Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Jack Levison- The Spirit, Wind, & Breath of God in the Bible

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Jack Levison about the spirit of God throughout the Bible as they explore the following questions:

  • Is the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?
  • What does rûaḥ mean and why is it difficult to translate?
  • What does it mean to be people of the spirit?
  • Can everyone have the spirit of God or just some?
  • What is the connection between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation?
  • Do Jews have the same access to the Holy Spirit as Christians do?
  • What is the significance of Pentecost? 
  • What is unique about the Christian faith if everyone has the spirit of God?
  • How do we recognize the spirit of God?
  • What is the paraclete?
  • What has Jack learned about the spirit as he has gotten older?
  • What are some implications of recognizing the spirit of God in every person?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jack Levison you can share. 

  • “If there is a message for the American church in a study of the spirit in the Old Testament, it’s to learn to breathe again.” @spiritchatter
  • “When you read your Bible carefully, it shatters the categories you usually come to it with.” @spiritchatter
  • “The language of filling [of the Holy Spirit] doesn’t necessarily mean taking something empty and pouring something into it… it can also mean taking what’s there and sort of frothing it up.” @spiritchatter
  • “I think discerning the spirit is the great task of today.” @spiritchatter
  • “People who know how to breathe and live into the daily miracle of life are people who are inspired.” @spiritchatter
  • “The rûaḥ is never tidy.” @spiritchatter

Mentioned in This Episode

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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]]

Pete: Hey folks, welcome to another episode of The Bible for Normal People, before we get started, an announcement. Our second pay what you want course is coming up March 26th, 8:30 – 9:30PM Eastern Time, and it’s on reading the Bible like adults. So, go to https://peteenns.com/ to register and hope to see you there.

Now, today’s topic is spirit, wind, and breath of God in the Bible, and our guest is Jack Levinson. Jack is, besides being a great guy, he is a professor of Old Testament and he has written a lot about the Holy Spirit before Christianity. In fact, his latest book is called The Holy Spirit Before Christianity, sort of makes sense. And here’s a question that I have heard a lot, I’ve asked, and I get this question too. It’s about the Holy Spirit, and do we find the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament as we do in the New, and I think the common sort of reflex answer for Christians is to say, “well, hmm, dang if I know. No? I don’t think so. Not really?” You know, things like that. But Jack’s answer is “uh, yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.” Cause you see the terms spirit, wind, and breath are important. Spirit, wind, and breath – they’re actually the same Hebrew word, just translated differently. And it’s fine to translate that word differently in different contexts, but we shouldn’t miss the overlap of meanings between those words. That’s really the point. And with that, that’s sort of what Jack’s gonna talk about. So, let’s go to the interview and let Jack speak for himself.

[Music begins]

Jack: There is a message for the American church; it’s to learn to breathe again. When we are feeling our breath deep within us, when we are allowing that breath to roll over our tongues in words of truth and integrity, we are the people of the spirit. It’s not the dangly, shiny, things that make us people of the spirit, it’s the deep ability to breathe and slow down and let our souls catch up and be people of integrity.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well welcome, Jack, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People.

Jack: Thanks, good to be here.

Pete: Yeah, good to have you. Fantastic!

Jared: Well, you know, we think about, most people associate the Holy Spirit with the New Testament, but you spent a long time studying the spirit of God in the Old Testament as well. So just, as we launch in, what got you interested in that? It’s kind of a peculiar topic. What got you interested in that?

Jack: Well, it’s in a sense the New Testament.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jack: I mean, you can’t study the New Testament without the Old Testament and with the Judaism that made Jesus and the apostle Paul who they were. So basically, trying to understand the New Testament is like beginning a book about three quarters of the way through. Can’t do it. So, I had to go to the Old and I had to go into Judaism, and I’ve loved it ever since.

Pete: Yeah. Well, I’m guessing that one reason why people, why Christians really associate the Holy Spirit more with the New Testament probably, I’m just riffing here, maybe you know better. It’s trinitarian language. You know, we think of the trinity, a Holy Spirit as a separate person, and we don’t have this separate person of the trinity in the Old Testament, I guess. And so maybe they just associate it more but, I guess you’ve uncovered a lot more than just that, right?

Jack: Yeah, I actually had a book just come out in September called The Holy Spirit Before Christianity. And I actually argue in that book that five hundred years before Christianity, the Israelites saw the Holy Spirit as a person.

Pete: Oh!

Jack: So, we’ve got a blow out of the water the sense that all of a sudden, the power of the Old Testament became a person in the New Testament. Historically, it’s not true. Didn’t happen that way.

Jared: Well, maybe before we get into the idea of personhood and these concepts with the spirit, maybe we can talk a little bit about language, because, you know, we think of spirit and we use that in English, but in the Hebrew Bible there’s a different word that’s used, or maybe a few different words, and then in the New Testament, can you just give us a little lay of the land so we can feel grounded in what we’re talking about here?


Jack: I would be happy to. So, there’s one word in the Hebrew Bible called ruah, it’s sort of clearing your throat, ruah, and it gets translated into English as wind, or as breath, or as Spirit with a capital “S”, or as spirit with a “s”, but it’s one Hebrew word. That Hebrew word, and this is the killer, that Hebrew word occurs three hundred and seventy-eight times in the Hebrew Bible. That’s more than the word Sabbath, that’s more than the word shalom, that’s more than the word covenant, so a lot more than any of those words you have this Hebrew word ruah, but it gets sort of sliced and diced in English translations and just, they have to decide, does this mean breath, or spirit, or wind, or Spirit with a capital “S”.? And what I’ve tried to suggest in a lot of my writing is that you can’t slice it and dice it that way. That they belong together, so three hundred and seventy-eight times ruah occurs in the Old Testament. And then in the New Testament of course, the word is pneuma as in pneumatic drill or a person has pneumonia. That that occurs about three hundred and seventy-nine times, so the testaments are almost equally split between ruah in the Old and pneuma in the New. And yet, they have to be translated all sorts of different ways in English.

Jared: So, maybe say a little more, because that’s interesting the, what I heard you say was the word ruah is maybe, for us, we would say, well sometimes it means wind and breath, and sometimes it means spirit, but you’re saying maybe those lines aren’t as nice and neat and what do you mean by that? They’re saying that somehow the wind and the breath is a spirit of some sort, or how do you talk about that?  

Jack: Yeah, it’s a great question and I could go on forever with it and I’ll try not to. But basically, very often you’ll see the word ruah, and people will say, oh, that’s the spirit because someone is prophesying, or that’s the spirit because they’re doing a miracle. But when ruah is wind, that’s not the spirit. But then you get a problem. So like, in Numbers 11, you have all these elders who are prophesying when the spirit from Moses is put on them. That’s the ruah, and yet, it’s never clear whether it’s the spirit from Moses or the spirit from God. So, it’s kind of ambiguous. Later in the chapter, the ruah from the Lord comes and deposits a bunch of quail. That ruah is clearly a wind, but it’s described as a ruah from the Lord and it delivers the quail. Which one is divine, and which one is merely natural? It’s actually flipped in the book of Numbers so that the spirit as wind is actually God’s spirit. Same thing at the Exodus, right?  

Pete: Yeah. 

Jack: When the blast of God’s nostrils, and it’s translated in English as “blast”, that’s the word ruahThe blast of God’s nostrils breathes, and the sea opens up. So, there is a case where ruah is spirit, wind, and breath all at once at the Exodus.  

Pete: Yeah, so, alright. Let’s push a little bit further. You really can’t separate these terms. You do have distinctives, I mean, sometimes you just have the spirit of people or something? Is that, I mean, cause that word is used a lot, but it’s not always used in ways that implicate God.  

Jack: Well, yeah. Not all are used in ways that implicate God, but it’s a little difficult to say the spirit in me is not God. 

Pete: Right.  

Jack: You know, that the breath in me, and here’s, I think one of the most important things is the book of Job. In the book of Job, he talks about the ruah, and he talks about the neshama. So, the breath in me, the spirit in me, is what gives me life. And as long as those are in me, I’m gonna have integrity and I’m gonna speak the truth. Is that the spirit of God from heaven, is that the human spirit, is that just breath, or is that something divine? And of course, it’s something divine and something deeply human. What I love about this notion of ruah is that it cuts across all the lovely dichotomies we use to make life tidy. The ruah is never tidy. It’s probably why I spent so much time on it.  

Pete: Yeah. And that’s why it takes time to sort of tease these meanings out, because –  

Jack: Processing. 

Pete: Yeah, I definitely connect with our tendency, maybe our modern western tendency influenced by the enlightenment and blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera.  

Jack: [Laughter] 


Pete: To categorize things and put things where they belong so to speak, but the ambiguity of ruah, the way you just described it in Job is very interesting. It, to put it in other language, I may say something like, the presence of God in all of us.  

Jack: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Pete: Which is a good thing to remember, and to see that in the Old Testament, not just, you know, after Pentecost or something, you know, maybe there’s something about this God that was always acting in ways we’re familiar with in the New, also acting that way in the old.  

Jack: The best theologians talk about making a connection between the spirit of creation and the spirit of salvation and not drawing a dichotomy or putting a wedge between them. And I tell ya, I tell you guys, if there is a message for the American church in a study of the spirit in the Old Testament, it’s to learn to breathe again. It is the ability to breathe. When we are feeling our breath deep within us, when we are allowing that breath to roll over our tongues in words of truth and integrity, we are the people of the spirit. 

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: It’s not the dangly, shiny things that make us people of the spirit. It’s the deep ability to breathe and slow down and let our souls catch up and be people of integrity.  

Jared: I want to go further with that, because you talk about the sparkly, dangly things. Like, I would have grown up in a tradition where the spirit of God was associated with the exceptional and the particular sort of miraculous things and speaking in tongues, and what I hear you saying, what Pete said is the spirit of God is the presence of God in each of us. That’s a very democratizing universal experience, and so in the same way I would’ve grown up thinking, you know, the spirit of God comes upon you when you become a Christian. And it sounds like with this Old Testament blurring of breath and spirit it’s harder to make the case that way. Is that the implications of what we’re saying?  

Jack: Yeah, you said it really well, in fact. It made me feel like I explained myself okay, yes! You said it exactly as it should be said. 

Jared: Could I just clarify then, so you’re saying that the Holy Spirit then is in everyone in this sense.  

Jack: Yes. And no, I don’t think you need the caveat “in this sense.” So, if you read the book of Genesis, you have Joseph. If you read the book of Exodus, you have Bezalel, Oholiab, and the artisans both male and female who have ruah in them and then you move into Numbers and the ruah brings the quail. I mean, throughout the Old Testament, all the way into the book of Daniel where I think the word occurs twelve times. This is a person with exceptional ruah in him. This is not the spirit of salvation versus the spirit of creation. They are one and the same. Let’s throw away the dichotomies. Let’s throw away should it be a capital “S” or a small “s”. Is it God’s spirit or the human spirit? Let’s stop doing that. I think the way you said it was beautiful, Jared. So, it’s all one and the same. And we need to stop saying, oh, they’re a Christian, they have the spirit; they’re not a Christian, they must not have the spirit when we have an entire testament telling us – not true.  

Pete: But I think, I mean, I completely resonate with what you’re saying. I’m just trying to imagine what people would say in response.  

Jack: Well I know what they say in response.  

Pete: Yeah, I’m sure you do. Well, actually, I’d like, maybe, in a minute you can sort of offer some of those to help people who, you know, maybe we’re not gonna get to all those objections and what Jared and I are thinking, but people do say, you know, I’ve got the Holy Spirit and therefore I can interpret the Bible right or whatever. But there is language like that, isn’t that, in the New Testament, at least it seems like it. People receiving the Holy Spirit in a special kind of way.  

Jack: Absolutely. I think there is receiving, I think there is receiving the Holy Spirit to do particular things in the community in the world. I think there is that, but the language of filling doesn’t necessarily mean taking something empty and pouring something into it. The language of filling can also mean taking what’s there and sort of frothing it up, so I think of Pentecost. Perhaps they receive the spirit. I mean, it sounds like that. Jesus seems to suggest that they receive power from on high, but I don’t think that means what they did as human beings prior to that time is completely excluded. I think there is the movement of spirit or even receiving further spirit that combines in such a way that it combusts into something really powerful.  

Pete: Yeah.  


Jack: So, let me give you the example at Pentecost. They, they’re filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of the father and what do they say? They speak the praiseworthy acts of God, which, you know, as you two know, needs nothing more than the mighty acts of God from creation all the way up to Jesus. They didn’t learn anything new with the gift of the spirit. The gift of the spirit enabled them to communicate what they had studied.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jack: So, it’s not like they, what they said was given to them. What they said they had studied to learn and then the spirit communicated it to a multi-cultural group of people. Does that make sense?  

Pete: Yeah, it does. Maybe it’s a little bit, if I’m tracking you correctly, it’s a little bit analogous to saying it’s not like God’s presence isn’t with anyone until Jesus, even though that’s maybe a different kind of “filling,” a different kind of presentation. Maybe a clearer, or bigger, or more meaty kind of presentation of God’s presence. Does that make sense?  

Jack: Yeah, it does.  

Pete: But not really, does it?  


Jack: Well, no it does. No, I agree with you and I’m not –  

Pete: It isn’t like God’s not around and cares or loves people until Jesus, right? And we say that about the Holy Spirit. Like, the Holy Spirit is really not, maybe a couple of prophets, but that’s about it. You know, and we have to wait for Pentecost, now everybody gets to have the spirit.  

Jack: Yeah, it’s really, it’s amazing watching Christians either not read the Old Testament at all when it comes to the Spirit or read the Old Testament and place some of these categories that can’t possibly fit. So, one of them is, oh, the spirit came intermittently in the Old Testament, but it’s permanent in the New. Of course, then, you read the Old Testament, and most texts don’t suggest it’s intermittent at all. The Messiah of Isaiah 11, the architects of the tabernacle, Daniel – three generations he had ruah in him. So, no. It’s not intermittent in the Old Testament. The other kind of formula they use is it’s a power in the Old Testament, but a person in the New.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: No, it’s a person in the Old Testament as well. So, I think Christians, I think what we often do is we don’t read the Old Testament to begin with. But if we read it, we read it with categories that have determined the story from the start. And I’m not sure that’s super helpful. 

Pete: No.  

Jared: Yeah, I agree. I agree. One other thing, just because this is my only other text that may need some explanation in my mind, is in John where Jesus says sort of, no, no, listen – you want me to go away because when I go, someone else is coming who will guide you into all truth. And is that a similar kind of thing? I’m just trying to figure out how to put that into this narrative here.  

Jack: Well that’s a really good question and John is the hardest one to put into this narrative. Not so much from those passages as in chapter seven where he says, “as of yet, there was no spirit.” The spirit was not yet given. And so, you say, well, the spirit was not yet given, that kind of blows my whole thesis, doesn’t it? Except for the fact that if you go back a few chapters to Nicodemus in chapter three and the Samaritan woman in chapter four, he’s telling them they can have the spirit. So, if chapter seven says the spirit was not yet given, it’s a little hard to understand the conversations Jesus is having that basically says the spirit can be yours, it could bubble up, it could spring up. Here’s what this wonderful Pentecostal theologian called Frank Macchia –  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jack: Teaches out at Vanguard University. Frank did, he did a response to one of my books, and in it, he said, we bask in the revivalist glow of the spirit, but that doesn’t mean we have to suggest that everything was dark before we received the spirit, that everything outside of our reception is dark. And I think sometimes as Christians, we feel that we need to make everything else so dark, so that our reception of the spirit is sort of the defining moment.  

Pete: Yeah, special. Yeah, better.  

Jack: By making everything else dark, we make ours lighter. It’s sort of the bully mentality, right? If we could push everybody else down into the dirt, then we’re fine.  

Pete: Yeah, that’s the history of theology.  

Jack: [Laughter]  

I’m not a theologian.  

Pete: Sorry, that’s the cynicism coming through, okay, anyway.  

Jared: But I think that’s, I, maybe speaking to that, because I do think that’s fair. I would almost say it, cause I tend to maybe psychologize this more. I think it’s, there’s a fear of Christianity not being unique, and so, if you create these common threads of, hey, the spirits presence is all over the Old Testament as well, it leaves the question of okay, then what’s unique about the Christian story?  


Jack: That’s exactly the kind of question I receive. Well, it’s usually put in terms of can Jews have the Holy Spirit? And of course, it’s a one answer question for me – yes. And it does separate me from many people. Now, I’ve been on evangelical radio shows where the people have been very gracious and kept asking the question to see, and they really wanted to know. But, I think, and you all know this, when you read your Bible carefully, it shatters the categories you usually come to it with.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Jack: And so, what I’ve done is basically read my Bible about a topic that’s largely neglected – the Holy Spirit – and it shattered my categories. I thought, oh my gosh, the spirit is in everyone. The spirit is in every, the spirit is there in the seventeenth Hebrew word of Genesis 1, you know, hovering over the chaos. And the spirit is very much there doing an awful lot of things and inspiring an awful lot of people before Jesus ever came onto the scene. Which I, as a Methodist, is great for me, cause I believe in prevenient grace, I believe that God goes before us. And there’s a wonderful missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, who basically said our job in mission is to see where the spirit is already at work and get ourselves there. 

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: I love that image of living in the spirit, it’s not what I have, it’s the spirit’s working outside of me and it’s my job to discern and look and be alert and get myself there.  

[Music begins] 

[Producers group endorsement] 

[Music ends] 


Jared: So, that kind of does lead me into what I was, my next question, which was, Pete mentioned earlier, you know, some people think, well, I have the spirit of God, so when I read the Bible, I can trust my interpretation because the spirit is there. And you mentioned, you know, Newbigin’s “see where the spirit of God is.” How do we discern that, you know? I think of, you were just mentioning John, where Jesus kind of says the spirit kind of goes where it wishes, it blows where it wants. And so, it’s this weird, there’s this wildness to it, but there’s also, if it’s too wild, how do we discern then? Have you come across as, now we’re kind of moving from the academic study of this to some practical things, but have you found ways to talk about that?  

Jack: I have. I’m not sure they’re adequate. I think discerning the spirit is the great task of today. So, I think, there’s a scholar called Michael Welker, who wrote a book called God the Spirit, and he, believe it or not, was looking at 1 Kings 22 in the story of Micaiah ben Imlah, a prophet – 

Pete: Oh my, yeah.  

Jack: And he gave criteria for discerning the spirit, and one of them is the consensus is not truth. So, that if everybody is agreeing on something, that does not make it true. But often, something is true because it goes against the consensus. And this is from the story in 1 Kings 22 of Micaiah ben Imlah. Something else that I think is a discernment is, does it cost you anything to believe what you believe, or is it something that sort of establishes you in the status quo? I’d be suspicious of anything that makes us comfortable in the status quo. So, consensus is not truth, the status quo is not the spirit. And I, and Jared, you said this earlier, I do not think the spirit should be associated with the spectacular and the exceptional. I think that is really a problem of interpretation. I mean, the only reason we know about speaking in tongues, essentially, is that the Corinthians got it wrong. They made a mock of it.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: Otherwise, Paul would never have touched it. We only know about it because they made it more spectacular than it should’ve been – the experience. So, I also think a principle of discernment should be spectacular is not the spirit. Consensus is not the spirit. The status quo is not the spirit, and the spectacular is not the spirit.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: I think the spirit is found in far quieter corners of our world.  

Pete: Well also, I mean, I agree with what you’re saying and not to play games with words, but in a way the breath of life is rather spectacular when we stop to think about it, but we know what we mean. The non-ordinary, so to speak, and, you know, the spirits presence. I mean, the older I get, the more I see the wisdom in what you’re saying, Jack, with the quiet places and when you’re left alone to think through things in the presence of God in your midst is, that’s good enough. That’s actually pretty good. It’s, you don’t need the firecrackers and things like that.  

Jack: And, you know, frankly, in today’s political world, I worry about people who have the firecrackers and then don’t see the injustice around us.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: You know, I’ve probably become more critical of Pentecostals than I would have been, maybe, four years ago because I think some of the discernment, much of the discernment has to do with, again, our world, not my experience.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: And you know, another thing you said, as you get older, you know, I’m sixty-three now, and I’ve had a couple ablations from my heart, and that sort of, plenty of physical things, and one of the great miracles of life is that my heart sometimes beats steady –  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: And that I can feel my breath coming into my body, and sometimes, I say things that actually matter to people. Those are real miracles and to suggest that something has to be exceptional to be miraculous sounds sometimes a little young to me.  

Pete: Yeah, right. Well can I, you mentioned John, and I’m really intrigued by what you said about the spirit being given earlier on in John, at least the promise of that spirit being given earlier on. But Jesus calls the spirit the comforter, so what do you think of that?  

Jack: Aw, I feel terrible breaking down all these notions, but obviously the comforter is –  

Pete: Somebody has to do it.  


Jack: Well, yeah, but it’s not really kind of my nature. I guess maybe it’s more my nature than I want to admit. The Greek word, as you well know even as you ask the question, is parakletosparaclete, which means something called alongside. And it could mean everything from a comforter, to an advocate in a courtroom, to an angelic messenger who like the angel that interprets things for Daniel would be parakletos, the people at Job, when standing with Job are bad parakletores. So, the word can mean comfort, but I tend to think that’s probably not the best translation in the Gospel of John where the spirit comes and stands alongside a beleaguered community that is in desperate need of help as it’s being increasingly pushed onto the margins. So, I don’t think comfort is the word, the spirit of truth leads them into all the truth, which I think means leads them into the truth of what Jesus said and did, so it sort of leads them back to the past. So, it comes alongside them. Pete, you’re a teacher! What’s our best moment? Our best moment is when we come alongside a student and help them to understand what they’re struggling with, and at the end they look at you and they say, oh! That’s what I think the Holy Spirit is in the Gospel of John, standing alongside the community, helping them to understand what they haven’t yet understood about Jesus.  

Pete: Well if you were, if you were translating that for a Bible translation, would you use a different word or a cluster of words rather than comforter?  

Jack: I wouldn’t use advocate. I tend to cheat and take the cowardly way and use paraclete. I just transliterate it because I don’t –  

Pete: [Laughter] 

When in doubt… 

Jack: Yeah, when in doubt, transliterate, right? Baptism, paraclete. But I don’t think, you know, there’s not a lot in the Greek Old Testament to help us with that. So, I think allowing the paraclete’s activities in probably a better way to understand the paraclete than to try and find a translation. Advocate, advocate is okay, but it’s so impersonal.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: Comforter is far too passive for what’s going on in John’s gospel with the conflict between light and dark.  

Pete: Right.  

Jack: So, I’ll cheat. I’ll take the coward’s way out – paraclete – there ya go.  

Pete: Sounds like that’s an article –  

Jack: Do you have a better, you’ve been asking the question. Do you have a better idea?  

Pete: No! I don’t. I mean, I was thinking of bystander, but that doesn’t sound good either. Somebody who stands by you.  

Jack: No, that would be spectator.  

Pete: That would be Pete’s really bad translation of the New Testament.  

Jack: Well, I’ve got no translation at all.  

Pete: Yeah, well. That’s cause you’re smart enough to know you can’t have one.  

Jack: No, I think it’s because I’ve got no translation at all.  

Pete: Okay, because, I mean, that’s a passage people know something about. They’ve heard it, it’s rather common. The other one Jared mentioned before, alluding to the story of Nicodemus where, you know, they’re going back on this little pharisaical back and forth where Jesus says you have to be born from above and Nicodemus says, well how does that happen? Do I climb back in? I mean, I don’t understand. He’s just, you know, egging him onto a conversation or a debate, but then Jesus has that line that really comes out of nowhere in a sense, at least, you know, from a casual reading of it where, you know, the spirit blows where it wills. And like, what, I mean, what sense do you have of what Jesus is trying to communicate in that story to this figure Nicodemus by saying that?  

Jack: Well I think, first of all, it’s a wonderful play on ruah, that the spirit is wind, breath, and spirit all at once, so the ruah blows where it wills like in the Old Testament, back to the Old Testament where the ruah blew from the east and brought quail or where the ruah moved among the people. So, I think it gives freedom to the spirit. I think helpful there is later on in the chapter where it says the spirit, the pneuma in this case, the spirit is given without measure. And I think what’s happening in John 3 and 4, and you gotta take these as pairs, as you know. You got Nicodemus and then the Samaritan woman. He comes, it he says he comes at night, but I think it means he comes at dawn, like someone seeking a rabbi, but that’s another story. So, he comes in the late watches of the night and she comes at mid-day, but both of them, notice, are offered the spirit without measure. Nicodemus is offered the spirit wind that can blow as it will, and she’s offered the spirit springing up from the earth. So, what I love about John 3 and 4 is the immeasurable gift of the spirit blowing where it wills, bubbling up from the ground. And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on there.  

Jared: Well, could we, just cause I want to make sure I’m understanding and just for our listeners too. This interplay, so you’ve been going back to the Old Testament where it seems to be, there’s not a clear line between wind, breath, and spirit. What is the, what would you say is the relationship? Is that a purposeful ambiguity that we, there isn’t a distinction and that the people of the Old Testament wouldn’t have made a distinction between those three things?  


Jack: Yeah, you really, you hit it again right on the nose. I think there’s deliberate ambiguity. I think there’s a play on the ambiguity and so they don’t want to divide between God’s breath and our spirit. It’s sort of the English language that’s weaker than Hebrew, and so we have to divide. We have to say, oh my gosh, is this spirit, breath, wind, or Spirit with a capital “S”? And they use ruah and I think they play, they play on the ambiguity in Genesis 1, the ruah hovering. Is that God’s breath? Is that the wind? Is that the spirit? And so, you’ll have the NIV translating Genesis 1 as Spirit with a capital “S”, and the liberal NRSV translating it as the wind of God. Is it a wind? Is it a spirit? Yes. It is.  

Pete: [Chuckles] 

Jack: And I think, I think, Jared, you hit the nail on the head. Deliberate ambiguity, and it’s why every time I try to leave writing on the spirit, I keep being drawn back in because I love the ambiguity because the older I get, the more ambiguous life seems to become.  

Jared: Hmm.  

Pete: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting the way you just put that, at least the way I’m putting these pieces together. The ambiguity, I mean, it may be more for us an ambiguity than it is for them. This is just where my thinking is right now, because they, the ancients didn’t have these categories that we have. So, they have, you know, I mean, I’m just, again, I may just be totally making this up, tell me I’m crazy. But, you know, wind and breath and spirit, I mean, the wind that comes out of me when I breathe –  

Jack: Uh huh.  

Pete: And the wind that’s around me, well, how is that coming about? This is maybe a divine breath, a divine wind, and it’s the spirit of God which is a spirit in us. And, you know, it’s maybe like one of those Venn diagrams. You know, you’ve got this, a lot of overlap between these terms and the need to distinguish them is our need, it’s not their need. They just didn’t think that way. They thought in a more, like, even evolutionary biologists who were Christians who were thinking about the interrelatedness, interconnectedness of all of life; maybe they were already there. They were thinking along those lines holistically about creation, and not segmenting and diving into parts.  

Jack: I agree. The people I respect, the people I love, the woman I live with now… I mean, my wife of thirty-seven years.  


Pete: Your wife? I was gonna ask.  


Jack: It happens to be woman I live with now. I mean, I pray with her, I live with her. I work. She has an office at SMU just like, right down the hall from me and I wouldn’t begin to say, oh, wow, that was the Holy Spirit. Oh, no, that was your human spirit at work. Oh, you were just breathing then.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jack: I would never think to take the people whom I love and respect the most and try to divvy up whether it’s, is it breath in her, is it wind around her, is it her small spirit or the big spirit, that would do her a great disservice. It’s the whole of it. I mean, the older she gets, the more I see a melding between the divine and human in her life.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Jack: The less I can detect any edge between her human inclinations, and we’re Methodists so we talk about sanctification. This is sanctification. I live with a woman who is like that for whom it would be an insult to try to say, oh, you experienced the spirit just then! When she is in the spirit even when she is doing very ordinary quotidian things.  

Jared: Hmm. So yeah, maybe you could speak to this, because I, I mean, you know, my background is more in philosophy and ethics, and I think there’s a lot of ethical implications of what you’re saying. So, maybe, can you just share a few of those for your own life as you’ve studied this in the text, what are some of the practical out-workings? You shared a little bit of how you see your wife in a new way in that, but are there other ethical implications of equality or other things that you’ve noticed?  

Jack: Oh my, yes. But I’m not sure I’m your best example. She’s a much better example. But the first thing I would say is, people who know how to breathe are often people who have virtue. So, I think people living in the ruah moment by moment are people I have learned to respect. Quieter spirits which are inspired spirits. So, number one, I think –  

Pete: Christian or not.  

Jack: Christian or not, yeah.  

Pete: Right, yeah.  


Jack: People who breathe, yeah. Not Christians who breathe. People who know how to breathe and live into the daily miracle of life are people who are inspired, in my opinion. Secondly, people who have a hunger to know Jesus. I know this sounds trite, but all through the New Testament, and I’ve done some pretty serious work on the New Testament. What I see time and again is that the spirit inspires them to go back to Jesus. So, in the book of Acts, they’re moving back to understand Jesus in the light of the Old Testament. The book of John, I think the promise is leading into the truth of Jesus through the Old Testament. So, people who are not hungry to worship necessarily, or hungry to do things, but really still have a hunger to know Jesus, I think is really important. So, people who breathe, people who want to know Jesus, who study Jesus – I think people who are willing to live in community because the spirit transcends another dichotomy; transcends the individual and the communal, so people who are committed to community. And then finally, people who are very committed to justice. To working in the world, to overturn the status quo. We cannot be people of Pentecost unless we take seriously that the slaves will prophesy, that the young women will prophesy, that the old men will dream dreams, that the people on the margins, the people excluded – these are the people of Pentecost. And so, I think maybe those four things, and I can’t even remember what they are because I can’t repeat them. But those are four signs of the spirit, you know, I think: breathing, yearning to learn about Jesus, living in community, and really wanting to upend our world.  

Pete: Well that is a great note to end on, and that’s a very practical set of pointers for us. So, just in closing then, do you have anything in the works at this moment, or are there places where people can reach you? Are you active on social media or are you more, like, in your cave?  

Jack: Oh no, I have a very old website. My dog was on the website and she died two years ago, which tells you how old my website is.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jack: But I got some projects, I had the book Holy Spirit Before Christianity come out in September, and I have a book coming out with Baker Academic, which I really love, called A Boundless God: The Spirit According to the Old Testament

Pete: Hmm.  

Jack: And then later in the year, I have another Baker Academic book, which I just submitted to them in October, called An Unconventional God: The Holy Spirit According to Jesus, and those are kind of companion books. A Boundless God, and then An Unconventional God. And you can tell from that title that I really, I really think understanding the Holy Spirit through the life of Jesus changes how we understand God.  

Pete: Hmm, yeah.  

Jack: So that’s a whole fresh approach that will be out probably in October, I think. So those projects are on the docket.  

Jared: You’ve done a lot of thinkin’ about this spirit thing.  

Pete: The Holy Spirit must be with you.  

Jack: Uh, I, I, –  

Pete: Or did I just miss the whole point of the lesson?  


Jack: No, I, yeah, the Holy Spirit I think is in conversations like this.  

Jared: Alright, we should probably end this before Pete puts his foot in his mouth again.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jack: No!  

Jared: [Laughter] 

Jack: I am so glad to be here with you guys, this is really –  

Pete: Yeah, it’s been great Jack, thanks so much, we appreciate it!  

Jack: Thank you.  

Jared: Thanks so much.  

Jack: Bye bye.  

Pete: See ya.  

[Music begins] 

Pete: Hey, thanks for listening folks, be sure to check out Jack’s latest book, the Holy Spirit Before Christianity, and don’t forget – How To Read The Bible Like Adults, our live, pay what you want course, coming March 26th, 8:30 PM Eastern Time, input https://peteenns.com/. Thanks for listening folks and see ya next time!  

[Music ends] 

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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.

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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.