DEUTERONOMY 22 verse 5 - A discussion

Revd. David Horton


Issue 8
November 1999

David Horton's book Changing Channels is now out of print but may be bought on line as a pdf at

'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.'


In 1987, shortly after I had been priested, I was approached for help by a couple where the husband's transvestism was one part of a breakdown in the marriage. As a result I began to study the condition. After I moved to Rochester Diocese in 1990 I was encouraged at my ministerial assessment to write something about this area for other Christians. The result was a Grove Booklet 'Changing Channels' (January 1994). As part of my research I attended the 2nd International Gender Dysphoria Conference at Manchester University in 1992, and the subsequent Conferences that have followed every two years since. Through contacts made there I became honorary chaplain to one then two transsexual charities. I have also been referred people from transvestite groups, and now also work with the Sibyls, which is a Christian spirituality group, most members of which are transsexual or transvestite. I am used as a resource by press, researchers and others, and as a result of my visibility within the 'transgender community' of support groups, meetings and publications around the UK, I have become a contact point for clergy and other ministers and religious who are themselves 'transgendered' 'Changing Channels' continues to sell, and I believe it to be in line with continuing research, but certain issues have continued to come to the fore in my contacts. Hence this discussion of the only verse in the Bible which specifically addresses the issue of cross-dressing.


The verse clearly prohibits cross-dressing, with women as the primary case, and men as the corollary. In itself this poses a major problem for our society since cross-dressing in masculine styled or male clothes is quite common in women, while the converse is rarer in men. It would be a brave person who stood up to condemn women in this way, so to attack men for the same thing seems unjust. There is no direct context to the verse, or to the two other verses on clothing in this chapter (on adding tassels to cloaks, and on not mixing wool and flax in the one garment). It seems likely that verse 5 might relate to the practice of ritual crossdressing and temple prostitution in Canaanite fertility religion (by implication that is - Lucian of Samosata and Eusebius write of masquerade in the worship of Astarte in context of this verse). There is some evidence that fertility worship across the known world followed similar patterns of cross-dressing. In the Mishne Torah of Rabbi Moses MaimonidesDeuteronomy 22 v 5 is debated under the section dealing with idolatry.

The reference to wool and flax in verse 11 may imply some idea of creation order, or it may be a health rule. Verse 12 may have something to do with separating the Israelites from the Canaanites by adopting dissimilar clothing styles. These interpretations are tentative. We simply do not know!

Deuteronomy represents an early stage in God's progressive revelation. Later silence (except Matthew 6 v 28) may thus limit its force for today. The parallel in the case of eunuchs (the nearest equivalent to transsexuals?) is interesting. In Deuteronomy 23 v 1 they are excluded from the assembly. In Isaiah 56 vs 4, 5 they are promised a blessing if faithful, and in Acts 8 vs 26-39 God sends Phillip from a major evangelistic mission in Samaria to meet one such person whom he baptises and sends on his way rejoicing. His impaired sexuality was irrelevant to salvation by faith. As a possible support for the idea that later generations in Israel may have viewed Deuteronomy more loosely, the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible (c1909) noted an element of cross-dressing in the feast day of Queen Esther (Purim). This presumably looks back to the sixteenth century Jewish teaching manual the Shulhan Arukh which permitted this because it was for joy, and not for immorality.

Earlier interpretations of this verse:


Attributed toRabbi Eliezar ben Ya'akov (c226): 'a woman must not wear instruments of war or go to war.' (cf Joan of Arc) This interpretation of Deuteronomy as 'war gear' rather than clothes is found in the Midrash Mishlei. It is also suggested that Jael killed Sisera (Judges 4) with a tent peg because it would have been improper to use a man's weapon. The word used in the verse (keli) can mean 'mens' things ie clothes, armour, weapons and tools rather than just clothes, while the word for women's things (simlah) is specifically one square type of women's outer clothing. Both words are also used together in 1 Kings 10 v.25)

Ibn Ezra (medieval) 'womenkind is not created for anything other than procreation, and were a woman to go with men to war she would fall into prostitution en route.' Other commentators follow this idea of sexual immorality, eg Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki (medieval) '(a woman dresses) that she should resemble a man in order to mingle with the men, which cannot be for any reason other than to fornicate.

Rashi (medieval) a) a man should not sit among the womenfolk.

b) a man should not remove his genital hair or the hair under his armpit.

Matthew Henry


'Here are several laws in these verses which seem to stoop very low, and to take cognisance of things mean and minute.

The distinction of sexes by the apparel is to be kept up, for the preservation of our own and our neighbour's chastity, v5.

  • Some think it refers to the idolatrous custom of the Gentiles: in the worship of Venus, women appeared in armour, and men in women's clothes.
  • It forbids the confounding of the dispositions and the affairs of the sexes.
  • Probably this confounding of garments had been used to gain opportunity of committing uncleanness, and is therefore forbidden.'

World War 2

I was informed by an older Anglican colleague that he remembered that as a youth his local vicar fulminated at some length from the pulpit about the lewd dress and wearing of trousers by the Women's Land Army in Norfolk in the 2nd World War, and that Deuteronomy was used to support his case. How widespread this sort of opposition was I have no idea.

The main assumption is that this verse relates to sexual immorality. I see no indication that would link this verse to the Brain Sex condition outlined below. However there is an interesting comment in the Mishne Torah. The intersex roles 'androgene' and 'tumtum' which lie between male and female are described thus: 'does not dress like a woman and does not have hair cut like a man, if such a person did this that person is not held to be at fault.'

If instead it is understood to apply to taking on the gender role of the other sex then our modern culture produces more immediate problems in the role of women in the military and the clergy for example. And it says nothing about people who in some sense are medically intersex. Doctors and others working in this field are beginning to understand transgenderism as an intersex condition.

Medical Understanding: Brain Sex

The basic concept of brain sex is that male and female brains are patterned differently. Thus for example a female brain has more connections between the two sides of the brain, and is better able in general to articulate and to express emotion verbally. In return the male brain is more specialised in function and thus often has better perceptual and motor skills. In autopsies of transsexuals some brain patterning has been found to follow that of the adopted sex. Similarly twelve transvestites and transsexuals given an Estrogen Provocation Test some years ago resulted in seven showing a female response to injected estrogen, and one an intermediate response, while a control sample of twelve non-transgendered males produced eleven male responses.

The impetus for this patterning appears to come some six or so weeks after conception. All fetuses produce male and female precursor hormones. Where a Y (male) chromosome is present the normal ratio favours male over female hormones. Where the ratio falls too far the greater specialisation of the male brain does not happen, or only partially occurs. The result may be one or more of an intersex condition of body, sexuality, or brain patterning depending on the exact stage of development reached when the problem occurs and the length of time it persists.

A parallel to this is found in the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Around 1 in 40,000 males

do not respond at all to male hormone. The result is physically and mentally a woman but without ovaries or vagina. Even in today's scientific society the person may have lived for many years before the situation is discovered. Earlier this century they were simply infertile women.

What is not clear is how the difference in patterning is reflected in our culture. The idea that behaviour follows on directly from brain patterning is simplistic. There are obviously psychological and cultural factors at work as well, both in our society and in the many others in which this behaviour has appeared from ancient Greece to modern Fiji or Thailand.

Unsustainable Assumptions

1) 'The condition is rare'. Dr. Vernon Coleman argues for a figure of up to 1 in 10 adult males (based on telephone help line usage compared to other help lines where the incidence of the particular medical condition is known accurately). This still seems high to me, but there are enough social surveys and anecdotal evidence for me to up my previous estimate to at least 2%.

2) 'The condition can be cured' Depending on the degree of control and (presumably) the intensity of the individual condition it can be suppressed for a time. The longer-term result can be nervous breakdown, alcoholism or drug dependency, and sometimes violence. Increasing the level of male hormone has led to suicide. Chemical and other aversion techniques are medically increasingly unacceptable, and by the evidence unsuccessful. Psychotherapy can help someone to come to terms with the condition but I am not aware that this stops the behaviour, although it may help the person to better balance it with the rest of his life. Sometimes age and frailty makes it impossible, but without removing the inner desire! There are blind, disabled and very old people who are transgendered.

3) 'There is a direct link with homosexuality'. There are homosexual so-called 'drag queens' and some may be transgendered, but such people in my experience identify themselves as gay. I have come across several people both gay and transgendered over the years, but given the estimated percentages of both groups in the wider population this seems a natural result of probability. In other words if, for example, four in a hundred are gay and two in a hundred are transgendered then eight in ten thousand will be both. The only sustained 'cures' for transgender behaviour that I have come across are related to rejection of the birth sex after severe homosexual abuse (and which needed years of help and support!)

Pastoral Considerations

We live at the onset of an age in which changes to our body are the next stage in technology. This will allow the eradication of a number of unpleasant and often fatal diseases, and also permit tremendous changes in what we can do to modify our bodies for cosmetic or social reasons. The impact of gene surgery and other new techniques is unknown. The transgender condition is one area in which surgical and chemical intervention has been taking place for 70 years. It thus offers a foretaste of things to come, although the safeguards and degree of sheer physical pain involved mean that it is not the idle choice of some other possibilities. The discussion about transsexuality at least is thus of wider interest.

Assuming any sexual role (including that of the other sex) outside marriage is contrary to Christian teaching. There is as far as I can see, however, no strong basis for condemnation of the taking on of the social role of the other sex. Indeed the pattern of our society over the last three decades and longer has seen women doing just that in many areas of life. The social, economic and dress possibilities for a woman in the UK today compared with those of a century ago are immeasurably different. Why should we be concerned if men seek the same freedoms?

1) 'Women are not seeking to be men socially'. I believe this is largely true. But is it intrinsically wrong to want to see the world from another viewpoint? I have met women who identify themselves as transvestite, although very rarely. For the most part the patterning of the female fetus seems to be less open to problems, and so we might reasonably expect that there are fewer women with gender problems. The lower incidence of female to male transsexuals than the converse suggests that this is true.

2) 'The secrecy involved suggests deceit.' I suspect that the secrecy often involved represents a healthy fear of the consequences of being different in a media led society! In late Victorian and Edwardian times for example, social standing and wealth allowed a degree of public 'eccentricity' which I doubt would be so easily tolerated today except by media celebrities.

3) 'At a time when masculine qualities are under attack it threatens the self-confidence of men'. On the evidence of rejection by children forcibly cross-dressed, or who have been assigned to the female sex after surgery for ambiguous or damaged organs, only those who have this condition are likely to want to follow this pattern of behaviour. Like Sleeping Beauty in the fairy-tale, it is hardly possible to keep such people from all circumstances in which the behaviour could be triggered. Even late in life a traumatic event such as the death of a spouse can trigger this need.

4) 'It is upsetting the creation order' Natural sex-changes and hermaphrodites do happen in the animal kingdom. We continue to try and find cures for all manner of human conditions, and over time have come to accept that some of these (such as left-handedness) are just part of the natural variation of the species. Our society stands as a testimony to the belief that change can be good, and many of the best scientists were and are Christians. Historically in the twentieth century it has been the dictatorships that have tried to eradicate difference.

Where there is a real problem with both secrecy and behaviour is for partners and family. Because it is often socially unacceptable there is a real danger of family relationships being damaged, particularly through hiding. Pastoral skills are needed because so often the man thinks he is unique, and feels shame at these 'unnatural' urges. As a consequence he may attempt to programme himself into a very 'macho' lifestyle alongside periodic episodes of secret cross dressing. The shock of discovery opens up a world of assumptions for those directly affected. Society as a whole is becoming far more sympathetic than it was, and an increasing number of wives and girlfriends are to be found at meetings of the many social and support groups. As knowledge has increased the assumption of a link to homosexuality has become rarer but can still cause distress when it is made. A wife may be hurt that fear has kept this secret from her, feel she has failed in her own femininity, or be threatened by 'competition'. She may be justifiably frightened about the social and economic penalties which may result from discovery. Children can find that their peer society is even less forgiving of differences than the adult.

So what should be our response?

1) CautionA single Old Testament verse is a very weak foundation for a theological and pastoral judgement, especially in light of 1 Samuel 16 v7 'God does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart'.

2) Care If God so loved the world then his representatives and followers must do the same. I commend listening before judging and truth before comfort. Is it a natural variation, or an illness, or a matter of sin? We should perhaps be careful of our own assumptions!

Genesis 1 vs 27 is sometimes used in this connection. As I read it, it is an assertion that women share the image of God rather than a statement indicating a fundamental divide between men and women that should not be crossed. As I have already noted there is considerable evidence for intersex conditions and changing sex within the animal kingdom. Recent concerns over the incidence and effects of estrogen-like chemicals being released into the environment and affecting male humans in particular (eg. testicular cancer, reduced sperm count and possible feminisation of the body) may also be relevant.


Transvestite, or Cross dresser (TV or CD) Someone who dresses up in the clothing of the opposite sex for a variety of reasons. TVs may be partial cross dressers or adopt full make-up, wigs, body padding, and other methods of presenting a complete image. Some transsexuals may start off in the TV culture but, these apart, TVs are usually content with their sex of birth. Other social groups and activities may also involve a lesser or greater degree of cross dressing eg the 'Fetish Scene'.

The majority of transgendered people are TV. Cross dressing by women, which is very widespread in fashion terms, is not currently considered to be transvestism.

Transsexual (TS) A transsexual has been diagnosed as gender dysphoric, that is, deeply unhappy with their birth gender role. Some will just live in the role of the opposite sex (sometimes known as transgenderists), while many will seek surgery after a complex medical evaluation process in order to present a more complete body image. Transsexuals are thus also known as pre-operative or post-op. After surgery most happily blend back into society. A few fail to adjust, others are exploited by the media, and some have come into the public arena to fight for the restoration of the civil rights which were effectively removed by a court case in 1970 ('Corbett v Corbett' or the 'April Ashley Case'). Transsexuals can be either male to female (MtF) or female to male (FtM).

Gender is the way masculinity and femininity are perceived in a given culture. Gender roles and patterns can thus change in a way that sex (male/female) does not.

Personal Conclusion

My own conclusion is that to be transgendered is a human variation and is not in itself wrong. However to be human is to be a sinner, and some behaviour by the transgendered as with everyone else must be challenged. It is important to remember that our attitude can make things far worse for everyone concerned, or that we can be a transforming influence. My experience suggests that a deliverance ministry is rarely appropriate. I believe that Christ can transform people whatever their need, but also that he often works through the challenges that face us (of which this is just one).

I have been amazed and blessed by the number of faithful, believing, transgendered people I have encountered down the years, from ministers and elders to ordinary church members. It seems to me that they are following successfully in the tradition of the Ethiopian in Acts 8.

(Version 2.2 September, 2000) St. Mark

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