Guest Review of Ted Jennings’ Jacob’s Wound

In preparation for our Plato or Paul book event, we asked a few friends & colleagues to review a couple of Ted Jennings’ related works. The following review by Dr. Mark Brummitt (Associate Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) is an AUFS exclusive review. I am posting it on his behalf:

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Theodore W. Jennings Jr. Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2005), vii-xv, 1-288

Jennings’s intentions are more pastoral than prophetic—he seeks to bring healing to individuals rather than disruption to the church. “The Bible seemed to me to be too wonderful and important a treasure,” he writes in the preface, “for it to be used as a weapon of mass destruction against the vulnerable and defenseless:” “to batter people into submission to reigning cultural values,” as he puts it a few sentences earlier (vii). Worthy as these intentions might be, one must wonder at them a little: mass destruction is hardly at odds with the Bible’s own practices—if the Bible can be said to have practices, that is—and its chosen weapon/weapon wielder to achieve this end is very often its very own deity, Yhwh. More than that, it frequently makes use of these measures precisely to promote reigning cultural values—albeit those of its own day—that if it is now presumed too wonderful a treasure to be sullied by them, then usage must be markedly different from that suggested by a prima facie encounter with its content.

Jennings own impulse arises out of a personal encounter: having tended to a dying man afraid that God hated him for being gay, Jennings determines “to relieve the wholly unwarranted spiritual agony that afflicted him and so many others” (vii)—unwarranted, that is, since Jennings argues that the Bible is not hopelessly homophobic as one might presume, but—and this will be something of a surprise to the majority of Bible readers—brimming over with homoerotica instead.

Take, for example, the apparently heterosexual heroes of the Hebrew Bible: Saul and David. Both are warriors with wives and concubines; both are known for their militaristic exploits and derring-do. But both also inhabit the predominantly homosocial world of the ancient warrior—the world of raid, skirmish, and camp—no, not that kind of camp, although as Jenning notes, the military encampment is indeed a man-on-man world where women seldom have a place. There is a place, however, for the older warrior’s younger male companion—an aide de camp, as it were—every bit as essential on the battlefield as sword or shield, it appears. Even before he becomes a warrior, when he is merely a youngest son in search of the family donkeys, Saul takes a male companion along with him too. David, Jennings notes, is first employed as just such a companion to Saul, adding that David himself is unusual in not taking a male companion when he rises to the ranks of a warrior. Unless, that is, we consider Saul’s own son to be such—Jonathan, that is, who has an armor bearer-cum-companion all his own in 1 Sam 14.

Jonathan’s alignment with David causes tensions between father and son, which while explicable in terms of power and loyalty, are nevertheless taken by Jennings to have a homoerotic tone. He argues this partly in terms of having the eyes to see (eyes unsullied by heterosexist presumptions, that is), partly in terms of textual possibilities, and partly on the basis of comparisons with warrior-boy erotica from elsewhere in the ancient world (so much so from Greece that one wants to ask What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, really?). Thus the evidence is suggestive rather than solid; enough, apparently, for Jennings to represent David and Saul as erstwhile “lovers”—a term which as 30 Rock character Liz Lemon comments (with full agreement from me), is best found only between “meat” and “pizza.” Certainly, it is a term which indicates something of Jennings’s anachronistic reception of the text, not to say his domestication of it. To characterize Jacob’s Wound as a “gay affirmative reading,” as indeed he does on p. 34, is not only to gloss whatever bond there may actually be between the protagonists in terms of a peculiarly modern sensibility, but also to configure the intrigues between them as in some in someway confirmatory (which strikes me as being about as strained offering a “straight affirmative reading” of Hosea 1-3.)

Both Saul and David are sold to the reader (and so, perhaps, to Israel) on their looks—Saul handsome; David beautiful and ruddy—a fact which Jennings suggests helps their progress in the ranks. But his more daring move is to suggest that is also it helps their progress with the deity who, depicted as a warrior, is a superior in relation to whom Saul first then David assume the passive role of armor bearers. As Jennings rightly points out to the more resistant readers in his audience, eroticism is rife in biblical depictions of Yhwh-Israel relations, one only needs to turn to the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to witness the sexual cajoling of one by the other. In this story cycle it is David who courts divine attention by dancing provocatively in front of the ark (the symbol of the divine presence) as it is brought up to what is newly his city (2 Samuel 6). David is in fact the consummate “bottom,” Jennings argues, having no boy of his own, but always being the boy, first to Saul, then to Yhwh—always the beloved of a superior/dominant male.

The bands of prophets who make occasional appearances in the Samuel-Kings texts too are bound to Yhwh, and quite possibly to each other, erotically. Their divinely inspired ecstasies, which Saul himself also experiences, fill them with Yhwh’s “erotic potency” (106); a potency which can then be transferred to younger males, as suggested by both Elijah and Elisha’s apparent “(Res) Erection” (99)—Jennings’s wordplay, not mine—of dead male youths.

This male-on-male action in fact feminizes neither party; if anything, Jennings argues, it adds to or confirms the phallic potency of both. There is, however, at least some superficial feminizing of Israel as a whole, most memorably, of course, in Hosea (a text in which, he points out, a promiscuous Israel is denied access to an array of cultic dildos representing the divine phallus). This destabilizing of gender does not leave the deity unscathed: so far so masculine, yet Yhwh seems at times to get caught up in the cross-dressing, crying out as a woman in labor, say, in Isaiah 42.14, much as a distressed Israel has done elsewhere in the text.

Having established—and with some success—that sexual shenanigans in the Bible are much more complex than are typically thought, Jennings finally turn to the prohibitions on same-sex activity which have been used to characterize the attitude of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, namely the far-from-transparent Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Given the many traces of homoeroticism in the literature of ancient Israel, he asks, whence these prohibitions? Reading the “lyings of a woman” that is the focus of both prohibitions as a reference to the intentional humiliation (by feminization) of another male, he regards the laws to be directed against abuse and not the kind of same sex relationship which “desires and delights” in the maleness of a partner (206), since this very desire and delight captures something of the religious perspective of Israel awaiting the attentions of its god.

Insofar as it allows Israel in both male and female guises to experience God as, um, penetrator, it seems to be a fairly even-handed theological reading, one that in privileging the maleness of the deity conforms to the predominant image provided in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a whole. Nevertheless, it strikes me as limited in its appeal to the female same-sex experience, but I feel poorly equipped to comment a whole deal on this. Jennings does find evidence of female same-sex eroticism in the text: in the bond between Ruth and Naomi, not surprisingly, but in the homosocial memorializing of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, too.

The female same sex relationships model the kind of steadfast love that has later to be learned by both David and Yhwh in the course of their often rocky rapport. And indeed, the apparently arbitrary and tyrannical tendencies of the male-on-male model do need to be tamed. These aspects are played out, Jennings notes, in the stories of Jacob’s wounding at the Jabok in Genesis 32—the source of the book’s title—and the attack on Moses in Exodus 4. Though violent, Jennings argues, both encounters with the divine are ultimately life giving, demonstrating an “operation of erotic power…that does not destroy the other (as rape), but instead releases the potentiality, the strength, the power of the other” he notes (258). Convincing or otherwise, this does rather jar with Jennings opening comments about this wonderful treasure of scripture that does not bludgeon the vulnerable and the weak.

To wind up, Jennings’s reading is both close and detailed; his style, never dull. Indeed, he is often playful and amusing, constantly defamiliarizing scripture by representing it in contemporary terms. David, for example, is variously described as Saul’s “boy-toy” (19), a “fancy dancer (38), and as we have already noted, a “bottom” (24). But in the very act of defamiliarizing the text in this manner—removing it, that is, from its commonly po-faced and heterosexist setting—and making it resonate today, it also masks the considerable differences between our present day negotiations of sex and sexuality and those of our biblical forbearers. And this, I suggest, ultimately weakens the impact of Jennings’s approach.

Jennings certainly analyzes his characters. Indeed, he virtually throws them on the couch—Oprah’s, not Freud’s—to discuss their romantic lives and the lessons they’ve learned in overcoming their jealousies. What is not analyzed is the production of sexual difference and gender, let alone the ideological structures these uphold. Certainly, Jennings discusses the colonial threat brought by Yhwh’s competitors, but little or no consideration is given to the imperial tendencies of Yhwh’s own phallic thrustings, for example. Similarly, to focus on the Saul-David relationship as a romance, while commendably daring and often insightful, is nevertheless to color the plausibly sexual components in political intrigues and power plays with a rose, or maybe lavender, tinted hue. Restoration of the political, then, makes it harder to claim that these stories are quite so “gay affirming” as Jennings would like.

And finally, in representing the sex lives of the biblical characters in terms which are recognizable to us, Jennings effectively confirms those reigning cultural values he intends to undermine or challenge. He may well change our mind about the commonly presumed homophobic stance of the biblical writers, but he does not challenge our understanding of how sexual difference and sexuality is produced. Rather than allow the Bible’s considerable different negotiation of sex, gender, and sexuality to expose something of the historical and so ideological production of our own, our own is to a considerable extend read back into the text instead. Had Jennings done otherwise, it might have increased the books prophetic impact and so too its pastoral scope; as it is, it has a slighter reach than it might. This is perhaps due in part to the strange absence of some of the key writers in what has emerged under the banner of Queer Theory—staples, such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, for example, or even the ideologically aware biblical critics such as Erin Runions, Stephen D. Moore, and Roland Boer. That said, Jacob’s Wound is refreshingly upbeat and daring. It does precisely what it says on the can. It brings new insight to old stories and old biblical problem, it challenges are prudery when confronted with this ancient text.