, but please don’t tell anybody else,” really drove me to realize that my questions about gender and my frustrations as a woman in the church were small in comparison with my intersex siblings in Christ, who had all of these added complications.
It was really hearing their stories that led me to say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”
Jared: As we get into the topic, it’s just interesting to me the contrast that some of our listeners will have where you’re using lots of medical terms and you’re talking about the technology and the science of a lot of things here.
How does that connect with the Bible for Normal People? Say more about how your story coincides as you became aware of all of this within the church community. When did you start thinking about how the Bible fits into all this?
Megan: For me, the Bible was the place I started. Reading scriptures about women’s place in the church led me to go back and look at history and realize that in Christian history, we’ve thought about gender differences very differently over the last 2,000 years, since the birth of Christ.
Getting into that history, the history of biblical interpretation, really was the thing that moved me to say, “Wait a minute. If we’ve thought about this differently in the past, that gives us opportunity to think differently and maybe in fresh ways in the present about differences that, actually, the ancient church was quite familiar with, but we’ve lost that language and knowledge, even though our science is more sophisticated.”
Pete: Can you give an example or two? I can imagine people listening, saying, “What are you talking about [laughter]—
Pete: —we’re just having this conversation about gender and we thought what we think today is what people have always thought,” which is a typical response, “what I think is what the church has always thought.”
You’re saying it’s more diverse and very early on—
Megan: St. Augustine, in the City of God, talks about hermaphrodites. He says, “As for hermaphrodites, also called androgynes, they’re certain very rare, but every culture has people that they don’t know how to classify as male or female. In our culture, we call them by the better sex. We call them men.”
Megan: Here’s Augustine saying, “Oh yeah. Everybody knows about hermaphrodites. We assign them on the masculine side.” In the ancient world in Rome and Greece, there were laws for men and laws for women and laws for hermaphrodites and laws for other categories of people that we’ll talk about as we continue here.
Pete: With Augustine, for example, he lived around when?
Megan: He lives in the third, fourth century in the Christian Era.
Pete: That’s a long time ago, right—
Megan: It is.
Pete: Was there a tone of judgment in reading Augustine about what we call intersex or was he just matter-of-fact about it?
Megan: In that passage, he’s very matter-of-fact, actually—
Megan: —just stating a fact that everyone’s aware of.
Pete: Not freaked about it.
Megan: Not freaked out. He’s much more concerned about castrated eunuchs and their place and pagan religious cults. He speaks very harshly of them. But he’s very matter-of-fact and fairly neutral when it comes to hermaphrodites—
Jared: You say “neutral.” It’s interesting to me—what I heard you say and maybe I misheard—“we have this category of people and we as a community assign them to the male side of things.” Actually, it seems like there’s some social consequences to that. It would be a more of a place of privilege at that point.
Megan: Right. For hermaphrodites, Augustine is giving them the male privilege, whereas, it’s interesting—castrated men, men who had their testes or crushed or cut off or birth and who developed differently or who maybe did that later on in life, he says of them, that they are “no longer men,” even though they were born whole.
Pete: That’s confusing.
Megan: Yeah. Sure is. [laughter]
Pete: Just to fill things out for the benefit of people listening, can you point to something else that might be instructive for us, another example or two from this ancient church period or from other cultures, perhaps?
Megan: Certainly, in the Jewish culture, there was a recognition of more than male or female. The ancient rabbis came up with four additional categories between male and female.
One was a naturally-born eunuch, which they classified more on the masculine side, but not all the way over to the male.
They have another term, called the ilonite (SP?), which was toward the feminine side, but not always to the edge.
They also used the term androgenos for someone whose right in the middle. They didn’t know how to classify them one way or the other.
They had a fourth term, which was really something they said, “We’re not sure what we’re dealing with now, but we’re pretty sure their sex will become clear over time.”
They developed laws and rituals, religious laws to govern these various persons and would debate those throughout the centuries.
Jared: Tying it to the Bible itself; we have the ancient church and we have this Jewish tradition, where Augustine and the rabbis recognized different categories, often the argument or the conversation when it comes to the Bible goes back to Genesis.
Jared: It is “God created them male and female.”
Jared: How does that square with this conversation?
Megan: That’s where we all start, right? This is where it’s important to recognize that the Bible’s a big book and that Genesis is not the whole of the story.
Certainly, we have the beginning. God creates them male and female in God’s image and blesses them that way. But does that mean that’s all God created or all God intended?
Now that we have this other language that I just mentioned from the ancient rabbis, we can look for other language in Scripture and that’s what I was so delighted to find in my research is actually none other than Jesus speaks about intersex people with one of these categories that the rabbis mention in Matthew Chapter 19, verse 12, where he’s being asked about whether or not, you can divorce your wife if she burns the toast.
He’s being asked to weigh in on this ancient debate about how bad does the infraction have to be for you to divorce your wife.
Jesus quotes Genesis 1. He says, “Don’t you remember God made them male and female.” He quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Then his disciples say, “Well, if we can’t get out of marriage, maybe we shouldn’t get into it, since our parents are typically choosing a spouse for us.”
Jesus says, “No. No. No. You’re not understanding what I’m saying. There are those who’ve been eunuchs from birth. There are those who’ve been made eunuchs by others. There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
I like to say, “Let anyone accept this who has any idea what Jesus is talking about.” [laughter]
The church has debated, “What does this mean? What did it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom?”
We know a lot about the second category. That’s the castrated men that I just mentioned, very common slaves and very expensive slaves, luxury items, status symbols and sometimes even sex slaves in the ancient world. Castrati were very very common. We know a lot about that.
This first category, the eunuch from birth, Jesus’ is drawing on this ancient rabbinic of the eunuch, of the sun as it is in Hebrew, from the day the sun first shone upon the child, we knew this one is different.
Here’s Jesus, in the context of talking about divorce and certainly affirming Genesis, he throws in these other categories and he doesn’t do it with any criticism and he doesn’t say, “But God didn’t mean for it to be this way.” He just lays it out there.
That pushed me to think, “How do we take Genesis and give it its place in the cannon at the beginning, but also recognize that we have to find a way to read Genesis in a way that fits with these words of Jesus?” So how do we do that?
That’s what I was—
Pete: This is beyond, then, that all parts of the Bible are equally ultimate and we read verses and they tell you what to think. You’re actually describing a dynamism in the Bible that we have to take all this into account somehow and make, not to put words in your mouth, but to make theological decisions on the basis of this grand conversation that’s happening in the Bible. Is that a fair way of putting it?
Megan: The theological decisions are how to interpret the description that God made male and female. It doesn’t say, “God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall.” Yet, that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make. “If there’s not male and female, then anything else must be a result of sin.”
Jesus doesn’t do that in Matthew Chapter 19. The text doesn’t tell us that. That’s a theological reading we’re bringing to the passage. Does it say that?
I asked, “Are there ways that we can read Genesis that make it fit with the words of Jesus and with the larger canon all together?” I think that there are ways that we can. We could read Adam and Eve as the parents at the beginning of the story, rather than the pattern for all people.
Megan: We could read them as the statistical majority. Most people are clearly male or clearly female. But just because they are the statistical majority doesn’t mean they are the exclusive model or the only way that God allows humans to be born.
Megan: When we look at other parts of Genesis 1, we recognize that there are all sorts of things that aren’t named in the creation account. There are three different types of animals. There are the “fish of the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth.”
These are the three categories of animals that God creates. But we all know that there are creatures that don’t fit into those categories. Penguins are birds that don’t fly. There are other things in the sea other than fish. There are things that crawl, but they live in the water. There are amphibians that are both water and land animals.
But I’ve never heard an Old Testament scholar like yourself, Pete, say, “Hey look. Frogs. They’re proof of the fall,” [laughter] because they don’t fit into the three categories of creatures—
Pete: Hey. That’s my next blog post. That’s my next blog post. [unintelligible]—
Megan: You’re welcome.
Pete: What you’re saying is exactly right. I think the response would be, “In the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, when you have clean and unclean animals, some of these in-between things, “You don’t eat lobster.” They’re sea animals, but they also have legs. They don’t fit. They’re unclean. You don’t eat them.
This is something I can imagine people, as sort of a counterpoint to what you’re saying, to draw on that. How might you navigate that particular issue?
Megan: The canon gives us the way to do that too. Even if we see them as outsiders. Lobsters are outsiders. Bees are outsiders. Frogs are outsiders. Maybe this other category of people who don’t fit into male and female. Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have, laws for men and laws for women and it doesn’t leave a lot of place for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.
But fast-forward up to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 56, he talks about two categories of outsiders, one being the eunuch and the other being foreigners, Gentiles. They’re complaining, “Hey God, it’s not all that easy to be a eunuch or a Gentile and live in ancient Israel. The system isn’t set up for us.”
God says, through the prophet Isaiah to them, in Isaiah 56, “Don’t let the eunuchs complain that I’m only a dry tree. For to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and obey me,” and there’s a long list of things, “I will give to them within my house a name, an everlasting name that’s better than sons and daughters, a name that will not be cutoff.”
Then he speaks to the foreigners and says that they’re offerings will be accepted on his altar for “my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples, “ (Isaiah 56:8), which we’re much more familiar with. That’s in the context of God folding in outsiders, who didn’t fit in earlier chapters of the story.
But God is saying, “Don’t worry. I’m going to give you a place.” He doesn’t say to the eunuch, “I’m going to heal you and make you into the categories I intended, either male and female.” He says, “I’m going to give you something better than sons and daughters. I’m going to bless you in a way that a Jewish man or a Jewish woman could ever imagine being blessed. I’m going to give you an everlasting name.”
Pete: No talk about eunuchs being a product of the fall any more than foreigners would be—
Pete: —a product of the fall. There’s nothing in Isaiah—I’m just curious now because I haven’t studied this as closely as you have—but there’s no indication there of how they came to be eunuchs.
Megan: That’s the challenge is that intersex is this broad umbrella term for many different bodily variations. This term eunuch was an umbrella term for many different things. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. Does this mean a castrated eunuch? Does this mean a natural eunuch? Is this a position in the court? We have to do careful scholarship to see what they’re talking about. It’s not particularly clear in Isaiah and yet, [MUSIC STARTS] there is this idea that however these people came to be eunuchs, God’s blessing them as they are, not requiring them to become something they’re not and healing them into some creational category that we find in Genesis Chapter One and Two.
24:50 (Producer’s Group Endorsement)
Jared: That’s a really good point. One thing I’m thinking as you guys are talking about the categories and we keep coming back to the words and how that there’s different variations—I want to make sure that we’re being clear—how is intersex different than say transgender which is becoming more and more a conversation, politically and otherwise? What’s the difference and where does that fit in this conversation?
Megan: Sure. Right now, the only difference between intersex and transgender people is that transgender people cannot point to a medical diagnosis. I know trans people who have said, “I wish I were intersex, because then people wouldn’t think I’m crazy.” They would be able to say, “Oh no. Some of their cells are XY. Some of their cells have just one X. No wonder they’re body is developing differently or their gender identity is developing differently.” They don’t have that luxury.
There are some intersex people whose experience is like that of a trans person. I work with LeeAnn Simon, who’s a wonderful Christian woman and author and she has what I just described. Some of her cells are XY. Some have just one X. Her gonads are part ovarian tissue, part testicular tissue.
At puberty, she didn’t develop one way or the other and chose to, though she was identified as a boy at birth, it wasn’t a fit for her, as an adult, chose to identify as female and to live, to transition. Her experience is intersex, but it also could be understood as transgender. That’s not the majority of intersex experiences.
Sometimes, these terms overlap and sometimes, they don’t. We have to be [unintelligible]—
Jared: Where they don’t, what I hear you saying is there’s not a chromosomal or biological thing that you can pinpoint.
Megan: At this point, where our science is. It may be that as neuroscience advances, we will be able to pinpoint other things, but we can’t at this point.
Jared: Good. I think that’s an important piece of the conversation, that we don’t—
Jared: [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.
Pete: Megan, you’ve thought so much about this. We’ve talked about Augustine a little bit and rabbis and Jesus’ own words. And Genesis and how that all fits into this. And Isaiah. People still come back to Genesis. Because it’s first, it’s therefore determinative of everything else.
Pete: You don’t think that. Help people walk through why it’s okay not to think that. It’s at the beginning of the Bible.
Pete: You get this wrong, you get everything else wrong. Plus, it’s all good.
Megan: Right. Exactly. It is important and it does set the stage for the beginning of God’s great redemptive story. But it’s not the whole of the story. I see its pride of place is as the opening chapters. But, at the end of the story, we find a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation where people are included in the worshipping community who don’t fit in the garden.
Here I’m thinking of Revelation Chapter 7, where there’s a great multitude worshipping before the Lamb from every tribe, and nation and language, people group. If we think about Genesis, we don’t have multiple tribes. We don’t have racial difference in the Garden of Eden. We don’t have different languages represented at the beginning. There are many ways in which this story that starts with these two ends up in full, moving through Adam and Noah and Abraham and all the way through and then folding in the Gentiles and folding in others.
It’s a story that gets bigger and wider and God’s redemptive love goes out. He blesses the Israelites so that they could be a blessing to all the nations. It’s this narrow story through these few for the benefit of all, which is why I think we see many things in the book of Revelation that echo things in the Garden.
There are trees in the beginning and at the end. But they are not the same trees. It’s important that we don’t think that we’re trying to get back to the Garden of Eden. Yes. It has pride of place at the beginning of God’s story. But it seems like God’s story gets bigger and more complicated, but also more beautiful and more welcoming than what it is in the first chapters.
Pete: It’s like the Garden reimagined at the end of the Bible—
Megan: Yeah. It is.
Pete: You’re not actually returning to the Garden. It’s metaphorical language anyway.
Pete: It’s something that is meant to evoke those memories, but then also to go beyond that to something that—
Megan: It’s called new, right? It’s called new creation—
Pete: It’s new. Right. Right.
Megan: It’s not paradise lost and regained, like we’re trying to get back. It’s a new—God is doing something new at the end of this grand story that is going to have some continuity with what came before and some differences.
Jared: I appreciate, Megan, what you said about the—you talk about Isaiah and as the story unfolds, it’s interesting that we may start with a garden, but this narrative of inclusivity, of folding more and more people in, really starts just a few chapters later with the start of Israel, with Abraham’s story.
Jared: Then, from there, we just start including more. I just appreciated the point about how Israel was then adopted to be a blessing. Through that, the blessing is this inclusivity. It’s interesting, in this conversation, that early on in the prophetic literature of Isaiah, that the eunuchs are included pretty early in on that conversation before even—
Megan: You know what’s even more radical than that? If we look at Acts Chapter 8, at the first foreigner whose baptized?
Pete: You took the words right out of my mouth. Go ahead. [laughter] Let’s talk about the Ethiopian eunuch—
Megan: Yeah. Exactly. This is the Ethiopian who is a eunuch, who is the very fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, that as the gospel is going out from Judea, through Samaria to the utter ends of the earth, as Jesus said to His disciples at the end of the book of Matthew, and we see these significant baptisms in the book of Acts. The first foreigner whose baptized is an Ethiopian eunuch, whose made this many-hundred-mile trek to Jerusalem to worship. Even though he’s an outsider on many levels, he knows there’s only so close he can get to God.
There’s the Holy of Holies. There’s the Court of Men. Outside of that is the Court of Women. Outside of that, is the Court of Gentiles. There’s only so close you can get to God as a Gentile and as a eunuch. He knows that, but he goes anyway.
As he’s reading the prophet, Isaiah, God sends Phillip to him to interpret the Scriptures, to open them and to share with them the good news of Jesus. This Ethiopian eunuch says to Phillip, “Look, here’s water. Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”
I have read that passage my whole life, but until I studied the place of eunuchs in the ancient world, I never understood the significance of that question.
Pete: Right. Right.
Megan: Here he’s asking, “What’s my place gonna be if I follow this rabbi Jesus?
Megan: Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?
Megan: Is there a place for me in this new community? I’m just so frustrated that we don’t have the answer given to Acts. [laughter] We don’t know what Phillip said. But we know that one of them commanded the chariot to stop. They both got out of the chariot and Phillip baptized him.
Pete: I’ve always read that instinctively, “Is anything preventing me from getting baptized?” as “We’ve got some time on our hands. Let’s just do this now.” Not like they’re actually socio-cultural-religious—there’s a matrix there of this.
Maybe the Bible’s surprisingly not uptight. [laughter] Go figure.
Megan: God does tend to surprise us at every turn.
Jared: I’m wondering—I was just thinking about this connection, this phrase of “foreigners and eunuchs” and how that goes throughout the Bible. In some ways, do you feel like “foreigners” is clearly throughout the Bible representative of the marginalized throughout, as we get to the Gentiles and others. Is “eunuchs” also—I’m channeling my upbringing where I want to take that literally, “I’m willing to—you raise some good points, Megan—I’m gonna allow for eunuchs as part of this, but now, I’m going to still exclude others, because it doesn’t say it literally and specifically.
Is there a case to be made in terms of reading and how we read the Bible for taking foreigners and eunuchs as almost representative of this is a narrative of inclusion. You can’t really accept the eunuchs and exclude transgender people. You can’t really take this group and exclude that group, because it’s really representative of this radical inclusion.
What would you say?
Megan: First, I would say that in some ways, Gentle or foreigner is not category of the marginalized, if you think just statistically.
Jared: Right. Right.
Megan: Everyone who’s not a Jew is a foreigner.
Jared: They’re usually the majority.
Megan: Right. Throughout Israel’s history, they were oppressed by these majority—
Megan: —communities, so they were the minority. You could really read that two different ways. But definitely, with the eunuchs, we’re talking about people who have been oppressed in many different ways and excluded in many different ways.
Even though the rabbis made space for naturally-born eunuchs, castrated eunuchs couldn’t go to worship in ancient Israel. Naturally-born eunuchs could. But they, in some ways, had a double religious duty, because the rabbis are pulling from the laws for men and the laws for women and wanting to make sure all of their bases are covered.
They are this minority group has more to do and it’s harder for them. I do think that category is one that certainly stands for the outside and the marginalized and those have been excluded, whose voices haven’t been heard, who’ve been considered unclean and not welcome in the worshipping community.
Pete: Let me ask you a question here, Megan. I want to try to articulate this clearly. Following on what Jared just said about eunuchs and the poor and the oppressed, marginalized peoples, you see in Isaiah and then in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and Acts 8, you see a hint, a trajectory of—
Pete: I want to ask you if you agree with this. If yes, great. If not, fine. Tell me why. It seems like the New Testament itself is not the end of the story. It’s trajectories. That’s an important thing to talk about for people who take the Bible seriously.
Pete: The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—
Pete: —that is also moving, right? And so—
Pete: I gather you’re agreeing with that, so regalias on your opinion [laughter].
Megan: It’s not—I was helped in this regard. I remember in seminary reading N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God, where he likens the Bible to five acts in a Shakespearean play, where the fifth act is unfinished. He sees creation as Act One; the fall as Act Two; Israel, Act Three; Jesus is Act Four; and the Act Five is the Church.
We have only the first few pages of the script in the New Testament, but we are not—we are called to finish the story. We’re called to live our parts. We’re not called to be First Century Christians in Rome or in Corinth or in Ephesus. We’re called to be 21st Century Christians living where we live.
We’re not trying to get back to Ancient Israel. He keeps saying, “If we’re going to put on this play,” back to the analogy with Shakespeare, “we’re not just going to repeat lines from an earlier part of the story. We’re going to study the whole story. We’re going to see the direction it’s going. We’re going to pick up on those hints that you just mentioned. If we’re going to put on this play, we’re going to have to improv.” He uses this term, “faithful improvisation,” where we’re trying to see where the story is going and how do we live in—
Megan: —our part faithfully, yet without a script.
Pete: I would add to that Fifth Act, analogously, is that you see that in the Bible anyway because people are winging it. [laughter]
Pete: That’s not a bad way of putting it. In the Old Testament, you have shifts and changes and new perspectives on things. It seems inescapable. To help people to say, “It’s okay to think responsibly and theologically and biblically today about an issue that maybe we have to address in different ways than previous generations.”
Megan: We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that oftentimes, we do nothing. We give the apostles permission to think creatively. We give Calvin and Luther permission to think creatively, to do something different. But we rarely give ourselves permission—
Pete: Why is that? What are we afraid of—
Megan: —to do what they did.
Pete: We should get a therapist [laughter]. What do you think? You’ve experienced these things. What—
Pete: —are people afraid of?
Jared: In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—
Jared: —what are fears that you find?
Megan: There’s so much censure in our communities, right? If you put a toe out of line, there’s shame that’s brought on by the community. There’s exclusion. All of these things. We don’t want that. We don’t want to put on the outside. We don’t want to be cast out like these outsiders. We better keep in line. We better follow the script. We better recite the confession in whatever version it’s in and dare not think differently lest we become an outsider. I think we’re afraid of becoming outsiders ourselves to our very community—
Pete: Yeah. Maybe you’re putting the nail on the head there. The head on the nail rather. [laughter] Who wants to be an outsider?
Megan: It’s hard.
Jared: I was going to say—and not to be too theological, but it seems like that’s exactly what solidarity is about, right, is taking that step in saying, “I’m willing to risk becoming an outsider in order to be in community with the outsiders.”
Megan: Yeah. It’s hard. You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful. It doesn’t work like that.
Jared: That’s a good phrase—
Pete: Which brings me to the entire New Testament—
Megan: [laughter] That’s a good place to go.
Pete: —which has a thing or two to say and we could throw the prophets in there as well. It strikes me, Megan, that this issue is one of several issues that the Church is either dealing with or going to have to deal with that really raises to the forefront—I don’t want to put it negatively, but the complexity even in the ambiguity sometimes of theological decisions.
Pete: It’s not easy—
Megan: It’s not.
Pete: Living life is hard enough. [laughter] To think you have to have all the right answers all the time makes it that much harder, but the life of faith may be not as clear as we think and we’re doing the best that we can, and for some people, and you’re one of them, and I think Jared and I are the same, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people and lives and their experiences and not a system that we think is immovable and unchanging, because oddly enough, the system, which comes from the Bible, is itself a changing, moving thing—
Pete: —which is a good model for us. It’s not going to give us the answers to any particular question, but it is going to drive us to think about—you don’t get off the hook by quoting Bible passages. Life ain’t like that—
Megan: But you do have to study them and see where they’re pointing—
Pete: Yup. Right. Exactly right—
Jared: Which is that faithful improvisation, which is a nice connecting. The faithful is that rootedness—
Jared: —within the text, which your articulation today—I appreciate this conversation of rooting it in these texts and then still saying—but there is still some creativity that has to happen, some improvisation. That fifth act is up to us on how we’re going to be faithful to that.
Megan: I don’t have it all figured out, but what I’m trying to do in my book and in my work is to say, “Okay. We’ve done our theological reflection. We’ve done our biblical study only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female. That’s not good enough. We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.” We haven’t done that yet. Let’s start a new conversation where we let more voices come and be at the table and it means voices that have been at the table need to be quiet for a while and listen and see if there’s something new to be learned, new perspectives to be had.
Pete: Right. Being quiet. That’s hard.
Megan: It is hard.
Pete: [laughter] Megan, I appreciate the way you put that. That’s very well put. Unfortunately, we could talk for hours about all this. [laughter] So much stuff. We’re just handling the Bible. That always comes up in these kinds of conversations. We’re coming to the end of our time.
In closing, tell us where people can people find you on the worldwide interwebs. What projects are you involved in, if you are writing another book? Make sure you tell us about the book that you have written and make sure people know what that is.
Megan: Thanks. You can find me at www.megandefranza.com, pretty easy to find. You can see the books that I’ve written there, chapters, and other books. The main one we’ve been talking about today is Sex Difference in Christian Theology. The subtitle is Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, where we spend lot more time talking about all these things.
You can find me there. One of the things I’m most passionate about is that I just started a non-profit with my colleague, Leann Simon, who I mentioned earlier and we have a website, www.intersexandfaith.org, where we’re working to educate faith communities about intersex, provide support for intersex people of faith and advocate for the inclusion of all God’s people.
One of the things we’re doing, what I’m really excited about, is we’re in the process of making a documentary film, which right now is entitled Stories of Intersex and Faith, where people of faith—right now, we have Christians and Jews sharing their stories about being intersex and being people of faith and the good parts of that, the helpful parts of that and the difficult parts of being intersex and in a faith community.
We’re hoping to create that as a full-length documentary. But I’d also like to use that footage to create a series for churches that will be an educational curriculum, that’s video interviews and others, so that we can have better conversations in our communities. Because as you said, if we’re not already having these conversations in our churches, you will be next year, or the year after that.
Pete: Or your kids will force them.
Megan: I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations.
Pete: Some video clips are on your website, already, of—
Pete: —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.
Pete: Okay. That’s good.
Pete: Listen, Megan, thank you so much. We had a great time talking to you. Very informative. Let’s do this again sometime.
Megan: Thanks for doing what you do. Appreciate you inviting me.
Jared: Absolutely. Bye.
Megan: Take care.[Jaunty Exit Music]
Jared: Thanks again for listening to another episode of the Bible for Normal People. Again, if you feel you want to support the podcast and what we do, you can just go to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.
Otherwise, we hope you enjoyed the episode and we’ll catch you next week.