What if you could meet a secret society of welcoming misfitsomitted from patriarchal biblical historyjust because they are not in keeping with gender norms?
With They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders, author Janet Mason posits that there could have been a hidden tribe of intersex children, kept under the radar by a pair of savvy twin sisters.Matriarchs Tamar and Tabitha can set the record straight on biblical heroes like Joseph and Jesus, along with other miracles of conception and reincarnation they've had to keep to themselves.
It's a premise with a lot of potential, but ultimately Mason gets bogged down in minutiae, and her intersecting stories graze each other without ever feeling quite woven together.
Tamar is a happy Hebrew widow, content to settle in with her Dromedary pet, Aziz, and no husband to pester her in Canaan. Trouble arrives, though, when her unmarried twin sister Tabitha, desperate to be a mother, beds the first willing shepherd she can convince. The sisters devise an elaborate ruse to explain away Tabitha's pregnancy; it involves the seduction of Tamar's wealthy former father in law Judah and mistaken identity ( twins, remember ). To be pregnant without being married was an offence punishable by death.
Long story short, Tabitha's babies ( also twins ) are born safely, but are discovered to be intersex. To the outside world, Tamar and Tabitha proclaim the children to be boys because male heirs are more celebrated, but secretly, they raise the children with no genders imposed. What spawns are generations of gestating twins that are both male and female, raised by intersex parents who help their children thrive in a society that is often hostile to their existence. Their children are present everywhere from Egyptian palaces with Joseph and his colorful coat, to the birth of Yeshua hirself.
What ends up frustrating Mason's narrative is the energy spent relaying Tamar and Tabitha's day-to-day normalcy. We don't see thrilling events like the sister's confrontation with Judah over parentage, Tamar's betrayal of the infant's secrets, even the birth and estrangement of Tamar's own daughter ( a miraculous same-sex conception! ); instead, readers are assured these things happened and were exciting. One of the sister's biggest adversaries, Judah, is spoken of so often, it's strange to realize he is only referred to, never present in the story.
Characters like Tamar's somewhat untrustworthy lover Judith are dangled with the potential to become integral to Tamar's story, then are hurried off the page, when 20 years must inexplicably pass. And the sister's birth father ruse is so unnecessarily complex & unwieldy, you may find yourself doubling back over whole chapters to verify who knows what.
Mason's pursuit to weave acceptance for intersex individuals into an historically unaccepting Judeo-Christian backstory is inspiring, in theory. However, They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders never quite fuses together stories, characters and events in a way that feels purposeful and whole.