Queerness and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible

Susan E. Haddox reviews Rhiannon Graybill’s Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets

Rhiannon Graybill. Are We Not Men?: Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 200. $78.00.

What does it mean to be a man? It is not an easy question to answer. One of the contributions of the field of masculinity studies has been to observe that masculinity is not a stable quality, but one that must be contested and negotiated in different contexts and between different groups. The malleable nature of masculinity has particular relevance in examining biblical characters. The frequent characterization in the biblical texts of God as male creates difficulties for men, an idea that has been detailed by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz. How does a person construct a relationship with the divine within social concepts of gender? Eilberg-Schwartz argues that the natural complementary partner for a male god would be a woman. To have a relationship with a male god, a male worshipper must assume the role of a woman. Because this relationship threatens normal standards of masculinity, women must be excluded from the cult entirely, in order to preserve a tenuous hold on maleness. Although Eilberg-Schwartz did not use this terminology, assuming a female identity in relation to God queers the male body. The male body is no longer exclusively male, but assumes an indeterminate gender identity, moving more toward the feminine. What does this do to the male psyche? What does this do to cultural concepts of women?

Rhiannon Graybill’s book Are We Not Men? takes an innovative approach to the issue. She explores the question of the queer bodies of men in relation to God, specifically the bodies of prophets, who have a direct and intimate connection to the divine. She does this using cultural and psychoanalytic intertexts, including poems, horror movies, and published case studies, which shed light not only on the male bodies, but also on cultural questions and implications. Rather than employing a systematic approach, Graybill engages a variety of different case studies and examples to create dialogue around the boundaries of the prophetic body. These studies raise interesting questions around the nature of the prophets and their perception. Graybill is not trying to categorize prophetic literature into a particular genre nor to diagnose the prophets with psychiatric maladies. Rather she attempts to highlight shared features of the intertexts in order to help us think in a different way about the prophetic body, then and now.

Prophets are a queer breed. Chosen by God to convey a word to the people, few seem to want the task—and with good reason. The prophetic task is a risky one. It subjects a person to social ridicule, it often places one under threat from those in power, and it even disrupts one’s own sense of identity. Graybill explores some of these disruptions by a close analysis of several representative prophets: Moses, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as the limit cases of Jonah and Miriam.

Moses is lifted up in the biblical text as the paradigmatic prophet, much as he lifted the bronze serpent in the wilderness to heal the Israelites (Num 21:9). The book of Deuteronomy itself claims that there was never another prophet like Moses, who spoke to God “face to face.” Graybill notes that, at his death, his body was described as undiminished by time and age, “with perfect vision and sustained vigor.” According to Deuteronomy, this perfect, albeit deceased, body is lost in the wilderness, never to be revered with a shrine or observed in a state of decay. Yet in earlier texts, Moses’s body is far from perfect, even providing Moses with an (unaccepted) excuse for avoiding the prophetic task. He describes himself as having a “heavy mouth and heavy tongue” which, while it prompts the recruitment of his brother Aaron to help in the task, seems to slow him down little in his leadership (Exod 4:10). During Moses’s initial conversation with God he was also afflicted with a scaly skin disease (Exod 4:6). Though this impurity was temporary and part of the effort to persuade him of God’s power, still it was an indignity that Aaron was later spared when he and his sister Miriam faced God’s anger for questioning Moses’s preferred status (Num 12). Moses showed physical weakness when overseeing the battle against the Amalekites. Aaron and Hur must hold up his arms for him to continue to raise his hands over the battle and ensure victory for the Hebrews (Exod 17:11-12).

As Graybill argues, even Moses’s glorification marks him as Other. As a baby, he was set apart in the ark, the one Hebrew boy to be saved, and by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses’s repeated conversations with God also leave their mark—his face shines with some physical marker that creates fear among the people. To quell the fear of this otherness, Moses puts on a veil. Since veiling is customarily associated with women, the sign of his encounter with the divine adds to the queerness of his body. Graybill discusses Moses’s body as a “queer assemblage,” a concept that encompasses more than a straddling of a gender binary. An assemblage incorporates the effects of gender, disability, ethnicity, and other identities while highlighting the issue of intensity, which Graybill uses as an indicator of the affective realm, a feature often missed in usual discussions of intersectionality.

The final feature that Graybill draws from Moses’s story is the role of fluidity. Fluidity is discussed broadly, and is more useful as an exploration of a motif than as a unifying principle. She notes the fluids spilled in the peculiar “Bridegroom of Blood” story, which raises questions about the relation of the body to the divine in a number of ways. The blood of the son’s severed foreskin is used to anoint his (the son’s? Moses’s?) feet/genitals, an act which averts a divine attack. Graybill shows that in this episode, the male body and the divine are interlinked in ambiguous yet visceral ways through blood. In addition to bodily fluids, Moses is frequently found in relation to water (starting with his boat journey as a baby). Graybill does not discuss the etymology of Moses’s name provided in the text, linguistically dubious as it may be, that he was “drawn out” of the water, but it certainly supports the larger association with water. The parting of the Red Sea, the striking of rocks to procure water, and his death overlooking the Jordan make a river run through Moses’s life. This fluidity, often associated with femininity and openness, further queers Moses’s body. I am not entirely convinced that Moses’s proximity to water transferred to a fluidity of his own body. He does show an affinity for the fluid, even though the final striking of the rock to bring forth water results in his exclusion from the Promised Land. Much of the time, however, he exercises control over that water—separating it at the Sea, summoning it forth at the rocks, sweetening it to serve the needs of the people. The control of water is a divine attribute, showing mastery over the watery chaos. Perhaps the queer fluidity here involves Moses’s prophetic place on the divine-human spectrum more than on a gender spectrum. But Graybill has demonstrated that the concept of queer assemblage may be a way to explore the interconnections of those identities—divine, masculine, feminine, and human.

After the exploration of Moses as the paradigmatic prophet, whose very body questions the idea of a stable model, Graybill moves on to other prophets, placing them in parallel with examples from contemporary Western culture. The next prophet is Hosea, whom Graybill analyzes through the genre of horror. This lens brings out the issues of displacement and excess, particularly in Hosea 1-3. A number of scholars have noted that the marriage metaphor used in the Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, which places Israel in the position of a wayward wife and God in the position of an angry husband, displaces male anxiety about God’s censure onto the body of a woman. Graybill observes that the same phenomenon appears in the horror genre, particularly in possession films, where the possessed is generally female and subject to torment. Horror also emphasizes the openness of the female body—openness to the possessing spirit and openness to torture. The wife in Hosea likewise displays openness, both to the unauthorized lovers and to punishment by the husband. Using Carol Clover’s work on horror, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Graybill argues that the violence of Hosea does not represent simple misogyny, but also the element of masculine displacement. As Clover puts it: “for a space to be created in which men can weep without being labeled feminine, women must be relocated to a space where they will be made to wail uncontrollably; for men to be able to relinquish emotional rigidity, control, women must be relocated to a space in which they will undergo a flamboyant psychotic break, and so on.” The prophetic role by definition requires openness to God, threatening masculine bodily integrity. By displacing this threat onto the wife, the masculinity of the prophet is preserved.

Hosea is both husband and prophet. He is told to marry a promiscuous woman, then becomes angry with her promiscuity. The openness of the wife is not limited to an openness to other men, however. In the text, there is great fluidity between the woman’s body and the land. The metaphors of warfare and siege become entwined with the metaphors of sexual exposure and punishment. Graybill does not dwell on the connection, but in my reading, the connection with the land further increases the queerness of the body in Hosea. As in the case with Moses, the line between the prophet’s body and God’s body is blurred, as is the line between male and female bodies, as the predominantly male audience is cast as the wife. Prophecy is a disruptive act. At the same time, the lens of horror focuses on solving the problem of masculine openness. The disruptive, opening force of prophecy is displaced onto the feminine, so that the masculine can maintain the appearance of closedness, while still experiencing the word of God. The excess of violence and openness of the woman in Hosea relativizes the openness of the prophet. Graybill focuses on the intensity and affect of the queer body as it signifies more than (but not less than) misogyny.

Graybill next turns to the case files of psychoanalysis, placing Jeremiah in conversation with hysterics. While Sigmund Freud’s and Joseph Breuer’s case studies of hysterics are mostly women, some cases of male hysterics were identified. The major features of hysterics focused around their voice and sound, which in Jeremiah’s case destabilizes gender. Graybill quotes from Anne Carson’s 1995 essay, “The Gender of Sound,” in Glass, Irony and God about the problem of female voices: “Female sound is bad to hear both because the quality of a woman’s voice is objectionable and because women say what should not be said.” In applying this observation to Jeremiah, Graybill notes the crying quality of Jeremiah’s voice.

In comparison with hysterics, Graybill draws three specific parallels. First is “crying out,” often unwillingly. Jeremiah tries to remain silent, but the words force themselves out, just as Freud’s hysterics are unable to remain quiet, often making peculiar noises. In particular, feelings of terror and torment provoke the outbursts. Jeremiah is known for proclaiming terrors all around that compel him to speak. The second parallel is to “incoherent virtuosity.” While hysterics often are unable to assemble sense-conveying expression, they are also gifted with certain kinds of language. Freud’s patient Anna spoke five languages, and other patients show a keen self-awareness. The words may come out jumbled, but their meaning is profound. Graybill lays out Jeremiah’s speech without poetic lines or sense units, and the frequent shifts in subject and address are obvious. Even without such reader’s aids, the prophetic judgment remains clear. This frequent shifting is also a characteristic of Hosea, which moves rapidly among metaphor fields, often confounding the reader. As Graybill observes, “The text’s meaning is unstable and partially concealed; the reader, like the psychoanalyst, is called in to do the work of interpretation.” The third parallel is “somatic compliance.” Hysterics’ cries and incoherence are not limited to vocalizations, but to loss of control over physical gestures and expressions as well. Likewise, Jeremiah speaks of his bodily involvement: the wounds that won’t be healed and the fire in his heart and bones. The prophetic experience is not limited to an intellectual connection, but is intensely embodied, harnessing the body into the compulsion to prophesy.

In addition to the parallels between the hysterics and the prophets, Graybill notes how the two groups are received. Freud’s hysterics often created a sense of revulsion in those who treated them and in other witnesses. Jeremiah likewise was reviled by those he encountered. While hysterics and Jeremiah both speak, neither are heard by those around them. Along with the revulsion, however, is a complementary erotic attraction. With Jeremiah, the erotic element is mostly in his relationship with God, whom he describes as seducing him, though he is mocked by everyone else. This seduction has implications for the embodied nature of prophecy. The prophet loses control of himself and is subject to the whims of God, suffering in the experience. The hysterical elements, Graybill observes, may be a sign of resistance to this overpowering force. Although the prophetic role cannot be denied and the words come through, Jeremiah’s resistance is shown in the fits of incoherent speech and outcries and complaints.

In the case of Ezekiel, the level of trauma and gender disruption is increased. Graybill compares Ezekiel’s experience to that of Daniel Paul Schreber, who described his suffering from a nervous illness, in which he was a prophet to a malevolent deity, as a process of unmanning. Graybill observes that Ezekiel’s body features prominently in the text. It is passive and suffering, in contrast with the indescribable gloriousness of God’s body. Furthermore, it is soft and penetrated, in contrast with the hardened, resisting bodies of the Israelites. Ezekiel’s body is submissive, eschewing the masculine norms. Comparing his story with Schreber’s, Graybill notes that in both cases prophecy and pain are intertwined. The extraordinary sign-acts in Ezekiel must have caused physical and psychological pain. Schreber explicitly describes his own suffering. Likewise, the experiences of the two cannot be fully communicated. Words and even sign-acts fail to convey the message to others. In both instances, language is in crisis. Finally, both prophets are imbued with a sense of disaster, and the embodiment of masculinity is somehow linked with it. Schreber must become unmanned to save the world, and Ezekiel likewise gives up any claim to normative masculinity. Unlike Schreber, however, who seeks to become more physically feminine, having the experience of breasts and a retraction of the male organ, Ezekiel’s body, Graybill argues, becomes displaced by the Temple. The Temple becomes the focus for the imagined future restoration while Ezekiel and his unmanned body fade from the picture.

What all of these case studies share is their queering of the prophetic body. One important observation from these studies is that the body is not peripheral to prophecy, but its suffering and instability is central to prophetic experience. Not only the explicit sign-acts, but the breaking through of the divine word causes disruptions in the prophets’ control of language and bodily integrity. The queering of the male body underscores the fact that women rarely appear as women in prophetic texts. Instead they are metaphors or tools, used to think with but having no agency. The male body becomes fluid and open, challenging concepts of masculinity, but not necessarily of femininity.

In the last section of the book, Graybill addresses two test cases, those of Jonah and Miriam. Jonah she sees as a borderline case. While he is not a typical prophet, Jonah’s story is nonetheless one of extreme embodiment. He says very little, but his body moves, is cast into the sea, is swallowed and spit up by a fish, walks, is shaded and exposed to the sun. He refuses God’s call and only succumbs with utmost reluctance, reflecting what Graybill sees as a broader “queer refusal” to participate in norms of social duties and expectations. Jonah’s refusal to be opened to the divine is not successful: to be a prophet is to suffer bodily opening. The second test case is Miriam, who as a woman represents the logical end of the process of prophetic unmanning. But as Eilberg-Schwartz explained in his analysis of masculine displacement, Miriam is not celebrated for her natural openness to the divine, but instead is delimited and displaced by the text. She alone suffers the impurity and isolation of scale disease in Numbers 12, and her voice is suppressed in the text, retaining only the faintest refrain in the Song of the Sea. She is displaced to the position of watcher rather than prophet. These cases help to showcase the queerness of the prophet. Graybill concludes: “Prophecy destabilizes masculinity, prophecy undoes the body, and this undoing opens new possibilities of being and becoming.”

Prophecy, though carried out through male bodies, destabilizes that very embodiment. Graybill’s study brought to mind Mary Daly’s adage, “If God is male, then male is God” (19). The destabilization and displacement of masculinity in the prophets is also a struggle over defining the boundaries between divine and human. The construction of hegemonic masculinity is the construction of a masculine deity. The prophetic experience seems to indicate contra Daly that if God is male, then not only can the prophet not be God, but the prophet can hardly be male, at least not hegemonically masculine. In the context of a masculine God, masculine men become problematic. On the one hand, they are in an attractive state because of the human desire to become godlike, which is another theme featuring in biblical texts from Genesis through Daniel. On the other hand, in order be truly human, masculinity must be excoriated. Graybill provides a number of interesting lenses to explore these issues in the prophets. The use of contemporary genre and psychoanalytic explorations not only sheds light on the prophetic texts themselves, but also on the concepts of gender and queerness that have salience in contemporary society. Furthermore, while the fluidity and queerness of the prophetic body is predicated on the notion of a hegemonic masculine God, it may be that exploration of the malleability of the human side of the relationship will open up possibilities of fluidity on the divine side as well. Once the boundaries between masculine and feminine have been breached, they are not so easily restored.

Susan E. Haddox is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Mount Union. She is the author of Metaphor and Masculinity in Hosea.


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