The more I grow older, and hopefully a little deeper in understanding, the more I am aware of how religious traditions have wrestled with sexuality and gender in all kinds of extraordinary ways. For sexuality and gender have always been such powerful aspects of human lives and spirituality has therefore necessarily engaged with them as vital features of revelation and relationship, as well as repression and resistance. Sadly. so many 'sanitised' and narrowed readings of the Bible and religious traditions have significantly contributed to human distancing from intimate, celebratory and mature sexuality and gender identities. These are typically those which have much airplay today in wider media as well as conservative and fundamentalist circles. When however we look afresh at scripture and tradition, particularly through lenses of 'queer' experience, we find something very different. Some features can be quite confronting, even profoundly disturbing, full of extraordinary violence and subjugation. Some aspects can also be very different from our our contemporary contexts. Yet there are others, rightly viewed, which can help us face up to our own opportunities for growth towards richer sexual and gendered lives. They can be quite challenging but offer considerable liberative potential. Among these is the story (in Genesis 32.22-31) of Jacob's wresting with the divine, their wounding and blessing...
wounding in intimate places
Among those who have reflected on this text in relation to sexuality, is Theodore W.Jennings Jnr It is a part of his attempt - in his book Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel - to trace the significant homoerotic elements in the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions which are easily unacknowledged and erased. The image above (Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange (détail), Fresque d'Eugène Delacroix à Église Saint-Sulpice (Paris), Gloumouth 1, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike) is but one inspired by this text which might reflect this. In this brief reflection, I do not want to dwell on Jennings' own specific insights, other than pointing to them for further exploration. As a transgender person however, I would like to highlight the way in which he, and other scholars, suggest the wound of Jacob may be one which is closely linked to sexuality and/or gender identity. For the site of Jacob’s wounding has been variously translated as the hollow, or inside of the thigh, or hip. It is certainly a deep and intimate place of wounding.
In his book, among other stimulating ponderings, Jennings uses the word 'transgendering' in considering the impact of the divine upon Jacob in their wrestling. Jennings had in mind, I think, conceptions of penetration linked to homoerotic wrestling and a changed, or changing, identity for Jacob as a result. Not being a gay man, my own reading, born of my own experience, would take another turn - and I would certainly use 'transgender' word associations differently! For me, as for other 'queer' people of faith (like Theodore W.Jennings Jnr), the Jacob story is certainly capable of many illuminating readings. That is the mark of a great religious narrative - that it can speak into so many varied lives and situations. Transgender ones are assuredly among them!
In a homily for my parish community today, I traced some of the dimensions of Genesis 32.22-31 and the invitation to all of us to wrestle with God, own our wounds, and be open to fresh blessings through our wrestling and woundings (for the full homily see below). It is such a rich passage for so many of us to help explore aspects of ourselves, not least our shadows, sources of pain, and struggles, including various aspects of sexual and gender wounding and blessing. Others commented on how invitational this is. At this point in my own journey the story certainly speaks directly to my own experience as a transgender person, not least after my genital reconstruction surgery (GRS) this year.
Jacob at the threshold
From a transgender point of view, Jacob, like his famous offspring Joseph, is a fascinating figure. For in other ways too, Jacob has interesting gender-diverse features - as a 'smooth skin' male-gender assigned figure, who, unlike his brother Esau, hangs about the tents of women. In this story, his own transformation reaches a head. At Wadi Jabbok, Jacob comes to their own literal and symbolic threshold, liminal, or crossing place. They have to face up to the call of the their true identity, bound up with fears and years of evasive behaviour. They have to meet and wrestle with their shadow self and the divine within and about them. Only, significantly, after much struggle, when they own up to themselves, are they transformed, given and adopt a new and more life-giving name (in their case Israel). This is a great blessing, but it comes with wounding.
through wounding to blessing
A transgender person can thus surely identify. For as I reflected in my homily today:
'I also profoundly identify with the wounding that Jacob experiences. For all of us carry wounds, don’t we? Those wounds are often accidental, self-inflicted, or caused, sometimes traumatically, by others. Some wounds are also incredibly intimate and vulnerable. No wonder we, like Jacob, therefore seek to resist them. Each wound however can be a space where God can work. Our wounds, like the wounds of Jesus, however horrendous, can become places of transformative love and life for others. In my case, I was literally wounded by surgery in January in very intimate places, profoundly interconnected to my deepest self and sense of identity. Like Jacob in our story, this year I have consequently limped from my wound. Indeed, some commentators have posited that the site of Jacob’s wounding, variously translated as the hollow, or inside of the thigh, or hip, may have reference to sexuality and/or gender identity and vulnerability. Such wounding is the source of much, often painful, and painfully slow, wrestling. In my case, this year has been tougher than I expected, as I have had to wrestle with levels of pain, disability, fragility, and physical and spiritual challenge, which I had not fully anticipated. In this wrestling, in my own transformation, in that liminal space, I was more deeply wounded, in various senses, than I had expected. Yet, like Jacob, in my wrestling and wounding there has also been blessing, and this has been part of my continuing journey into my true, authentic calling and fullness of life.'
What perhaps do you see in this? How does it relate to your own wrestlings, woundings, and blessings?
(for my full homily click here)
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: