In my previous post I discussed Kent Brandenburg’s attempt to prove that Deuteronomy 22:5 is teaching that women should wear dresses and skirts and men should were pants. In the present post I will show that the prohibition of Deuteronomy 22:5 deals with religious practices found in Canaanite religion.
As I mentioned in my last post, in order to support his position, Brother Brandenburg quoted several biblical scholars. In addition to Martin Luther and Keil and Delitzsch, he quoted Albert Barnes (1884-1885), The Pulpit Commentary (1897), Lange’s Commentary (1884), Joseph Excell (1849), Vincent Alsop (mid 17th century), Matthew Poole (1560) and several recent commentaries.
However, what do all the authors and commentaries Brother Brandenburg cited have in common? Most of them were written before the rise of modern archaeology and the discovery of written material that clarify the religious and cultural practices of many nations of the Ancient Near East. In addition, none of these authors studied how the Hebrew word תוֹעֵבָ֥ה (tô`eba) is used in the book of Deuteronomy.
Let me begin with תוֹעֵבָ֥ה (tô`eba) in Deuteronomy. The noun occurs 117 times in the Old Testament and it is generally translated as “abomination.” The word is used to describe a sinful act on the part of Israel or an individual Israelite. The word appears several times in Ezekiel to describe an action that is cultically unacceptable.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the word tô`eba becomes almost a technical word that is used to describe pagan practices that are abhorrent to Yahweh. A few examples will suffice:
“When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9).
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD; and because of these abominable practices the LORD your God is driving them out before you” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
“You shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
“You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog, into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 23:18).
I could cite several other passages in Deuteronomy where the word “abomination” is used as a reference to a religious practice that existed in the religion of the Canaanites and several other nations in the Ancient Near East. The last quotation above, Deuteronomy 23:18, forbids an Israelite to “bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog, into the house of the LORD” as a payment for a vow. Such an act was an abomination to the LORD.
The reference here is to the offering in the temple of the Lord of the wages received by the “harlots and the dogs,” that is, the female and male cultic prostitutes who offered themselves in the worship of Baal. Note the order of the words: the female is referred to first, then the male. This same order is also found in Deuteronomy 22:5: first the woman then the man (see below).
This is the reason Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits Israelites from wearing garments of the opposite sex because these were the special garments female and male cultic prostitutes wore in the service of Asherah (cf. 2 Kings 10:22; 23:7).
Archaeology has shown that the exchange of roles in pagan cults, that is, where male acted as female and vice-versa, was common in the Ancient Near East. A few quotes will suffice to prove this assertion:
Abraham Malamat, in his article “A Forerunner of Biblical Prophecy: The Mari Documents,” published in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, edited by Frederick E. Greenspahn (New York: New Yourk University Press, 1991), p. 159, discusses the role of the assinnus. According to Malamat, the assinnu was “a male prostitute.” Malamat said that this cultic functionary “served in the temple at Mari and prophesied in the name of the goddess Annunitum, apparently while disguised and acting like a woman, perhaps like a modern-day transvestite.”
In a review of Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006) published in The Yale Review of Books 7, vol. 2 (Spring 2004), Margaret Fox wrote:
Crompton quotes the King James translation of a verse from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Crompton speculates that Levitical hostility toward homosexuality arose from the desire to keep the worship of Yahweh distinct from the cultic practices of other cultures in the Ancient Near East, in which transvestite priests often played religious roles.
Theodore Burgh, in his book Listening to the Artifacts: Music Culture in Palestine said (p. 69) that in ancient Mesopotamia, transvestites, men dressed like women, played and danced in the cult of Ishtar, performing erotic dances and pantomime.
Cyrus Gordon, in his book The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997), p. 160, wrote:
Another biblical law that now can be explained through recourse to the Ugaritic texts is the prohibition against transvestism in Deuteronomy 22:5. This act is described in the Epic of Aqhat as well. After the hero is slain, his sister Pughat seeks revenge against Anat for the murder. To do so, Pughat disguises herself as a male, replete with rouge (the coloration of males, especially warrior heroes), man’s clothing and weaponry. The Israelite reaction is to forbid transvestism, another aspect of Canaanite society that they found reprehensible. Again, one needs to place this in its proper context. No doubt the average Canaanite male or female dressed in proper fashion throughout most his or her life. But since Canaanite epic literature describes transvestism in a noble manner, we may conclude that this act not only was practiced but also was countenanced. A close reading of the biblical prohibition reveals that the female is referred to first then the male follows. This runs counter to most laws in the Pentateuch, which either are addressed to male solely, or are addressed to male first and female second. This is not coincidental; rather it suggests an even closer connection with Pughat’s action detailed in the Epic of Aqhat.
The temple functionaries known in Canaanite literature as qedēšim and qedēšot were male and female cultic prostitutes who engaged in sexual acts in the Canaanite cult in order to elicit rain and fertility from their gods. In his religious reforms, Josiah, king of Judah, “broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7).
The Biblical text is very clear: the qedēšim and the qedēšot, the male and female prostitutes were inside the Lord’s house in Jerusalem and there the women wove hangings for the Asherah. This type of ritual drama that took place in the temple was unacceptable to the Israelites. This is the reason the Israelites rejected bestiality, homosexualism, transvestism, and temple prostitution and declared these practices to be an abomination to God.
The Biblical text was not written in a vacuum. The Biblical text was written within a historical and cultural context. When the Biblical text is divorced of its cultural and historical contexts, as Brother Brandenburg has done in his study of Deuteronomy 22:5, the text is made to say that which it never intended to say.
Brother Brandenburg wrote: “Our country practiced the pants as male dress and the dress or skirt as the female dress.” But Deuteronomy was not addressing a cultural issue in “our country” in the twenty-first century or in any other century. Deuteronomy was addressed to Israel as it struggled with Canaanite culture. Deuteronomy was written to address the many religious problems that were plaguing the worship of God, problems that compromised Israel’s uniqueness as a chosen people and problems that undermined Israel’s mission to the nations.
Deuteronomy 22:5 is not prohibiting women from wearing pants. In fact, the word “pants” does not even appears in the Bible.
Well, that is not totally true. The word pants appears twice in the Bible: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1 NIV). But these are pants of another kind.
Transvestism in Ancient Israel
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary