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the weird clothing law

I have a lot of sympathy for those who have been wounded by insensitive and harsh treatment—especially from Christians. The last thing I want to do is to add more pain. So how do we interpret the weird law in Deuteronomy 22:5 that says, “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.” Is this about who gets to wear the pants?

This law is a good example of how archaeology can help. Christianity is a historical faith based on actual events. In this case, archaeological discoveries can enhance our understanding of the clothing worn by people in the Bible.

The ancient cemetery of Beni Hasan in Egypt reveals a distinctive clothing difference between the Hebrew people and the Egyptians. The two Egyptians wear the traditional white linen kilt; but the Hebrews are wearing colorful robes. The length of the men’s robes stopped at the knees; the length of the women’s robes came down close to their ankles. The men are wearing sandals while the women wearing fashionable short boots. No one is wearing pants!

On the famous obelisk of Shalmaneser III, we see Jehu, the king of Israel, bowing before the king of Assyria. Neither Jehu, the Assyrians, nor the Israelites are wearing pants. If everyone was wearing robes, what was the reason for “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”?

The word “abomination” occurs 117 times in the Old Testament. In the majority of cases, “abomination” is used to describe the behaviors associated with pagan, idolatrous practices that are abhorrent to God. Here’s one example: “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations” (Deut 18:9). OK, so we’re dealing with pagan practices.

Once again archaeology comes into play. The Canaanites were known for building “high places” to their gods, Baal and Asherah. These “high places” had an altar with rooms around it for “male cult prostitutes” (1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7) and “female cult prostitutes” (Hosea 4:14). Canaanite literature confirms that cultic prostitutes engaged in sexual acts with participants at the “high places” in order to elicit a response from Baal.

These cult prostitutes wore special garments that identified with Baal and Asherah—garments that would often disguise their gender. In 2 Kings 10:22, Jehu “said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, ‘Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Baal.’” Worshippers of Baal wore clothes that identified them as worshippers of Baal. At one point, the Israelite women were even sewing the special garments. Josiah “broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the Lord where the women wove hangings for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7). The exchange of gender roles in pagan cults was not uncommon in the Ancient Near East.

Deuteronomy 22:5 has nothing to do with “who wears the pants”! It’s really about idolatry. Idolatry always distorts God’s image, creating confusion for God’s image bearers. Instead of reflecting God’s image, idols can only reflect a confused, broken, distorted image. We must help each other to follow Jesus! Everyone is created in God’s image and deserves dignity and respect—no matter what identity issues they are facing. The good news of the gospel is that all of us are equally invited to be met and transformed by God’s tender loving grace in Christ Jesus.

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