Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Rediscovering Jonah- Part 1

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared begins his solo series on Jonah by taking a closer look at its genre and themes as he explores the following questions:

  • Why is the book of Jonah personally significant for Jared?
  • Why is asking about the historicity of Jonah a bad question? 
  • What are some of the major themes of Jonah?
  • What makes Jonah a unique biblical book?
  • What are some significant literary features of Jonah?
  • Why is it important for some people to read Jonah as historical?
  • What did Jesus have to say about Jonah?
  • When was Jonah written and how do we know?
  • Where else is Jonah mentioned in the Bible?
  • How does the book of Amos relate to Jonah?
  • Why is it significant that Jonah calls himself a “Hebrew”?
  • Why would the story of Jonah been upsetting to its original readers?


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

  • “[Jonah] plays off of what people would have expected from other prophetic books, and that’s what makes it satire.” @jbyas
  • “If we spend our time trying to prove that it is historically accurate or trying to prove how big our faith is by proving that a fish can swallow a grown man, my worry or my concern is that we actually miss the point of the book.” @jbyas
  • “To respect biblical books, we have to ask what kind of book it is.” @jbyas
  • “I don’t think… it matters one way or the other if you think the story actually took place or not, as long as you recognize that the value of the book isn’t about its historicity, but it’s in the message it’s trying to tell through this humorous, critical account of this character named Jonah.” @jbyas
  • “The point of fiction is to relate to our real lives in profound ways.” @jbyas
  • “What does God’s kindness mean and how does it relate to justice?” @jbyas
  • “[Jonah] highlights some of the unhelpful practices that some Christians have when they read their Bibles.” @jbyas

Mentioned in This Episode

Powered by RedCircle

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: Hey everybody. This episode is going to be a solo podcast by me, and it’s actually going to be the first part in a series. I was inspired by Pete doing “Pete Ruins Exodus,” and that’s Pete’s gig. He ruins books. But, I’m gonna call this “Rediscovering Jonah.” We’re gonna do a series on the book of Jonah, do a deep dive here, and it will be a handful of episodes. I don’t exactly know how long it will be. But it will be longer than, for those of you who have been listening to the podcast from the beginning, the first episode I did on Jonah. So, I’d ask those of you who have heard that to bear with me. There will be some overlap here in the first episode, but I want you to do like I tell my kids to do about the Rocky series. We’re just gonna treat it like it never happened, like we do with Rocky V, right? We just go from IV to Rocky Balboa; we just pretend that V never happened.  So, I would encourage you to do that. There will be more here than even the first episode, there will be more, even in this episode, and then we’ll just go from there.

So, we’re going to take this first one here to talk about the big picture of the book. What kind of book is it, and tackle that one question that everyone asks, we gotta get it out of the way at the front is – is Jonah historically accurate – and I’m gonna talk about why that’s a bad question. And, of course, that’s what we’re gonna do. But then, in subsequent episodes, again, a handful – one, two, three – I’m not sure. We’re gonna do a deeper dive into each one of the chapters and draw out some of the richer themes about this beautifully written, wonderful messaged book called the book of Jonah. And we’ll just take it as it comes.

So, just to set us up, I want to talk about the few reasons why I really like the book of Jonah and thought it was worth doing a series on. So, first, it’s personally significant for me. So, when I was a pastor, I shared this in that other episode, this was a significant book for me to get through my transition. So, you know, it’s one thing to go through a deconstruction, period. I just would say it has an added layer of challenge when your paycheck depends on you not changing your mind about the Bible and what it is. And so, it was a particularly difficult time for me of how do I wrestle with being true to myself and the questions that I was asking, while also wanting to not damage anyone’s faith and not bring the congregation kicking and screaming along with me in my journey, but letting them, respecting their journey and their stories, while also wanting to be truthful about where I was, and also be honest about what I was seeing in the text of the Bible. So, it was a really confusing and challenging time for me, and the book of Jonah was one that I really grappled with during that time, resonated with, and connected with in addition to the book of Ecclesiastes was also a real help for me in that time. So, it’s personally significant. So, I have this heart for the book of Jonah.

But not just that, not just personally, but I think also critically, it highlights some of the unhelpful practices that some Christians have when they read their Bibles. And we’ll talk about some of that. Some of that today, and some of that throughout this book.

And thirdly, it’s small enough to get our hands around and yet touches on some of the themes we find throughout the Bible. So, I think it’s a really good book to focus on for a little bit to talk about things like repentance, and what does it mean to be God’s people, and some of these bigger themes, theological themes that we find throughout the Bible and maybe there’s some relevancy for us, but really want to highlight and talk about and focus on the book itself. So, this is The Bible for Normal People after all.

So again, we’ll start with the big picture, kinda what is the book about, then we’ll dive into each chapter from there and talk about some of the central themes and points. Of course, we won’t get into everything because as small as this book is, which in English Bibles, it’s a few pages. It’s only four chapters, it doesn’t take up much room at all. You’d be amazed at the amount of articles and full books, scholarly books, written on just this book. There is a lot that we could cover, but it does really get into the weeds. We move out of Bible for Normal People and into Bible for nerds pretty quickly, so we’ll try to avoid that.  But I do want to go into some more detail throughout the series.


So, let’s start with this. What kind of book is Jonah? Jonah, I’m gonna argue, is a satire or maybe a satirical parable is a better way of saying it. It’s stylized fiction with a theological point. Now, it’s important that we start with what kind of book Jonah is because as one of my old professors used to say all the time – that genre triggers reading strategy. All that means is we have to figure out what kind of book it is first so that we know how to read the book. So, genre matters. And that’s important because there’s a debate in the book of Jonah, or on the book of Jonah between people, especially in more lay-circles and pastoral circles on whether Jonah is historically accurate book or not, or is it a different kind of genre that’s less focused on history? And of course, I’m gonna say it’s less focused on history. It’s not trying to argue in historically accurate ways. That’s not the point of the book. It has a theological point, and there’s some stylized fiction that is a lot of reasons why I’m gonna argue that it’s satire.

So, let’s go through some of these reasons. First, if we compare it to other prophets, we see some stark differences, right? So, and if you look in your Bibles, the book of Jonah is right smack there in what’s called the book of the twelve. It’s the minor prophets is another name for them, and they name those books tend to name the kings, the historical situation, kind of situate it in historical, with historical details. But with Jonah, all that’s left out. It’s almost like trying to be this universalizable fairy tale. In some ways, it reads like the book of Job. So, if you read Job, there’s not a lot of context clues for when it’s written, where it’s written, you know there’s, it doesn’t necessarily even situate it in Israel, so Israel isn’t even mentioned in the book of Jonah. So, there’s a sense of universality to it. No names, there’s no dates, but it does have a lot of narrative details. It describes things in unique ways, in very colorful ways, in very stylized ways. So, that’s one reason. When we compare it to the other prophets, it leads us to think this isn’t the same kind of book.

It also ignores the strange relationship between Assyria and Israel. And if you read other prophetic books, Amos, Joel, those around Jonah, you’ll see there is a direct connection between the sinfulness of Israel and these foreign nations who are going to be agents of God’s judgement and we don’t get any of that in the book of Jonah. There’s not even a mention of Assyria as a people group. We have Nineveh, which is a city, and interestingly enough, which it points another reason why it may not be helpful to read it as historically accurate, is Nineveh is said to have a king, but cities usually don’t have kings. States, nation states, meaning countries – they have kings. But in this story, Nineveh, the city, has a king. And the king is not named, it’s just the king of Nineveh.

And then another reason if we compare it to the other prophets that we find, other minor prophet books, the book of the twelve, are largely poetic in style. So, if you read in your Bible, you’ll see a lot of formatting that looks like poetry. And Jonah is largely gonna be narrative, it’s gonna be a story. And another example of this, when we compare it to the prophets, is that the other minor prophets are filled with God’s words to the people, and so the prophet is a messenger of this message. But Jonah is largely devoid of God’s words. We actually only have four instances of God speaking. All of them, actually, are to Jonah. We don’t actually have the message that God wanted Jonah to share directly from God, which is very different, than again, if you read the books around Jonah in your Bible, you’ll see the message from the Lord, and then it gives the message that the prophet is presumably sharing to the people. But we don’t have this here.


We have four instances of God speaking in general, and they’re actually all to Jonah. In verse two of chapter one, God says to “go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” And then in chapter three, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, after, you know, he goes through the whole fish ordeal. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” But we don’t actually hear from God’s mouth what that message is. All we hear is in chapter three, verse four, Jonah giving this message – “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. And then in chapter four, we have a dialog between Jonah and God, and God says, “is it right for you to be angry?” And then a few verses later, asks again, “is it right for you to be angry?” And then we have this little commentary from God. This is the longest speaking gig that God gets in the book of Jonah. The Lord says, “you have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” So, God does get the last word. Those are the final words of the book, but that’s really all that we have in the book. It just reads very differently than the other prophets.

So, why is it in with the prophets is a good question. Well, in some ways it still is prophetic narrative. If you read the stories of say, Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 5, you’ll see some similarities in this. And remember, in the Jewish Bible, we think of Samuel and Kings and historical books in Christianity. But for Judaism, they’re actually part of the prophetic corpus. They’re part of the prophet books. They’re actually called the former prophets because they focus on Elijah and Elisha the prophets and others around the Kings. So, just remember, in the Jewish way of organizing the books, the narratives of Elijah and Elisha would actually be prophet as well because they’re about the prophet. And that’s what Jonah is more, it’s about the prophet. So, at the very least, it plays off of what people would have expected from other prophetic books, and that’s what makes it satire. So, satire is taking a form that we would recognize and turning it on its head. In a lot of ways, this is prophetic satire.

So, it starts out the same way as most of the prophetic books. The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai. That’s the common context clue, or genre clue, for being prophetic. But then, the very next statement makes us think that something else is going on, because Jonah arises and we think he’s gonna go do what God has asked him to do, but he doesn’t. He runs away. So now we know something is up. This is where the satirical clues begin, right? We start the way we expect, but then by the second verse, we know something is awry. In this way, you know, in a lot of ways actually, Jonah is painted as the anti-prophet.

So, if we look at, say, the book of Hosea, which is there right around the book of Jonah in our Bibles, the word of the Lord comes to Hosea, go marry a prostitute, chapter one. And he does it without question! And so, Hosea goes and marries this prostitute, you know. Name your, and then later, go to your wayward wife who has committed adultery, and be there for her, reengage with her, have some reconciliation with her, and he does. So, we have this contrast, even with the book of Hosea, and I pick that because those are some extreme examples of what God would require of a prophet, just to get the message across to God’s people. And Hosea just does it right away. And then Jonah, all Jonah is asked to do is to go and proclaim this message to Assyria, essentially, to Nineveh, and he runs away.

Now, we’re not sure why at this point. Maybe, for those who would be reading this story, and we’ll talk a little bit about the date of this, they would have in mind, well of course Jonah wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh, because the Assyrians were known for their brutality, and if you were an enemy of the Assyrians, you wouldn’t want to get caught up in preaching a message of repentance or whatever it is, the message that needs to be shared if you’re an enemy of Israel because who knows what’s going to happen to you. So, a lot of people might have assumed it’s because he was afraid. Later in the book, we’ll see maybe that’s not the case. But it plays again, off what people would have expected from the prophetic books.


Now, another reason why I would not put it in the history category, but put it in the satire category, or put it as different than these other prophetic books, is the literary style, the way it’s written. So, if you read carefully, and it’s only two pages, so you can read it carefully, you’ll see that there’s all kinds of fun stuff going on here. So, let’s talk about a few of, we’ll talk more about these fun things as we go through the book, but just for arguments sake, lets just talk about a few that help us know we’re in parable territory.

So, the first is we have these rhetorical devices like personification. So, if you remember back to tenth grade English when you learned about personification, that’s giving inanimate objects human-like qualities. So, we have this interesting thing in the first chapter, and this ties to the theme that we’ll see in the first chapter of who really is a God-fearing person, or even a God-fearing thing? So, for instance, in chapter one, the ship is given human verbs. So, the only time an inanimate object is given this idea of thinking about or reckoning is here in chapter one, verse five, when the ship reckons or thinks about breaking up. And then a few verses later, the sea stops its rage. And again, this word rage is often reserved for the rage of a person, a king, in 2 Chronicles. So, it stops its rage. So, in this way, in some personified way, the ship is afraid of God, the sea is enraged; and yet we have Jonah not really being bothered by all this. He’s asleep. But this personification gives us this stylistic sense, this is satire. It’s humorous. When you’re reading this, you’re thinking, what do you mean the ship is thinking about breaking up or considering breaking up? Ships don’t consider things, and the same with the sea.

We also have a lot of hyperbole, which again, sorry to bring you back to English class, but hyperbole is this exaggeration or way of exaggerating things. And the way that the book of Jonah does this, is everything is great, or everything is big, on a big scale. So, we see this throughout a lot in chapter one. So, Nineveh is a great city, and the way you give hyperbole in Hebrew is you double it. I’m oversimplifying here, but you double the word and that makes it, you know, exceedingly great, or things like that. So, we have Nineveh is a great city, and Yahweh hurls a great wind. There’s a great storm. The men don’t just throw the cargo, they hurl the cargo. They were extremely frightened, there’s a great storm. Jonah gets hurled into the sea. The men don’t just fear Yahweh, but they fear Yahweh greatly. Yahweh doesn’t appoint just a fish, but a great fish to swallow Jonah. And then, we still have Nineveh being described multiple times, even in chapter three as a great city three days journey. So, it’s a very localized tale that’s given these details that make it feel grand. And that’s something we would expect in a fiction story. So, the literary style, the humor, the irony, which we’ll talk about more.

Lastly, I just want to mention the structure of the story is very well crafted. It’s these four vignettes that we’ve identified mostly in the chapter of the English gets it a little wrong, I think. But we have kind of Jonah and the pagan sailors in chapter one, or Jonah running away from God’s call, and then we have Jonah in the fish in chapter two. We have Jonah proclaiming the message in chapter three, and then we have the aftermath of Jonah and the plant, or, you know, Jonah’s dialogue with God in chapter four. So, it’s very stylized, it’s very neat.

So, what kind of book is this? It’s satirical parable. That’s important, again, because too many people focus on this question – is Jonah telling us a historical account? We don’t know for certain whether it is or not, but all of these clues about genre tell us that it isn’t. And if we spend our time trying to prove that it is historically accurate or trying to prove how big our faith is by proving that a fish can swallow a grown man, my worry or my concern is that we actually miss the point of the book. To respect biblical books, we have to ask what kind of book it is. We would completely miss the impact and lessons of something like Aesop’s Fables if we spent all of our time and energy trying to prove that hares and tortoises can really talk, and they can really race each other. So, I don’t think, frankly, it matters one way or the other if you think the story actually took place or not, as long as you recognize that the value of the book isn’t about its historicity, but it’s in the message it’s trying to tell through this humorous, critical account of this character named Jonah.


So, I’m belaboring this because in my tradition, there was this implicit reading strategy. I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but there was this implicit reading strategy when it came to the Bible that the most faithful reading is the one where the most miraculous thing happened. There was an example in, for me, that was poignant because it got pointed out quite a bit. That say, like, in Exodus, the Bible itself says that there was an east wind that came and pushed back the waters so that the Hebrews could cross on dry land. But if you pointed that out, it was almost like you had a lack of faith, right? The proper reading is that it wasn’t a natural occurrence at all, it was God’s actual hand in some supernatural way coming and pushing the water back where everyone would’ve just said, wow! You know, what is this hand coming down from heaven? That’s not actually even what the Bible itself says! The Bible says there’s an east wind that came. But these naturalistic ways of reading the Bible, we were, in my tradition, very reactive because a lot of “liberal scholars” were trying to de-mythologize and take all the miracles out of the Bible, which is fine. I think they got some of that wrong too there. You know, those scholars tended to have an agenda, a naturalistic agenda, but then this overreaction actually causes us to miss what the Bible is actually saying.

So, in the same way here in Jonah, I think to suggest that this is a parable and not history, for my tradition growing up, was because I would’ve lacked faith that God can have a fish swallow a man. But I actually just find that reading disrespectful to the Bible because the most faithful reading, I think, is the one that respects the original author, that does the due diligence to find out what kind of book they were trying to write. What are the context clues telling us? So, for me, reading it as satire says nothing about your faith, or what you think God is or isn’t capable of.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]


Jared: Alright though, there’s one more thing I want to address before we jump into the details of the book related to reading it as history. Some people want to insist it’s historical because Jesus refers to Jonah in Matthew 12. So, in Matthew 12:38 and following, I forget how far it is, but Jesus mentions Jonah. And so, some people say, well it has to be a historical book if Jesus mentions it. So, in Matthew 12, I’m just gonna read a few of these verses. It says, “then some of the pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘teacher, we want to see a sign from you,’ and Jesus answered, ‘a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but none of you will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the son of man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.’”

Now again, not to get into Matthew 12, but if the whole point of Matthew 12 is to prove that Jonah is historically accurate, we miss the profound statement that Jesus is making about his generation and the people and religious leaders around him about repentance. But again, that’s beside the point. There’s just two quick points I want to make about this. The first one is it makes no sense to me why it needs to be historical just because Jesus mentions it. We do this all the time, right? We wish, we talk about wishing we could go on an adventure like Frodo Baggins. I have used in some of my work references to Michael Scott from The Office when I’m giving management advice. Isn’t that kind of the point of fiction? I think it’s, the point of fiction is to relate to our real lives in profound ways, so I’m not sure why Jesus would be exempt from using this thousands of years old way of relating fiction to our stories and our emotions and our communities and our societies and, I don’t, I don’t see the disconnect there.

But more importantly, I think the more conclusive reason why this doesn’t hold water for me is that Jesus himself references a historical figure in one of his parables. In Luke 16, we actually have the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. So, if you don’t know the story, a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus, who lived outside the rich man’s gate are going about their business and they both die. And we have this in verse twenty-two and following. “The time came when the beggar dies, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried in Hades where he was in torment. He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side, so he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things. But now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been set in place so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘then I beg you father, send Lazarus to my family,’” and on and on. He and Abraham continue to have a conversation. But the point is, we have Jesus here himself, creating a parable using a figure from the past and putting new words and deeds into his mouth here to make a theological point. So, Jesus himself is doing it. Now, some people might argue, no, what Jesus is doing is telling a historically accurate account of the afterlife. But that doesn’t seem, again, we have to go back to context clues, we have to do all this over again; doesn’t seem that’s the direction that this is pointing. Jesus is known for his parables, he tells all kinds of parables, doesn’t make any sense why this would be any different.

So, I think it’s fine that Jesus references Jonah. I don’t think it has to be historically accurate just because Jesus references it. He brings in Abraham into one of his parables. I think, in fact, I would say in these few hundred years around when Jesus was born, it was a pretty common occurrence that you would, because it gives authority, it gives some weight. It also makes a connection with your tradition, so that people recognize the characters in the stories. It was actually getting to be pretty common that you would take these characters and you would put new stories to them, and you would put words in their mouth, and they would give certain messages that you would want to share. I think that was a pretty common thing if you read other Second Temple Judaism works in the Second Temple period.


So, there we go. Alright, so just to round out our big picture stuff, let’s end just with a little word on who wrote the book, when, who was the historical Jonah that the author uses here, I would argue, as a foil for this work of fiction. We can tackle the author first because that’s an easy one. We have no idea. We don’t know who wrote the book of Jonah, I mean, for some reason, I don’t know why, but historically, when we want to attribute something to an author, we don’t know who wrote it, we like, pick the main character and think that they wrote it. So, you know, with Moses and the Torah, we think Moses wrote a lot of the Torah because it’s about Moses, but it seems interesting to me that that would be the case. Just because Jonah is the main character doesn’t mean Jonah wrote it. In fact, it would be weird, I think, that we would have the person who the main character be actually the author of the story. That seems, actually, strange to me. So, we have no idea who wrote Jonah.

Now when it was written is a little trickier because we can’t be certain, but we do have some ideas, at least, on when. You know, we can make some educated guesses. So, given the themes of the book, it was likely written after the exile, the Babylonian exile. So, after about 516 BCE, but we also know it was written before. So, it was written after the exile, but we also know it was written before about 190, because the book of Jonah is mentioned in another book called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. Which, this Ecclesiasticus was composed around 190. So, it was probably written between, say, 200 BCE and 500 BCE, is likely when it was written, kind of around the Persian period. Also note that when it was written is different than when it was set, right? It’s likely set at an earlier time than when it was written. And this is pretty simple for why scholars think that, and that is the characters, of course, Jonah son of Amittai, who was a real person according to the book of Kings. So, we have one mention of Jonah in the book of Kings, and he is only mentioned this one time. It’s in 2 Kings 14, and he’s associated with Jeroboam II, who turns out to be one of the most evil kings in Israelite history. So, you know, perhaps this association with Jeroboam along with the lack of any more details about Jonah given in our Bible is what led the author to pick him as the anti-hero in this satire.

So, I just wanted to read the only verse we have of Jonah in our Bible in 2 Kings 14:25. “He was the one who restored,” talking about Jeroboam now. Jeroboam was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel “from Lebo-hamath to the Dead Sea in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.” There is then, two contexts that we’re talking about here briefly, and I don’t think it’s worth going to a lot of detail, but it’s worth mentioning that there are two contexts. So, we have the context in which the book of Jonah is written, but then there’s also the context in which the book is set, and that’s important, because we have to assume that people would have had the knowledge of what transpired and happened historically between when Jonah was set and when it was written.

So, we have a lot of background information that everyday people would at least be aware of. So, when the book was written, we talked about that, between 500 and 200, and this was a time of relative peace for Jews we have this context between 500 and 200, relative peace, this is after Cyrus has come and the Persian period begins after the Babylonians, so we have the Assyrians, who are the world emperors empire, and then we have the Babylonians, and then we have the Persians in about 539, Cyrus comes and brings, reestablishes Jewish people in the land, and then we have, around 330 or so, Alexander the Great takes over. So, we have this time of Greek rule, and then, of course, we have Roman rule after that. But that’s kind of when the book was written.


Now, when the book is set, it’s a very different historical context. So it’s just worth mentioning, this historical context of when the book was set, because we talked about 2 Kings, so there’s this king Jeroboam, who is in charge in Israel in the north. The same time there’s another king in the south called King Uzziah. Just so you remember that there were two kingdoms that split off from each other – there is Judah in the south, and then Israel in the North. They have two different kings, and Jeroboam II is in charge. Now it’s interesting, in 2 Kings, this, when he’s ruling, probably about 750 BCE or so, Israel is in a time of prosperity. And so, it’s just interesting. The only reason I bring it up is because Jonah is prophesying in a time of prosperity in 2 Kings when we’re increasing the borders and things are going well for God’s people, and there is a sense in which God will always be on our side, kind of regardless of our ethics and morals and obedience to God’s commands. And we see this in the book of Jeremiah, for example, when there’s this sense of prosperity and nothing can touch us, and God’s people are invincible because we are God’s people after all. And that’s important for the themes of the book of Jonah, that’s why I mention it. Now, if you were to go over to the book of Amos, Amos is prophesying about the same time as the historical Jonah is alive, the 750 or so period, and Amos paints a very different picture and says all of our ethical misdeeds and our disobedience for God’s commands is going to lead to a lot of destruction. And of course, within the next fifteen years, we have the Assyrians who come and start to dole out, we might say, God’s judgement. They start to deport the Israelites from the north, then by 722, the north has completely been sieged. And so, this juxtaposition of Amos and Jonah is helpful. Again, it may just point to why the author of Jonah picks Jonah to be the messenger of his message in the book.

But let’s jump to the book now of Jonah, and we start with the first chapter. And it’s so short, so I may even just read large portions here, because it really won’t take long. But I just want to point out a few things here in the book of Jonah, chapter one, if we’re talking about big themes. So, the first big theme here is about repentance and the relationship of God’s people to not God’s people. And for the sake of our time here, I’m going to use the words Jews and Gentiles to represent God’s people and not God’s people. I know in some ways, it depends on when we’re taking about historically framed, we could talk about Hebrews, we could talk about Israelites, we could talk about Jews, so I’m going to use the words Jews and Gentiles. Because that’s an important theme here in the book of Jonah is a relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and that’s important theme here in the first chapter. We get a little taste. We haven’t been introduced necessarily to this complexity quite yet in the book, but we get hints of it with the pagan sailors. And in relationship to the pagan sailors, we also have this Jonah’s relationship with God. And that’s represented through this descent that we’ll see all the way through chapter two, but begins here, and we see it in the first word of the Lord that God, the first word of the Lord given to Jonah.


So, in verse two, it says “go at once to Nineveh, that great city.” Now the word in Hebrew is actually two words for go. It’s arise and go, qum lekh, arise and go. So, it’s up. Get up and go. But in English, I think it’s clunky to have two different words, so it usually just says go at once, or go. But it’s technically arise and go, and this is important because we want to be mindful throughout these first two chapters of when things are going up and down. And I can let the cat out of the bag a little bit – this is the only time it goes up for quite some time. So, Jonah’s disobedience is leading him down the wrong path, literally geographically and then we’ll see metaphorically in chapter two. So, it’s arise and go, and we’re hopeful because in verse three, it actually begins with arise, or so he arose. So, it actually starts with another up word, and we get very, it’s a dramatic moment. So, Jonah got up just like in Hosea, it says, Hosea, go do this. And the next verse is, okay, so Hosea goes and does that. So, we expect that.

Okay, go at once to Nineveh, so we think the readers would think Jonah then gets up and goes, but it says he gets up and flees. And this is the dramatic moment. Oh no. Something is different. Something is awry. We’re surprised by this action of Jonah. So, he flees from the Lord’s service and he goes down. So that’s our first word, down to Joppa, to see if he can go on a ship to Tarshish. So, he goes, and then he goes down onto the boat, of course, and the Lord casts a mighty wind upon the sea, and a great tempest comes upon it, and the ship again is in danger of breaking up. It’s reckoning, it’s thinking about breaking up. It’s afraid of the tempest that God has brought. And in their fright, the sailors cry out, each to his own God. That’s important, because we have to establish that these are pagans. These aren’t Yahweh worshippers – yet. And they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them.

All this chaos is happening, in the meantime, Jonah had gone down, there’s another word, gone down into the hold where he lay down and falls asleep. “The captain comes over and cries out, ‘how could you be sleeping so soundly? Up!’” So, there’s an up word. He’s calling Jonah to rise up, rise to the occasion. “You call upon your God. Perhaps the God will be kind to us, and we will not perish.” Now, that’s an interesting phrase, because later we’re going to be talking about, this brings up the theme of God’s kindness. What does God’s kindness mean and how does it relate to justice? And how is that fair and how does this all work? But it’s, again, the captain, who thinks that God will be kind and hopes that we will not perish. So, the captain is using Yahweh language, biblical language here. “Then the men said to one another, ‘let us cast lots, find out on whose account this misfortunate has come upon us.’” They cast the lots, of course, it falls to Jonah. “They say to Jonah, ‘tell us. What’s your business? Where have you come from?’ ‘I am a Hebrew, he says.’” Interesting use of language, Hebrew. He replied, he kind of calls us, hearkens us back to an earlier time to call himself a Hebrew. “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made both sea and land.”

Now this is the beginning of a lot of creation language. Now there’s a lots of things that God could be known by, but here, it’s the one who made both sea and land. The God who’s in control of, of course, the stormy sea, but this is going to give us a clue to another theme. So, one theme is this relationship between Jews and Gentiles, right? But another theme that we’re going to see throughout the book of Jonah is God’s sovereignty. Who is really in control here? Who gets to control things? Who is in charge? And kind of like the book of Job, there’s gonna be a question. Well, it’s really gonna be God questioning. Who really is in charge here? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because God is sovereign. God is the one who made both land and sea. Once he said that, it says “the men were greatly terrified.” So at first, because of the sea being stormy and raging, they’re afraid. But when they hear who Jonah’s God is, they are greatly afraid and they ask him, what have you done? And when the men learn that he was fleeing from the service of the Lord, they said to him, what do we have to do to get this to calm down? Because it’s gotten more and more stormy. Heave me overboard, they say. Nevertheless, that’s a really important nevertheless verse 13, the men rode hard to regain the shore, but they couldn’t for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them. So again, these pagans are risking their own lives to save this stranger. They keep rowing because they didn’t want Jonah to die.


“Oh please,” they finally say to Yahweh. Now they’re talking directly to Yahweh. “Do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.” Don’t hold us guilty of killing an innocent person. Now, of course, Jonah’s innocence is questionable here, since he did flee from Yahweh, but it’s important, again, that we see this juxtaposition of the conversion throughout this process of the pagan sailors who don’t know Yahweh at all, they’re worshipping their own gods, and by the end, they are following God’s commands.

And then we end with, they offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and they made vows after they hurled Jonah over, and the sea calmed down. Now again, if you’re trying to make this historically accurate, it seems interesting because you offer sacrifices and make vows in the temple. You don’t do it necessarily, on a boat. I wouldn’t generally think that you would want to offer sacrifices with fire on a wooden boat in the middle of the sea, but if it’s not supposed to be historically accurate, and you’re just trying to make a theological point about the conversion of the pagan sailors and the deconversion of Jonah, Jonah’s descent. He’s going down and the pagan sailors are becoming Yahweh worshippers, and this is going to blow minds. How can it be? How can it be that the Jew is acting very non-Jewish, and the Gentile is acting very Jewish and blurring the lines here. And this gives us again, a preamble of where we’re going when we talk about Nineveh.

So, that’s the first chapter. We have the deconversion here, and the descent of Jonah, and the conversion of the pagans. So, they offer sacrifices to the Lord and they make vows, which, that gives us a little foretaste of what Jonah’s gonna do in his repentance. In chapter two, we have Jonah doing the same thing in chapter two where, at the end of his prayer, he says, I will sacrifice to you what I have vowed, I will perform. Meaning, he’s reconverted, he’s gonna offer sacrifice and make vows. And we’ll talk about Jonah’s reconversion next time, but I wanted to point out, it’s the same language. So, it’s blurring these lines between Jews and Gentiles and what it means to have God’s favor and what it means to be God’s people, and this could be pretty upsetting for people who maybe have a certain way of thinking about what it means to be God’s people and how we then treat other people, not even yet to our enemies, we’re just simply talking about the pagans at this point.

[Music begins]

Jared: Alright, well hopefully this has been a helpful introduction to the book of Jonah. Next time, we’re gonna jump into chapter two, but we’ll just see where it goes. We’ll see how long we want to take. Maybe just a two-part series, maybe three, we’ll see. But I hope this has been good introducing these themes and also talking about what kind of book the book of Jonah is and how we can use the things we talked about here when we’re reading other books of the Bible as well. Alright, thank you so much, we’ll see ya next time.

[Music ends]

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.

More Episodes...
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.

Powered by RedCircle

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.

Everyday Life in Ancient Israel