The psychological anomaly of transvestism refers to the desire of a person of one gender to dress in the garments of a person of the other gender. In cross-dressing, a man has the abnormal desire to dress like a woman, and a woman desires to dress like a man.
Transvestism tends to emphasize the increased comfort and the gratification that a person enjoys in the role of the other gender. The transvestite’s impulse to wear clothing appropriate to the opposite sex many times is defined as an artistic enjoyment in the appreciation of the beautiful, but often it is a manifestation of homosexuality.
Deuteronomy 22:5 is a law that prohibits transvestism in Israel. The text reads as follows:
“A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”
Although this text has been used in many Christian churches as a justification to prohibit a woman from wearing pants in church, the text does not address how a woman should dress in church.
Joan of Arc was condemned by the Church for her refusal to submit to the authority of her inquisitors on the matter of her short hair and the clothes she wore. For this reason Joan of Arc was sent to her death for violating the Biblical law against a woman wearing men’s garments as stipulated in Deuteronomy 22:5.
Although the meaning of the verse seems to be clear when superficially read, the translation of the text is made difficult because of the unclear meaning of the word kelî geber. The versions differ in their translation of this Hebrew expression:
“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (ESV).
“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God” (KJV).
“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” (NIV).
“A woman must not dress like a man, nor a man like a woman; anyone who does this is detestable to Yahweh your God” (NJB).
“A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (RSV).
Thus, the expression kelî geber has been translated as “man’s clothing,” “ a man’s garment,” “that which pertaineth unto a man,” “to dress like a man,” “anything that pertains to a man,” “man’s apparel,” “an article proper to a man.” This expression is different from the second expression in the text, the Hebrew expression śimlat ’iššāh which means “the garment of a woman.”
According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 440, the word kelî has the following meanings: “armor,” “bag,” “carriage,” “furniture,” “instrument,” “jewels,” “sacks,” “stuff,” “things,” “tools,” “vessels,” and “weapons.”
Harold Vedeler, in his article “Reconstructing Meaning in Deuteronomy 22:5: Gender, Society, and Transvestitism in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008) 459-476, based on the studies of Hittite society and culture by Harry Hoffner and on semantic studies in Akkadian, concluded that the word kelî in Deuteronomy 22:5 means a weapon, which was the symbol of a man’s power. Vedeler wrote:
He [Hoffner] concludes that Deut 22:5 was meant to prevent women from usurping masculine symbols and the power that went with them, but since clothing was not specifically identified with masculinity the way it was with femininity, the prevention of women taking on a male role was achieved not through a clothing ban but rather through a tool or weapon ban. Similarly, he argues that the ban on men wearing female clothing was designed not to prevent men from usurping female power, but to prevent that power from weakening them.
Although scholars have rejected the anti-transvestism law of Deuteronomy 22:5 to be a ban on Canaanite practices, I take the view that this Deuteronomic prohibition is a protest against the immoral practices of Canaanite fertility religion.
My view is based on the statement in the text that the practice of transvestism in ancient Israel was considered to be “an abomination to the Yahweh.” The expression “an abomination to the Yahweh” generally refers to cultic practices which endanger the purity of the religion of Yahweh. Since the reason offered by the Deuteronomic writer for the prohibition of transvestism in Israel uses the strong argument that it is an abomination to Yahweh, then, the practice of cross-dressing suggests some kind of cultic offense.
Richard D. Nelson, in his book Deuteronomy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 264, suggests that the expression “a woman must not wear a man’s apparel” refers to an article appropriate to a man. He proposes that the Deuteronomic law is a prohibition of a woman wearing an artificial phallus.
In his commentary on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1951), p. 250, S. R. Driver offered the following suggestion:
No doubt the prohibition is not intended as a mere rule of conventional propriety,—though, even as such, it would be an important safeguard against obvious moral dangers,—but is directed against the simulated changes of sex which occurred in Canaanite and Syrian heathenism, to the grave moral deterioration of those who adopted them.
There was in Cyprus a statue of a bearded Venus who was considered to be of both sexes and to whom sacrifice was offered by men dressed as women, and women dressed as men: and noisy processions of Galli, or eunuch-priests of Cybele, the mother of the gods, paraded the towns and villages of Syria, Asia Minor, and other parts, attired as women, and soliciting the populace to unholy rites.
In the fertility cult of Baal and Asherah there were two groups of functionaries called qedēšim (קדשים) and qedēšot (קדשות). In Hebrew the two words literally mean “the holy ones.” Many English Bibles translate the word qedēšim as “male cult prostitutes” (1 Kings 15:12) and the word qedēšot as “female cult prostitutes” (Hosea 4:14).
Two texts in the book of Kings may explain the prohibition against transvestism in Deuteronomy 22:5. The first text, 2 Kings 23:7, reads as follows:
He [Josiah] tore down the apartments of the cult prostitutes which were in the temple of the LORD, and in which the women wove garments for the Asherah.
The second text, 2 Kings 10:22, reads as follows:
He [Jehu] said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, “Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Baal.”
It is clear from 2 Kings 10:22 that the temple personnel, both the male and the female sacred prostitutes wore special garments that identified them with the worship of Asherah. Since the practice of fertility religion involved the sexual act between the worshipers and the temple functionaries, such a practice was an abomination to Yahweh.
Thus, Deuteronomy 22:5 is more than just a prohibition on the wearing of everyday clothing. As Vedeler wrote (p. 474):
The verse is much more than a simple prohibition of particular wardrobes, and indeed in no way addresses the issue of women wearing masculine garments, since in the culture of ancient Israel the clothing of men was less associated with gender than was the clothing of women.
The law in Deuteronomy 22:5 is a prohibition against Israelite men and women wearing the garments that would identify them as worshipers of Asherah. Since those garments were dedicated to Asherah and since the servants of Asherah wore identical garments, any Israelite man or any Israelite woman who wore these garments would be committing an abomination against Yahweh.
Transvestism is a violation of the natural order and as such, it should not be practiced by the followers of Yahweh. Deuteronomy 22:5 is prohibiting a specific kind of transvestism, one in which men dressed as women and women dressed as men would identify themselves as servants of Asherah, prostitute themselves in the temple of Yahweh, and thus bring ritual impurity to the worship of the God of Israel.
Transvestism in Ancient Israel
NOTE: For other studies on syncretism in the Old Testament, read my post, Syncretism in the Old Testament.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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