l Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel
By Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
Continuum, 288 pages, $26.95.
For most people, what the Bible says about homosexuality begins and ends with two verses in Leviticus. What those verses mean is subject to interpretation, of course. Some people see them as a blanket prohibition on any male or female same-sex behavior; others see them as restricting only one sexual act between men, while others still see them as applying only in exceptional cases, such as violence or idolatry. And plenty of nonreligious readers see them as simply obsolete. But it’s safe to say that, whatever one’s reading of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, it’s those two verses, for those people, that are most important.
Not for Theodore Jennings Jr., a biblical scholar at Chicago Theological Seminary. His startling book “Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel” convincingly makes the case that Leviticus is but one of many biblical voices on the subject of homosexuality — and that many others are far less condemning.
Upon reflection, this should not be so startling. As Jennings himself notes, many narrative episodes describe acts that are enormous violations of the law but pass over them without a legal remark. For example, Reuben’s incest with his father’s concubine, described in Genesis 35:22, clearly violates Leviticus 18:8, yet the prescribed death penalty is never even mentioned. Likewise the legally incestuous relationships of Abraham and Sarah and Amnon and Tamar. Further afield, Jews read every Yom Kippur the prophecy of Isaiah, which heavily critiques the cultic mode of atonement described in the Torah portion read that same day. And there are stories in the Bible of ecstatics, mystics and even witches, told without any hint of the Torah’s demand to annihilate them.
Jennings shows that the case of same-sex attraction between men is no different. On the contrary, he shows that same-sex relationships were essential to biblical Israel’s self-understanding.
Jennings first provides a detailed reading of the love triangle of David, Jonathan and Saul, situating it in the ancient context of “warrior love.” Unlike the clumsy efforts of some popularizers, Jennings’s project is not about insinuating some kind of sexual relationship, or anachronistically labeling Jonathan or David as “gay.” Rather, what Jennings observes is that the entire story is told in erotic language that would have been obvious to its ancient audience. First, Saul, David and Jonathan are all described in terms of their physical beauty (see 1 Samuel 9:2 and 16:12). In addition, Saul and Jonathan both have young male “armor-bearers” befitting their noble station, not unlike the warriors of Ancient Greece (think of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad). This relationship, which was understood as including homoerotic elements, is the crux of the whole story: David himself starts out as Saul’s young companion, but then Jonathan presents David with his armor, clothes and underwear (1 Samuel 18:4), provoking Saul’s rage, which he expresses in sexual terms (1 Samuel 20:31): “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame [bushah], and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”
Jennings shows that the sexual connotation of “your mother’s nakedness” is incontrovertible. It has long been observed, of course, that David and Jonathan share more than a military relationship. Jonathan “took great delight” in David (1 Samuel 19:1), and “loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). The two cry, embrace and kiss (1 Samuel 20:41), and David famously says that Jonathan’s “love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26), while Saul explicitly recognizes that David has twice become his son-in-law — once through Saul’s daughter Michal, and once through his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:21). Of course, intimacy between men does not necessarily mean physical intimacy, but the language of undergarments, “nakedness” and marriage all strongly suggests it.
What is one to make of this narrative, other than a story of court intrigue? For Jennings, these human relationships must be understood in the context of the Bible’s most important relationship: that between God (the ultimate warrior-king) and Israel. Ultimately, it is David’s destiny to be God’s eromenos (erotic beloved, the role assigned to the younger partner in the Greek model), rather than Saul’s or Jonathan’s. His relationship to YHVH, the erastes (lover), is the model for all of Israel — and it is striking how “feminized” David is. (To his credit, Jennings resists this term, calling it “necessary only when the maleness of the beloved is an inconvenient detail that must be suppressed.”) David is a singer, a (sometimes-nude) dancer and a placatory of YHVH’s anger — all roles he once played for his human “daddies.” Ultimately, “David’s relationships to Saul and Jonathan prepare him for the consummation of his being the beloved of YHVH.”
To repeat, the argument is not that there is an illicit “gay” subtext to the biblical text. Rather, Jennings argues that biblical text — whether in the David story, or in the tale of Joseph, or in the many ways in which prophets referred to the nation of Israel as a woman — makes use of the range of human relationships of which its readers were aware in order to describe the relationship between people and God. “Israel was not anomalously homophobic,” Jennings argues at the end of the book. “It was as worldly wise about same-sex as it is about cross-sex desire and behavior.” And it used this knowledge in its poetic retellings of the relationship between God and Israel. Sometimes the same-sex images are of love; other times, as in the episode of Dagon — the god of the Philistines — of rape.
Rape is the subtext of Jennings’s most provocative reading in the book: that of the assault on Jacob. Jennings notes that the sciatic nerve, which according to Genesis 32:32 marks the spot where Jacob was wounded, “runs the length of the back of the upper leg after descending from under the buttocks.” Thus, “a particularly violent grip at the base of the buttocks could strain or damage this nerve…. The same would be true of a violent sexual assault.”
In other words, for Jennings, God is a rough lover. His encounters with the men who are his beloveds are often erotic, often violent. For Jennings (as for Jerome Segal, whose book “Joseph’s Bones” I recently reviewed in these pages), the task of biblical Israel is to learn how to live with God. Yet for Jennings, the erotic aspects of (male) Israel entering into a loving, and love/hate, relationship with the (male) YHVH are central — as they were in Howard Eilberg-Schwartz’s seminal “God’s Phallus,” which remains the best sustained study of this uncomfortably homoerotic relationship. Provocative stuff, and, like Jennings’s earlier work, “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives From the New Testament,” sure to strike many readers as far-fetched. In fact, though, Jennings’s books are part of a new wave of scholarship applying the insights of contemporary theories of gender and sexuality to biblical text. Ken Stone, Jennings’s colleague in Chicago, has produced two such studies, “Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective” and the anthology “Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible,” both of which join the abstruse theorizing of contemporary cultural studies with the close reading of biblical scholarships. The result, miraculously, is often a kind of balance.
Likewise Stephen Moore’s books, “God’s Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible” and “God’s Gym: Divine Male Bodies of the Bible.” Moore is more avant-garde than Jennings, and can sometimes be more challenging to read, yet, like his fellow academics, stands in a long line of those who read the Bible according to the insights of scholarship and of human experience. Of course, it is anachronistic to read those cultures’ myths in terms of our own sexual categories and typologies. But it would be equally anachronistic to project back our associations of religion and homophobia to cultures that flourished 2,000, even 3,000, years ago, or to assume that because the priestly writer of the Levitical holiness code had one view of same-sex behavior, the writers of other portions of the Bible agreed with him. Indeed, as is often the case with biblical literature, it is when assumptions are questioned that the real learning begins. Precisely when the Bible is allowed to create its own strange, alien world, it becomes most productively surprising for us today.
Ultimately, every conception of the ineffable is one colored by our own predispositions, experiences and expectations. There is no metaphor so clear that it can purely reflect the Infinite. Thus it is no surprise that, as our culture’s understanding of the mysteries of human intimacy continues to evolve, so, too, do our insights into religion, which not coincidentally takes much of its language and tone from the zone of the erotic. For some, “Jacob’s Wound” and books like it will provide a liberating sense of history: Suddenly, one is not as invisible as one thought. For others, it may smack of blasphemy. Yet in both cases, if the shock of the new replaces the familiarity of the old, it can only bring us closer to heaven.
Jay Michaelson will be teaching the Zohar next month at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute.
l The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives From the New Testament
By Theodore Jennings Jr.
Pilgrim Press, 246 pages, $28.
l Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective
By Ken Stone
T. & T. Clark, 176 pages, $29.95.
l Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible
Edited by Ken Stone
Pilgrim Press, 250 pages, $28.
l God’s Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible
By Stephen Moore
Stanford University Press, 368 pages, $25.95.
l God’s Gym: Divine Male Bodies of the Bible
By Stephen Moore
Routledge, 192 pages, $31.95.
l God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism
By Howard Eilberg-Schwartz
Beacon Press, 336 pages, $20.