Macwilliam, Stuart. “Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible”, (BibleWorld), Routledge, 2014.
Marriage as a Metaphor
In the Hebrew Bible we have the metaphorical marriage of God to Israel in three different places—Jeremiah 2-3, Hosea 1-3 and Ezekiel 16 and 23. This is often used as a religious model or else criticized as divinely sanctioned misogyny. In this new volume, Stuart Macwilliam looks at and responds to the various readings and understandings by using literary, linguistic, critical and autobiographical tools as well as an issue of popular gay magazine that was published some ten years ago.
Some see the metaphor of marriage in the Hebrew bible as portraying men and women as complementary, each with their distinct and ‘natural’ roles. This is where Macwilliam uses contemporary scholarship to critique this heteronormativity. He examines the methodological issues involved in the application of queer theory to biblical texts and draws on the concept of gender performativity, the construction of gender through action and behavior and with this he can argue for the potential of queer theory in political readings of the Bible. In doing so, he offers a radical reassessment of the relationship between biblical language and gender identity.
One reviewer sees Macwilliam as being roguish methodologically, ideologically and stylistically and further claims that this provides for a wonderfully delightful read. Marriage is a very hot issue right now in the world and debates about marriage equality have disseminated to literally every society. Debates about marriage have given rise to new ideas and arguments on both sides. For those who oppose marriage equality, one of the strategies used has been the writings of both the Christian and the Hebrew bibles. The opponents have searched for ways to reify the assumed idea of what they call traditional marriage. They have chosen to ignore or just pass by the fact the modern concept of the nuclear family is the result of post-industrial revolution. The opponents find their allies in some biblical passages that they choose to read with their own interpretations. However, this is quite difficult when we look at the Hebrew bible and the way it supports traditional marriage. We just need to look at Jacob who was married to Rachel and to Leah (Genesis 29:1–30) nor King Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Aside from these two obvious non-‘traditional [modern] marriage’ examples, author Macwilliam reminds us of the case of the prophetic marriage metaphor as portrayed in the books of Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. It is easy to see that those verses do not validate the idea of traditional marriage.
Macwilliam this marriage metaphor as conceptual shorthand for the sexual imagery in the description of the relationship between God and Judah/Israel. What Macwilliam does is to queer the marriage metaphor in order to expose the gender performativity at play in these three biblical texts. The book is conveniently divided into three sections. Section I contains theoretical and methodological writing that is grounded in Judith Butler’s ideas on gender. The next step is to find a way to apply theory to biblical texts and thereby create a way to apply that theory to the biblical texts. This is not easy reading and it is filled with information on how to go about this. Section II focuses on the process of queering, first the metaphor and then the idea of ‘Israelites as males’ so that we can finally explore a queer analysis of the texts in Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. Section III presents an innovative way to use ‘camp’ as a methodological resource in order to queer Ezekiel. The last chapter of the book is a summary of what we have learned here.
I understand that this was originally Macwilliam’s doctoral dissertation and as such it could have been too scholarly for the average reader. However, Macwilliam has transformed it into easy reading that is very valuable. We are immediately aware of Macwilliam’s scholarship in the areas of queer theory and the bible.
What is so ingenious and fascinating is the way the author has based his work on Butler’s analysis of gender performativity as well a Susan Sontag’s idea of camp which he then uses as a tool for queering the Bible. (Another example of the use of camp in the bible is the performance of Josh Mostel as Herod in the film of “Jesus Christ Superstar”). In queer culture, camp not only defines humor and sarcasm but it also gives “a particular sensibility and a theatrical display by gender- bending and gender-variant individuals in order to transgress the boundaries of the dichotomy ‘female/male’.” Sontag in her 1960s essay saw camp as a contribution to mainstream popular culture from the gay community, the act of ‘camping’ and transgressing the dictums of both the gender-role expectations and the sexual division of labor precludes Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity. Macwilliam’s uses ‘camp’ as a way to address and even to ‘hyper-narrate’ and while doing so, deconstructs the biblical text. Without question, this is a creative act that gives us important contributions towards future looks at new ways of reading the Sacred Scriptures – Hebrew, Christian, and of other religions – by queer individuals and communities.
It is through the use of linguistic and literary criticism as a methodology that Macwilliams is able to deconstruct the marriage metaphor. In his analysis of it, Macwilliam points out the homo-social character of the texts by questioning whether both the Israelites mentioned by the prophets and the audience of their writings are all males and through this Macwilliam characterizes the texts as ‘gender exclusive’. The reason that this is important is that the marriage metaphor indeed seems to be framed in heteronormative terms, that is, the joining of female and male. On the contrary, if Israel is male, then we have, in fact, a proto-notion of same-sex marriage, although Macwilliam does not express this idea in this manner. However, his analysis queers the ‘naturalized’ heteronormative tone of these texts, providing new and much needed entryways to the manifold layered text. Yet in reading about it seems so simple that I could only wonder why no one had thought it before. We have all noticed that the Hebrew bible is written totally in the masculine which should have told us something.
It is through the use of camp as a device to interrogate the seemingly heteronormative tone of the marriage metaphor in Ezekiel, Macwilliam opens up a new layer of the text that has tremendous implications for future biblical studies. He proves that God, the male narrator of the tale reproduced by Ezekiel, displays an wide array of sexual fantasies which are projected onto Oholibah, the name given to Israel in the story. Oholibah/Israel is, then, described as a prostituted female with a notorious sex-addiction for the large penises and exceedingly cum loads of the Egyptians. The pointing of these erotic and graphic descriptions give us shifting positions and the reader is left with the question of who is the real sex addict, Oholibah or the God?
So what happened to the arguments about traditional marriage? The marriage metaphor to a degree becomes the center for the destabilization of mono-directional hermeneutics that have traditionally reified and justified heteronormative religious discourses.
I realize that this is a lot to take in but then I also consider the task that the author set out up[on. His research is wonderful and his prose is a pleasure to read, but…. Macwilliam did not translate the Hebrew and this really bothered me. In order to fully understand the work that has been done here, it is necessary to have the Hebrew and its translation, there are not that many Hebrew scholars around who can walk into this blindly. Yet even with that Macwilliam has certainly opened the door for future researchers and theorists to walk through.
Macwilliams is a much needed and welcomed contribution as well as a key pivot in the beginning of a new path for biblical studies. It is up to future biblical scholars to take Macwilliams work and look for new ways to engage in queer hermeneutic adventures.