Refinding Faith: Studying the Bible; Deuteronomy 22:5

Having established an anchor for my faith by reaffirming its core tenants, I began to look at specific passages of scripture that are often used either for or against any form of gender variance. If you’re not familiar with the challenges of biblical interpretation, don’t worry – you’re not alone.  (If you do have a grip on this, feel free to skip this part! You won’t hurt my feelings!) Here are the basics of what I look at when studying a specific passage.

1) Structure – I look for key words, sentence structure, imperatives (commands), verbs, etc

2) Language – once I’ve identified key words, I look them up in the original languages – either Greek or Hebrew. I’m nowhere near an expert on these languages; in fact I’m barely a student of them. Fortunately there are plenty of resources to help with this.

3) Context – this covers several areas

      a) Immediate – what is being discussed in the immediate verses and chapter

      b) Broad – what is being told in the larger work – i.e. that particular book of the Bible

      c) Universal – how does it fit in the whole of scripture (one key to this is cross referencing the words in other passages). 

      d) Cultural – what was going on in the world at the time.  Remember that the original text was written to people who had a certain understanding of life. For example, where we are predominantly a scientific culture (seeking answers), ancient Israel and the world around it was primarily a spiritual culture (accepting mystery).  Consequently our interpretation of certain ideas is going to be quite different.

It is in this process of interpretation that biases become extremely evident and, as diligent as I will attempt to be in uncovering the truth, I confess I’m not immune to my own mental slants. 

Deuteronomy 22:5

1 If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. 2 If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. 3 Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.
4 If you see your fellow Israelite’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help the owner get it to its feet.
5 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.
6 If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. 7 You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.
8 When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.
9 Do not plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard; if you do, not only the crops you plant but also the fruit of the vineyard will be defiled.
10 Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
11 Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.
12 Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.

I begin with this passage from the Mosaic law because it seems to be the “go to” text for anyone posing an argument against any form of gender variance and on the surface it appears to be a slam dunk. However, There are some interesting things that develop when we look at the language and the overall context of the passage and the Mosaic Law as a whole.

Language

There are three specific words in the passage that give some hint as to the purpose of the regulation. First, there are two words which are both translated “clothing.” The first refers to men’s clothing (pronounced Kel-ee). Most scholars agree that this actually referred to weapons and implements of war, in other words a Military uniform. The second is a different Hebrew word that refers to women’s clothes (pronounced Simlah). Many agree that in this context, this refers to suggestive or revealing clothing, or to be more specific, the clothing of a prostitute. These distinctions make even more sense when we consider that the everyday clothing of the time period would have been the same, or at least very similar for men and women: a basic, simple tunic. It should also be noted that verse 3 also uses Simlah, but specifically uses it in a masculine sense, further suggesting that there is a more specific context intended in verse 5. 

The third word is “detests” – some translations use “an abomination.” This is a Hebrew word (pronounced to-ay-bah) used almost exclusively to refer to God’s disdain for pagan ritual. In fact the word appears 16 times in Deuteronomy, all of which are addressing some sort of religious practice, ritual or transaction. Much of the Old Testament law focuses on three things: 1) maintaining physical health 2) promotion good relations between people and 3) protecting the relationship between God and His people. Many of the ritualistic practices of the day used cross-dressing in the worship of their gods, specifically when addressing issues of fertility. While there is no way to be certain, it is a likely interpretation that participation in these rituals is where this prohibition was focused.

Context

Many of the regulations in the Mosaic Law are grouped into categories. (The headers of some of our modern translations make these easy to recognize.) This particular group containing Deuteronomy 22:1-12 has no apparent structure or direction, making it even more difficult to say specifically what the context of the prohibition might have been.

In the overall context of understanding scripture, we need to address our relationship to Mosaic Law in light of our relationship with God in Christ. While we are by no means free to behave as ever we wish without consequence, a quick perusal of the laws suggests that we are picking and choosing those we find relevant, possibly, I suggest, based on the comfort level within our culture. We are not that concerned with whether or not we have a rail on our roof (22:8), or that we are wearing a cotton-poly blend (22:11). I have not seen a tassel on a garment outside of a rodeo parade (and then it was way more than four!) (22:12) and I dare say most men would be grateful that we long ago gave up the practice of stoning rebellious sons to death (21:21).

Many of these laws were created for a practical purpose – if you are going to have a lot of people on your roof, as they did in that time, a rail is a pretty good idea. But some were specific to a time and culture that has long since passed and to a religious premise that was rendered needless by the cross of Christ. 

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