Transvestism isn't necessarily homosexual since many heterosexuals are into cross-dressing.
Resurrection of Christ by
Michel Corneille the Elder, 1601-1664
Church Saint Nicholas-des-Champs,
Paris, central motive, fresco vault
by Elisabeth Anne Kellogg
"A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a man wear women's clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this." (Deut. 22:5)
One verse that every transgendered person needs to come to terms with is Deuteronomy 22:5. This verse seems to be a direct condemnation of cross-dressing. But, as has been asked before, aren't they just clothes? What does this verse really mean?
In researching this, I found one commentator who used Deut. 22:5 as an opportunity to recount the anecdote of following a car containing a man dressed in woman's clothes and a woman dressed in men's clothes (referred to by some as transvestism). He used this as a springboard for an "isn't it sad the state American culture is in" sermonette. I won't embarrass the author by naming him. (At least I would have been embarrassed if I had written it.) This type of insightless commentary, where it is so obvious that the writer hasn't even bothered to crack the cover of the Hebrew scriptures, not only doesn't help but is positively harmful.
I hope that in the following,
I can do better than that.
A surface reading of this text would lead the reader to the same conclusion as the commentator in the NIV Study Bible, NIV Study Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1985, p. 270:
"Probably intended to prohibit such perversions as transvestism and homosexuality, especially under religious auspices. The God-created differences between men and women are not to be disregarded."
Most serious commentators on this verse, however, try to look for something more significant than taking issue with the kind of clothes people choose to wear.
The commentator in the NIV Matthew Henry Commentary (Church, Leslie F. and Peterman, Gerald W., editors, The NIV Matthew Henry Commentary In One Volume, (Grand Rapids, The Zondervan Corporation, 1992), p. 201) notes the following about verses 5-12 of this chapter.
"Here are several laws in these verses which seem to stoop very low, and to take cognizance of things common and minute." With reference to verse 5 he says, "Probably this exchange of garments had been used to gain opportunity of committing uncleanness, and is therefore forbidden."
Walter R. Roehrs (Roehrs, Walter R. and Franzmann, Martin H., Concordia Self-Study Commentary, (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1979), p. 134) goes on to suggest that,
"Wearing apparel of the opposite sex was an 'abomination to the Lord' because it was the vogue among the Canaanite fertility worshipers."
The writer in the International Bible Commentary (Bruce, F. F., editor, The International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 273) notes that,
"Within living memory, this verse has been cited against the wearing of trousers by women; yet there has been no corresponding refusal to wear rayon/cotton or terylene/worsted mixtures (see Deut. 22:11). The practice referred to may have been thought to have magical effects. There is certainly evidence of transvestism and simulated sexual inversion being associated in the ancient world (as well as today) with sexual license -- and in a religious context."
So is there more to be gotten out of this than a condemnation of cross-dressing on the grounds of sexual license and sympathetic magic? John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews (Walter, John H. and Matthews, Victor H., The IVP Bible Background Commentary Genesis-Deuteronomy, (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 251) note,
"Just as clothing served as a status marker in the ancient world, it also distinguished gender. In classical contexts, cross-dressing occurred in the theater, where women were not allowed to perform, and was also an aspect of homosexual practice. Most instances in which cross-dressing or transvestism are mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts are cultic or legal in nature.
For instance, when the Ugaritic hero Aqhat is murdered, his sister Paghat puts on a male garment under her female robes in order to assume the role of blood avenger in the absence of a male relative. An Assyrian wisdom text contains a dialogue between husband and wife who propose to exchange their clothing and thus assume each other's gender roles.
This may be a fertility rite or perhaps a part of a religious drama honoring a goddess. It may be this association with other religions that made transvestism an 'abomination' in Deuteronomy, but the issue may also be the blurring of gender distinctions. Hittite texts use gender-related objects as well as clothing in a number of magical rites used to influence one's sexual status or diminish or alter the gender status of an adversary. The objects of the female where mirror and distaff; those of the male, various weapons."
What about this issue of "gender role?" The first thing to note is that the two places the word "clothing" appear in the translation of this verse are really two different words in the Hebrew original. "Men's clothing" represents the Hebrew "keli-never" which means "all of the things of manhood", i.e. clothes, armor, weapons, tools, etc.
"Women's clothing" represents the Hebrew word "simlath" which was the square mantel that women wore. These two terms are paired in a list in 1 Kings 10:25 where in the NIV the translation is "robes and weapons."
Therefore a better translation of this verse might be:
"A woman must not wear men's gear, nor a man wear women's robes, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this."
This seems to imply that what we are talking about in this verse is not clothing, but the masculine and feminine roles of protector and homemaker. If this is true, then this verse really isn't so much about transvestism as about gender roles.
It is possible that one motivation for this condemnation was to prevent men from hiding among the women to avoid their civic duty just as in 1 Samuel 10:17-24, Saul hid himself among the baggage.
C. F. Keil (Keil, C. F. and Delitzsch, F., Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, vol. I - The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), pp.409f) directly addresses this meaning.
"...the divine distinction of the sexes, which was kept sacred in civil life by the clothing peculiar to each sex, was to be not less but even more sacredly observed. 'There shall not be man's things upon a woman, and a man shall not put on a woman's clothes.' "
Keli does not signify clothing merely, nor arms only, but includes every kind of domestic and other utensils (as in Ex 22:6; Lev. 11:32; 13:49). The immediate design of this prohibition was not to prevent licentiousness, or to oppose idolatrous practices; but to maintain the sanctity of that distinction of the sexes which was established by the creation of man and woman, and in relation to which Israel was not to sin. Every violation of wiping out of this distinction -- such even, for example, as the emancipation of a woman -- was unnatural, and therefore an abomination in the sight of God."
Based on these interpretations, this verse no longer stands alone as a condemnation of violations in dress code. Instead it fits into a group of verses dealing with gender roles. It is not about transvestism. It's about transgenderism.
Ancient Hebrew scroll
At this point there is some value in gathering the main "Male and Female" passages together in one place. Some of them are from the Old Testament and some from the New Testament.
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)
"Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." (Lev. 19:27)
"A woman must not wear men's gear, nor a man wear women's robes, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this." (Deut. 22:5)
"Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head -- it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice -- nor do the churches of God." (1 Cor. 11:4-16)
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored." (1 Cor. 14:33b-38)
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." (1 Tim. 2:11-12)
The commands of these passages may be summarized with the following table:
It should be noted concerning a man's hair that the rule of the Nazarite violated two of these commands. He was to grow his hair long (Num. 6:5) and afterwards was to shave his head (Num. 6:18). Also the tonsure of medieval monks would have violated Lev. 19:27.
Today few, if any, of these rules are enforced by even the most conservative churches. The twentieth century saw the abandonment of head coverings by the Catholic Church. Among all but the very conservative, female pastors and priests are allowed. This last is an area worthy of discussion at another time.
Lawrence O. Richards (Richards, Lawrence O., Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), p. 428) writes,
"In most cases the OT civil laws governing the rights of men and women reflect cultural patterns. They fall short of what many believe to be a deserved "equality." But it is important to remember that no culture provides equality. Injustices exist in every culture. And OT law was not a perfect expression of God's ideal for the whole human race (Mt. 5:21-43). OT law was an accommodation, bringing righteousness as close as possible to men and women who lived in a world in which all things were tainted and twisted by sin."
Many of the rules that Paul imposes on men and women above are reflections of practices in the Jewish Synagogue. For example, "The woman does not read out of the Torah, for the sake of the honor of the congregation." In contrast to this, it was also Paul who wrote,
"You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Gal. 3:26-29)
Richards continues (ibid, p. 430),
"With the gospel came the announcement that in Christ 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:28). This proclamation insists that there is spiritual equality in God's sight, despite those cultural distinctions made in every society. Yet believers remain male and female, slave and free. And each must live out his or her life within roles imposed by society as well as within the believing community.
"For the church, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to become the kind of community that Scripture says we are -- one that values persons apart from their social role. For the woman today, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to be comfortable with herself as a female. A woman, because she is significant in Christ, can find worth and dignity by living life as a woman -- without a need to act like a man."
I would expect Richards would be willing to expand this section to include, "For the man today, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to be comfortable with himself as a male. A man, because he is significant in Christ, can find worth and dignity by living life as a man -- without a need to act like a woman." And this is where the real issue for the transgendered begins.
How can the transgendered, whether male or female, be comfortable with himself/herself within his/her gender? To address this issue it is necessary to understand who and what a transgendered person is.
The transgendered person is usually not homosexual. The stereotype of the gay drag-queen is exactly that, a stereotype. Although a few cross-dressing (transvestitism?) homosexuals exist, they are rare compared to the number of heterosexual transgendered people. If transgendered people spend a lot of time at gay bars, it's because they find more acceptance there than they do in the "straight" world.
The transgendered person is not sick. Mental health professionals state publicly that transvestism is not a mental illness... People who cross gender lines in dressing can be classed into four categories.
Except where noted, scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
This page: (c) Copyright 1998 Elisabeth Anne Kellogg, all rights reserved. You are expressly granted permission to copy this article provided you do not modify any portion of the text, including this copyright notice.
This page updated February 2, 2017
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