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Men in Travail: Masculinity and the Problems of the Body in the Hebrew Prophets


This dissertation explores the representation of masculinity and the male body in the Hebrew prophets. Bringing together a close analysis of biblical prophetic texts with contemporary theoretical work on masculinity, embodiment, and prophecy, I argue that the male bodies of the Hebrew prophets subvert the normative representation of masculine embodiment in the biblical text. While the Hebrew Bible establishes a relatively rigid norm of hegemonic masculinity -- emphasizing strength, military valor, beauty, and power over others in speech and action -- the prophetic figures while clearly male, do not operate under these masculine constraints. Nor does the prophetic body, repeatedly represented as open, wounded, vulnerable, or otherwise non-masculine, conform to the norms of masculine embodiment that are elsewhere strongly enforced in the text. Instead, the prophetic body represents a site of resistance against the demands of hegemonic masculinity and affords the possibility, however, briefly, of alternate, multiple, and open organizations of masculinity not organized around the discipline of the body and the domination of the bodies of others.

The introduction establishes the body of Moses as a key site to investigate prophetic embodiment and its relationship to masculinity and prophetic power. While Moses is widely acclaimed in and beyond the text as a successful and even paradigmatic prophet, his body tells another story. Among other peculiarities of embodiment, Moses is afflicted with a stutter and a glowing face, both of which move him beyond the bounds of normative embodiment. Prophecy transforms the experience of the body and the prophetic performance of masculinity alike.

The bulk of the dissertation considers this dilemma with respect to the literary or latter prophets of the Hebrew Bible, with particular attention to three examples: Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. The body of the prophet is already a problem in the book of Hosea, a classical eighth-century prophetic text. This is particularly apparent within the paired accounts of Hosea's marriage to Gomer and Yahweh's marriage to the gynomorphized Israel in Hos. 1-3. In this text, the demands of the body are negotiated neither by Hosea nor upon his body, but instead are displaced onto the female bodies of Gomer and Israel. The female body provides the material ground to work through the difficulty and demands that prophecy places upon the male subject, in particular the demand for openness. The openness, here largely symbolic, that prophecy demands of the prophet results in the female body being torn open, exposed, and violated.

In the case of Ezekiel, the male prophetic body itself becomes the object of concern. But while Ezekiel's body, especially as represented in the theophany and "sign acts" of Ezek. 1-5, dramatically enacts the demands of prophecy, the message itself remains muddled. Like Kafka's hunger artist, Ezekiel's performance directs attention to the impossibility of meaningful communication and to the pain and mutability of the body. Ezekiel also experiences a crisis of masculinity, which escalates in the contrast between Ezekiel's suffering human form and the splendor of Yahweh's male body. The book of Ezekiel attempts to resolve the instabilities of the prophetic body by concluding with a vision of the restored Temple in chapters 40-48. However, the renewed temple body does not replace the suffering prophetic body and the challenge to prophetic masculinity it represents.

In Jeremiah, a similar disturbance of masculinity occurs. However, here the material form that the disturbance assumes is not the flesh, but rather the voice. The prophet's voice, at once in excess of his body and intimately a part of it, registers the prophet's failure to utter sounds culturally coded as masculine. Instead, Jeremiah's voice adapts the forms of sound traditionally marked in the ancient Near East as feminine. It also resembles the voice of the hysteric, a key figure in twentieth-century psychoanalytic discourse. As with hysteria, Jeremiah's vocal disturbances subvert both the performance of gender and the organization of meaning by offering the destabilizing cries of an alternate, non-masculine gender performance.

In addition, this dissertation considers the prophetic body and the representation of prophetic masculinity in the New Testament book of Revelation. While Revelation draws heavily from the Hebrew prophets and represents itself as a prophetic text, the prophetic body does not occupy a destabilizing role in the text. Instead, the bodies of prophets in Revelation -- of which there are several -- participate in and sustain the text's dominant ideology of masculinity. This ideology, adapted from Roman imperial gender ideals and enacted most dramatically by the messianic figures in Revelation, emphasizes violence against the body of the other as fundamental to masculine performance. The prophetic body, instead of resisting or challenging this gender ideology, contributes to it. The countertextual, subversive power of the prophetic body in the Hebrew Bible to challenge and transform masculinity is lost in the New Testament book of Revelation.

In the Hebrew prophetic writings, if not in the book of Revelation, the prophetic body breaks with the normative representations of biblical masculinity. Instead, the bodies of prophets offer the possibility of alternate forms of gender and embodiment in the text. These alternate masculinities are not built upon strength and violence and wholeness, but rather upon vulnerability and openness. The prophetic body exposes the instability of "masculinity" as a category in the Bible, and in the interpretive traditions that have emerged around it. This question of how masculinity is constructed in the Hebrew Bible is of great importance for understanding not just the Bible or the ancient Near East, but also contemporary controversies over gender and anxiety about bodies.

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