Jane Nichols and Rachel Stuart

j.nichols@yale.edu; rachel.erin.stuart@emory.edu


This paper revolves around issues of anachronism and identity in moving toward a transgender hermeneutic of interpretation. Putting Joan W. Scott’s work on gender as a category of historical analysis in conversation with María Lugones’ and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí’s discussions of gender and coloniality, the paper proposes the terminology of “gendered category” in order to resist colonialist assumptions inherent within the term “gender” and allow for more possibilities of analysis. With that grounding, the paper turns to an interpretation of the Jacob narratives in Genesis 25 and 27, arguing that the status of firstborn son (bəkōr) in the ancient Near East can be productively understood as a gendered category. It does not argue that Jacob is transgender in the sense of the modern identity marker, but rather that Jacob’s navigation and crossing of the gendered categories of his day carries certain compelling parallels to the ways in which transgender people today experience their identity across prescribed categories.


Gender; transgender; postcolonial; hermeneutics; LGBTQ; queer biblical studies

Identity­-based biblical hermeneutics are tenuous things, and they become even more so when the identity in question is one that has emerged as a category only recently. Such is the case with the identity “transgender” which has surfaced in the past three decades, eclipsing the medicalized term “transsexual” as the favoured umbrella term for those whom Kate Bornstein might call “gender outlaws.”[1] As with many other identities, transgender identity has become of interest in certain corners of biblical studies to transgender and cisgender[2] people alike. Comparatively little interpretation from transgender perspectives has been published, however, and scholarship proposing specifically transgender hermeneutics is near non–existent.

The proposal of a transgender hermeneutic of interpretation is premised both on there being some thing that is denoted by the word “transgender” and on that thing being a useful lens for textual analysis. The existence of this thing is more assumed than argued for by many pieces touching on transgender biblical interpretation, such as David Tabb Stewart’s “LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics and the Hebrew Bible”[3] and Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest’s monograph Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation.[4] In both works, the existence of the category “transgender”[5] and of subjects who are rightly named by it are taken for granted, and the authors focus on the problem of how to represent that identity and those subjects within biblical scholarship. Transgender biblical interpretation done by transgender scholars and laypersons follows a similar path. Katherine Apostolacus, building on a framework first laid out by Helen Savage in 2006, offers five categories which transgender biblical interpretation done by transgender individuals tend to fall under: (1) establishing a hierarchy of texts, in which seemingly anti-transgender passages are subordinated to other passages which appear to imply transgender acceptance; (2) resolution through historical and redaction criticism, in which texts are recognized primarily as merely products of their time; (3) changing the subject (or “changing the focus”), where the integrity of the text is preserved through “clever rhetorical moves” that deny transgender people are truly the subjects of seemingly anti-transgender passages; (4) self-insertion, in which transgender narratives are added to supplement biblical narratives but no claim to original inclusion is made; and (5) scripture as precedent, where the focus of the reader is directed not towards transgender identity itself but towards broader narratives and precepts that lay out ways-of-living accessible to both transgender and cisgender biblical readers.[6] Of these categories, none are primarily or even initially self-reflective: all of them to some extent carry their category of analysis—transgender identity as seen in the modern transgender subject, or more specifically the transgender Christian—as a presupposition. While it is undeniably refreshing to read scholarship that does not revolve around the question of moral permissibility in the face of “clobber texts,”[7] the unfortunate result is a body of interpretation that lacks a coherent vision of its subjects or its lens. In order to build a clearer understanding of a transgender hermeneutic, then, it is necessary to begin with the category “transgender” itself and the categories of “gender” that give it meaning and structure.


In her landmark 1986 article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” Joan Wallach Scott observed a similar trend amongst historians who were focused on gender. The emergence of “gender” as a category referring to human subjectivity rather than just a grammatical classification[8] was not accompanied by any universal or definitive understanding of what it meant as an analytic category.[9] Scott identified common theoretical usages of gender as a category as falling within two general trends:

The first is essentially descriptive: that is, it refers to the existence of phenomena or realities without interpreting, explaining, or attributing causality. The second usage is causal: it theorizes about the nature of phenomena or realities, seeking an understanding of how and why these take the form they do.[10]

Scott further classifies the second usage of “gender” into three distinct tendencies in historical scholarship: an attempt to understand the roots and origins of patriarchy; an effort to reconcile gender and Marxist scholarship; and an engagement with psychoanalysis. While these come closer to grasping a theoretical basis for gender than the more descriptive histories of gender, Scott identifies each as falling short either as history or theory.[11] The most pertinent of these pitfalls for our present task are to be found in the lack of historicity Scott observes in the first and the third subcategories of gender scholarship.

Historians of gender seeking to understand the origins of patriarchy tend to frame their question in biological terms: sexual difference proved to be the site of gender’s emergence. This approach, however, assumes “a consistent or inherent meaning for the human body—outside social or cultural construction—and thus the ahistoricity of gender itself. History becomes, in a sense, epiphenomenal, providing endless variations on the unchanging theme of a fixed gender inequality.”[12] The psychoanalysts, for their part, did not escape this problem either. In placing sexual difference at the centre of human subjectivity, psychoanalytic readings of gender tend to “universalize the categories and relationship of male and female,” resulting in a “reductive reading of evidence from the past.”[13] In both cases, the facility of “gender” is sustained through the projection of certain categories back throughout history, taking it as self-evident, not only that the physicality and sociality of sexual difference/gender are the central site of subject-constitution-against-the-Other, but that they always have been. Scott addresses this problem of historicity by offering her own multi-part definition of gender:

My definition of gender has two parts and several subsets. They are interrelated but must be analytically distinct. The core of the definition rests on an integral connection between two propositions: gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.[14]

It is not at all certain, however, that this definition of gender can be unproblematically adopted into biblical scholarship. Insofar as gender is a historical relationship, one’s understanding of it must be adequately historicized. The reader must, as Scott herself says, “examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively constructed and relate their findings to a range of activities, social organizations, and historically specific cultural representations.”[15] It must be asked, then, whether Scott’s definition is truly free (insofar as anything ever can be) of the problems which it attempts to overcome.

It is notable that the first part of Scott’s definition anchors gender as a system to “perceived differences between the sexes”; such anchoring puts her definition at risk of the same ahistoricity she identified as operative in other theoretical understandings of gender within historical scholarship. Following Judith Butler’s famous identification of gender as constitutive of—rather than emergent from—sexual difference,[16]  Scott’s first proposition may be defining “gender” using the purportedly biological terms which the modern regime of gender has itself produced. In these terms, her definition must be pushed further to avoid ahistoricization and the projection of modern understandings of biological sex onto the past. Scott herself hinted as much in a later article in which she revisited her definition of gender: “perhaps it is sexual difference that now needs to be problematized,” she suggests, “so that gender can be freed to do its critical work.”[17] Gender remains a useful category of analysis for Scott precisely “because it requires us to historicize the ways sex and sexual difference have been conceived.”[18] With this clarification comes the possibility of historical conceptions of “sexual difference” that do not rely on modern terms and understandings.

To take seriously Scott’s assertion that “no history of women is complete without a history of ‘women’”[19] would compel us to embark on an examination of our gendered categories and their meanings, implications, and historical emergence before presuming to apply these to historical figures or contexts. For the purposes of this project, the work of María Lugones and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí is especially helpful in identifying the specificities and contingencies at the heart of our modern system of gender, which that system in turn seeks to occlude in its aspirations to the universal.

At the beginning of her article “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Lugones draws strict parameters around gender and its theoretical comprehensibility. Insisting, with Scott, on a rigorous historicization of gender, she rejects the simplistic construction of an ahistorical “patriarchy,” arguing instead that “heterosexuality, capitalism, and racial classification are impossible to understand apart from each other.”[20] It is crucial, in her understanding, to identify gender not merely as modern but also as specifically colonial. In this, she is joined by Oyèwùmí, whose work with the Yorùbá culture led her to an understanding that the category woman “simply did not exist in Yorùbaland prior to its sustained contact with the West.”[21] The coloniality of gender was evidenced not merely by the imposition of gender categories on a people who had previously had no such construct but also by the continued assumption by researchers that the regime of gender (and the system of sexual difference which it produces as its foundation[22]) was so unquestionably universal that it necessarily always existed in Yorùbáland.[23] Gender must be historicized, then, not merely because it would be inaccurate to treat it as an ahistorical constant, but because its purported self-evident ahistoricity is a function of its coloniality.


Given the historicity and coloniality of “gender,” then, we might strengthen rather than contest or brush aside the charges of anachronism often levelled against feminist, queer, and transgender biblical interpretation from both their opponents and their more cautious allies. As Martti Nissinen writes:

Surely the people who lived in ancient cultures … did not interpret their existence in terms of modern classifications. Modern concepts like “sexuality” or “gender identity” are therefore inevitably anachronistic, all the more because they are used not just to describe but also to constitute reality.[24]

To say that a certain biblical figure was gay or lesbian or transgender is certainly anachronistic, but not perhaps for the reasons that many more traditionally-minded proponents of that view believe. In their imagining, it is the codification of that behaviour into an identity (or, in the case of transgender identity, the very existence of such “behaviour”) that is modern, having been newly imposed upon a system of gender that, while certainly allowing for change in form over time, stretches back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1:27 that “male and female [God] created them.”[25] This is the foundational assumption behind the common assertion that the interpreter may not, without abandoning their academic rigor, identify King David as “bisexual” but may freely take for granted the ability to label him, with propriety, a “man.” “Bisexual” or “gay,” in this situation, are identified—and accurately so—as importing modern connotations and understandings of human subjectivity onto a context incomprehensible to them. What is not identified, and indeed what is oftentimes not even considered, is the dangerous proposition that every aspect of human subjectivity is anachronistic when applied to such contexts. To treat some of these aspects as directly, if not unproblematically, translatable and others as invalid anachronisms is inconsistent at best, if not colonialist or otherwise violent.

If we take “anachronism” to refer to the importation or projection of temporally-specific meanings, understandings, or implications onto contexts alien to that specificity, then we are put initially in the uncomfortable company of those who mobilize such charges as a cudgel against those interested in issues of gender and sexuality. Quickly, however, we would begin to tread ground that they dare not. King David cannot be responsibly identified as “bisexual,” not only because bisexuality as a concept is alien to the ancient Near East but because even the most self-evident of the gendered understandings and conceptual apparatus that give bisexuality coherence are themselves anachronistic. This is, on the surface, perhaps not a ground-breaking statement. It is, for instance, widely acknowledged that the ancient Near Eastern concept of “man” differed wildly from the way we understand “man” today.[26] The depth of what that means for the interpreter, however, remains under-explored.

There has been, to the authors’ knowledge, no significant movement amongst biblical scholars to dispense with the words “man” and “woman” on the basis of their anachronism,[27] and certainly not amongst those who hold “anachronism” like a shield against feminist and queer interpretation. Scholars call Abraham a “man” and Sarah a “woman” and in so doing facilitate the projection of an entire modern system of social organization onto the ancient Near East. The addition of caveats and qualifications to the use of words like “man” and “woman” do not necessarily solve this problem. At worst, they run into a philological Ship of Theseus: does a word that has had all of its connotations qualified or replaced remain the same word? At what point is it more responsible to begin using another word that does not run the same risk of conflation? What are the benefits of using “man” and “woman” to describe biblical subjects? They certainly provide the reader with a conceptual referent that the Hebrew ʾîš  and ʾiššâ would not, but is this truly a benefit if that referent contains more misconceptions than accurate representations of the ancient concept in question?[28]

If such logic were taken to its extreme, of course, then any attempt to speak of the distant past would become nigh impossible. Our aims here are more modest, however. We content ourselves in this instance with addressing the issue of gender precisely because of its inextricably social nature and lack of any grounding substance. In Judith Butler’s famous estimation, gender is an endless and perpetual repetition, a citation of form with no ultimate anchor or origin.[29] Social arrangements such as gender are tremendous sites of historical instability with constantly shifting meanings and implications—meanings and implications which exist now only in hopelessly fragmented forms and only in writing. Even if non-fragmentary records of ancient social arrangements existed, they would carry no guarantee of accurate knowledge because the writing is only ever readable within the field of meanings available to us. Two of the essential qualities of writing to Jacques Derrida were its endless iterability—its ability to be read and cited and restated even after the original author has long since died—paired with its fundamental lack of self-present meaning.[30] Even if we can be reasonably sure that the best modern counterpart to ʾiššâ would be “woman,” we are epistemologically precluded from knowing the precise relation between ʾiššâ’s body of conceptual significations at the time of its writing and what “woman” signifies today. Using “woman” at all, then, is a projection of a set of meanings upon a conceptual body that is necessarily ultimately unknowable, and in a certain respect, less knowable for the projection of the existing, modern category upon it.

Such a projection of “gender” and its modern connotations and implications onto a biblical text is not merely an anachronistic vision of the past, but one which naturalizes a particular colonial social arrangement into the essential core of humanity itself. Coming from a society wholly suffused by the logics of colonial gender, scholars tend to assume, rather than demonstrate, the centrality of those logics in the object of their study. Oyèwùmí identifies one instance of this tendency in scholarship surrounding the Yorùbá: “woman” was assumed to be an operative category in Yorùbáland stretching backwards in perpetuity not because it had been demonstrated to exist, but because its non-existence was unimaginable to historians living under the colonial regime of gender.

This is not to say that ancient Near Eastern societies were like the Yorùbá and did not engage in social classification that reflected perceived biological traits. It is, rather, to say that the modern foregrounding of the gendered categories “man” and “woman” and the supposed self-evidence of the system of biological sex which is presumed to ground them must not be taken lightly when engaging with biblical texts. Historians’ presumption of the historical existence of gender in Yorùbáland did not manifest merely as a projection of a particular form of social organization onto the Yorùbá, but necessarily also as a fundamental misunderstanding of the social structures and organizations that were actually operative. The seniority-based familial structures which Oyèwùmí describes were dislocated from their central positions in traditional scholarship and portrayed as, at best, secondary add-ons to the central distinction of gender.[31]  The belief in the self-evidence of gender and the system of sexual distinctions which it grounds/is grounded by thus had the result—even for scholars who perhaps held postcolonial commitments—of reframing Yorùbá subjectivity and personhood in colonial terms.

Such projection is often masked by the fact that it is hard, impossible even, for social subjects constituted by and in a colonial regime of gender to imagine any human subject-formation that is not so grounded. To take our inescapably gendered subject-formation as evidence of gender’s centrality and innateness to human existence, however, would be hasty. Human experiences and prevailing epistemologies are too easily conflated to make experience the proof of ontology. As Joan Scott wrote in her 1991 article “The Evidence of Experience,” “It is precisely this appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation—as a foundation on which analysis is based—that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference … They take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference.”[32] Although Scott is addressing primarily the role that the experience of the historical subject plays in historical research and discourse, her emphasis on the contingency of experience can be productively turned to the scholar themself and the experiences and identities they take as self-evident.[33]

A biblical scholar seeking to avoid both anachronism and the projection of colonial categories and contexts onto biblical figures is placed in a delicate position. How can one responsibly write of a past whose socio-conceptual framework has long since vanished without projecting modern conceptual frameworks upon it? If language is, as both the structuralists and post-structuralists agree, a system of differences in which words communicate meaning not through a positive relation with the things they signify but through a negative relation with all other words, then twenty-first-century English-language biblical scholarship can never not be anachronistic, placing biblical narratives and subjectivities into fields of meaning radically different from those which produced them. At the same time, the field of biblical studies is foundationally premised on the notion that the texts it studies are important and can be productively engaged with to produce coherent and relevant meaning. A way must be developed to responsibly use the words we have at our disposal to communicate things that those words are, by nature, precluded from fully grasping—a hermeneutic that is at constant war with its own obligatory assumptions. Such a hermeneutic might begin with finding a way to talk about gender without talking about gender.

Gendered Categories

A distinction here must be made between “gender” as denoting, on the one hand, a system of social organization that provides the framework for the family and the family’s place in the social whole and, on the other hand, “gender” as referring to what Lugones terms the modern/colonial gender system. The latter is certainly an example of the former, but the two cannot be conflated. In the first usage, all cultures and peoples that have kinship structures have “gender,” because “gender” is nothing more than the social solution to the question of how to organize the reproduction of both family and society. Gender in the second usage, however, is temporally contingent. It is one possible solution to the questions which necessitate gender in the first usage—a solution that has been universalized and ahistoricized, represented as natural, right, and commonsensical, and spread through violent and coercive means.

The need for this distinction can be seen in Lugones’s treatment of non-European conceptions of gender, particularly her discussion of gender in Native American contexts. Having begun the article by arguing that colonization “introduced many genders and gender itself as a colonial concept,”[34] she notes pages later that one of the things which colonial powers sought to eradicate from Native American societies was an understanding of gender “not … primarily in biological terms.”[35] “The Yuma,” she continues, “had a tradition of gender designation based on dreams.”[36] The Native American nations and tribes in question are all understood as having something which can be referred to as “gender” that was forcibly and violently replaced by the colonial model of “gender.” Lugones’s solution to the problem caused by these two disparate meanings of “gender” seems to have been to use “gender system” when referring to the colonial gender ideology. While this does introduce a separation between colonial “gender” and indigenous “gender,” it is unclear to what extent that separation has been noted. The article’s abstract, for instance, says that “Lugones argues that gender itself is a colonial invention,”[37] omitting her specificity and flattening her argument. The use of “gender” for both the colonial and the indigenous models of social/familial organization, however, places the indigenous systems of “gender” in a position of being understood only through qualified relation to “gender” in the colonial sense. Engaging with the work of Michael Horswell, Lugones notes Horswell’s suggestion that “third gender does not mean that there are three genders. It is rather a way of breaking with sex and gender bipolarities.”[38] This formulation of “third gender” is coherent only if the system of “gender” was already assumed to be based around two polar categories. The use of “gender” to describe Native American systems of social/familial arrangement facilitates the projection of colonial gendered logics onto Native American contexts, a projection which can never be fully overridden in the mind of a reader operating within the epistemology of the modern/colonial gender system. To say that a particular social identity is a “gender” is to make it subject to the conceptual limitations of what “genders” can be: the reader implicitly understands it as being a “gender” in the way that “man” and “woman” are genders under the modern/colonial gender system.

Accordingly, we propose the use of “gendered category” for discussions of identities which operate in what can be said to be gendered ways but which are given form by social arrangements and epistemologies other than the modern/colonial. In defining gendered categories, it might be productive to return to the two tenets of Scott’s critical definition of gender. The first, that “gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes,”[39] certainly holds true for gender, but falls short as a descriptor of gendered categories. It takes as given, as many scholars do, that gendered arrangements have biological sex as their basis. When applied to gendered arrangements other than that of the modern/colonial gender system, however, this definition facilitates the projection of colonial gender logics upon other gendered categories.

If we were to adapt this definition for our purposes, we might define gendered categories according to the social function they serve rather than by their real or perceived bases. Building off Scott, then, we understand gendered categories to be (1) constitutive elements of social relationships serving to facilitate the organization and reproduction of the family and/or operative kinship structure through the production of difference; and (2) a primary way of signifying relationships of power. “Man” and “woman” in the modern/colonial paradigm are thus gendered categories, but they are merely two among many, not the gendered categories par excellence. Gendered categories need not look like genders as we understand them; they need only to perform the base function which gender performs within the modern/colonial context.

A transgender hermeneutic that resists both anachronism and the projection of colonial categories as the price of its affinity with its objects must first forsake gender and strive to understand gendered categories, as far as possible, on their own terms and without presupposing an irreducible man/woman (or male/female) divide as their most (and, ultimately, only real) central divide. Its aim should not be to identify figures or narratives that are transgender according to our modern understanding of gender and transgender identity, but rather to highlight those that struggled against and navigated the gendered categories of their day in ways reminiscent of the ways that transgender people today struggle against and navigate gender. The goal of this hermeneutic is not to project transgender identity onto the text or upon biblical/historical figures, but instead to place transgender people in a long and storied tradition of category rebels and boundary crossers. Transgender people have not, contrary to a common slogan, always been here. To assert as much would be to ahistoricize the context that gives the category “transgender” its coherence. What can be said, however, is that people have been transgressing social distinctions and obligations for just as long as societies have been producing them. It is this lineage that the transgender hermeneutic seeks to reclaim in the text, not transgender identity itself. Paradoxically, it is only through a turn away from transgender identity that a transgender hermeneutic can truly be productive for transgender people today. It is necessary, then, at this point to leave “gender” for a moment and turn towards one particular category operative in the ancient Near East, the category of firstborn son.

Bəkōr: A Gendered Category

The privileged status of the firstborn son (bəkōr), most clearly referenced in the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, is not a gender. There is, to our modern eyes, no biological distinction between the first- and the second-born son that would justify such a reading. According to the logic of gender, sons are sons are sons. This easy assumption becomes much more tenuous when we shift our critical grounding from the lens of gender to that of gendered categories. While it is true that the category “firstborn son” does not map easily onto our modern gender conceptions, it is undeniably linked with familial arrangement, kinship hierarchy, and inheritance. It is, in other terms, an establishment of difference for the purpose of the organization and (primarily economic) reproduction of the family and its social and political status.[40]

It must be said at the outset that the true importance and weight of customs is impossible to gauge with certainty. The relation between practice and record is famously tenuous, and even if records prove to be accurate and plentiful, the meaning, as argued above, is not certain to be adequately communicated. It is difficult, then, to determine with any certainty the exact nature of the institution of primogeniture operative in the ancient Near East, particularly for the Abrahamic line, given that the narrative presents that line as establishing a new law and set of social practices that in part serve to construct a separation between its descendants and the peoples surrounding them. Scholars are far from unanimous on the established practices: Victor H. Matthews’ statement, for instance, that inheritance in ancient Mesopotamia was generally distributed to all sons (and possibly some or all daughters) either equally or according to the father’s whim[41] seems to conflict with Frederick E. Greenspahn’s identification of a customary double inheritance to the firstborn son.[42] The biblical record is no clearer: the legal material seems to favour the double portion custom (Deut 22:17), while many narratives, especially the ancestral narratives, imply equal division. The text to which this article will shortly turn, however, provides some indication that the status of bəkōr meant something, even if it is ultimately unclear whether that something was property, status, favour, blessing, or something else. After all, when Jacob obtained his elder brother Esau’s birthright and firstborn’s blessing in Gen 25 and 27, the latter was incensed enough to attempt fratricide. One can infer that the loss was registered as significant.

Regardless of the material content of the inheritance that the bəkōr was to receive, Naomi Steinberg argues that the custom in Israel seems to have been that the birthright carried with it the primary lineage of the clan,[43] an argument that is given weight by a line in Isaac’s blessing of the firstborn in Gen 27:29:[44] “Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.”[45] By the time the Torah was being written, the bəkōr was granted by law a double portion of the inheritance (Deut 21:17), was understood as having been claimed as God’s own (Exod 4:22; 13:2; 22:29; 34:20; Num 18:15), and was protected against any discretionary demotion from bəkōr status by his father (Deut 21:15-17). Additionally, rabbinic tradition holds that in the days before the tabernacle and the institutional priesthood, the bəkōr was to offer sacrifices and discharge priestly duties on behalf of the household,[46] a responsibility which Matthews also assumes is expected, based on ancient Near Eastern parallels.[47] The station of bəkōr was apparently distinct enough to warrant a marking of the firstborn in potentially ambiguous situations: Gen 38:28 records a midwife delivering twins while keeping close at hand a red thread with which to mark the firstborn, an action somewhat reminiscent of the modern-day sexing of a baby (and, as Gen 38 demonstrates, no less a site of potential contestation). To denote a child bəkōr, then, was to assign the child a certain destiny.[48] If social role follows after an individual’s social status,[49] then the status of bəkōr can be seen to thrust the firstborn into a unique and predetermined role in the family structure, a role essential to the functioning of family and kinship structure alike.

In all this, the position of the bəkōr seems to easily fit what we have outlined as the criteria for being a gendered category. It was a constituent element of the household brought about by the creation of difference; it was a category essential for the functioning and reproduction of the family and networks of kinship; and it was, at least in the ancestral period, a primary way of signifying relations of power. It carried with it material, spiritual, and symbolic distinctions, and committed the bəkōr to a particular role distinct from that of all other siblings.


An understanding of “bəkōr” as a gendered category allows for a reading of Jacob’s young life in Gen 25 and 27 that more fully grasps the weight of his supposed “theft” of Esau’s birthright and Isaac’s blessing of the bəkōr. Many interpreters, both clerical and lay, have struggled over the centuries with the ethics of Jacob’s actions. A plain reading of the text, after all, does not seem to portray Jacob in a flattering light, and much of the rest of his life has been read as payback for his youthful deception. He seems to take advantage of both his brother’s and his father’s compromised states at various points in order to secure for himself the material and spiritual benefits that were rightfully to go to his brother. However, the biblical narrator—who, despite the characteristic reticence of Hebrew narrative, does not often shy away from moral assessments—is strangely ambivalent about the seeming unethical flavour of Jacob’s actions. The narration recounts the anger of Esau and Isaac, but never legitimates it. A transgender interpretation of Gen 25 and 27 might rethink the ease with which traditional interpretation has allied its gaze with that of Esau and Isaac and understood Jacob as little more than a thief.

This is, of course, not the first or only time that the narrative of Jacob and Esau has been paralleled with transgender identity. Sarra Lev’s chapter “Esau’s Gender Crossing” in the 2009 volume Torah Queeries is dedicated to mapping gender transgression in the story of Esau,[50] and Joy Ladin’s 2019 book The Soul of the Stranger recounts the author’s complicated affinity, as a transsexual woman, with Jacob.[51] Lev focuses her attention primarily on the “gender inversions in which Esau rejects his overtly male description and legacy in favor of what in contemporary terms we might think of as more ‘classically female’ choices.”[52] If the unproblematic use of “male” and “female” roles prompt the reader to view Lev’s as an anachronistic account of gender, it is at least self-consciously so:

To be clear, this essay intentionally conflates role definition in Biblical texts, rabbinic texts, and contemporary culture. In fact, the Biblical, rabbinic, and contemporary depictions of gender roles vary greatly. This commentary ignores those divisions in order to paint a queer picture for a contemporary world.[53]

The “queer picture for a contemporary world” which Lev paints is certainly compelling, but finds itself limited in its possible scope by virtue of its framing and the assumptions—self-conscious or otherwise—that ground it. Presumably a queer picture more thoroughly grounded in the specificities of its ancient context, as much as is possible, would be that much more compelling.

Ladin’s discussion of primogeniture places her treatment of the narrative more firmly within the context of the times, going so far as to identify Jacob’s attainment of the birthright as a “trans experience,” something which she separates from transgender identity and defines as “experiences, however brief, of acting in ways that don’t fit our usual gender roles.”[54] This focus on the fleeting, temporary violations of gender roles, however, particularly when combined with Ladin’s stated presupposition of a trans-historical gender/sex binary,[55] results in the tacit acceptance of many traditional interpretations of this biblical narrative. While she generally avoids the language of condemnation in this passage of Soul of the Stranger, in her earlier article from which it was adapted, she posits that Jacob’s actions represented “family deception,” a “betrayal of his father and brother,” and were “inexcusably, inarguably wrong”[56]; “Jacob really is committing fraud,” she argues, “trying to pass as someone he knows he isn’t to steal a blessing that isn’t intended for him.”[57] For Ladin, Jacob attained his desired social position through “flouting law, convention and family ties.”[58]

It is worth noting that while both of Ladin’s pieces focus on the affinity between Jacob’s actions and transgender experience, it is ultimately unclear just what that affinity is. In “The Stolen Blessing,” Ladin’s parallel seems to be between “Jacob’s becoming” and transsexual becoming, whereas in Soul of the Stranger the parallel seems to be between Jacob’s deceptive act and the closeted transsexual.[59] Paradoxically, in the latter work, Jacob’s flaunting of his assigned gender role seems to be read together with the modern closeted transsexual’s adherence to theirs. Due to this slippage, within what are otherwise two statements of the same model, it is hard to draw a transgender hermeneutic from this reading that extends beyond a mere noting of the affective dimensions of deception (or, at the very least, perceived deception).

The issue of deception is one that must be confronted head-on in any transgender interpretation of the Jacob narrative, precisely because of the widespread cultural perception of transgender identity as deceptive. It is for this reason that a hermeneutic cannot be simply drawn from Ladin’s interpretations without a greater amount of clarity on what exactly the affinity between transgender identity and Jacob’s actions are. In paralleling the openly transsexual subject and Jacob, her account in “The Stolen Blessing” projects a fundamental guilt at the heart of all transsexual becomings and at the core of Jacob’s becoming, both of which are strictly in line with traditional attitudes towards transsexuality and Jacob’s actions respectively. Far too often, transsexual adolescents and adults are treated cruelly by families and are then themselves blamed for the pain and division brought about by that cruelty. It should not, then, be taken for granted that Jacob was to blame for the familial conflict or that he acted in a fundamentally unethical manner. To follow Ladin’s parallel in Soul of the Stranger between the closeted transsexual and the Esau-passing Jacob, one is confronted by her exhortation that we “root for Jacob to succeed in impersonating his brother”[60] and its uncomfortable implication for the closeted transsexual’s “impersonation” of the gender they were assigned at birth. Given that neither of these parallels seem to provide a fruitful hermeneutic, and since both of them falter upon the topic of “deception,” it seems that a more in-depth examination from the beginning is necessary in order to develop a transgender hermeneutic that can speak to this passage.

Jacob’s life started, as so many of ours do, with a “gendering.” He was no sooner born than he was declared to be a second-born son and constituted according to a myriad of social meanings. He was a son and, as such, could inherit and grow to lead a family, but he was also a second-born and thus was denied the bulk of his father’s inheritance and the right to lead the clan. The social mechanisms that controlled the possibilities of becoming for ancient Near Eastern subjects sprang into action, prescribing the way that his life would take form. The matter of seconds between his twin’s birthing and his own had, as far as anybody then was concerned, installed an ontological distinction between the two. He would, as non-firstborn sons were expected to, defer to his brother in familial matters and content himself with leading merely a branch of the family, eternally second to the bəkōr. That this was his trajectory should not have been in question: he was, simply and observably, born second. The self-evidence with which the modern/colonial gender system regards assignment of sex at birth no doubt characterized the ancient Near Eastern assignment of the gendered categories of firstborn and second-born son. There were signs, however, that Jacob would not easily accept the gendered category assigned to him.

Many modern discussions surrounding transgender identity, particularly those happening in contexts where transgender identity is placed under moral judgment, grapple with questions like how a person could truly know that they were transgender and whether a flagrant violation of assigned roles and identity could be socially and morally acceptable. It might be an appealing fantasy for many of us, that even before our birth our induction into the traumatizing system of gender had been accompanied by a divine pronouncement that our gender transgressions to come were part of the divine plan and were to be affirmed and accepted. This is, at any rate, precisely what happened for Jacob:

The children struck at one another inside [Rebekah], and she said, “If it is thus—why must I live with this?”[61] So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, two peoples in your belly: they shall be divided. One people over the other shall prevail; the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:22–23)

God had stated in no uncertain terms that Jacob’s life would differ wildly from the standard trajectory expected of one assigned his gendered category. When Jacob was born clutching the heel of his brother (Gen 25:26), the symbolism was clear: his destiny was to grasp that which he had been denied by his assigned gendered category at birth. The name he was given, Yaʿaqob, served to commemorate this calling, as it designated him “one who follows at the heel” or, less charitably, “one who supplants.”

The sole information the narrative gives about the twins and their life before Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s birthright is contained in two pairs of descriptions: that “Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field; and Jacob was a wholesome man, a dweller of tents” (Gen 25:27) and that “Isaac loved Esau, for he spoke of hunting, while Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen 25:28). Of the two, both Lev’s and Ladin’s interpretations focused more heavily on the former: Lev identifies Esau’s rugged masculinity as a patriarchal role that Esau found himself forced to play until he ultimately shrugged it off,[62] while Ladin emphasizes the effeminacy of Jacob, particularly when thrown into sharp relief by his Esau-drag.[63] Perhaps of more interest, however, are the implications of Rebekah and Isaac’s respective favoured sons. While Lev seems to attribute the differing parental favour to the sons’ natures, we would suggest that it has more to do with varying responses to the divine pronouncement: Rebekah favoured the bəkōr of divine decree while Isaac, whom we are never told heard of Rebekah’s conversation with God, preferred the firstborn of tradition and social convention. When placed on this footing, Rebekah and Isaac’s later actions—as well as those of Esau—can be seen in a different light.

The story told in Gen 25:29–34 is well-known. Esau returned home from a hunt feeling famished and found that Jacob had made a stew. Esau asked to eat, and Jacob offered him stew only on the condition that Esau trade his birthright, his status as the bəkōr, for it. Esau agreed, and Jacob gave him food. Much has been written over the centuries about the ethics of this transaction,[64] but the vast majority of those writings have taken as a given that the birthright was, prior to the trade, Esau’s. Similarly, when Jacob receives the blessing that Isaac intended to give Esau in Gen 27, the predominant assumption amongst interpreters has been that the blessing too was Esau’s by right. How different might these situations appear to us if we were to assume, as per God’s words to Rebekah, that both the birthright and the blessing of the bəkōr were Jacob’s by right? Indeed, despite ample opportunities across the two chapters, the narrator conspicuously never refers to Esau as bəkōr. Suddenly, Jacob is no longer a scheming second-born who held his ambition more closely than his family but instead he becomes a bəkōr by divine decree who must navigate a father and brother more invested in power and tradition than in God, and intent on delegitimizing him at every turn.

On this footing, the purpose of Jacob’s interaction with a hungry Esau was not foundationally to buy the birthright, although it manifested in those terms. It was rather to force an acknowledgement of the status which Jacob already had by right and should never have needed to purchase, but of which he was being continually dispossessed. It served as a refusal on Jacob’s part to continue providing endless support and service to a brother and a father who were quite content to conceptualize him as belonging to a gendered category other than his own. To raise the issue at that time was certainly a calculated move, a taking advantage of circumstances, but its purpose was to force his brother to acknowledge him for who he was, not to extort or deceive Esau for personal gain. Jacob was, as so many transgender people are forced to today, using the scant resources, influences, and power at his disposal to demand respect for his identity from those closest and most hostile to him. It was not Jacob’s greed but instead Esau’s disregard for Jacob’s divinely-sanctioned gendered position that was ultimately responsible for the confrontation.

If traditional interpretation has understood Jacob’s purchase of the birthright as a valid, albeit coercive, transaction, it has conceptualized Jacob’s receival of the blessing of the bəkōr in Gen 27 as nothing short of theft. The chapter begins with Isaac expressing his intent to bless Esau (Gen 27:1–4), which Rebekah overhears and is quick to tell Jacob, urging him to receive the blessing in Esau’s stead (vv. 5–10). Jacob’s response, that he bears no physical resemblance to Esau (vv. 11–12), is countered by Rebekah’s instruction to dress in Esau’s clothes and her use of fur to simulate Esau’s body hair on the smooth-skinned Jacob (vv. 13–17). Jacob does as she instructs and goes to his father, where he receives the bəkōr blessing after the dim-eyed Isaac feels his clothes and the fur bound to his hands, arms, and neck (vv. 18–29). Given this series of events, it is certainly understandable that it would be portrayed as wilful theft and deception on the part of Jacob and Rebekah.

The blessing that Isaac was to give, however, was the blessing of the bəkōr, not the blessing of the Esau, as it were. What Rebekah overheard was not an opportunity for her favoured son to advance his own interests at the expense of his brother but rather her husband preparing to deprive Jacob, the bəkōr, of that which was his by divine decree and give the blessing instead to his favoured son. She knew, as did Isaac, that he could not lawfully de-gender Jacob and re-gender Esau by patriarchal fiat (Deut 21:16),[65] and yet she heard him conspiring to do so anyway, whether wittingly or not. She saw then that Esau’s earlier acknowledgement of Jacob as the bəkōr had been insincere and that he was intending to receive a blessing which was not his to receive. This action would permanently undercut his brother Jacob’s rightful status and nullify his earlier promise through recourse to Isaac’s authority as the current head of the household. The solution that Rebekah arrived at is one that is painfully well-known to transgender people today: using her knowledge of Isaac’s presuppositions regarding the physical attributes of the relevant gendered subject, she instructed Jacob on how to physically pass as such.

Is it deception to attempt to pass as what one is in order to receive that which is one’s by right?[66] Is a breast-form a lie? A packer? Are they not necessitated by others’ malicious intent to de-gender? When Jacob donned Esau’s clothing and wrapped furs around his exposed skin, was he intending to supplant or desperately trying to not be supplanted? His “passing” was certainly more specific than that required of transgender individuals today, but its function was the same. Despite having divine sanction for crossing the lines of the bəkōr gendered category and having previously had Esau acknowledge him as such, Jacob and Rebekah realized in that moment that Jacob’s identity would never be respected by his father unless he were to fit Isaac’s physical criteria of “bəkōr.” They also realized that, despite Esau’s earlier acknowledgement of Jacob’s gendered status, he was eager to secretly receive the blessing to which he had formally disavowed any claim. It was not Rebekah but Isaac who was trying unlawfully to secure the blessing for his favoured son, just as it was not Jacob but Esau who was attempting to deceptively supplant the other.

If the position which Jacob was forced into is one known to many transgender people today, so too is Isaac and Esau’s reaction to discovering that Jacob passed as Isaac’s conception of “bəkōr.” Genesis 27:30–41 recounts Esau’s late arrival to Isaac’s side claiming the gendered category “bəkōr” that was no longer his, Isaac’s confusion upon finding a second bəkōr asking for his blessing, Esau’s anguished fury upon finding that his attempt to take back that which was Jacob’s had failed,[67] and ultimately his intent to murder Jacob. Whether through ignorance or a wilful rejection of God’s words to Rebekah, Isaac’s assumption that “your brother came in deceit, and he has taken away your blessing” (Gen 27:35) and Esau’s subsequent murderous rage mirror the violent reaction that transgender people today—predominantly black transgender women—face when cisgender people discover their transgender status and imagine themselves to have been tricked by an intentional act of deception.[68] In both instances, hatred or fear of gender transgression is suddenly confronted by the realization that such transgression is not always patently obvious, that the dominant, the established, might not be able to manage and control those whom it has constructed as deviants.[69] Just as Esau tried to murder Jacob for claiming the relevant trappings of firstborn status and being recognized as such for it, so too do many today try to murder transgender people, most frequently black transgender women and other transgender women of colour, for nothing more than claiming their gendered status through outward presentation. Neither Jacob nor the transgender person today created the social conditions that withhold recognition of the subject’s self-alteration and conformity to arbitrary standards; such a system was thrust upon them.


A parallel between Jacob’s attainment of the gendered category “bəkōr” and transgender identity today can never be a perfect one. The systems which gave coherence to the category “bəkōr” and the category “transgender” are wildly different, and we must be tremendously cautious about projecting the latter onto the former. The hermeneutical utility of “transgender” does not rely on its modern structure or content, but instead on its way-of-relating to dominant social structures. It is only when “transgender” is severed from what we know to be gender that it becomes a useful category of biblical analysis.

It might seem paradoxical to insist on a transgender hermeneutic that can truly exist only when the reader gives up any notion of recovering transgender subjects as such. Far from defeating the purpose of such a hermeneutic, however, we argue that this approach represents the most productive path forward for interactions with transgender identity within the field of biblical studies. To search for the transgender subject as we know it today in the Bible is a mission doomed to fail, and one that carries dangerous implications. Such a project not only takes for granted the trans-historicity of the modern/colonial gender system but does so with no hope of reward,[70] for the subjects for which it seeks are hopelessly anachronistic and could never have existed. This should be no comfort to those who hold “anachronism” like a shield against queer and feminist hermeneutics, however, for the entire reason transgender identity is anachronistic is because the gender system which they would ontologize is also anachronistic. To take their charge seriously is to arrive at conclusions which radically undermine their position and which provide the preconditions for a true transgender hermeneutic.

The hermeneutic that we propose, when turned on other biblical narratives, might serve to identify a strong tradition of category rebels throughout the Bible who would not have been read together but for a gendered analysis that rejects the modern/colonial gender system as its unquestioned basis for all gendered understandings. Whether it does or does not, however, this hermeneutic should compel scholars and interpreters to a more critical stance regarding what exactly we mean when we speak of “gender” or “transgender” in relation to a biblical or historical text.


Ahroni, Reuben. “Why Did Esau Spurn the Birthright? A Study in Biblical Interpretation.” Judaism 29, no. 3 (1980): 323–31.

Apostolacus, Katherine. “The Bible and the Transgender Christian: Mapping Transgender Hermeneutics in the 21st Century.” Journal of the Bible and its Reception 5.1 (2018): 1–29.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Pages 253–263 in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap, 1996.

Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia 22.3 (2007): 43–65.

Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Pages 13–31 in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Edited by Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Clines, David J. A. Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. 40th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Pages 307–30 in Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Edelman, Lee. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Greenspahn, Frederick E. When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hornsby, Teresa J., and Deryn Guest. Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

Ladin, Joy. “The Stolen Blessing.” Tikkun. 12 May 2011. https://www.tikkun.org/the-stolen-blessing.

Ladin, Joy. The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah From a Transgender Perspective. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2019.

Lev, Sarra. “Esau’s Gender Crossing: Parashat Toldot.” Pages 38–42 in Torah Queeries. Edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Lugones, María. “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Hypatia 22.1 (2007): 186–209.

Maher, Michael. “The Transfer of a Birthright: Justifying the Ancestors.” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 8 (1984): 1–24.

Matthews, Victor H. “Family, Children, and Inheritance in the Biblical World.” Pages 403–408 in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts. Edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Matthews, Victor H. “Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East.” Pages 1–32 in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World. Edited by Ken M. Campbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,2003.

Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998.

Oyèwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Savage, Helen. “Changing Sex? Transsexuality and Christian Theology.” Ph.D. diss., Durham University, 2006.

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Scott, Joan Wallach. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773–97.

Scott, Joan Wallach. “Gender: Still a Useful Category of Analysis?” Diogenes 225 (2010): 7–14.

Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Steinberg, Naomi. “Gender Roles in the Rebekah Cycle.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 175–88.

Stewart, David Tabb. “LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics and the Hebrew Bible.” Currents in Biblical Research 15.3 (2017): 289–314.

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

Weiss, Shira. “The Ethics of Price Gouging: Jacob’s Purchase of Esau’s Birthright.” Journal of Religious Ethics 45.1 (2017): 142–6.

[1] See Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (New York: Routledge, 1994). For a history of the development of transgender identity, see C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008).

[2] “Cisgender” is the etymological opposite of “transgender,” and refers to people who are not transgender.

[3] See particularly the section “Intersex People and Trans* Interpretation: Gender Fluidity” in David Tabb Stewart, “LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics and the Hebrew Bible,” Currents in Biblical Research 15, no. 3 (2017): 305–308.

[4] Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest, Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016).

[5] Hornsby and Guest intentionally use “trans” instead of either “transgender” or “transsexual” in order to avoid assumptions and artificial limitations of scope which might be implied by the use of “transgender” instead of “transsexual.” For the purposes of this piece, “transgender” should not be read in opposition to “transsexual,” and it should not be understood to imply anything about the transgender subject’s “physical transition.”

[6] Katherine Apostolacus, “The Bible and the Transgender Christian: Mapping Transgender Hermeneutics in the 21st Century,” Journal of the Bible and its Reception 5, no. 1 (2018): 11–25; Helen Savage, “Changing Sex? Transsexuality and Christian Theology” (Ph.D. diss, Durham University, 2006).

[7] Stewart, “LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics,” 296.

[8] Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053–54.

[9] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1055.

[10] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1056.

[11] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1058–66.

[12] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1059.

[13] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1064.

[14] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1067.

[15] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1068.

[16] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 1999), 178.

[17] Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: Still a Useful Category of Analysis?” Diogenes 225 (2010): 12.

[18] Scott, “Gender: Still a Useful Category,” 13.

[19] Scott, “Gender: Still a Useful Category,” 12.

[20] María Lugones, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Hypatia 22, no. 1 (2007): 187.

[21] Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), ix.

[22] Oyèwùmí, The Invention of Women, 8–9.

[23] Oyèwùmí, The Invention of Women, x.

[24] Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 11.

[25] For example, Campbell’s preface to Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (ed. Ken M. Campbell; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), xv, laments scholars’ habitual foray into eisegesis that presumes modern categories of sex, sexuality, and gender in relation to biblical portrayals of gendered categories and familial composition, as though the biblical categories are self-evident or invested with self-present meaning. Additionally, such easy treatments of Gen 1:27 neglect that Hebrew poetry habitually describes the full span of conceptual spectra by naming only the ends—for example, the tree of the knowledge of “good and bad” (Gen 2:17), which presumably covers not merely the literal moral good and evil (as is often translated) but access to a critical, discerning epistemology capable of normative judgments.

[26] See, for example, David J. A. Clines, “David the Man: The Construction of Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible,” in his monograph Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995), 212–43, esp. 231–33.

[27] Nissinen, despite his caution of projecting sexual identity backwards across time, evidently had no such concern about gender: “Even if the concept of sexuality was nonexistent before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries C.E, gender or, if we prefer, sexual difference always did exist as a factor of human biology, erotic experience, social life, and individual consciousness” (Homoeroticism, 10).

[28] For one among many detailed explorations of such questions, see Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926 (ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings; Cambridge: Belknap, 1996), esp. 257.

[29] Butler, Gender Trouble.

[30] Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy (trans. Alan Bass; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 316–19.

[31] Oyèwùmí, The Invention of Women, 13–14, 20–21.

[32] Joan Wallach Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 777.

[33] A similar turn can be seen in Lugones’ engagement with Anabel Quijano on his presuppositions surrounding sex/gender and gender relations (“Heterosexualism,” 193–94).

[34] Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 186.

[35] Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 199.

[36] Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 200.

[37] Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 186.

[38] Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 201.

[39] Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category,” 1067.

[40] Nearly everything about marriage and sibling and parent/child relationships was determined primarily by and for economic considerations that preserved ancestral land to be passed from father to son (who would himself become a father) and ensured the continued relative self-sufficiency of the household, as well as its relationship to other branches of the family and the larger tribe. See Victor H. Matthews, “Family, Children, and Inheritance in the Biblical World,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (ed. Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 493–94.

[41] Matthews, “Family, Children, and Inheritance,” 496; Victor H. Matthews, “Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (ed. Ken M. Campbell; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,2003), 2.

[42] Frederick E. Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 16–17.

[43] Naomi Steinberg, “Gender Roles in the Rebekah Cycle,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 180.

[44] All biblical translations are the authors’ own.

[45] It is worth noting that Jacob and Esau are the only two sons of Isaac mentioned. Judging from the plural “brothers” and “mother’s sons,” Isaac’s blessing is likely not a literal statement directly applicable to his particular children but a benedictory formula that existed at the time of the writers and presumed not only a multiplicity of brothers but also of wives (else the distinction of mother’s sons from brothers is meaningless), and served as the ritual enactment of the familial headship of the bəkōr who would become the next ʾāb (father, head of household).

[46] Bereshith Rabbah, 63:13, quoted in Michael Maher, “The Transfer of a Birthright: Justifying the Ancestors,” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 8 (1984): 2.

[47] Matthews, “Family, Children, and Inheritance,” 492.

[48] Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together, 55.

[49] Steinberg, “Gender Roles,” 177.

[50] Sarra Lev, “Esau’s Gender Crossing: Parashat Toldot,” in Torah Queeries (ed. Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer; New York: New York University Press, 2009), 38–42.

[51] Ladin uses language of “transsexuality” throughout the article, and so we will be using “transsexual” instead of “transgender” in discussing it. Joy Ladin, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah From a Transgender Perspective (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2019), 35–42. This discussion was heavily drawn from an earlier article by Ladin, “The Stolen Blessing,” Tikkun, 12 May 2011. https://www.tikkun.org/the-stolen-blessing.

[52] Lev, “Esau’s Gender Crossing,” 38.

[53] Lev, “Esau’s Gender Crossing,” 42, n. 3.

[54] Ladin, Soul of the Stranger, 35–36.

[55] Ladin, Soul of the Stranger, 35.

[56] Ladin, “The Stolen Blessing.”

[57] Ladin, Soul of the Stranger, 38.

[58] Ladin, “The Stolen Blessing.”

[59] Ladin, Soul of the Stranger, 38–39.

[60] Ladin, Soul of the Stranger, 42.

[61] The syntax of Rebekah’s words is unclear.

[62] Lev, “Esau’s Gender Crossing,” 38–40.

[63] Ladin, “The Stolen Blessing.”

[64] See Reuben Ahroni, “Why Did Esau Spurn the Birthright? A Study in Biblical Interpretation,” Judaism 29, n. 3 (1980); Maher, “The Transfer of a Birthright”; Shira Weiss, “The Ethics of Price Gouging: Jacob’s Purchase of Esau’s Birthright,” Journal of Religious Ethics 45, n. 1 (2017): 142–63.

[65] A hypothetical Isaac of the actual late second millennium might have been able to do this, on analogy with the powers of contemporary ancient Near Eastern patriarchs, but the law in Deuteronomy was presumably the standard convention for the writers and hearers of the story when it was compiled, and therefore the relevant standard for interpretation. (See again the discussion above of our interpretations being heavily circumscribed by our cultural habits and categories.)

[66] This, of course, begs the question of what one is and whether such a gendered identity could be “right” or “wrong.” For the purposes of this article, however, we are assuming, albeit problematically, that a person can be said to be the identity which they are claiming for themselves and along whose terms they best understand themselves. For all of the reasons why we perhaps shouldn’t, see Butler, Gender Trouble; Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993); Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (ed. Diana Fuss; New York: Routledge, 1991), 13–31.

[67] Despite Esau’s determined wish for birth order to be the primary determiner of bəkōr status, his anger at Jacob’s receipt of the blessing demonstrates his instinctive knowledge of what Butler has famously demonstrated: categories of social organization like gender are substantiated and made real by the performance of the rituals, habits, and expectations which might seem to reveal or confirm prior truths of the subject. As demonstrated especially by certain Nuzi and Elamite final testaments, the gendered category of primary inheritor was bestowed by the ritual recognition of the bəkōr by the (eventually) departing father: “I have adopted my daughter as a son” or, more directly, “you are my husband, you are my son, you are my heir.” See Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East (Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), 303.

[68] See Talia Mae Bettcher, “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion,” Hypatia 22, no. 3 (2007): 43–65.

[69] See Lee Edelman, “Homographesis,” in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 3–23.

[70] We are reminded by a line from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Your worst sin is that you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing.”