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Does the Bible Say It's a Sin for Women to Wear Pants?

The Truth About Deuteronomy 22:5


by Jason Young



“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”  This verse -- Deuteronomy 22:5 -- is one of the most commonly quoted and debated verses in the Old Testament. 

Some Christians have taken this verse to mean that Christian women shouldn’t wear pants, arguing that pants are that which “pertaineth unto a man.” Many sincere and honest Christians have grappled with this issue, wanting to be pleasing to God. This teaching, as with all teachings regarding the scriptures, needs to be carefully examined. It is just as much an error to teach something that the scriptures don’t say as it is to ignore what the scriptures do say.

The teaching that it is wrong for Christian women to wear pants is based upon the following beliefs:

1) Deut 22:5 teaches that women should not wear that which pertains unto a man.

2) Pants pertain to a man because they were not only exclusively invented for men, but they also have historically been worn only by men.

3) The Bible teaches separation of the sexes and since there is so little distinction between men’s and women’s pants, they are essentially unisex and therefore do not provide adequate separation.

The first assertion, which states that Deuteronomy specifically forbids the wearing of “that which pertaineth unto a man,” deserves careful study. As with the study of any scripture, it is important to read the passage in context and examine the relevant words and their meanings in the original text. A reputable Bible dictionary or lexicon can be an invaluable aid.  

The phrase “that which pertaineth,” or simply the word pertaineth in the King James Version of the Bible, is translated from the Hebrew word keliy, which means “article, vessel, implement, or utensil.”1 Translators commonly render keliy as weapon, armor or instrument in the Old Testament.  The word man, in both the first and last part of Deut 22:5, is the Hebrew word geber meaning “man, strong man, or warrior (emphasizing strength or ability to fight).”2 It is important to note that this is not the only word for man in Hebrew. Verse 13 of this very same chapter uses the Hebrew word 'iysh, which is also translated  man and means just that – “man, male (in contrast to woman, female).”3  It is apparent that Moses, when writing Deut 22:5, was quite intentionally not talking about a man in general, but a very specific kind of man – namely, a warrior or soldier. Considering this, perhaps a better translation of this verse would be as follows:

“The woman shall not put on [the weapons/armor of a warrior], neither shall a [warrior] put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”

Many scholars agree with this translation. Adam Clark, commenting on Deuteronomy, states,

As the word...geber is here used, which properly signifies a strong man or man of war, it is very probable that armour  is here intended; especially as we know that in the worship of Venus, to which that of Astarte or Ashtaroth among the Canaanites bore a striking resemblance, the women were accustomed to appear in armour before her.4

John Gill in his Exposition of the Entire Bible sees a similar meaning in 22:5:

“...and the word [keliy] also signifies armour, as Onkelos renders it; and so here forbids women putting on a military habit and going with men to war, as was usual with the eastern women; and so Maimonides illustrates it, by putting a mitre or an helmet on her head, and clothing herself with a coat of mail; and in like manner Josephus explains it, 'take heed, especially in war, that a woman do not make use of the habit of a man, or a man that of a woman...'” (sic) 5

Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism writes in an excerpt from an article entitled “Cross Dressing and Deuteronomy 22:5,”

“In another attempt to identify the quintessential 'men's items,' Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob, quoted in the Talmud (edited about 800 C.E.), says, ‘What is the proof that a woman may not go forth with weapons to war?’ He then cites our verse [Deuteronomy 22:5], which he reads this way: ‘A warrior's gear may not be put on a woman’ (B. Naz. 59a). He reads kli gever [geber] as the homograph kli gibbor, meaning a ‘warrior's gear’.” 

Rabbi Tilsen further states, 

“This same understanding is followed by Midrash Mishlei (Proverbs) which contends that the Biblical character Yael in the Book of Judges kills General Sisera with a tent pin instead of a sword in order to comply with this law. It would have been 'unlady-like' for her to use a sword -- worse, a violation of the law -- because a sword is a man's tool...” 

Considering the sheer specificity of Deut 22:5 and the precise nature of those things that are forbidden, Deut 22:5 is most likely ceremonial law rather than moral law, which would mean that it would have little, if any, implications for Christians today. Many believe, however, that this verse still applies to us today because this verse states that violators of this law are an abomination to God and that which was an abomination to God in the Old Testament would also be an abomination to God in the New Testament. However, the usage of the word abomination in Deut 22:5 does not necessarily make it a timeless moral law because any violation of God’s mandates is an abomination to Him, whether it is a violation of ceremonial law or moral law. Furthermore, Deut 22:5 is placed squarely in the middle of, and is completely surrounded by, ceremonial laws. If it is indeed a principle to be literally followed today, why would God choose to bury this verse in the middle of what are clearly ceremonial laws?

The second argument against Christian women wearing pants is that pants have historically been worn by and associated with men and are therefore men’s clothing. One problem with this view is that it is not a consistently applied principle among those that advocate it. Many of the articles of clothing have histories of originating with a certain sex. Consider t-shirts – these too were invented for men and originally worn exclusively by men. The t-shirt was introduced to America during WWI when American soldiers noticed European soldiers wearing them. By WWII, the t-shirt became standard issue in the American military and was quickly introduced into American fashion.6 Not only were t-shirts originally invented for men, but they were invented specifically for the military. Considering this in light of the true meaning of Deut 22:5, which seems to be forbidding women from wearing the habiliments of a soldier, it would logically follow that a woman wearing a t-shirt would be in much greater violation of this verse than a woman wearing pants. Furthermore, there is no distinction between men’s and women’s t-shirts.

If clothing history is the sole determining factor of what constitutes clothing that pertains to a man, then t-shirts must be forbidden as well if consistency is to be maintained. It would seem that in practice, however, those that teach that it is a sin for women to wear pants seem to believe that clothing distinctions only apply to what is worn on the legs while ignoring the obvious about other types of clothing commonly worn by women. In order for the teaching to be consistent, the very reasons cited for prohibiting women from wearing pants would also prohibit women from wearing t-shirts, baseball caps, team jerseys, work boots and any other article of clothing historically worn by men. Taking the concept even further, what of the color pink or blue? Should women also be forbidden to wear blue, or should men forbidden to wear pink, as these colors have historically been associated with the opposite sex? How far should this concept be taken?

Finally, the third argument, which states that God requires a distinction between men’s and women’s clothing and that pants provide little if any distinction, must also be weighed in light of the scriptures. The scriptures, as with most matters, provide a wealth of information on this issue as well.

It is curious how those that forbid pants on women, based on their idea of separation, never seem to consider the clothing norms in the Bible. Even the most basic study into biblical clothing norms reveals that there was very little distinction between the articles of clothing worn by men and women. 

In Genesis, we find the first accounts of clothing mentioned in the Bible. First, we find that upon recognizing their nakedness, Adam and Eve sewed garments of fig leaves together to cover themselves (Gen 3:7). This is an interesting account in that we find humans attempting to clothe themselves, but obviously God was not pleased with their choices, as later we find that God made new clothes for them. Gen 3:21 records that God made “coats of skin” for them to wear. The word coats in this verse is the Hebrew word kethoneth and means “a long shirt-like garment.”7 Interestingly, Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, chose the exact same word to describe the specific type of clothing that God made for both Adam and Eve. Where is the distinction here? If God chose to make so little distinction between a man’s and woman’s clothes that a single word can describe the specific clothing worn both by Adam and Eve, then who are we to require a greater distinction?

Later, throughout the Old and New Testament, common dress consisted of two separate pieces. In the Old Testament, the first part of the Jewish costume was still the kethoneth such as was worn by Adam and Eve. In the New Testament, this garment is called chiton in the Greek and is often translated as coat in the King James Version Bible. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the kethoneth/chiton was, 

“…a long-sleeved tunic worn over the sadhin, likewise a shirt with sleeves... Here the ‘coat’ (Hebrew ‘KThohneth) was the ordinary “inner garment ‘worn by the Jew of the day, in which he did the work of the day (see Mt 24:18; Mk 13:16). It resembled the Roman tunic, corresponding most nearly to our ‘long shirt,’ reaching below the knees always, and in case it was designed for dress occasions, reaching almost to the ground.” 8 

Easton’s Bible Dictionary states that this basic garment was worn by both men and women: 

“The ‘coat’ (kethoneth), of wool, cotton, or linen, was worn by both sexes.”

Easton’s further states that, 

“The robes of men and women were not very much different in form from each other.” 9

The second part of the common Jewish costume was the “outer garment.” Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the outer garment varied in size, shape and purpose. It is given various names (both in the original Hebrew and in translation) and is used in a variety of ways. This outer garment was commonly used to cover the head of both men and women (cf. Ruth 3:15, 2 Sam 15:30) and was also commonly wrapped around the shoulders (cf. Isa 3:22). While the outer garment served many purposes and was at times used in different ways by men and women, the way it was used was not consistent with either sex.  The garment itself does not appear to have been made functionally different to any significant degree, and the distinctions between the male and female outer garments were merely stylistic (i.e. color, trim, size, etc.).

In light of the ample information we have on male and female garments in the Bible, it is hard to justify the radical distinction between men’s and women’s clothing required by Christians that forbid women from wearing pants. There is no evidence that such a radical distinction existed in biblical times. While there was a difference in men’s and women’s clothing in the scriptures, these differences were merely stylistic and not functional differences. The differences were only found in color, trim, size, etc. and not in the actual form or function of the clothing as is seen in pants and skirts or dresses. The differences between men’s and women’s pants today are as great as the differences between men’s and women’s garments in the Bible. Essentially, Christians today that forbid women from wearing pants demand a difference in form and function in men’s and women’s clothing, whereas the Bible only records a stylistic difference. This amounts to adding to God’s Word and placing requirements on our sisters in the Lord that the Bible does not support.

Many that forbid women to wear pants argue that if it is acceptable for women to wear pants, then it should be acceptable for a man to wear a dress or a skirt. This is a valid point. However, there is no inherent sin in a man putting on a skirt-like garment, which is a common practice in some cultures around the world just as it was in the Bible. The error would be in the fact that a man wearing a skirt in modern American society would be deemed as counter-culture to the very people we, as Christians, are trying to be examples to -- namely unbelievers. However, women wearing pants is hardly counter-culture. While there was once a time in our society when a woman in pants would have been viewed negatively by society, such is not the case today. Is that because society’s morals have declined, and it no longer sees women in pants as the sin that it is? Of course not, it is merely a change in fashion. Just because society had a particular view in the past, does not mean that such a view was inherently more moral. Ford once made only black cars and refused to make any other color. Today, Fords come in every color under the sun. Was that the result of some sort of moral backsliding? No, it is just that society's tastes have changed. In Renaissance Europe, silk hosiery were considered appropriate attire for men, yet today they are deemed as feminine. Changes in style and fashion aren’t inherently sinful and most of the time only reflect a change in taste. Women’s pants are no different. Women did not start wearing pants as a means of rebellion or to be more “manly” but because they were more comfortable and functional. Fashion has been moving in the direction of more function and less style for well over a century now. This is evidenced most recently by the fact that suits and ties are much less common in the workplace now, having been replaced by khakis and button-up shirts. Does that signal some moral decline? Absolutely not -- it only reflects a trend in fashion for more basic and functional clothing just as women’s fashions did in moving toward pants. It is important that we do not have a knee-jerk reaction to every change in fashion. Clearly, some are indicative of moral decline, but many are not. As with everything, changes in fashion must be weighed against biblical truths to make the determination.

In short, the issue of clothing must always be carefully, thoughtfully and honestly studied from a scriptural perspective while allowing the scriptures to be the ultimate authority on such issues. A thorough study into the clothing norms of the Bible reveals that there was no distinction between men’s and women’s clothing in the Bible beyond stylistic differences such as trim, color and size. In fact, God Himself made clothing for Adam and Eve that was so similar that one word (kethoneth) could describe the specific garment he made for each of them. This same word describes the clothing worn by Godly men and women throughout the Bible from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Yet today, many Christians demand much more than even the Bible did by requiring not only a difference in style but a difference in function and form as well. If God makes no such clothing demands on His people, then who are we to make them? Do we know better than God?

 

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Bibliography:

1 - Brown, Driver, Briggs and Gesenius. "Hebrew Lexicon entry for Keliy" ( Strong's # 3627). "The KJV Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon".

2 - Ibid. "Hebrew Lexicon entry for Geber". Strong's # 1397.

3 - Ibid. "Hebrew Lexicon entry for 'iysh."
Strong's # 397.

4- Clark, Adam. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 22:5".  "Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible".

5 - Gill, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 22:5". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". 

6 - "History of the American T-Shirt." http:// www.t-shirtking.com

7 - Brown, Driver, Briggs and Gesenius. "Hebrew Lexicon entry for Kethoneth" (Strong's # 3801). "The KJV Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon".

8 - Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'DRESS'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.

9 - Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Dress". "Easton's Bible Dictionary". Third Edition. Thomas Nelson, 1897.

 

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