As it will from time to time, an interesting coincidence has just popped up between my scholarly hobbies and my “I seriously can’t think anymore, I just want to watch TV” ones. The coincidence has to do with the cultural concept of gender, and how we read that into the Genesis account, and how popular literature reflects cultural constructs.
Recently I’ve been working on a review of Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest’s Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Hornsby and Guest present a “trans hermeneutic,” by which they pay attention to transgender issues and, more broadly, how gender is constructed in the Bible. The book is quite good — I would have even appreciated a longer volume that gave them more time to flesh out some of their ideas.
Guest contributes an essay on Genesis, “Troubling the Waters: תְּהוֹם, Transgender, and Reading Genesis Backward.” Here she lingers in the opening verses of Gen 1:1-2 to explore the potential theophany in the abyss, in the darkness. She argues that tehom, the abyss, has signs that it could be taken as a proper, personal noun: it lacks an article (it is not “the abyss,” but rather “darkness was on the face of tehom“), tehom is given anthropomorphic verbs (it crouches [Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13] and speaks [Hab 3:10]), and it takes on a role in the Genesis myth that is elsewhere played by a personification of chaos conquered by the creator god(s).
If we want to view tehom as personal, there are difficulties with assigning gender: “But תְּהוֹם is a queer noun: masculine in form, yet usually appearing as a female noun, but occasionally given a masculine suffix (e.g., “his voice” in Hab 3:10). It is, intriguingly, a gender-shifting word” (p. 25). For this reason, Guest labels the personified abyss “Mixter Tehom,” a title taken from trans communities (in place of Mr., Ms., etc.) to highlight its gender fluidity. Such fluidity is appropriate to the abyss, and to the time in which Mx. Tehom exists, prior to the gender boundaries erected later in the story. Guest’s essay then concentrates on how we can understand a God who chose to exist in communion with Mx. Tehom prior to creation — and it is really worth a read.
Other terms contribute to the fluidity and lack of precise orientation in the opening verses of Genesis. This space was “formless and void” (i.e. it required transition, transformation in order to achieve its present self), and again, “darkness” was on Mx. Tehom’s face.
This brings me to Supernatural, a goofy show about two brothers who hunt monsters, but which takes much of its mythos from the Bible. The show will feature heavily in a chapter I am writing about the use of fake biblical texts in horror, which will appear in the book, Monstrous Manuscripts. In a later season (like 37? 38? There are so many seasons of this show…), the main antagonist is the Darkness, which is released when the mark of Cain is removed from one of the brothers, who only had it so he could wield the first blade to kill Abaddon… it’s a whole thing.
The Darkness, or Amara, is God’s sister whom he (definitely male) had to sacrifice by locking her up in order to create the universe. In other words, Supernatural embraces the chaos myth while recasting it as a family drama (and introducing a dualistic, gnostic theology). The use of sibling rivalry is not surprising. In earlier seasons, Lucifer’s rebellion was written as a squabble between he and his brothers (the other archangels), brought on because God is more or less a deadbeat dad on Supernatural, and again, this whole mess began because one of the brothers had the mark of Cain (given to Cain by Lucifer, who received it from Amara… and we’re back).
What was notable to me was the genderification of the Light and the Darkness. Although God has (surreptitiously) appeared in the form of a man already, and he is referred to as Father by the angels, there is no reason to pin him down to a specific gender. Once he reduced to male (much of theology, including Psalm 22, be damned), with regard to the Darkness, the Hebrew word, חֹ֫שֶׁך, is also masculine, and one would expect a show so obsessed with brotherly conflict to embrace the possibility of writing it into the fabric of their universe. Maybe they just wanted something different. Instead the siblings, for the first time in like 83 seasons, are brother and sister.
I imagine this has something to do with presenting God (or “Chuck” – spoilers!) and Amara as opposites:
- God is the Light, Amara is the Darkness.
- God embraces freedom and distance, Amara wants subjugation and union.
- God is absent and unfindable, Amara is present and easily approachable.
- God is male, Amara is female.
There are of course differences that the writers do not impose on them. Both are straight (one downside of ret-conning Chuck as God is that God has now had sex with and then been dumped by other characters on the show), both are American, white, good-looking, able-bodied, of average height, both have typical emotionality, and both spend an inordinate amount of time in places like Nebraska. In other words, both are normal as the writers see it, so their opposition has to happen within that normality. Men and women are, to them, opposites situated within normality. So one is a man, the other a woman.
One reading of Gen 1:1-2 is considered and thought out, and the other mines the verses for another monster for its brothers to fight. I doubt Supernatural is consciously making a philosophical statement. But within this absence of thought, the show helps to reinforce not only a binary gender dynamic, but specifically binary gender opposition. Many more people will watch Supernatural season 113 on Netflix than Guest’s essay, and for them one more block will be added to an ideological wall between male and female.