Are We Not Men?

Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Rhiannon Graybill
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Are We Not Men? Rhiannon Graybill offers a brilliant and insightful reflection on masculinity, embodiment, and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Prophetic bodies and texts acquire fruitful conversation partners in the form of poetry, horror movies, and memoirs as well as in queer, psychoanalytic, and other (post)modern theories. While its demonstration is sometimes a little repetitive, this book constitutes a refreshing study that combines both close and intertextual readings, and goes beyond the traditionally narrow idea of biblical studies as either historical or literary analysis. Adopting a queer and feminist approach, Graybill argues that prophecy is a type of queer “embodied practice” that unsettles normative performances of biblical masculinity.

The first chapter offers a very effective survey of Moses’s “difficult” embodiments: his “viable” appearance as a baby (Exod 2:2); his heaviness of mouth, tongue, and hands (Exod 4:10, 17:11-12); his scale disease (Exod 4:6); and his radiant face, subsequently veiled (Exod 34:29-34). This survey convincingly demonstrates how Moses’s “strange” body is inherent to his prophetic mission. Graybill proposes three ways to interpret Moses’s changing body as disabled, feminized, or as a queer assemblage. While disability seems a fruitful interpretative avenue—and has already been partially explored in biblical scholarship—the feminization of Moses, for instance with the veil (masweh), is a less persuasive argument. While it is true that veiling was associated with women in the Ancient Near East, the word masweh is only found in the Moses episode and seems, first and foremost, to single out the prophet as othered through his intimacy with the Divine. As regards the queer assemblage, I am not convinced by the heuristic value of “intensity,” and the idea of replacing the important notion of intersectionality with it. In the last section of this chapter, Graybill analyzes the “bridegroom of blood” narrative (Exod 4:24-26). She reveals the fascinating queer potential of Moses, and his son’s intimate moment, facilitated by Zipporah. The masculine prophetic body is here shown as open, fluid, vulnerable, and non-phallicized. I would add that the son—like Aaron and other men in Moses’s story—acts like a prosthetic object for his father’s prophetic body.

In the second chapter—dedicated to Hosea 1-3—Graybill departs from the usual focus of feminist biblical scholarship on prophetic pornography and misogynistic violence. Here, she initiates a critical conversation between the text of Hosea 1-3 and horror (possession) films. Drawing from the work of Carol Clover, Graybill argues, “the open female body becomes an essential site for negotiating the problem of prophetic masculinity” (52). This demonstration rests mainly on the interpretation of the tortured and opened body of feminized Israel in Hosea 2. While I consider the displacement of the openness of the prophetic body on women as a very insightful idea, I am not convinced that Hosea and YHWH’s masculinities are transformed in any non-normative ways through their relationships with women. Rather, they are built on the abjection of femininity. In the same way, and as much as I appreciate Graybill’s careful nuances, I cannot agree with the idea of the masculine prophetic body of Hosea as a “queer object” as it does not resist gender hegemony and binaries but seems to strengthen them.

The third chapter of Are We Not Men? addresses the issue of voice and prophecy in Jeremiah’s Confessions, and how these affect his masculine embodiment. Graybill uses the category of hysteria to reflect on this issue. She convincingly demonstrates how Jeremiah’s voice is feminized, and how it contributes to destabilizing his masculine performance. Drawing from the case studies of Anna O., Frau Emmy von N. and Dora, Graybill identifies elements of terror, incoherence, and somatic compliance in Jeremiah’s voice and body. One wonders, however, if Jeremiah’s “wound” (15:18) can be “disembedded” from his own speech to become a hysterical somatic symptom. The parallel drawn between the scenes of treatment and prophecy—especially in their erotic dimension—is also quite interesting as it brings the focus to Jeremiah’s relationship with YHWH, and his vulnerability. Finally, Graybill asks the excellent—and necessary—question of Jeremiah’s potential of resistance and subversion as hysteric/prophet. Graybill grounds her reflection in the Cixous/Clément debate over Dora as heroine and she rightly concludes that Jeremiah can never freely choose to resist and subvert. As a prophet, he can only fail.

The excellent fourth chapter offers a study of Ezekiel’s body in the sign acts of the first five chapters of the book. In the first part, the close reading of Ezek 1-5 reveals the weak, suffering, opened, and submissive body of the prophet. In the second part, Graybill puts forward a brilliant intertextual piece where Ezekiel meets D. P. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), with special emphasis on the notion of “unmanning.” According to Graybill, both Schreber and Jeremiah’s “penetrated, masochistic, and glorious prophetic bod[ies]” enable a critique of normative masculinity, as well as an alternative configuration of gender (100). Graybill draws three types of parallels between them: 1) their experience of pain; 2) the uneasiness and ineffectiveness of their speeches; and 3) their location in a “space of disaster” (111). She demonstrates how the prophetic condition—as failure—destabilizes both Schreber and Ezekiel’s masculinities. However, Graybill also notes how this queering of Ezekiel’s body is short lived. At the end of the book, both the Temple and the normative masculine order are restored, erasing Ezekiel’s unresolved queer body from the first chapters.

Chapter 5 provides a systematic interpretation of the prophetic body as queer, while also insisting on the multiple possibilities of this embodiment, with the idea of “queer trajectories.” The first part of this chapter recapitulates the previous chapters while the second part extends the reflection on the queer prophetic body with two short additional case studies: Jonah and Miriam. Graybill emphasizes the (watery) fluidity surrounding Jonah and shaping his prophetic masculinity. Drawing from Ahmed’s reflection on queer and failure, Graybill also highlights his stance of refusal. At last, a prophetess, Miriam, is brought on “stage” to testify on masculine prophetic embodiment. Here, Graybill chooses to focus on the scale disease of Miriam in Num 12 to show how it signifies differently than Moses’s illness. She contends that, unlike her brother, Miriam is not “empowered” by this sign, but is instead revealed as inadequate and displaced. This short detour in the realm of feminine prophecy certainly opens a very interesting avenue of inquiry.

Graybill concludes her book on a pretty optimistic note, still assigning a potential of resistance and transformation—of queerness—to prophetic masculinities. In view of the previous analysis, I find myself agreeing rather with her more cautious idea that “even more than queerness, it is instability that unites these prophetic bodies” (45). The term “queer” does seem to lose its critical edge in some of its uses in this book, in particular when understood as coexisting with misogyny. In these cases, the simpler idea of “instability” seems more appropriate.

Regardless, Are We Not Men? is a beautiful book that accomplishes an amazing tour de force in the field of synchronic intertextual studies with a plurality of very productive interactions between ancient and contemporary texts. Moreover, Graybill succeeds in “gendering” prophetic male bodies and revealing their unstable masculinities. This monograph will most definitely provide food for thought to biblical, queer, and feminist scholars on issues of gender, embodiment, and prophecy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Letourneau is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of religion at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rhiannon Graybill is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.