Genre: LGBT Literature or Fiction.
The following is excerpted (Chapter Five) from THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders by Janet Mason (Adelaide Books ñ New York/Lisbon) the novel of which LGBTQ icon and Biblical scholar, Amos Lassen, has written:
THEY is a groundbreaker and I am sure that the author will agree with me that attempting to add new meaning to given bible stories is tantamount to heresy. I have no doubt that she will suffer repercussions from those who do not agree with her approach. Personally, I found her story to not only be wonderfully written but charming and liberating to us who have lived in a binary world for too long.î
“Close your eyes and imagine the long ago city of Babylon, in a land called Mesopotamia, near
the mighty Tigris. A gentle wind blew. There was a beautiful Goddess named Ishtar. She was
also known as the Queen of the Night,” said Tamar.
“Which night, Auntie?” asked Pharez, sitting on the floor of Tamar’s tent, playing with one of the
figurines. Zerah crawled toward the camel Aziz.
“Zerah, look at Pharez’s doll. See how pretty? Here’s another one just like it.” Tamar grabbed a
clay figurine from the woven basket. Zerah came crawling back.
“Ishtar was called the Queen of the Night because she was known as the goddess of love and …
well of love,” said Tamar.
Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality. And she may have been a sacred
prostitute. Tamar felt protective of the twins. They were too young to hear about war and sex.
“What did the goddess look like, Auntie?” Zerah looked up at her with big brown eyes under
long thick lashes. The child was sitting cross legged.
“She was tall and beautiful and she had wings,” answered Tamar. “She had a face like… well a
goddess … with wide set eyes shaped like almonds and a high forehead under a crown that was
piled very high with ridges like a fancy temple. She held her arms up. Her hands grasped two
loops of rope that also may have been hand mirrors. Her two pet owls were usually by her side.”
“Ooooh owls! Do you have an etching?” Pharez dropped the figurine.
“I have one that we can look at later, but first I want to tell you the story of someone called
Asushunamir who was both male and female, like you. Asushunamir was a spirit guide and a
trickster who rescued the Queen of Heaven from eternal death…”
“What’s a trickster?” asked Zerah.
“A trickster is someone who gets his or her way — or his and her own way — by playing tricks on
“What’s eternal death?” asked one of the twins. Their dark eyes shone like starlight in the desert
“That’s what happens to us eventually. We cease to exist. But don’t worry. It won’t happen for a
long, long time. And if you meet a spirit guide like Asushunamir it might not happen at all.”
Tamar told herself that lying was okay if it made people feel better — especially children.
“How did the spirit guide save the goddess?”
Tamar could tell now that it was Pharez who was asking the questions. Pharez’s nose was a little
more snub than Zerah’s. They had the same oval faces ending in pointy chins.
“I was just about to tell you that,” continued Tamar.
“Ishtar wanted to go somewhere new and she had never gone to the underworld where her evil
sister, Ereshkigal, ruled.”
“Ha. Ha.” Zerah covered hir mouth with a small hand.
“ëEvil sister,í” repeated Pharez. “It sounds like you and mama.”
Zerah shot Pharez a look.
The twins were silent. Both looked down. The fringe of their long lashes covered their secrets.
Tamar wondered what Tabitha had told them. Her sister had left the twins while she went
shopping at the market. She said she would be back this afternoon. They had agreed not to tell
the twins that they were sisters, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about one of them blurting it
out around Judah. They told them that Tamar was a good friend of their mother’s. The twins
called her “Auntie.”
Unless she was busy, Tamar always watched the twins. Sometimes it felt like they were her
children. She loved them that much.
“Ishtar wanted to go to the underworld. But first she had to ask the other gods if she could go.
They ignored her so she asked again and then again. Finally, they said she could go.”
“The underworld had many gates,” she continued. “There were seven in total. Ishtar came to the
first gate and rang the bell. Claaanggg. There was one ring for the first gate and two for the
second gate and so on. Ishtar rang the bell and waited. She tapped her foot. Finally, the
gatekeeper came, but he did not open the gate. Like most goddesses, Ishtar had a temper. She
was used to getting what she wanted. She told the gatekeeper that if he didn’t open the gate, she
would smash it down.”
“Oh goody,” exclaimed Pharez. “I love smashing things.”
Uh oh, thought Tamar. She gave the child an odd look before she went back to the story.
“So the gatekeeper went to Ishtar’s evil sister Ereshkigal and told her –“
“The evil sister!” Zerah was rapt.
“That’s right,” said Tamar. “Ishtar’s sister was moody and prone to fits of fury. Ereshkigal was
already mad at her sister for being a beautiful goddess. Then she heard that Ishtar had decided to
come to her kingdom. Ereshkigal was not pleased. The gatekeeper was old and walked with a
cane. He was used to dealing with demanding people. He decided that Ishtar was not so bad. He
liked looking at her. Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper that Ishtar could only enter if she agreed to
obey the laws of the underworld. In death all are equal. So the dead who came to the underworld
had to leave their possessions behind, including clothing and jewels. Plus there was no light in
the underworld. The souls had to feel their way along the corridors. Since there was no food,
they had to eat clay and dust.”
“Eww,” said Pharez. “I could never eat clay and dust. My favorite meal is figs and almonds.
Sometimes locusts and honey.”
Tamar smiled at the child. “Yes, I know. But let me go back to the story of Ishtar and her
journey to the underworld. Since Ishtar agreed to obey the laws, she could visit the underworld
even though she wasn’t dead. To pass through the first gate, Ishtar had to take off her glittering
gold crown. She took off her earrings at the second gate and her breast ornaments and her
necklace at the fourth and fifth. At the sixth gate, she removed her shining silver bracelets from
her arms and her legs. They sounded like musical chimes. Then at the seventh gate, when the bell
clanged seven times, she removed her white tunic, so she was…”
“Naked!” shrieked Pharez.
“We’re not supposed to be naked,” said Zerah. “Mama told us so.”
“Did not,” retorted Pharez. “She said that everyone is naked sometimes, but she also said that we
can’t be naked in front of anyone — especially father.”
“We never know when he’s coming,” said Zerah. “So we’re not supposed to be naked. I was
right.” Zerah looked at Pharez triumphantly.
“Father thinks we’re boys,” said Zerah. “He likes boys better since he is one.”
Tamar hesitated. She had been trying to avoid saying the word “naked” in front of the twins but,
evidently, they had heard it before.
“You’re both right,” said Tamar. “Ishtar was naked. And after she had passed through the sixth
gate, her sister confronted her and asked her why she came. ‘If you want to know what it is like
to be dead, I can show you,’ said the evil sister.” Tamar raised her eyebrows and her voice and
unleashed a cackle. “Ereshkigal was in an especially bad mood so she was very wicked. She told
her soldiers to torture her sister by afflicting every part of her body. But Ishtar was favored by
the gods. They were watching over her from their thrones in the sky.”
“Just like our God,” interjected Zerah. “He lives in the sky.”
Hmmm, thought Tamar. She wondered what her sister was telling the twins. Or maybe it was
Judah filling their heads — the few times he saw them — with the notion of the new God.
“Kind of… but in this story there are many gods and goddesses. Some of the gods decided that as
long as Ishtar was in the underworld, the world would come to a standstill. Trees and plants
would stop bearing fruit. No children or animals would be born. All of creation would die if
Ishtar stayed in the underworld much longer. The god of all things that grow and the moon god
got together and made a plan.”
“And then what happened?” Zerah and Pharez looked up, eyes gleaming.
Tamar wasn’t sure which one had spoken.
“Ishtar’s and Ereshkigal’s brother was the god of water. From the dirt under his fingernails, he
created Asushunamir, the spirit guide who was both male and female. “
“I keep my fingernails clean,” said Zerah.
“Not me,” said Pharez. “I have enough dirt under my fingernails to make a spirit guide. See?”
Tamar looked at the child’s hands and smiled.
“So you do. Asushunamir was more beautiful than any man or woman because ze was both male
and female. The plan was to send Asushunamir to the underworld so that Ereshkigal would
forget about her sister and everyone else. When Asushunamir knocked on the first gate, the
gatekeeper told Ereshkigal that the most beautiful man he ever saw was coming — just for her.
Now, Ereshkigal was not nearly as beautiful as her sister. In fact, her moodiness had etched
itself into her face. Her right eye drooped. Her cheeks were sunken. And because she was Queen
of the underworld, she wore a drab dress with a large belt buckle that was a skull.”
“Ooooh,” said Pharez and Zerah in unison. They shrank back. Tamar suspected that they had
seen the skulls set on posts in the village square.
“Ereshkigal rarely met anyone in the underworld who wasn’t already dead. She became very
excited when the gatekeeper told her that the most beautiful man in the world was coming down
to see her. So the gatekeeper hobbled back up to the first gate. Just as the gods planned,
Ereshkigal forgot all about Ishtar.”
Tamar paused as she heard Aziz in his corner of the tent sigh and roll over. He must be having a
dream, she thought and went back to the story.
“Ishtar started coming back up. She left the underworld and returned through the seventh gate
first. Her clothes were given back to her and she put them on so she was no longer naked. Her
bracelets chimed again as she put them back on. At the same time, Asushunamir entered the first
gate and kept going down. Just as Ishtar left the first gate and was given back her crown and was
free, Asushunamir passed through the seventh gate and was forced to give up all clothing.
Ereshkigal saw that Asushunamir was a man and a woman, not just a man as she was expecting.
She was furious. The gods had tricked her! Ishtar came back from the dead, and the land
Because of Asushunamir, Ishtar was resurrected and lived forever.
“Why was Ereshkigal upset that the trickster was a man and woman instead of just a man,
Auntie?” asked Pharez.
Tamar thought quickly. “Because… Ereshkigal liked men better and she wanted one as a…
They seemed to accept her answer. But then Zerah spoke up.
“And what happened to Asushunamir?”
Tamar actually didn’t know. The myth that she knew ended with Ishtar coming back from the
underworld. But these two children wanted to know what happened to the spirit guide who was
two sexes, like them.
She decided to make up a new ending.
“Ishtar had her powers restored. She was a goddess again. She blessed Asushunamir and freed
hir from the underworld.”
“Did they live together forever and ever?” Zerah always wanted a happy ending.
“Yes,” said Tamar. “They lived together forever and ever, and … Asushunamir was grateful not
to have to stay in the underworld with the evil Ereshkigal.”
“I don’t believe that story,” said Pharez, standing up and stomping hir foot. “Whoever heard of
someone coming back from the dead and living forever — even if she is a goddess!”
Just then a swath of light fell into the tent. Aziz snorted and sat up on his haunches.
Tabitha entered. The tent flap fell closed behind her.
“Uggh. It smells like camel in here. Why didn’t you put Aziz outside?” asked Tabitha.
Tamar sniffed and said, “It smells fine in here.”
“That’s because you almost never leave the tent. It smells normal to you. But when I came in, I
smelled camel pee. I think Aziz has been going too near the tent — maybe on it, said Tabitha,
curling her nostrils in disdain.
Tamar scoffed. “Aziz knows better than to pee on the tent. Besides, I don’t care if he does. And
you know I don’t like to go out when you’re out. What if someone sees us in two different
“Who’s going to see you in this Godforsaken place?”
Tamar put down her basket and turned to the children.
“You look like you’ve been cooped up too long. Why don’t you go to the well and get a pitcher
“Check on Ezzie while you’re outside. Make sure she’s safe in her pen and that she has enough
water,” said Tamar. Ezzie was her pet goat who gave her milk to make cheese. Ezzie was the
she-goat offspring of the goat that Judah had promised when he lay with Tabitha. That day
under the hot desert sun, when Tabitha dressed as a harlot, she had made Judah promise to send
her a kid as payment for her laying with him. Tabitha had convinced him that she needed proof
that he would send the kid and that’s when he gave her his bracelets, staff, and signet ring. True
to his word, Judah had the kid delivered to Tamar — since he thought that she was the harlot that
he had laid with. Two years later, the kid was full grown. Tabitha mated her with a male goat.
Five months later, she gave birth to Ezzie.
The twins were headed toward the tent flap. Zerah turned back.
“Auntie promised that we could see a drawing of the Goddess Ishtar.”
“”I’ll show you when you get back,” said Tamar.
Zerah ran after Pharez.
“The Goddess Ishtar? What kinds of things are you putting into their heads?” Tabitha undid her
widow’s veil and sat down on a folded blanket.
“The old stories are part of their world, too. I’m just telling them the tales that Auntie and Great
Grandmother told us.” Tamar went over to Aziz’s clay food bowl and saw that there were a few
pieces of cacti left in the bottom.
“Tales are right. Those old stories are completely unbelievable,” said Tabitha.
“The twins thought so too. They asked so many questions that I had to make up a new ending,”
Tamar came back to where Tabitha was sitting, bent over and picked the terracotta figurines off
of the tent floor. She put them back in the basket with the other figurines. Then she reached
behind the basket. She pulled out the twenty-inch high bas-relief of Ishtar standing naked with
her wings behind her, flanked by two owls. She was standing on the sturdy back of an animal
that looked like a two-headed lion.
“Here,” she said, handing the bas-relief to Tabitha.”Maybe you should show it to them. I’m sure
they’ll have lots of questions about Ishtar’s nakedness. You’re the mother.”
The words came out differently than Tamar had intended. It sounded like she was questioning
Tabitha’s parenting skills — but she wasn’t. Tabitha was a good mother.
“What I meant was that you’re the one who should be talking to them about such things, not me.”
“I don’t have a problem with nakedness,” said Tabitha. “And I don’t want them to be ashamed of
“But, if Judah finds out…”
“Oh, Judah, smudah. I’m so sick of him. He thinks he can just walk in anytime and take his sons
out for camel rides. He doesn’t treat me any differently than Milcah. In fact, he pays a little more
attention to her. He invites her to his tent and she comes back all flushed and flustered and acts
secretive. I feel like telling her that I know itís no big deal. If I wasn’t concerned that Judah
might do something to the children, I’d tell him where they really came from.”
“But you have status as the mother of Judah’s children,” said Tamar. “You’d be wise not to do
anything to anger him.” She chose her words carefully. Tabitha was at the mercy of Judah. Both
of them were. If he found out that they had deceived him, he’d have them burnt at the stake.
And there was no telling what Judah would do to the twins if he found out they were from
another man’s seed.
“I’ve never understood the story about nakedness,” said Tabatha, changing the subject. “Adam
and Eve didn’t know that they were naked until Eve listened to the serpent and ate from the tree
of knowledge. Then when God came down for a chat, Adam and Eve knew they were naked and
hid themselves. “
“I remember Great Grandmother telling us those stories like it was yesterday.” Tamar’s eyes
misted. “We were children and would sit at her knee and she would tell us about Adam and Eve
and their son Cain who slew his brother Abel in a field. Generations passed. God saw that the
people he had made were corrupt. He destroyed everything in the great flood and started anew
with Noah and his family and the animals, two of every kind, on his ark. When they reached
land, they formed settlements. Noah lived until he was nine hundred and fifty years old. Noah’s
line descended to Abraham who God sent forth from Ur to the land of Canaan so that he could
make a great nation. God had recreated humankind but nudity was still forbidden.
It seems like everyone was ashamed of their nakedness. Are we supposed to believe that this is
still Eve’s fault?”
“Don’t forget the serpent,” answered Tabitha.
“I remember that we had lots of questions when we were little.” Tamar walked over to a basket
and pulled out the bas-relief of Ishtar.
“And Great Grandmother didn’t have the answers,” said Tabitha as she reached up and took the
“Maybe she should have made up a different ending,” replied Tamar.
Book published 2018