A Waldensian pastor’s studies, starting with Moses

Masculinity in the Bible

 La maschilità nella Bibbia  DCM-003
02 March 2024

How can our way of seeing, which is derived from gender, influence the reading of biblical Scripture and how much the contrary, i.e., how can being of a particular gender be rooted within a certain way of interpreting Scripture? It is not new to talk about the relationship between gender, power, privilege, and how this can more often than we think, take on contours of systemic violence. Who knows, if behind what I see as a man, socialized with the masculine gender, then, there is a more complex history, full of entanglements, of battles for self-acceptance, of working in collectives to promote a new way of being male in relationships. It matters little whether behind the masculine I see is a homosexual, bisexual, a husband, a father, a widower, someone sick, healthy, a believer, a minister of religion or not.  Yet, to learn to inhabit the complexities of today, it is necessary to be able to stop and listen to others’ stories. In a given way, even being male is one of the possibilities, not the only one albeit a majority, but one can encounter minority ones, called upon to make a difference. Moreover, in this tangle of processes, faiths, churches and a certain way of reading Scripture can form a certain way of living and experiencing relations to the other.

In this sense, it is not possible to think of practicing a reading of the biblical text that does not consider the diversity of subjectivities, of those who approach it and reflect themselves in it. Just because that Word involves, encounters, incarnates differently in our lives, and does not mean in a more or less right way, but it is necessary to know how to live and apply a reading method that is aware of the diversity and complexity of each individual, taking into consideration all the varied facets that make up their identity: gender, sexual orientation, race, migratory path, physical ability, etc. The perspective that intersects the various components of the subject's identity is defined as intersectional (Rachele Borghi, Decoloniality and privilege. Feminist practices and critique of the world-system, Meltemi, 2020), and it was born precisely to show the complexity of every type of oppression. Just as this practice allows us to inhabit reality with a greater awareness of the oppressive system that surrounds us, the same happens with regard to the biblical text and its interpretation: over the centuries, we have undergone the gaze of a single subject who perceived himself as universal, namely male, white, heterosexual, healthy, and a father. Thanks to the work carried out by all those "other" subjectivities, today it is possible and necessary to propose a new and different reading of Scripture, starting precisely from the biblical characters.

My thesis project Moses: Myth of a Man, Tale of a Male. In trying to reread the masculinity of the prophet par excellence (ed. Claudiana, 2021) I wanted to apply a gendered reading perspective from the point of view of the masculine. I did so through the keys offered by men’s studies of the figure of Moses and his way of being within the masculine gender, or rather, in what way he corresponded or did not correspond to the norm. In particular, it is interesting to pay attention to the way in which Moses’ actions change according to the subject with whom he is confronted. In the episode of conflict between brothers reported in the biblical book of Numbers in chapter 12, Moses’ favored role is confirmed by YHWH himself, who, in turn, hurls his punishment not at both brothers but exclusively at Moses and Aaron’s sister, Miriam:

“The Lord said, ‘Hear now my words; if there is any prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses, who is faithful in my entire house. With him, I speak face to face, clearly, and not by riddles; he sees the likeness of the Lord. Why then have you not feared to speak against my servant, against Moses?” The anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed, and the cloud withdrew above the tent; and behold, Miriam was leprous, white as snow; Aaron looked at Miriam, and saw that she was leprous”.

The element of difference, that is, of the masculine defined as total distance from that which is its opposite, namely, the feminine, emerges clearly. And though not made explicit, it is clear how this view then took on, also thanks to other texts, not only an idea of difference, but of perfection and imperfection: the male as a correspondence of God’s glory, while the female was a corollary, an appendage, an incomplete derivation of it.

Another interesting aspect of masculine representation within biblical texts is the way masculinity is conceived in relation to other masculine figures. One social category in which this kind of gendered reading is fitting is that of the prophets as scholar Rhiannon Graybill proposes in her essay, Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in Hebrew Prophets. If we take the example of Jeremiah, he is called by the Lord and confirmed in his calling by YHWH himself despite the young age he puts forth as his own shortcoming:

“But the Lord said to me, do not say, ‘I am a boy’, for you will go to everyone to whom I send you, and you will say whatever I command you”.

However, Jeremiah’s entire story will be one of exposing himself to criticism and rejection by the people, and in particular by the male establishment of the time, because he is the bearer of a countercultural and critical word and message, which is the message of YHWH to his people. Jeremiah faces conflict with the other male subjects with whom he relates “horizontally”, i.e., the members of the people who are supposed to constitute his relational network, and the “vertical” male subject understanding the figure of YHWH as superior and from whom proceeds an approval towards Jeremiah, which, however, places him in contrast and separation with the others.

It is precisely on this last aspect of biblical masculinity that I believe it is important to reflect, namely, on the influence generated by relating to a “higher” masculinity such as God’s, and how this influences our way of being and conceiving of relationships. When God chooses Joshua as Moses’ successor, an explicit approval and election by God of one subject over the other is also conveyed. This interrupts even that canonical practice of transmission within the same family from parent to child. In his calling, the promise of God’s presence with Joshua is also certainty of success in that part of the conquest of the Promised Land that is more physical, warlike, violent, and less about dialogue and mediation. Thus, male violence and prowess are recounted as virtues representing a male model approved by God, while more straightforwardly it could be read as a cross-section of the social situation of Israel at the time, which was committed to maintaining distinct boundaries between itself and other peoples both in terms of gender, beliefs, and in terms of its own theo-history

In the essay Une Bible des Hommes edited by Denis Fricker and Elisabeth Parmentier, the authors state,  “The Bible of men already exists, and it is the Bible, the Holy Bible, the source of the norm of faith in the Christian tradition”. A rereading of those pages and those characters, including the men who inhabit them, permits us to see not just one presumed universal and normalizing subject, but can be the space to create new ways of looking at the world, gender and relationships. From here, it can promote the practice of new gender dynamics and self-awareness, starting from the other reading of that Word and its stories.

by Gabriele Bertin
Waldensian pastor with care of the Waldensian churches of Taranto, Grottaglie, Brindisi and Salento diaspora.