I think I’ve heard the phrase “in the beginning God made them male and female” a hundred times in response to the sex/gender discussions of our time. The phrase works like a trump card to win a theological discussion on anything from LGBTQ issues to how Target should organize their toys. However, each time I hear someone say “God made male and female” as if that’s all he made, the question that comes to my mind each time is: “What about those whose bodies are intersex?”
You might not be familiar with it, but there are more than two sexes– and no, not everyone is born clearly male or clearly female.
This is what makes me cringe with some of the ways the above statement is used (or perhaps misused) in our culture wars– because if God made everything/everyone (and I believe he did), he made more than just male and female.
I’ve been wanting to blog about this topic, but I’m not an expert on it. However, one of my good theologian friends– Dr. Megan DeFranza– actually is an expert on this issue. In fact, she just had a book come out on this topic (Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God), so I thought she’d be a great person to ask a few questions about intersex. Megan holds a PhD from Marquette University, is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with degrees in theology and biblical languages, and has taught theology at both Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Gordon College (she also has a blog, you can find here). I’m appreciative to have her here on the blog for the following interview:
BLC: I frequently hear people quote Jesus as saying “from the beginning God made male and female” in gender discussions, but are the distinctions of male and female really the only two sexes God makes?
Dr. DeFranza: The creation accounts in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and the narrative of the fall into sin in chapter 3 offer the foundational theological narrative for Jews and Christians. It is the beginning of the Great Book, the great story of God’s redemption, so it rightly deserves our attention. The challenge is how to interpret these narratives. You know the questions: Literal 6 days or ages? Special creation or evolutionary creation?
To these we need to add the following question: Are the creation accounts comprehensive inventories of all of God’s good creations or do these narratives describe the beginning in broad themes?
If we look closely, I think we find broad themes—male and female, creatures of the land, creatures of the sky, creatures of the sea; night and day, but not dusk; sun, moon, and stars, but no comets. There are many creations which are simply not named in the creation accounts. Amphibians—hybrid animals that are “creatures of the sea” and “creatures of the land”—are noticeably absent and yet I have never heard a scientist who is a Christian explain their existence as one of the “results of the fall into sin.”
But I have heard this explanation more than I care to count to make sense of the presence of human beings who have mixed sex characteristics. Some people insist that God created humans to be male or female and anyone whose body falls somewhere in between the categories of “Adam” or “Eve” must be proof of the “fall.”
The majority of people do seem to be clearly male or female—one more reason I think the author of Genesis is speak in general categories—but for every 2,500-4,500 live births a child is born whose body is intersex.
Intersex refers to a variety of physical differences where people have male and female characteristics—XXY chromosomes or internal reproductive organs of one sex with external sex characteristics of the other, for example. They sometimes result in ambiguous genitals so that doctors are not sure whether to assign the sex of male or female on the birth certificate but other times differences show up later in life—in early childhood or at puberty. Physicians often use the term Disorders of Sex Development (DSDs) but many within the intersex community prefer “Differences” of Sex Development—a more neutral term. [When I use DSD, I mean “Differences” of Sex Development.]
Genesis 1-3 is a theological account of beginnings that was never intended to give us the whole story. Thankfully, we find help in other parts of the Bible to put together with this good beginning for a more complete picture of what it means to be human in right relationship with God.
BLC: I’ve brought up the issue of intersex before and folks have told me, “Even in these rare cases, it is still possible to determine if the person is male or female.” In your professional opinion, is this true? What have the results looked like for parents/doctors who attempted to determine the actual gender of a child when they were young?
Dr. Defranza: This depends on what you mean by “determine” and who gets to determine.
It is true that many intersex persons identify as male or female (of course, in our culture there haven’t been other real options). Many have a sense of gender identity that is male or female even if their body doesn’t neatly align with it. Some choose to bring their bodies into line with their gender identity through medical intervention. Others simply dress and identify as one gender or the other. And yet there are others who, when they discover the term intersex, are relieved to find a category that makes sense not only of their body which is “in between” but of their gender identity that also feels “in between.”
The problem is when doctors and parents try to decide for the child—based on their best guess given the variety of physical differences the child has (hormone levels, genital size and shape, etc.)—because these are guesses and too often people guess wrong.
When doctors perform plastic surgery on an infant or child to make their genitals appear less ambiguous they are making a guess and performing a medically unnecessary surgery—very few intersex conditions are medical emergencies. Unfortunately, if the child does not develop a gender identity to match the guess of their doctors, there is much less tissue to work with should the individual want to alter their body to bring it into line with their sense of gender and scar tissue in sensitive places causes many more problems for individuals.
Pediatricians who specialize in children with DSDs now agree with intersex advocates who recommend delaying surgeries (preferably until after puberty) when the child is old enough to have a sense of their own gender and can give informed consent to medical treatment should they desire it.
BLC: As a theologian your area of research has specifically been in the realm of theology relating to intersex. If you could condense your years of work in this area, how would you express a theology of intersex? Does the Bible even have anything to say about this?
Dr. Defranza: Let me answer your second question first.
I was surprised and delighted to find that the Bible does speak about intersex and ancient Jews and Christians were very familiar with Differences of Sex Development.
Jesus mentions intersex persons in Matthew 19:12 when he speaks of “naturally born eunuchs” which the Jews called saris chamah or “eunuch of the sun”—those who were known to be eunuchs from the day the sun shone upon them. Jews made provisions for naturally born eunuchs in their communities—pulling from laws for men and laws for women to make sure all of their bases were covered. Contemporary Jewish scholars do the same today.
Isaiah prophesies blessings for eunuchs who are faithful to YHWH in Is. 56:1-8, “an everlasting name” … “better than sons or daughters”—in other words blessings better than being “healed” or restored to manhood. This passage begins to be fulfilled in Acts 8 when the first foreigner is baptized—an Ethiopian and a eunuch.
Augustine speaks of hermaphrodites and androgynes rather casually saying,
“they are certainly very rare, and yet it is difficult to find periods when there are no examples of human beings possessing the characteristics of both sexes, in such a way that it is a matter of doubt how they should be classified. However, the prevalent usage has called them masculine, assigning them to the better sex” (City of God, 16.8).
Don’t you just love Augustine?!?
There is not space here to detail a “theology of intersex” but what I see from Jesus is that he doesn’t speak of intersex as a result of the fall into sin. I see Jews and Christians making space for intersex members of their communities. I hear Isaiah promising eunuchs a place in God’s temple—which I read as a promise of their place in the new Heaven and New Earth. If I read from Genesis to Revelation, I see God folding in more and more outsiders so that God’s house can finally be a “house of prayer for all people.” (It’s that same passage from Isaiah 56:1-7.)
BLC: The issue of gender is somewhat a hot-topic in Christian discussions today. What do you think we can learn from your work in the area of intersex that would be beneficial to the larger discussion on theology and gender?
Dr. Defranza: There is so much to learn! First, Christians need to not fear scientific studies of gender. Sure, we should read everything carefully for bias (that includes writings from fellow Christians) but there is good, careful research being done to help us separate fact from fiction, science from stereotype, cultural preferences from universal patterns.
One of the most helpful books I read along the way was Brain Gender—an amazingly readable book written by the Director of the Neuroendocrinology Research Lab in London. Dr. Hines summarizes research on gender differences saying,
“few, if any, individuals correspond to the modal [statistically most common] male pattern or the modal female pattern. Variation within each sex is great, with males and females near the top and bottom of the distributions for every characteristic. … In fact, although most of us appear to be either clearly male or clearly female, we are each complex mosaics of male and female characteristics” (M. Hines, Brain Gender, 18-19).
Rather than see this as a problem to be solved—trying to fit all this diversity back into some original (and inaccessible) pattern of Adam or Eve—could this have been God’s plan all along: to begin the story with two who are called to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” with different kinds of people who are all called to love one another and worship God in their similarities and differences?
I don’t see Jesus calling us to become manly or womanly. Jesus calls all of us to be made new, to put on Christ, to grow in love, holiness, and the fruit of the Spirit. These virtues are for all people—male, female, and intersex alike. They challenge masculine stereotypes. They challenge feminine stereotypes. They call all of us to die to our own preferences so that God’s life can grow within us. That is good news.
If you’re among those who casually throws out the phrase “God made them male and female” as if that’s all God made, and as if all of our gender discussions can fit neatly inside certain boxes, I’d invite you to consider that gender is an issue with more complexity than we often realize or admit.
If you’d like to go deeper on this issue, I highly recommend picking up Dr. DeFranza’s book, here, or check out her blog, here.
Your article helped me a lot, is there any more related content? Thanks!
From a boolean perspective, “male and female” would include ONLY the Venn diagram overlap. It is inherently inclusive of “both”, or intersection (trans, etc.). Only “or” allows for exclusively male OR female, and if g*d is truly the author of the statements, they could have used “either/or” or “or” language.
Otherwise, intersex would be the purest form of “male and female”.
Glad to see you highlight this important book. I notice from some of the comments that some of your readers have not read it, and do not wish to confront the complexities of human sexuality. Still there are others who do. Thank God.
My blog “Is God imperfect?” was published by the Times of Israel in June of last year. It clearly states in the Book of Genesis – and the Sacred text is very specific. It tells God created man in His image; in his Divine image he created him; male and female; He created THEM.
Gen: 1-27 gives us an astonishing fact that Adam was a unified being. He was created by God as both masculine and feminine. The masculine and feminine forces were unified. Even though there is just one human being on earth, the Torah tells us that here was the creation of humanity.
God looked upon Adam and startling as it may seem, He was not completely satisfied. For the very first time, God judges his creation negatively. Adam was alone in the Garden of Eden. None of God`s other creations seemed to fit as a good companion or helpmate to Adam. He is not wholly good unless he has a partner. He cast the man into a deep sleep and took out one of his ribs and woman was created by the removal of the feminine forces from Adam – the whole human being. Man and woman are now two distinct opposites of the original which was masculine and feminine.
Unfortunately, the separation of the sexes in the Garden of Eden provided an opening for the forces of evil to enter and hence the fall. The gender qualities between man and woman still belonged to the Order of Heaven and was therefore good. But Lucifer, now Satan saw an opportunity to intervene and create confusion and disharmony in the heavenly scheme of things.
“Gen: 1-27 gives us an astonishing fact that Adam was a unified being. ”
Nope. Genesis 1:27 doesn’t give us a fact, it gives us a claim, and what it claims is:
Genesis 1:27 So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
It says NOTHING about a unified being.
Have you actually read the Bible?
you are a bible expert…..yes…..expert of letters….im sure youre proud to be one…..
By Dr. DeFranza and BLC “view” of this one could also interpret scripture to show there is a “Daughter of God” in addition to a “Son of God” (the one who God said was his beloved Son at Christs baptism……and that there is potentially as well a “brother of Jesus” out there somewhere – mysteriously left out of the Scripture….because you infer that simply because it was not covered in scripture then it didn’t happen (scripture does not mention ants, centipedes, celocanths, dinosuars…..but yet they exist –
Stop trying to twist sacred scriupture to fit your needs and personal feelings – it’s simply wrong
Is it important to you that God has a penis?
“Stop trying to twist sacred scriupture to fit your needs and personal feelings – it’s simply wrong”
So you think it is OK for Christians to own slaves, even other Christians?
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)
You think it is proper to bar non-Christians from your home?
2 John 9-10 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed
You think people who don’t work shouldn’t be fed?
2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.
You think it is wrong to take another Christian to court, the church should settle your differences? 1 Corinthians 6:1-8
Excellent article. One of the best I’ve read on this complex issue that continues to show that God’s creation is more diverse than we can comprehend. I do enjoy reading the comments, which show that our human understanding continues to fall well short of the totality that is named God.
The intersex community is a good place to look at the exceptions to what conservative Christians would call the norm of male and female genders. God did create male and female (Gen.1:27), in that He did not create a larger number of humans at the same time and singled out Adam and Eve as an example. Male and female were created, but does that mean that those are the only variations that were made after Adam and Eve? In Genesis, God does not disclose any such plans either way because that information was not needed to reveal His plan of human development in relation to His Creation. Man was created to reflect God’s character by ruling over creation (Gen.1:24ff). Man and woman were created fully capable of performing that role individually or as a cleaved couple. They did not have to be “married” in order to reflect God’s character.
Therefore, if God later made others at varying points on a gender continuum, it is not my place to determine if they are able to carry out the function of truly reflecting God’s character. Eve’s sin was determining good and evil apart from what God had already determined. The point is that God is the determiner of good and evil, as He is also the determiner of who gets to represent Him, and it is not my place to repeat the sin of Eve by making myself God. If their identity is in Jesus, how can any human determine the fate of another?
1, Starting with the first line of this; Genesis 1: 26-28 “…male and female made he them…”
As some Jewish rabbinical scholars pointed out, the notable and distinct difference between ‘and’ and ‘or’ so that some would argue it should have been written ‘male or female made he them’
2, [same passage] “…made he them…” is often, in the English language to conclusively pre-judge this to represent and denote a plural, hence that this by their logic, assume that this must mean by default, a multiple of beings, and ruling out a singular, let alone sexless [or intersexed] individual, however, again, rabbinical scholars have proven that one can not come to the conclusion that this was meant to represent all human beings, but in fact should more rightly be read as to represent Adam alone as a singularity before the formation of Eve.
3, [same passage] the time of this passage is placed before the formation of Eve, and not by accident. To make this point clearly evident, And even before Eve appeared, Adam was already being told to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ which would not have been possible, where Adam only one of the typically required 2 sexes, but as one who started out fully capable of self impregnating, could have done so.
4, Now, moving on in time, we come to Genesis 2:18 and some atheists and evolutionists call upon this scripture, along with the one I listed before, as proof that the bible contradicts its self, because they say that either A, God can not be all knowing, all wise and infallible if he could not foresee the grandiose failure of considering the need for females to be made [assuming again much which might be argued if one took Adam to be created a polar male human alone which would not allow humanity to reproduce] or B, the whole story of how humans got here in the bible was made up by a moron who did not figure out his error until some time after his tale had gained popularity, or perhaps some person telling the tale amended it at a later date to cover up the mistake by adding the whole passage of Eve’s formation.
5, Gn 2:21 typically reads, “…one of the man’s ribs…” [using the word ‘the’ is not in the original Hebrew, although that might seem to be seen as an oversight, the word ‘man’ did not mean male, and neither was it intended to.
6, [same passage] When one considers the word ‘rib’ which is the Hebrew word “tsela” used in Genesis, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=h6763 , it is easy to see that one could have said that God removed one of Adam’s chambers’ or one of Adam’s ‘doors’ before ‘he then closed the place up with flesh’ which would have come almost to the point of SRS or a hysterectomy in modern medical terms, but instead of discarding these parts, merely fashioning a new human from them.
7, Some would argue that the word ‘side’ is implied, and then, by that logic, that the only place that could mean is the farthest left or farthest right extremity of one’s being, which in reality, would have been Adam’s arm, not a rib. in fact, any object can have as many ‘sides’ as one can calculate with a high resolution scanning electron microscope.
Therefore, be it like a cube with 6 sides, a 20 sided gaming dice with 2 accepted sides, a 2 sided sheet of paper [which technically is still 6 sided if it is a rectangle, but that is a whole geometry class topic] and the only truly mandatory requirement to be a ‘side’ is that ‘the far these outward point, from which the object exists no further, and can therefore neither be detected or measured no longer. In other words, any part of the OUT side, is by default, and very validly so, a ‘side’. Therefore, be it the top side, the front side, back side, left side, right side, or bottom side, it is, therefore, if exposed to the air, a ‘side,’ and therefore equally as valid as any other side one can locate on the object by the known usage and definitions to have existed at the time, or as nearly to it as one can read back to in historical writings.
This man posed some pretty in-depth remarks with even more scripture and more history on the matter… http://www.jasher.com/Insights%20page/Adamsrib.htm
In such a way, it would be totally logical and valid every step of the way, without ‘breaking the word of God’ while clarifying how we could get from intersexed to polarized within the human race.
Also, keeping in mind that very male dominated societies existed for most of history, anything that might have not fit their self glorifying images of their species would have been speciously avoided, omitted, and redacted, to the greatest extent that the all powerful God would permit to happen, to test our faith, intelligence and wisdom.
All nonsense, this is only another lie from satan trying to destroy humanity(GOD’s creation). Eunuchs were people who dedicated their lives to the service of their masters(as slaves were legal in the old and new testament) pretty much like nuns do in this age. Any growth or appendages on a body does not make a person intersex, its just that, an appendage or growth that will serve no purpose and have no functionality. Its no different than having an extra stump as a sixth finger or a deformed ear lobe that will not serve as an hearing aide.