Wild Rice and Queer Dissent: Wrestling with God in Genesis 32:22-32

I have a paper in the new 2010 volume of the Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research. This is a (slightly) expanded version of the paper I presented a year ago at the ESWTR conference at the University of Winchester, and is entitled "Wild Rice and Queer Dissent: Wrestling With God in Genesis 32:22-32". Here's a snippet:

Wild rice grows naturally on water in the north-eastern United States and southern Canada, and is considered a sacred food by the Ojibway or Chippewa people. The first French settlers in the area called the grain la zizanie, from the Greek plural zizánia – also the name given it by Linnaeus. Gathered from where it grows naturally on water the grain is an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals. However, the same term is also used for the biblical “tares” in Matthew 13. The logic of the parable suggests that to sow tares in a cultivated area is to sow the seeds of havoc, since once rooted it runs amok, is impossible to remove, and sucks the nutrients from any crops whose area it invades. It is for this reason that tá zizánia in the Matthean parable denotes “the children of the evil one” who must be allowed to grow alongside the elect for now but will, at the end of the age, be “gathered up and burned with fire” (Matthew 13:38, 40). In French, semer la zizanie, “to sow wild rice”, is to sow discord and stir up trouble. La zizanie now has colloquially, by association, the somewhat violent connotations of ill-feeling, feud, rivalry, discord, clash.
Although many feminist and queer theologians have rightly rejected violence and hierarchy as desirable patterns to be repeated in our own theologies, there is also a sense in which something approximating the tenacity embodied in la zizanie is a valuable quality for those who stand in tension with the accepted norms and paradigms of the mainstream. There is indubitably something wild about it, like the strains of wild rice, riz sauvage, which bear its name. But it can also, more promisingly, be translated tension or dissent. The very violent tale of Jacob wrestling the stranger at Peniel in Genesis 32 may seem an odd and problematic tale to those who repudiate combative or aggressive modes of discourse as ideal. We might say that the God of this tale is a dark God: some critics believe that the story has its origins in earlier traditions of night attacks by river-demons. However, I suggest that the ambiguities in the tale – and the ambiguities and differences in its interpretation by commentators – mean that there are strands to be reclaimed and celebrated here, even as queer theology ambivalently interacts with all those in whose presence it has found itself, or has been made, strange. I engage here with a range of commentaries on the Genesis 32 passage and suggest that it is in their disagreement and variety that they are complementary and demonstrate the unfinished, provisional, conversational nature of interpretation. This, I suggest, is ideologically important for recognizing the unfinished and provisional nature of queer theologies which appeal to a queer God.
One of the wonderful things about the ESWTR is that both its conferences and its journal are trilingual. Conference presentations are given in either English, German or Spanish, and are simultaneously translated into the other languages. Delegates are provided with headsets which can be tuned into the listener's preferred language, so everyone can follow along. Questions posed to speakers after their papers are also translated - which means questioners who are passionately opposed to or inflamed by what they have heard sometimes need to temper the full thrust of their rebuttal in order that the translators can keep up! Sadly my own linguistic skills are not all they should be, but for the benefit of those who prefer to think in German or Spanish, here are the abstracts for my paper in each language:
Im Französischen bedeutet semer la zizanie „wilden Reis säen“, d.h. Zwietracht säen, Unruhe hervorrufen. Viele feministische und queere TheologInnen haben Gewalt und Hierarchie als erstrebenswerte Modelle, die in unseren eigenen Theologien wiederholt wurden, verworfen. Doch etwas von der Hartnäckigkeit, Spannung und dem Dissens, die in dem Begriff zizanie enthalten sind, stellen eine wertvolle Eigenschaft für diejenigen dar, die in einem Spannungsverhältnis zu den akzeptierten Normen und Paradigmen des Mainstreams stehen. Die Ambiguität in dem Bericht vom Kampf Jakobs mit einer geheimnisvollen Gestalt in Pnuël – sowie die Mehrdeutigkeiten und Differenzen in den unterschiedlichen Interpretationen – spiegeln die Art und Weise wider, in der eine queere Theologie mit all denen umgeht, in deren Gegenwart sie sich fremd gefühlt hat oder von denen sie entfremdet worden ist. Der Beitrag setzt sich mit einer Reihe von Auslegungen von Genesis 32 auseinander und vertritt die Auffassung, dass diese sich gerade in ihrer Uneindeutigkeit und Vielfalt ergänzen und den unvollendeten, provisorischen und dialogischen Charakter der Interpretation deutlich machen. Es wird gezeigt, dass das wichtig ist, um den unvollendeten und provisorischen Charakter queerer Theologien im Blick auf einen queeren Gott anzuerkennen. Die Undefinierbarkeit der Identität des Gegners von Jakob dient zum Nachdenken über das Wesen einer queeren Opposition zu einer monolithischen Verbreitung der christlichen Tradition. Der Beitrag schließt mit der Aussage ab, dass queere Theologien sich weigern, ein Nein als eine Antwort hin zu nehmen und Abstand zu nehmen von einem Dialog mit Gott und der Tradition. Das Ringen ist nicht beendet, doch gleicht es weitgehend einer Begegnung – von Angesicht zu Angesicht – mit Gott.
Semer la zizanie quiere decir en francés “sembrar arroz silvestre”, esto es, sembrar cizaña, producir discordia. Muchos/as teólogos/as feministas y queer rechazan la violencia y la jerarquía como modelos a seguir que han existido en nuestras propias teologías. Sin embargo, lo que el concepto de cizaña tiene de tenacidad, tensión y disensión representa una característica muy valiosa para aquellos/as que sienten la dicotomía que existe entre las normas aceptadas y los paradigmas del mainstream. La ambigüedad que encontramos en la lucha de Jacob con esa figura misteriosa en Peniel – al igual que las ambigüedades y diferencias de las varias interpretaciones que existen – refleja cómo la teología queer tiene una interacción ambivalente con aquellos/as en cuya presencia se sentía extraña o que la alienaban. En este artículo se analizan varias interpretaciones de Génesis 32, llegando a la conclusión que en tanto ambiguas y variadas se complementan, poniendo de manifiesto el carácter inconcluso, provisional y dialógico de la interpretación. Queda demostrado que ello es importante para reconocer el carácter inconcluso y provisional de las teologías queer y un Dios queer. El hecho de no poder definir quién es el adversario de Jacob nos obliga a reflexionar quién es la oposición queer frente a la expansión monolítica de la tradición cristiana. En el artículo se postula finalmente que las teologías queer se niegan a aceptar el no como una respuesta y a alejarse de un diálogo con Dios y la tradición. La lucha no ha terminado; sin embargo se asemeja a un encuentro – cara a cara – con Dios.