What Not to Wear, Deuteronomy, and the Clarity of Scripture

What Not to Wear, Deuteronomy, and the Clarity of Scripture

For the record: I’m still confused. Our prior work (RuPaul and the Clarity of Scripture) prepared me to translate our text:

A woman must not wear the things of mighty men,
nor a man dress in women’s garments;
for whoever does is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Deut. 22:5)

I admit that it’s easier to read a text a quickly assume we know it’s “clear teaching”; after all, the text says what it means and means what it says, right?? It’s more difficult to ask probing questions. What is the surrounding text about? What is an “abhorrent” thing? What did ancient Israelites wear? And what does any of this have to do with us? It’s time to put more information on the table and watch how it clears everything up. (I’m laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair typing that sentence.)

Let's begin with literary context. Deuteronomy consists of speeches from Moses to the Israelites as they are poised to enter the Promised Land. The second speech (5:1-29:1; in which we find our text) addresses diverse topics, from establishing leadership positions in the new nation to the problem of a rebellious son/child, and almost everything in-between. I draw our attention to two features.

First, the term translated “abhorrent” or “detestable” in our text appears ten other times in this second speech. Most things that are abhorrent have to do with the worship of other gods (12:31; 13:14; 17:4; 18:9, 12; 20:18; the fees of prostitutes may also refer to the practice of sacred prostitution as/in worship, 23:18). Other research also suggests a link between cross-dressing and the worship of Ishtar and other gods and goddesses of Israel’s era. Otherwise, objects or practices that are abhorrent include inappropriate sacrifice (17:1), improper remarriage (24:4),[1] and honest business practices (25:16).

Second, thirteen texts/topics surround our text:

  1. Marrying a female prisoner of war (21:10-14)

  2. Honoring the right of the firstborn (21:15-17)

  3. Stoning a stubborn and rebellious son/child (21:18-21)

  4. Regulation of capital punishment “on a tree” (21:22-23)

  5. Returning a stray animal or lost property (22:1-3)

  6. Assisting a fallen donkey on the side of the road (22:4)

  7. Our Text (22:5)

  8. Removing eggs from a nest, but not taking the mother (22:6-7)

  9. A safety regulation for new houses (22:8)

  10. Not sowing two types of seed in one field (22:9)

  11. Not plowing with an ox and a donkey (22:10)

  12. Not wearing clothing of wool and linen (22:11)

  13. Wearing tassels on the four corners of a cloak (22:12)

As a matter of practice, we have responded to these laws in various ways. In some cases, we’ve endorsed the action or principle (#5, #6, #8, #9), in other cases we’ve rejected the idea (#1, #3), and most of the time we ignore these instructions because they are unique to Israel and don’t fit our culture (#2, #4, #10, #11, #12, #13).

So, how does the context of 22:5 help clear my confusion? On the one hand, we may suspect that our text also refers to a practice peculiar to ancient Israel’s culture; a custom that has no more to do with us than the ban on wearing clothing made from two types of material. Maybe. On the other hand, based on the typical use of the term “abhorrent” in this speech, we may suspect that 22:5 has something to do with the worship of other gods. Maybe.

Let's move along to clothing. What did men and women wear in ancient Israel, and what was the difference? [2] Men’s clothing included an inner-garment (ketonet) wrapped around the waist reaching mid-calf or the ankles (like a kilt) with a leather belt from which a man could hang a knife or other tools and valuables. With or without this “kilt” men also wore a “tunic”—one piece of cloth draped over a shoulder or two pieces sewn together with a hole for the head and sleeves, both types reaching below the knees. A man’s outer-garment consisted of a cloak or mantle—a square garment of cloth or animal skin draped around the body, over one shoulder, and belted at the waist. This cloak was the most essential garment, used to carry things and sleep in. Thus, it was forbidden to keep the cloak of a poor person (Exod. 22:25-26). Decorated cloaks with sleeves denoted special status or wealth. Finally, men wore leather sandals, with later evidence of some footwear that covered the entire foot. To go barefoot indicated poverty, mourning, or standing on holy ground.

Information about women’s clothing is sparse. As a preface: women and men worked hard in agriculture with separate responsibilities for food preparation, hunting, and other tasks. So it’s no surprise that their clothing was similar. Women wore an undergarment similar to males, a long ketonet (kilt) or a long tunic/robe with sleeves. As for an outer garment, women also wore a cloak—a square piece of material wrapped around their body, covering one shoulder. A versatile garment, it could be pulled over the head as a hood or pulled up to cover the face. Wealthy women might wear robes with sleeves and/or a decorated cloak. Women wore veils only on special occasions to denote their status or character. And typical women’s footwear differed little if any from men’s, thought wealthy women might have more elaborate or decorated footwear. [3]

So where does all this new data leave me? Honestly, I’m even more confused by a text that’s not nearly as clear as it first appears {that others regard to be clear}. The text may have to do with the worship of other gods or some other cultural practice that we do not share. And while I have no doubt that there was some difference between men and women’s clothing in Israel, I can’t specify this difference. [4] Meanwhile, I still recall that 22:5 says women shouldn’t wear “the things (keli) of mighty men”—without using any of the typical words for clothing. So where do we go from here? We take up one more perspective, another way of thinking about the subject—perhaps even the most important viewpoint… in my next (and last) blog on Deuteronomy 22:5.


[1] It’s curious that some Christians teach the opposite of this particular law, claiming a divorced and remarried person must return to their first wife/husband.

[2] This section is summarized from “Dress and Ornamentation” by Douglas Edwards in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and “Clothing” by Roland Harrison and Edwin Yamauchi in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity.

[3] Generally speaking, with the advance of time and increased wealth both men’s and women’s clothing became more ornate.

[4] Often, those who point out a difference between men’s and women’s clothing cite our text, Deut. 22:5.

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