Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Emerson Powery- The Bible as a Source of Liberation

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Emerson Powery about biblical interpretation in the Antebellum narratives of the enslaved as they explore the following questions:

  • Why did enslaved people adopt the religion of their enslavers?
  • What is intertextuality?
  • What was the significance of Paul for enslaved people? 
  • What books or passages were emphasized in slave spirituals?
  • Why is resurrection not emphasized in slave narratives?
  • What was the significance of the curse of Ham in the Antebellum period?
  • What is proof-texting?
  • Is the Bible a book of liberation?
  • How is biblical interpretation a living tradition?
  • How has Emerson’s study of history influenced his experience in his faith community?
  • What is the power of imagination in biblical interpretation?
  • How did enslaved people understand Jesus?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Emerson Powery you can share. 

  • “Love God, love neighbor seems to be a fundamental starting point.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “If my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, there’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “I think the Bible cannot speak for itself, I think the Bible always has interpreters.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “Communities read Scripture best when they are committed to one another and committed to others.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “How does one use the Bible in relation to the other?”@EmersonBPowery

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Today we have with us Emerson Powery, who is a Biblical Studies Professor at Messiah College and it was a very interesting conversation. We brought him in because, Pete, you had heard him before.

Pete: Yeah, he came to Eastern University a couple of years ago. He gave a talk on this topic, which we’re going to talk about in a second. And it was just very impressive and really awakening in just, ya know, listen, you hear people talk about things they know something about and you don’t know much about it at all, and it was just very impressive and I felt like I was missing out on so much. I just knew I wanted to keep talking to Emerson about this topic.

Jared: We want to be clear about the topic, so we’re putting it off because we want to talk about it a little bit – it’s biblical interpretation in the antebellum narrative of the enslaved.

Pete: Right.

Jared: And that comes from the subtitle of his book and so, let’s just talk a little bit about what that means. We’re talking about biblical interpretation, how the Bible was interpreted in the antebellum narratives of the enslaved. What’s the antebellum narratives of the enslaved?

Pete: Before the civil war.

Jared: Right. So, while they’re enslaved, there’s these narratives that historians like Emerson have been able to recover and read and see how the Bible’s being used in these letters, and he calls them narratives. I think there’s letters and other parts of texts –

Pete: Right. Well, they’re telling their story –

Jared: Right.

Pete: And from the point of view of those who were formerly enslaved. So, these stories are really being documented, let’s say, after the end of the civil war. But, it’s just a wonderful window into, really the nature of Biblical interpretation, that we’re all doing things like appropriating texts in ways that are meaningful to us, and, you know, I just thought it was a fascinating discussion when I heard him first a couple of years, and when we have this interview with him. And, the title of the book is The Genesis of Liberation, that’s the main title. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, and we had a really enlightening time talking with Emerson about a topic he’s thought an awful lot about.

Jared: Alright, well, let’s get to it!

[Music begins]

Emerson: I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters.

Pete: Well, if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right? And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point. So how does one treat one’s neighbor? How does one use the Bible in relationship to the other?

[Music ends]

Jared: Welcome, welcome Emerson, to this episode of the podcast. It’s great to have you on!

Emerson: Great, thanks to be with you guys.

Jared: Yeah, I’m real excited about our topic for today. Before we get there thought, can you just give us a little, one or two minute spiritual biography, both your spiritual journey, but also how did you become interested in this topic, the Bible as a source of liberation, and how the Bible was received in the antebellum period, and all the things that you do now. How did you get into that? So maybe start there.

Emerson: Okay. I grew up in a Christian home. My father is a minister, retired minister, and my parents actually came to the U.S. They came from the Caribbean and they came to the U.S. as missionaries. So, I grew up, in many ways, a missionary kid. I was born in New York. My two other brothers were born on the islands, but I was born in New York. So, I grew up in a home in which there was lots of scripture reading, lots of engagement with the Bible. My parents also worked for the American Bible Society, so they were also very ecumenical and that also shaped my own kind of engagement with the Bible as an early, in my early years. Even though my father was the Pentecostal, was the black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, they had a white Pentecostal and a black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, that’s probably a conversation for another day, but that meant that the way we read scripture was very much about our experience and our, how it can inform our spiritual lives daily. And I grew up in that environment and that, I’m sure had a lot to do with my own kind of, trajectory, in terms of thinking about Biblical studies as a future. I didn’t begin there. I have an associate’s degree in aviation administration, so I began off in a very different route. My two older brothers, one went into accounting and the other one went into computer science, and I was kind of headed in that direction too, but somewhere in the middle of my college years, I felt a call to go into something more directly into ministry. Although, it didn’t feel like pastoral ministry.


So, it didn’t feel like the traditional pastorate, but I went and got an undergraduate degree in biblical and religious studies and then I went to seminary and continued on this journey, wrote a master’s thesis on Moses and the fourth gospel, but was really engaged in trying to figure out how lots of different people were utilizing the Bible. So, my own journey from those early years was starting to kind of inform larger theological questions for me. And so, I continue to pursue them and went on to do a Ph.D. study in what was called at the time Christian origins, early Christian origins, and wrote a dissertation on how Jesus used scripture. I was still very much interested in the function of scripture, how scripture was functioning for different communities, and all of that led me into investigation of how early African Americans in this country engaged the text, engaged the Biblical text. There was recent discussion when I was in grad school, Cain Felder’s edited volumes Stony the Road We Trod came out, and a number of my peers and I were kind of reading that on the side while we were doing our other, more formal work. And although at the time I didn’t quite see how intertextuality and black life was going together in direct, kind of, formal/theoretical ways, when I looked back at my dissertation, I had footnotes in there about Sojourner Truth and how she says I don’t just read small things like letters, I read texts and nations, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: So that was kind of informing behind the scenes, that was kind of doing some work on me.

Pete: Now, Emerson, before we go on, you mentioned a word intertextuality?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Can you explain that?

Emerson: Yeah, so, I think about it simply as the way later texts interact with earlier texts. So, and that could happen in a variety of ways. So, I mean, early Christians reading from their sacred scripture, and how they might reread it in a specific kind of way. I’m just thinking, I was actually looking at a passage today in a class, we were looking at Deuteronomy 24 and then how Jesus reads it in Mark 10.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: In Deuteronomy 24, it’s talking about a male, right, giving a bill of divorcement to his wife. And it’s in a women in the Bible class, so in Mark 10 it was not just that the male could be allowed to give the bill of divorcement, but a female could be allowed to give a bill of divorcement, without going into Jesus’ own intention over divorce. You know, it’s just kind of an interesting engagement of one text inside of another text, and how that text functions there, but also how later readers engage with an older text. So, intertextuality, I know can be defined in more sophisticated, theoretical ways, but for me it’s as simple as one text getting new life in another text.

Pete: Yeah, and both of those texts are part of, let’s say, Christian scripture, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. 

Pete: Because it’s within our Bible we see this relationship between texts, that’s intertextuality.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way intertextuality is generally used in biblical studies, yeah.

Pete: Yeah. So okay, I mean, that brings us then, I think, to our topic, because we’re looking at the, and something you’ve written about recently, fairly recently, the way in which the Bible was used, can we say appropriated?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Or maybe reimaged or something like that –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: On the part of enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. And that’s an exploration on your part on just, on hermeneutics, on interpretation, right? And on how people have used texts and why they’ve used texts the way they have, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Jared: Well, that bring us to something we were talking about earlier before we hit record that we thought was really interesting, which is, you know, at the very beginning when we’re talking about enslaved peoples, it’s interesting that African Americans adopted the religion and the religious texts of those who enslaved them. And just curious if you have theories or thoughts on, or studies on why that is, like what was going on that led to that? Because it seems a little counterintuitive.


Emerson: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s, I would not say that that was the original question behind our work, but I would say that we were surprised by it as well, right? I mean, it’s one thing to, and it’s complicated. So, some formerly enslaved folks, and I’ll kind of use that, because most of the work that I was working on was working with traditionally called slave narratives. I like to refer to them as freedom narratives, because these are all written by formerly enslaved individuals who were then reflecting back on their time during human bondage. So, but some folks, when they heard “slaves obey your masters,” one particular writer by the name of Charles Ball, he talks about his grandfather. My grandfather finally heard “slaves obey your masters” enough, and finally walked away from the Christian religion altogether, and decided to return to the faith of our African gods. So, it’s complicated. Some people heard that message, “slave obey your masters,” and they decided to try to find another way to read Paul, right? So, and found, in Paul, a person, a fellow sufferer, a co-sufferer.

Pete: Uh huh.

Emerson: One that we could use, he now stands with us, right? And so, the Paul of Acts who says, God hath made, they’re all reading the King James version, right? God hath made of all nations one, made one of all nations, right? This idea from Acts 17, that’s the Paul they wanted to engage with. So, that was a way of putting in conversation with, hang on – the “slaves obey your masters” can’t be the final word. Must be something more.

Pete: So, they were capitalizing, is it fair to say they were capitalizing on the complex portrait of Paul in the New Testament itself, because Paul can sometimes sound like he’s not questioning the institution of slavery, and elsewhere he’s suffering at the hands of oppressors.

Emerson: Yeah, no –

Pete: So, you take, you sort of run with, and who hasn’t done this, right? You run with those parts that speak to you more directly.

Emerson: Yeah, the themes that you find, right, that kind of support your view.

Pete: Well, one question, just backing up from that a little bit.

Emerson: Sure.

Pete: I don’t know if this is even answerable, but, all, what we’re saying now assumes something that is still hard for, I think, some of us to understand, which is why that would’ve been an important argument for some enslaved peoples to make, which gets back to I guess Jared’s original question, like, why even have an interest in the religious system of people who were oppressing you? Is it, I mean, do you have an answer to that? To me, that’s a curious thing. I mean, we could just say cause they discovered that God loved them, and, you know, they went with that. But this is a foreign concept you would have to think.

Emerson: Yeah, I mean, I think that many of them were religious people, right? So, I’m not thinking here now of kind of first-generation folks who came over from Africa. They certainly came with some religious perspective. Al Raboteau and his Slave Religion book shows this. But those who were second, third, fourth generation here, and still in human bondage, the Frederick Douglass period, the Harriet Jacobs period, these folks grew up in circles, not just within the families that they serve, the white families that they serve, but they also knew other folks who were having religious ceremonies, right, in the brush harbor meeting. So, they were religious folks, and there are certainly lots of struggles. You can hear some of that in the spirituals, although we don’t wrestle with the spirituals in biblical interpretation. You could, but in the spirituals how those songs played out, right? So, there’s lot of spiritual songs about, a couple people have written on this, where there’s lots of suffering in the spirituals, and even crucifixion, Jesus, right, Jesus dying. But there’s not a lot of spirituals about resurrection, right? So, it’s kind of, so they’re religious and trying to understand what God is doing in the world, but at the same time it’s very complicated.


So, it’s an attempt to, I mean, what does one do if you’re having to develop your own theological construction, right? If the one that has been given to you doesn’t work, because it doesn’t, it’s not that it doesn’t feel right, it’s hard to begin with a God who doesn’t like me –

Pete: Right.

Emerson: That’s tough, so there’s lots of engagement, I think, through those songs, and we know they are, Frederick Douglass tells a story, not in the first narrative that he writes, or even in the second narrative he writes, but one that he writes towards the end of his life in which he found several pages the Bible that were soiled. They were just in the street. He says he just, he got ahold of them and he just cherished them, because he thought, here he got some access to the text that, yeah, his mistress had taught him to read, and by the way she taught him when he was nine years old, or seven years old, I can’t remember now which year, but it was very young. From the book of Job, that’s what he’s learning for the first time! I mean, can you imagine? The book of Job as a child, right?

Pete: Oh gosh, yeah.

Jared: Wow.

Emerson: So, he found these pages and he thought, I can read now. I get access on my own, I can kind of start to develop my own thinking. This is now, this is the Douglass, the later Douglass reflecting back on that. So, trying to wrestle out a theological system or a faith in God that feels and looks different than what you might be hearing on a regular basis, right? It doesn’t begin with God wants me in human bondage, he wants me enslaved; it begins with God loves me and this is, something’s wrong here. And so, Allen Callahan who wrote a book a number of years ago, different, very different, because he was looking at lots of African American sources, but he talks about the Bible as giving the early enslaved an opportunity to ask questions. So, it wasn’t just answering questions, it was giving them an opportunity to ask questions. And I find that to be very useful in my own, kind of, reading of the slave narratives. There’s lots of wrestling with scripture, so, that seemed to be just kind of part of the faith practice, part of what it meant to be a follower, part of what it meant to go out to the brush harbor, to sing these difficult songs in the middle of difficult times.

Jared: Well, when you’re talking about the spirituals, it made me think, you know, you said there’s a lot of emphasis on death and not as much on resurrection. It made me think, you know, we talk some on this podcast about how we all pick and choose from the Bible because it’s so diverse. And we can pick different starting places, like what you were saying, so do you find that in some of these freedom narratives, or in these freedom narratives, you find themes of a different starting place or what books or passages would’ve been emphasized over others and what does that kind of tell us about the faith of these folks?

Emerson: Yeah, one of the things we were actually, we never did it, but we had wanted to put kind of an index in the back of this book because we were really pleasantly surprised to see how many books of the Bible, how numerous passages that are just kind of referenced or highlighted. We went after some specific themes in our own work, but there were lots of books of the Bible that were being read and engaged. Harriet Jacobs, her critical biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, who says that during her time, during Harriet Jacobs time when she was stuck in the garret, an attic of her grandmother’s house. For seven years she was up there. She actually ended up developing some significant leg cramps the rest of her life from this, but during that time she had no one to communicate with, but she had her Bible. Her grandmother had given her her Bible, and she just poured over those pages, and there’s lots of evidence of that in her narrative. She just has Job and Isaiah and the gospels. I’m actually working on something right now where I’m looking at Harriet Jacobs’ engagement with the Good Samaritan. I mean, just, lots of different texts that show up in her narrative. Some more subtle, some just seeming like just kind of an illusion. Other places where she’s really engaging the text more fully, and you can see it kind of play out in the narrative. So, there are lots and lots and lots of, for our work, we were trying to do a couple of things. On the one hand, I mean, it’s hard not to tell this story without thinking about how masters used Pauline language.


So, we were trying to then think about how the formerly enslaved, not only retold those stories in those settings in order to get some sense of reactions to those sermons, but also how they might’ve re-appropriated Paul and I mentioned earlier about the fellow sufferer of Paul, the Acts Paul, the Paul who sometimes we have a number of stories in the narratives where Harriet Jacobs actually tells one, but she’s not alone. Solomon Bayley tells one where they would hear a “slaves obey your masters” type sermon and the enslaved would simply hear the sermon and walk away and never come back. So just kind of a silent critique and then sometimes the narrators would tell you how the white minister would respond. There would be some reaction to it. So, there are lots of ways for engaging with Paul, but we also found that they wanted to think also about race and racial construction. So, the Genesis 9, curse of Ham myth that’s probably the dominant myth, Biblical myth, of this moment, antebellum period, there was some direction reactions to that.

Pete: Can you explain the curse of Ham for those who might not be familiar with it?

Emerson: Yeah! So, Noah and his sons and his entire family, right, they survived the flood in Genesis 9. And now Noah has had a little too much wine, and he is in, he’s drunk in the Genesis 9 narrative, and Ham, one of the children, sees his father’s nakedness. He comes out and he tells the other two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and they march in backwards with a cloth, with a garment to cover their father. They cover their father, Noah comes to, and he curses Canaan, the son of Ham. So, he doesn’t curse Ham directly, he curses Canaan and he says, well, one of the things he says is you will be, servant of servant shall you be. You will serve your brothers and their families and so, of course, there is right, in Biblical scholarship there are ways to think about that in relationship to Israel’s relationship to Canaan. For the nineteenth century context, that curse of Ham, or curse of Canaan became really crucial for thinking about, at least one rationale for why African people could be enslaved, right?

Pete: It was a proof text, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: For pro-slavery people and let’s say, a very creative appropriation of that text.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: Because it really has absolutely nothing to do with this, but again, it’s a way to hook an existing belief into a sacred text.

Emerson: Right, and in the nineteenth century context, it would fit in well. I mean, not just in terms of the pro-slavery argument, but the idea that lots of people, even those not thinking about slavery directly, although it’s hard to imagine people who weren’t. But in the nineteenth century, lots of identification conversations were going on, right? As people groups and migration and the movement of ethnic groups was happening, lots of folks were reading the Bible or listening to the Bible and they were finding potential proofs for these identification markers, right? So, and they were using, yeah, there were lots of proof texts in this way. So, it would have fit quite naturally in that sense. Ah! That might explain it, right? Because lots of people are digging up stuff in the nineteenth century to think about identifying markers like that.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]


Pete: Yeah, and this, I mean, I don’t want to introduce more terminology than we need to –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: But what we are talking about here is how communities receive this Biblical text and what they do with it.

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: Right? And that’s just a fascinating thing because I think we all do that on some level. We engage the text based on what we already believe and what we know to be “true,”-

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And we find hooks. I mean, maybe, I don’t know how you feel about this Emerson, but maybe a contemporary example of that is finding immigration reform in the Bible.

Emerson: Yeah, no, I think that’s a good one. I think there are several that one can find and when folks think about the present political moment and then they go to the Bible with that question, right, that’s all of a sudden, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting kind of interpretations that happen. Exegesis just –

Pete: To say the least.

Emerson: Right!

Pete: I guess, of course, in the period of time we’re talking about now, there is dehumanization happening.

Emerson: Right, that’s right.

Pete: Systemic dehumanization. So that might be, ya know, well, cause the question. You get this, I get this all the time. Well if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of, like, reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right?

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: That’s sort of the first thing to go to.

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point, so how does one treat ones neighbor? How does one, how does one use the Bible in relationship to the other, right? And so, if my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, it’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.

Pete: Right.

Emerson: So, yeah.

Pete: Okay, well let me throw something at you then, and just to see how you would respond to a statement like this. The Bible is not really a book of liberation, but it can be read that way. Or would you disagree with that? The Bible is a book of liberation.

Emerson: No, yeah. I know lots of good people, people I would consider friends who would disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters. That is what complicates this, for lack of a better term, the American Bible, or any Bible in any particular culture, but this is where we are and this is, so the Bible comes to us through a variety of traditions, but it has to, we want it to now say something or at least those of us who are committed to having the Bible as a resource, as a theological resource, are committed to finding ways to allow it to speak in our contemporary moment. But part of what that means is I have to interpret it. So, it just can’t speak directly on its own.

Pete: It’s never just there.

Emerson: Right, yeah. So, I would agree with the way you put that.

Jared: Well, but, you know, just to add onto that, I think it doesn’t, you said it complicates it. I think it does complicate it, but it’s also, as you’re saying, it’s also that particular element of a text is also the opportunity for us to have it be relevant, have it be connected to our lived experience. So, it’s sort of two sides to the same coin. We can’t necessarily have it be relevant and connect to our lived experience without that, the risk of that interpretive element that it’s never just there. It’s never uninterpreted, but that’s the very act of making it alive today.

Emerson: I think that’s what makes it a living tradition. Yeah, that’s right, is the ongoing attempt, our ongoing attempt to interpret. And to interpret in community, to engage one another and not just to do it on our own. That’s what helps keep us all, I think, somehow, I mean those of us who are committed to reading the Bible within community, it helps keep us all in check. So that way we can call out one another if there is a dehumanizing, because I do think that draws the line. Someone within my community has to say to me, Emerson, something’s not right about that.


Jared: Good, well maybe you can carry on that line of thinking, because that’s exactly what I was going to ask is what are the values of, I would have grown up in a tradition more in line with sort of, it’s me and Jesus and this is a personal, devotional book. And there would have been a sense of community, but it wouldn’t have been the emphasis of reading this book in community and the value that it brings, so maybe, could you say a word or two more about the value of reading in community and maybe even what does it look like to read in community? What are the actual, like, just very simplistically, what does it mean to do that?

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, and first of all, I would say, you know, I’m not opposed to people reading the Bible devotionally. I think that’s a necessary practice, but I think that’s one practice, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Emerson: And people need multiple practices with scripture. And a practice that I find very useful is to read it along with others. To read it with others with whom I may, I’m committed to but I may not necessarily agree with. I may not agree with them in terms of their own theological systems that they’re speaking from. I may not agree with them in terms of even their political agendas, but to read scripture in communion, in that way, puts lots of, I think, really hard questions, both to the text and maybe we can hear the text differently. We can hear the Biblical text differently in that way. And I think to make this even, maybe more simple, I think as communities read scripture best when they’re committed to one another, and committed to others, right? Committed outside of themselves, so they’re looking at others around them, and I think reading scripture in the middle of that setting will raise the kinds of issues and questions and force us into actions, so, I don’t think that should be separate from, right? So, Harriet Jacobs, she was engaged in not just reading scripture, but she was running anti-slavery reading room. She was raising money, right, at the end of the Civil War for schools in D.C. and down in South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia, and then down in South Carolina. I’m convinced, even though she doesn’t say this explicitly in her narratives, I’ve read all of her letters. The University of North Carolina published her letters and she’s the only African American female formerly enslaved for whom we have letters, and extraordinary, extraordinary documents. We can kind of trace her history and her faith is really crucial for the things that she’s doing. Her reading of scriptural texts and her engagement with others kind of go hand in hand, so, I think if we’re reading scripture on behalf of others, for their well-being, I think that’s a good starting point.

Pete: Mmm. Well, let me, let me ask, Emerson, I want to get back into the Old Testament a little bit here. I’m thinking about what you explained earlier, the formerly enslaved people writing freedom narratives. And, you know, clearly, the Exodus story is an obvious source of, let’s say, their spiritual imagination for how they relate to their creator and how they can have hope for, you know, eventual liberation. But how, I mean, how did they handle, I mean, if we know this, something like this, but how did they handle those places in the Old Testament even in the book of Exodus where it seems like enslaved people were not really thought of as fully human.

Emerson: Yeah, well, I mean, James Pennington, who publishes his narrative in 1849, he is a prominent minister, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, pretty fairly large church in New York City at the time. He sat outside the classrooms at Yale Divinity School, they wouldn’t let him inside the classroom, and he kind of secured some theological education that way. Eventually, at the end of the 1840’s, right around the time when he’s writing, publishing his narrative, he also receives a honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Pete: Wow.

Emerson: James Pennington is actually the one, who when Frederick Douglass escaped, he was, along with Anna Murray, he married Anna Murray. And Anna Murray was a free black woman, but she lived in Maryland with him and came north with him. James Pennington married them. James Pennington is well connected, he had one of the most popular narratives in that day in terms of just sales. He puts it this way about these passages – if we could find some Canaanites, maybe we could enslave them.

Pete: [Laughter]

Emerson: I mean, he really found this, kind of right this way of saying, what’s happening? All of a sudden, on the one hand, people do these literal readings of biblical texts, and then they stop doing it, right? And that was, that’s one way to respond to that.


Pete: Okay, if I were speaking to him –

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: I would say, okay, I get it, but also, it’s the assumption, at least in Exodus and Deuteronomy, that you can have Hebrew slaves.

Emerson: Yeah. No, I don’t think Pennington would have any problem with, not having them now, but this was something that ancient Israel did. And it wasn’t, right, by the time of Jesus, there’s still slavery going on.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Emerson: So, he actually writes, he gets the honorary doctorate from Heidelberg because he wrote a volume called The History of Colored People. Sometimes it shows up as The History of Negro People, but I think The History of Colored People was the original title. But, very much aware of, he starts with ancient Egypt, right? So he’s very much aware of ancient populations, ancient slavery, ancient practices; he just doesn’t think that those practices should have continued. Now, I don’t know, at least I haven’t found in Pennington’s work where he thinks it stopped, right? I don’t find, but he just thinks what happened back then in biblical days needs to remain back then, with regards to slavery anyway. God has no, this is his, I’m summarizing him, but he uses this language of the immaculate God. The immaculate God has absolutely nothing to do with human bondage, with slavery.

Pete: Mm hmm. It’s inconsistent with like, the nature of God or something, yeah.

Emerson: Completely inconsistent.

Pete: I mean, that argument was made, by origin for example, talking about violence, divine violence.

Emerson: Hmm, yeah.

Pete: There’s no way.

Emerson: Right, right.

Pete: There’s no way the creator would do this, so we’ve got to do something with this story. Again, it’s starting with spiritual experience in this sense, and saying, these things are just incompatible, and you wind up picking and choosing. And I know people say that’s like, a bad thing, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t do that.

Emerson: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Who’s continuing to cast lots, right? I mean, there are some Mennonites who continue to cast lots, but they’re few and far between. I mean, right, but nothing said stop casting lots, so I think, right. I think, in some ways, if we had different language besides picking and choosing or selecting, it might work better, right?

Pete: Exactly. It sounds very negative to put it that way, but it’s, yeah.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: What are some of the, you know, you’ve done a lot of historical work. What has been the impact of that on how you currently engage scripture in your faith community?

Emerson: For me, one of the things it does is to recognize the significant value of, we all read from a certain vantage point, and so, when I’m in my community, we have different positions. Sometimes, I’m male, so I have certain power as a male, right? There are certain powers statuses I have, and there are other times I might not, and to help people to kind of think about when they’re reading and engaging scripture out of their perspective of power. That’s one thing it’s done for me. That’s, I think that’s one of those starting points, to helping us to do as much as we can to read on behalf of the other. To read on behalf of the one who, I mean, if we can all, right, I mean obviously – if we could all be like Jesus that would be great. But I mean, but even Jesus imagining the Samaritan, right, just to imagine the other as the hero of his story, what a great, what a great hermeneutical principle! Imagine that my reading of scripture, whatever passage I’m dealing with, would be best if I placed the one who is less like me or one I cannot even conceive of as significant at the center. If I can imagine like that, then perhaps that might be a better way to conceive of God’s work in the world.

Pete: Hmm.

Emerson: Working for these years with the documents of the enslaved, and trying to, kind of, hear them, trying to hear them well, has made me think about my own, you know, I have a Ph.D, right? And I operate from a position of authority in my classrooms, right? Even in my church setting, right? When we –

Pete: You have authority in your classrooms? How do you pull that off?

Emerson: [Laughter]

Pete: I’m still trying to find it.

Emerson: I have to keep reminding them.


Pete: I’m going to retire.

Emerson: [Continued laughter]

Yeah. Oh.


Jared: With that, I mean, what I’m hearing you say, maybe I can reframe it using language that is more common for me, but is, it reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 7 about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. And basically, our reading strategy, what I hear you saying is we need to actually first adopt a Jesus ethic of, we have to have a priority or a prioritization of those without power, those who are oppressed, those in our society who are looked down upon, and our reading strategy, we have to begin with that ethical framework and assumption in order to read the Bible well, and when we don’t do that, when we read it from a place of privilege and we don’t recognize it as privilege and we use it to defend our places of privilege, we are inevitably going to find ways to do that. So the Bible doesn’t necessarily correct the ethical framework, it’s this adage that Jesus says that, you know, the bad tree, if you start with the bad tree, if you start with the bad hermeneutic or bad ethic, you can get bad fruit, but it’s bad.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: And if you start with a good foundation, a good root system, a good tree, and you read the Bible through that framework, you’re going to end up with good fruit. And so, the Bible, in some ways, can be a neutral source of what we come to it with. And that just is a, it’s an interesting thing because in my tradition, it would have been, no, you start with the Bible, and if you read it as it should be written, or read, then you come out with a good ethic, and in some ways it sounds like it’s flipped that we begin from this place of, the Jesus way of seeing the world, and that includes then, how we read the Bible. Would that be a fair way of saying that?

Emerson: Yeah, I think so. We almost, with the Genesis of Liberation book, we almost published the book without writing an excursus on Jesus. And the excursus on Jesus we wrote was because the editor said you can’t write this book – if people in the Black church get this book, they want to know about Jesus. And I thought, no, that’s right. That’s right. That’s the starting point. And that’s the starting point for the enslaved. So, in our excursus on Jesus, because we were really dealing with scriptural passages, right? Biblical passages, scriptural texts, and we thought well, I mean, I know Jesus is a kind of text, but Jesus is not really a text, but Jesus is a text! And for the enslaved, it’s, we actually called the, we titled the excursus “Jesus Christ was Sold to the Highest Bidder.” That actually comes directly out of Peter Randolph’s narrative, because for them, the starting point was yeah, you’re about to sell us and break off our families, but Jesus is on the auction block with us. He’s not with you, selling us. That’s impossible for us to conceive of Jesus that way! Right, so, it begins with Jesus. Jesus is the text. And then you go to the text next, and I think that’s right. I think the way you put that, Jared, I think that’s right.

Jared: Mmm.

Pete: Well, listen, wonderful. Emerson, we’re really getting to the end of this time now we have together, sorry about that.

Emerson: Oh no, wow.

Pete: Pretty powerful stuff, but anything you want to leave us with, like if you’re working on anything at the moment? I know you published this book not too long ago, and you’re probably grading things too. Or just where people can find you if they want to connect with you at all online.

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, I have a Twitter account, that’s my activity in the social media, @EmersonBPowery. And I’m actually working on a project on the Good Samaritan, thinking about the Good Samaritan through both in terms of Luke’s context in Luke 10. Luke’s the only gospel that has it, but also in later voices. So, Augustine and trying to dig deep in Augustine’s world, his conflict with the Donatists and his telling of the Good Samaritan there, and then Howard Thurman. I’m putting Howard Thurman in conversation with Augustine. Howard Thurman’s little volume Jesus and the Disinherited was carried around by Martin Luther King and his, along with his Bible, he carried Thurman’s little book. And then I’m putting a conversation with Harriet Jacobs and her reading of the Good Samaritan in conversation with a Nicaraguan community from the 1970’s, the Solentiname community that was led by Ernesto Cardenal. And they have these great, popular Bible studies and a number of engagements with the Good Samaritan, so I’m putting those in conversation as a way of then going back and thinking about Luke’s context, right? And just, how Jesus himself imagined the other as the hero of the story, so.

Pete: Yeah. Well, these ongoing conversations between the horizons of the ancient and different contemporary moments. That’s powerful stuff Emerson, we appreciate it. Thanks so much for being with us, we really had a great time, glad you had a chance to stop by virtually.

Emerson: Great. Thanks for having me on!

Jared: Absolutely, thanks so much.

Pete: See ya.

Emerson: Bye bye.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People. We hope you have a chance to check out Emerson’s book and find him on Twitter and engage him further on, to understate the matter, a very important topic.

Jared: Yeah, and while you’re online, we did just want to remind everyone that we appreciate all the support that we get on Patreon. So if you can, we would appreciate you heading there to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. There are ways to engage in the conversation we just had as well as many others there for different levels of support, so we really appreciate everyone that makes this podcast possible, and we’ll see ya next time.

Pete: See ya!

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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The Bible and Intersex Believers with Megan DeFranza

Interview with Megan DeFranza: The Bible and Intersex Believers

September 11, 2017

On this episode of the Bible For Normal People, Pete and Jared talk with theologian Megan DeFranza (actually, Megan educates Pete and Jared) on a topic that affects deeply the lives of many, but that few Christians even know is a topic. And Megan might surprise you about what the Bible and church history have to say about it.

Read 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. 

[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 is.

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—

Megan:  Sure.

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—

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  —the alphabet soup.  Right?

Megan:  Mm-hmm.

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]—

Megan:  Sure.

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.”

Pete:  Hmm.

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—

Pete:  Okay.

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.

Megan:  Right.


Jared:  It is “God created them male and female.” 

Megan:  Right.

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.

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.


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—

Megan:  Right.

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:  Nope.

Pete:  Okay.

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.

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—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.

Megan:  Yup.

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.

Megan:  Sure.

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.

Megan:  Sure.

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.

Megan:  Right.


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.

Megan:  Right.

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?

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?

Pete:  Mm-hmm.

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—

Jared:  Yeah.

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—

Megan:  Yeah.

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.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —that is also moving, right?  And so—

Megan:  Yeah.

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—

Pete:  Right.

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]

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—

Jared:  [unintelligible]

Pete:  —are people afraid of?

Jared:  In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—

Pete:  Yeah.

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.

Pete:  Yeah—

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.

Megan:  Yeah.

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—

Megan:  Yeah.

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—

Megan:  Yeah.

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:  Right.

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations. 

Pete:  Some video clips are on your website, already, of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  That’s good.

Megan:  Thanks.

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:  You’ve spent another chunk of time with us here on the Bible for Normal People and we’re grateful for that.  Again, if this conversation with Megan DeFranza was meaningful for you, please Google her, look at her website, the subtitle for which is “theology, identity and faithfulness in a changing world.”  That’s at www.megandefranza.com

She’s doing work as a researcher with Boston University School of Theology.

Just look at all the things that she’s doing and support her in the work that she’s doing if this is a topic that connects with you.

We also want to thank everyone who has supported us on Patreon and highlight that there is a growing community there:  www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where we have the ability to connect on Slack which is an app, really kind of a chatboard.

One of the subtopics connecting here with Megan is sexuality.  There’s also “talking to your kids about the Bible.”  There’s “science and faith.”  There are all kinds of people there talking about these topics.

We really want to create a safe place where you can explore your questions, your doubts, topics, get advice, get recommendations, share your stories.   You can check that out and more at www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Thanks again for everyone who has supported us so far.