Gerald O. West / Charlene Van der Welt – « A queer (beginning to the) Bible »

Gerald O. West / Charlene Van der Welt

« A queer (beginning to the) Bible »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction

The Nigerian biblical scholar Justin Ukpong clarified and conceptualised the practice of African biblical scholarship when he argued that African bodies within African realities were ‘the subject of interpretation of the Bible’.[1] Ken Stone makes a similar argument, identifying ‘queer’ ‘as a kind of location in society’,[2] and then going on to draw on the work of Mona West as a specific example of this kind of claim. West argues for queer social locations as the subject of interpretation of the Bible, insisting that biblical scholarship ‘add the voice of the gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgendered community (Queers) to those marginalized groups who are reading the Bible from particular social locations’.[3] A queer social location is, however, not some vague conceptual notion but is concretely contextual and fundamentally embodied. In this sense, as both Stone and West implicitly acknowledge, African biblical scholarship and Queer biblical scholarship are sisterly sites of marginalization, reconstructed as the subject of interpretation of the Bible. Stone summarizes this understanding of Queer biblical interpretation as follows:

‘a “queer reading of the Bible” is a reading produced by a reader who is “queer”, where “queer” is understood to communicate lesbian, gay, or bisexual identities, experiences, or social locations; and where those identities, experiences, or social locations are thought to impact both the questions that one puts to the biblical texts and the answers one can imagine giving to those questions.’[4]

If the focus of this understanding of queer biblical interpretation is on the queer reader, Stone recognizes a second way of understanding queer biblical interpretation, where the focus is on the queer biblical text, ‘on the fact that certain parts of the Bible itself can be read as “queer”’.[5] ‘After all’, continues Stone, ‘coming as it does from that time prior to the emergence of modern systems of sex, gender, sexuality, and kinship, the Bible does not always cohere with heteronormative assumptions”.[6] Queer biblical interpretation ‘calls attention to unexpected configurations of sex, gender, and kinship in the Bible and its history of reception’.[7]

What South African queer biblical interpretation would add to Stone’s formulation is the notion that the biblical text is itself, intrinsically, a site of contestation with respect to sex, gender, sexuality, and kinship. Given the recognition within biblical scholarship of redactional processes in which texts are regularly ‘collected’ and then ‘composed’, ‘re-collected’, and ‘re-composed’, Itumeleng Mosala identifies ‘the question of “struggle” as a fundamental hermeneutical factor in the text, as indeed in the communities behind the text and those appropriating the text presently’.[8] While Mosala’s emphasis is on class and gender as sites of struggle within biblical texts, we would add configurations of sex, gender, and kinship as sites of struggle within biblical texts.

Our contribution in this article is from an African queer perspective, limiting our analysis and reflection to actual biblical texts with which we have worked in African communities. African social locations, particularly African queer social locations, are the subject of our biblical interpretation. By foregrounding the interpretative practise of queer bodies in the African context in our reflection we aim to amplify the transgressive action made possible within a queer methodology and in the process, we deliberately ask serious questions about the power dynamics within the interpretation process. Rather than limit the impact of the biblical text to ecclesial and academic institutions to be overseen by designated clergy or teachers, we believe in the process of a queer taking back of the Word in order for more bodies to matter. Further, our contribution is limited to the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, both because we want to engage with biblical text in some detail within the limited space of this article and because the reception of Genesis in African contexts provides theological shape to the Bible as a whole. In terms of African communities of Christian faith, the Bible’s theological shape derives from Genesis, particularly when it comes to matters of sex, gender, sexuality, and kinship. A recognition of the queerness of Genesis points to the possibility that scripture as a whole might be queerer than we have imagined.

II. The queer shape of the second creation story (Genesis 2)

In his book, A question of truth: Christianity and homosexuality, Gareth Moore deals not only with what he calls ‘The Bible against homosexuality?’, but also ‘The Bible for heterosexuality?’. The question marks in each case are instructive, for Moore interrogates both the well-worn allegedly ‘anti-homosexual’ biblical texts and the familiar allegedly ‘pro-heterosexual’ ones. In dealing with Genesis 2, our focal text in this section, Moore counters the ‘standard view’ by qu(e)erying this view.[9]

Moore begins with a queer question. ‘What, then’, asks Moore, ‘can we legitimately get out of the plain meaning of this text’ (Genesis 2) for the purposes of an ‘appropriate Christian attitude towards homosexual relationships’?[10] Moore is not a biblical scholar and is unaware, for example, of the pioneering narrative work of Phyllis Trible on Genesis 2 and the array of biblical scholarship that has clustered around Trible’s analysis.[11] But he is a reasonably careful follower of the narrative (in English translation). 

Moore’s queer question discerns a queer shape in the narrative. The narrative shape of Genesis 2 in broad terms, following Aristotle and others,[12] includes an exposition in which God ‘made’ earth and the heavens (but incompletely, as the complications that follow indicate), a series of intersecting complications, and series of intersecting resolutions to those complications.

‘7 And Yahweh God formed ha-adam [the earth-creature] (of) dust from ha-adamah [the earth] […]

18 And Yahweh God said,

“It is not good for ha-adam to be alone;

I will make for it a companion corresponding to it”.

19 And Yahweh God formed from ha-adamah

every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens

and brought each to ha-adam to see what it would call each one.

20 And whatever ha-adam called each living nephesh,

that was the name. […]

But as for ha-adam, it did not find a companion corresponding to itself.

21 And Yahweh God caused a deep sleep to fall upon ha-adam

and, while it slept, took one of its ribs […]

22 And Yahweh God built the rib

which Yahweh God took from ha-adam into woman (ishshah)

and brought her to ha-adam.

23 And ha-adam said:

This, finally, is bone of my bone

and flesh of my flesh.

This shall be called woman (ishshah)

because from man (ish) was taken this.’[13]

Trible’s recognition of the androgynous identity of ha-adam is in itself the recognition of a crucially queer aspect of the text. The text plays with words, invoking a resonance between ‘the earth’ that God has made and the ‘earth-creature’ that God makes from ‘the dust of the earth’ (7). From this androgynous ‘earth-creature’ God later makes two sexed creatures, ‘man’ and ‘woman’. (We find a similar implied process in Genesis 1.27, with ‘male and female’ created from ha-adam, though the process is not made explicit.) 

Our focus, however, is on the particularly queer narrative shape of this unit. The focus on this unit resides in the complication that the creature God has made in verse 7 is acknowledged by God, using direct speech, to be ‘alone’, and that this is ‘not good’. The way God goes about resolving this complication is profoundly queer. Briefly,[14] God’s resolution to the complication is to make a companion for the earth-creature (18). What is queer is that God begins by forming animals, wondering if, perhaps, there may be among the animals an appropriate companion (19–20). What is even more queer is that God gives the earth-creature the right to make the choice (20). God does not dictate. The earth-creature is the agent of the act of recognition.

When the earth-creature does not find a suitable companion among the animals God has formed (20c), God follows another course of making. God now builds a companion from the very body of the earth-creature (22). God then brings the product to the earth-creature, as God brought the animals. The narrative shape is identical. What follows too is identical, in terms of narrative shape. The earth-creature again is the agent of recognition.

We pause here to allow this queer narrative shape to be recognized. God does not decide that this is now an appropriate companion. The earth-creature decides. The Christian tradition has tended to emphasise the product: a woman. A queer interpretation emphasises the process: that it is left to us to decide who our appropriate companion is.

The recognition and acceptance of an appropriate companion is a human responsibility. God creates and the human chooses. If we pause, as we might, at 23a (emphasizing the process), we might imagine a range of other human options that the earth-creature might recognize and accept as its companion. The full range of human companions and/as human sexualities is present in ha-adam. Ha-adam is inclusive of us all.

III. Que(e)rying Genesis 19 with Genesis 18

The reception history of Genesis 19 in African contexts is unambiguous. Genesis 19 is about God’s condemnation of homosexuality. The Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, with which we both collaborate, began working with Genesis 19 as part of its work in the area of gender-based violence in the late 1990s. A landmark Contextual Bible Study (CBS)[15] on the story of the rape of Tamar in 1996 propelled the Ujamaa Centre into sustained work on various aspects of gender-based violence,[16] including the rape of men. We chose Genesis 19 because we hoped that using this biblical text would open up community space for more direct work on homosexuality. The logic of our choice of this text at the time was that by using this allegedly homophobic biblical text we might deconstruct homophobic receptions of Genesis 19, reading the text instead as a condemnation of (heterosexual) male rape.[17]

The advent of HIV generated more overt queer community space within which to engage aspects of sexuality, including homosexuality, more explicitly. This change in the South African context and increasing attention within biblical studies to homosexuality combined to offer access to details of the biblical narrative that had been neglected in our earlier CBS. Re-reading Genesis 19 within its literary-narrative context of Genesis 18 provided significant capacity for community-based conversation about ‘homosexuality’ by posing the question of whether Genesis 19 had anything at all to do with homosexuality. Genesis 18, so clearly a narrative about Abraham’s rural hospitality to three strangers, provided the narrative frame for recognizing Genesis 19 as equally clearly the story of Lot’s urban hospitality to two of these very same strangers.[18] Genesis 18–19 were a single narrative about hospitality, not homosexuality.

In a workshop in April 2013 with the Gay & Lesbian Network and clergy from the region we constructed a CBS on Genesis 18–19 that focused specifically on hospitality. Here our attention was less on how clergy appropriated this re-read biblical text than on the appropriations of self-identified lesbian, gay, and trans participants.[19] Their appropriations, reported here, were wonderfully queer: ‘The church is like Sodom, just as the men of Sodom wanted to subject others to their power, so the church wants to subject us to its power. Re-reading this text reminds us to question each and every text; God himself will come down to judge the church, just as God himself came down to judge Sodom!’ This theme was taken up by others, who asked, ‘Could not this text, as it is interpreted by Ezekiel and Isaiah and Jesus, be read as a story about receiving and welcoming homosexuals into our churches?’[20]

Such remarks by African LGBTIQA+ interpreters encouraged us to continue to explore the possibility of further engaging with this particular story in order to continue troubling exclusivist and harmful Bible interpretation practises. At the 2017 Eudy Simelane Lecture[21] we were collectively taken aback when engaging with queer people of faith from rural KwaZulu-Natal in a CBS exercise when queer believers insisted that the Bible is indeed against queer love and that there is no conversation to be had on the matter with religious leaders or people of faith. We returned to Genesis 18, wondering whether the character and the positionality of Sarah in the Genesis 18 narrative might help us to consider notions of insider/outsider and subject/object in the text. By drawing on notions of hospitality and the possibility for encounter and recognition when strangers risk crossing boundaries to meet each other, we constructed a CBS that would help faith leaders to reconsider the gifts LGBTIQA+ might people bring to the community of faith, and that would help LGBTIQA+ people to shift from objects of discussion to embodied subjects,[22] like Sarah. The transformation in Sarah’s positionality within this beautiful narrative of encounter has created space for conversations that will hopefully in time allow more bodies to matter.

IV. A queer Joseph (Genesis 37)

As a brief last example from the book of Genesis we would like to reflect on the richly complex Joseph narrative cycle.[23] Joseph is a well-known and eagerly appropriated character in the African context, favourite son of the favourite wife, dreamer, slave, and finally imperial overlord.[24] It is precisely because of the resonances and contending interpretations that the Joseph narrative has become a rich pedagogical tool as we journey with our students though a slow narrative engagement. 

Beyond the religio-cultural and socio-economic complexities raised by the narrative, we have found the work of the queer drama scholar Peterson Toscano exceptionally helpful in the process of intersecting religio-cultural and the socio-economic with gender and sexuality.[25] Toscano picks up on Joseph’s gender non-conforming character in one of his performance lectures and we draw from this creative work in order to reflect on Joseph, the indoorsy and dreamy favourite son, as an example of a character who transgresses gender norms in the Bible and does not adhere to prescribed gender constructions or expectations. We try to set up a playful pedagogical engagement with the character of Joseph and appropriate off-beat references, ideas and terms embedded within the narrative in order to destabilize the norm and hopefully, in the process, crack open more space for creative conversations.

We will limit ourselves to three short examples here to illustrate something of the inherent queerness of the narrative. Firstly, the fact that Jacob gifts Joseph with a coat of many colours is probably remarkable in and of itself, but that this garment, which has the clear function of an identity marker, is described by the same word that is used to describe Tamar’s dress, fit for a princess, in 2 Samuel 13 opens up an array of queer interpretative possibilities. Jacob gifts Joseph with a princess dress and in the process the outsider is colourfully othered. Secondly, Joseph’s distinctly marked otherness, which is amplified by the princess dress, evokes punitive reaction from his brothers. They see him from afar and is affronted by his display of otherness as he comes to visit them in the field. Their physical disciplinary action to his queerness is reminiscent of similar ‘corrective’ behavior expressed though the rape of lesbian woman in the African context who do not conform to the heteronormative ideal. This painful and dramatic moment in the Joseph narrative cycle often functions as a dynamic reflective surface that enables contextual discussions of punitive violence against queer bodies. Thirdly, and connected to the previous points, the counter-dominant construction of Joseph’s masculinity in his tearful forgiveness of his brothers and his lack of sexual vigour with Potiphar’s wife, makes him and ideal character to engage contemporary discussion on dominant notions of masculinity and related sexuality and gender identity discussions. 

V. Conclusion: A queer biblical trajectory

Genesis, we have argued, is a queer beginning to the Bible. We have chosen to focus on actual African engagements with particular parts of Genesis, neglecting many other queer features of the book of Genesis. But even this limited focus makes it clear that scripture offers us a queer trajectory. We can follow this trajectory, as a site of struggle, across the texts of scripture,[26] into the gospels,[27] where Jesus too inhabits queer textual contours, refusing to behave as a ‘proper’ man, celebrating eunuchs, and constructing ‘fictive’ kinship communities.  We offer these reflections not as final conclusions or as a ‘how-to’ guide for Bible engagement, but rather as part of a process to destabilize and trouble that which is considered normal or unquestionable when it comes to the Bible and the engagement of issues and bodies situated in the intersection of gender, sexuality, and religion in Africa. We offer these reflections in order to move beyond the stalemate that so often exists, and that finds expression in the dictum ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it’, and so hopefully to move to more creative and life affirming spaces for Bible engagement and reflection.


[1] Justin S. Ukpong, ‘Rereading the Bible with African Eyes’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 91 (1995), 5.

[2] Ken Stone (ed.), Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001, p. 16.

[3] Mona West, ‘Reading the Bible as Queer Americans: Social Location and the Hebrew Scriptures’, Theology and Sexuality, 10 (1999), 30. For further discussion on ‘social location’ see Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (eds.), Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective, Volume 2, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

[4] Stone, Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, p. 19.

[5] Ken Stone, ‘Queer Criticism’, in Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner (eds.), New Meanings for Ancient Texts: Recent Approaches to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2013, p. 163.

[6] Stone, ‘Queer Criticism’, p. 163.

[7] Stone, ‘Queer Criticism’, p. 163.

[8] Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 125.

[9] Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality, London: Continuum, 2003, p. 134.

[10] Moore, A Question of Truth, p. 139.

[11] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978; Beverly J. Stratton, Out of Eden: Reading, Rhetoric, and Ideology in Genesis 2–3, Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

[12] Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Gerald F. Else, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1967, p. 30; David J. A. Clines, ‘Reading Esther from Left to Right: Contemporary Strategies for Reading a Biblical Text’, in David J. A. Clines (ed.), On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967-1998, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998, p. 5; Jerome T. Walsh, Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 14.

[13] Our translations are based on Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 75–115.

[14] For a fuller analysis, see Gerald O. West, ‘Deploying Indecent Literary and Socio-Historical Detail for Change: Genesis 2:18–24 as a Resource for Choice of Sexual Partner’, in L. Juliana Claassens, Charlene van der Walt, and Funlola O. Olojede (eds.), Teaching for Change: Essays on Pedagogy, Gender and Theology in Africa, Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2019, pp. 57–78.

[15] Gerald O. West, ‘Reading the Bible with the Marginalised: The Value/s of Contextual Bible Reading’, Stellenbosch Theological Journal 1.2 (2015), 235–261.

[16] Gerald O. West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, ‘The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond)’, Ministerial Formation, 103 (2004), 4–12.

[17] Gerald O. West, ‘Reconfiguring a Biblical Story (Genesis 19) in the Context of South African Discussions About Homosexuality’, in Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken (eds.), Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa, Oxford: Routledge, 2016, pp. 186–188.

[18] West, ‘Reconfiguring a Biblical Story’, pp. 188–193. For other queer detail in these texts see Stone, ‘Queer Criticism’, pp. 166–170.

[19] West, ‘Reconfiguring a Biblical Story’, pp. 193–196.

[20] West, ‘Reconfiguring a Biblical Story’, p. 196.

[21] The South African woman’s football star Eudy Simelane was raped and murdered in KwaThema in Gauteng, South Africa, because she was an openly queer person. South Africa is considered to be the birth place of so-called ‘corrective rape’, an act of violence against women committed by men ostensibly to ‘cure’ lesbians of their non-conforming sexual orientation, or ‘correct’ them for it, ‘disciplining’ them to be ‘proper’ heterosexual women. In an attempt to mainstream conversations pertaining to LGBTIQA+ people in African faith communities, since 2016 the Ujamaa Centre started hosting, with the support of her family, the annual memorial Eudy Simelane Lecture which aims to honour the legacy of Eudy Simelane. See also Gerald O. West, Charlene van der Walt, and Kapya J. Kaoma, When Faith Does Violence: Re-imagining Engagement between Churches and LGBTI Groups on Homophobia in Africa, Johannesburg: The Other Foundation, 2017.

[22] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.

[23] See also Theodore W Jennings, Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, London: A&C Black, 2005.

[24] Gerald O. West, The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon, Leiden and Pietermaritzburg: Brill and Cluster Publications, 2016, pp. 410–420.

[25] For more on Toscano’s work see

[26] See Robert E. Goss and Mona West, Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000; Stone, Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible.

[27] Theodore W Jennings, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003; Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson (eds.), New Testament Masculinities, Volume 45, Semeia Studies, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.


Gerald O. West is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and African Biblical Hermeneutics in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project in which socially engaged biblical scholars and ordinary African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalised communities collaborate for social transformation.

Charlene van der Welt is an Associate Professor and Head of Gender and Religion programme in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is also responsible for the Body Theology work done within the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research.

Address: School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa.