As a young adult, I struggled to identify with biblical characters that were meant to be my role models. Seemingly all of them were born into a relationship with God and overcame their own human desires and impulses to fulfill His will.
As I came to terms with my own sexual identity, I felt increasingly isolated from the steadfast piety of the biblical forefathers. Whereas they seemingly moved towards God with zealous enthusiasm, I consistently lamented my own bond with Orthodox Judaism and was resentful of the position God had placed me in: born in a body that I did not understand, with desires that I did not want to indulge, in a community that at best was indifferent to my identity. At times, the burden felt like too much to bear.
Sexual categories are anachronistic to the bible; the very notion of queerness was a foreign concept to the ancient writers. As queer people, we often are forced to reread the past through a modern lens. While this may seem like a dramatic distortion of biblical tradition, in reality this sort of contemporizing of Jewish text is an integral part of biblical interpretation from the establishment of the canon, through the development of the Oral Law, and continuing through modern rabbinic and academic commentary. Jewish tradition keeps scriptures vital and dynamic in response to an ever-present moment.
In my search for biblical affinity, I have come to admire the prophet Jeremiah. The way he struggles with both his conscription as a prophet and his duties as a man allows me to see my own grappling with identity, gender, and sexuality in a surprising source.
Biblical prophecy is an all-encompassing and multifaceted performance that demands constant regulation and discipline. Prophecy is not merely the mandate to transmit the word of God, but it is also an imperative to embody a divine message, which sets the prophet apart from the rest of humanity. Jeremiah is a particularly clear example of a prophet who is fully absorbed by his prophetic performance, portraying an assigned character in a script dictated by God.
Just as I felt isolated by my innate identity, Jeremiah bemoaned the lofty expectations associated with his prenatal prophetic status. In the opening call narrative of the text, Jeremiah is identified as an innate prophet. God declares, “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)
This declaration is a way of prophet-ing Jeremiah, in much the same way that the declaration of a baby’s sex at birth is an active gendering of the child. “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” becomes “It’s a prophet!” This prenatal designation of Jeremiah’s status is not a descriptive label; instead, it is an imperative, which delineates how he must live his life from that point on. Prophecy, like gender, is not a voluntary identity; it is imposed on the subject by an external call and demands a rigid structure of behavioral adherence.
Later in the text, when the burden of prophecy seems like too much for Jeremiah to bear, he bemoans, “Accursed be the day that I was born! Let not the day be blessed when my mother bore me! Accursed be the man who brought my father the news and said, ‘A boy is born to you,’ and gave him such joy!” (Jer. 20.14-15)
At this point in the story, my heart breaks for Jeremiah as I reflect on my own adolescence. I am brought back to moments in middle school when I would cry in my bedroom about my physical inability to do what I genuinely believed God wanted from me. I was horrified that I would disappoint Him. How much easier would it have been to be born in another community that took the word of God less literally, or to have not been born at all? My struggle to understand my identity was all consuming and paralyzing, but in Jeremiah I found a model of someone with similar pain who found the strength to carry on.
The day Jeremiah was born was the moment he came into prophetic being; from that moment on he had no escape from his prophetic mission, doomed to suffer by the nature of his assigned role. And yet, he continued to fulfill his divine mission.
The performance of a prophetic identity is akin to the performance of gender identity: It is constant, self-regulated, and totalizing. Clashing prophetic and gender performances prevent Jeremiah from fully inhabiting a gendered identity and place him beyond the pale of the standard masculine role in the Bible. Jeremiah does not exist in a non-gendered body; rather, this conflict demonstrates that the need to perform prophecy supersedes the general preoccupation with the performance of gender. The prophet’s concern (or, more accurately, God’s concern for the prophet) is not for presenting Jeremiah as masculine, but rather for presenting him as prophetic. Separation from standard gender identity makes “prophet” a queer classification of sorts: on the margins of societal norms, a class against which the mainstream can contrast itself.
Throughout the text, Jeremiah is forced to forgo his own desires to embody a masculine persona for the sake of his obligation to God and his community. He is forbidden from taking a wife, and generally isolated from the world around him, a world of clear gendered space, in order to fulfil his prophetic role.
Of course, to say that prophet Jeremiah was “genderqueer” is an anachronism. However, it is my hope that through a revitalized re-reading of the prophet, we can create points of entry into the traditional biblical narrative and widen the realm of scholarly representation and reception of canonical texts.
As I was struggling with my own religious identity, I felt an affinity for Jeremiah. In the prophet I found another man who earnestly wanted to obey the will of God but had difficulty when God’s will precluded his own self-understanding, isolating him from the social structure of the world around him. While we may not be able to categorize the character, and the ultimate fate of the prophet is far from a comforting resolution, we can relate to his struggles, his search for self-identification, and his wherewithal to survive in the face of categorical opposition.
Jeramiah provides a unique example of a biblical character who feels isolated by his clear moral obligation. Like any cultural structure, traditional Judaism does not perfectly accommodate every person; however, even discontent with tradition is an integral part of the biblical text. Perhaps paradoxically, the strength to step away from biblical norms can come from the Bible itself.