Who Wears the Pants around Here? Part III


A Biblical Exegetical Solution

After having surveyed the broad span of history as it relates to trousers, it is useful to establish any conclusions we will make in the terms of the original command itself and its context. It is a common error to scan human history and formulate doctrine on that basis alone. Whatever the Bible means to us today, it only does so as an application of what it meant to the original, intended audience and author. Let’s begin with the dress culture of the people to whom the command was originally pronoucned.

Dressing in Their Day

But what was the distinction in dress between men and women in the days of Moses? It is generally accepted from extant evidence that men and women’s clothing did not differ a great deal. As Adam Clarke noted, “the dress of the sexes had but little to distinguish it”. Damsgeet and Jemison offer useful information about the dress culture of that era.

They note a famous depiction of men and women wearing long tunic or undergarments. The women’s tunics were slightly longer, going below their knees and reaching a little further up their necks. Their tunics were also more colorful and stylish.

On the outer garment they provide the following useful description:

The outer garment was a robe or more commonly a mantle, similar to a modern shawl, that was wrapped around the body. The outer robe was worn on special occasions (1 Chronicles 12:27; 1 Sam 15:27; 24:4, 11)… There does not seem to have been a substantial difference between the outer garments worn by men and women.”

As Angel Manuel Rodriguez suggests, authorities on this subject generally agree that male and female attire was much the same, with the major differences being the brighter colors and intricate embroidery in female style of the outer garment.

It is clear from the context of the text that God’s concern was not so much that men and women’s clothing should not resemble each other, because clearly they did. Rather, the concern was that of order and a respect for existing gender distinctions. These distinctions were supported by their respective clothing styles, no matter how similar they appeared. Similarly, male and female trousers can and should maintain the gender distinctions in our day.

You will notice that our discussion on trousers in modern context is set in very similar terms. As men and women’s clothing was similar in Moses’ day, so are men and women’s trousers today.

What would certainly be wrong would be for a man to wear woman’s jeans, or for a woman to wear a man’s suit. But women may wear women’s suits and not contravene the command as far as the text is concerned, or indeed the trend of contemporary business culture.

The Language of the Command

We will examine the key phrases necessary for understanding the meaning of the text. For our analysis it is useful to restate the command:

“A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 22:5, NKJV

“That Which Pertains”

The first part of the command presents the more difficult work. The phrase “that pertains”, rendered “that which pertaineth” in the King James Version and “men’s clothing” in the New Inernational Version and the Bible in Basic English, is a translation of the Hebrew word “ke-liy” (spelled this way to aid pronunciation). Strong’s Exhaustive concordance defines it at that which is finished, prepared or made, since it derives from the verb kalah, which means “to be done”, “finish”, “fulfill” or “bring to pass”. The word is used in various forms 325 times in the Old Testament and is variously translated as item, vessel, article, armor, baggage, stuff, load, clothing, utensil, weapon, tool, thing, furnishing, and several others.

To a Man

The word translated “to a man” results from a construct relation between keliy and geber, the word used for man. In Heberw, construct forms are used to represent the “of” relationship in English. So keliy-geber simply means “item of a man” or “clothing of a man”, depending on how one chooses to translate keliy.

Because of this construction in Hebrew text, it is not very useful to dwell on etymologies of the English word “pertain” or “belong”. Those are only translational choices made to reflect the x-of-y Hebrew construction.

Geber itself is not the standard word for man in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word “eesh” (again, so spelled to aid pronunciation) is used for man 2006 times, compared with only 65 occurrences of geber. In most instances where geber is used, the context denotes might or manly strength, as with warriors or rulers. It derives from the verb gabar, meaning “to be ‘strong’ or ‘mighty’”. It sometimes also refers simply to a person.

“Shall Not Wear”

The phrase “shall not wear” derives from a negation of the verb hayah, which means “to be” or “to become”, rather than from any Hebrew word actually meaning “to wear” or “put on”. Again, choices in translation come in. The negative construction – using the Hebrew “lo” for “not” – is typical of the prohibitive command form.

We now have the pieces necessary to see how the first part actually reads:

There shall not be that of a man on a woman

Taken on their own then, one possibly valid interpretation of this first part is that women were not to wear the armor or weapons of male warriors. For example, one commentary that is supportive of transgenderism has translated this text as:

“Never cause or force a warriors weapon to be used by a woman or weak person; neither dress warriors armor on a woman or weak person for to Yahweh, God of Host, disgusting is such that do so.”[1]

This translation certainly goes well beyond the bounds of translational prudence. It ignores the clear use of “garments” in the second part of the command, and adds “or a weak person”, a phrase which is not present in the Hebrew text. But it does echo an old and established opinion that there may be more involved in the command than clothing.

For example, Adam Clarke notes that within the cultural context of pagan worship, Moses was prohibiting Israelites from participating in militaristic cross-dressing rituals associated with Canaanite pagan rites. He translates keliy-geber as “the instruments of a man”, noting:

“As the word geber is here used, which properly signifies a strong man or man of war, it is very probable that armor 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 armor before her.”

He further observes that

“It certainly cannot mean a simple change in dress, whereby the men might pass for women, and vice versa. This would have been impossible in those countries where the dress of the sexes had but little to distinguish it, and where every man wore a long beard.”

Beyond armor, interpreters have also noted the possible religious dimension. Raymond Brown, former principal of Spurgeon’s College observes that

“there are two likely reasons for the uncompromising prohibition. First, there was probably a serious moral issue at stake here. Sexual promiscuity was rife in Canaan, and transvestite practices were part of the corrupt and immoral context of the land… This prohibition is a warning to the Hebrew people not to identify with the degrading sexual…practices of the Canaanites. … Secondly it is also likely that there were religious reasons for this regulation. Some pagan religions …demanded that men and women exchange their clothing as part of their fertility rites.”

Raymond Brown

The International Bible Commentary also notes the interplay of religious as well as general moral regulation:

“Within living memory, this verse has been cited against the wearing of trousers by women; yet there has been no corresponding refusal to wear rayon/cotton or terylene/worsted mixtures (see Deut. 22:11). The practice referred to may have been thought to have magical effects. There is certainly evidence of transvestism and simulated sexual inversion being associated in the ancient world (as well as today) with sexual license — and in a religious context.”

While the focus on weaponry then is a legitimate angle, from which an interpretation can be made, there is enough evidence to believe that the force of the command goes beyond weapons and warriors (ke-liy) or mighty men (geber). It concerned the moral and religious propriety of dressing among all members of the community.

In the immediate context (21 – ), Moses was declaring various laws governing social and civil life. He covers property rights, respect for elders, capital offenses and punishment, care for the property of one’s neighbors, safety regulations for buildings, agricultural practices, dress codes and more. The context is typical and everyday mundane. It is likely then that geber refers to any man at all, and that keliy refers to any item that can be worn on the body.

As Angel Manuel of the Biblical Research Institute has observed,

“Most commentators interpret this legislation in terms of the practice of transvestism among non-lsraelites… More clear evidence for ritual transvestism is found in the cult of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. It was believed that a ritual change of sex occurred by exchanging clothes, and on occasion emasculation may have been practiced.”


“A Woman’s Garment”

Thankfully the second part of the command uses more specific and common terms and is therefore much easier to render:

Neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.

The phrase translated “woman’s garment” is “simlah-eeshah”. It is also a construct relationship. The first word is “simlah”, which refers to “a large outer garment” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon), or a mantle (Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance, 8071). The NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries calls it a “wrapper”.

The second word means “woman”. Literally, then, the phrase is “mantle of a woman”.

The second part of the command then, recognizes the small but significant differences between the men’s and women’s outer garments as markers of gender. As we have seen, women’s simlahs were more expressive, more colorful. It would be off to see a man dressed so colourfully. Since their overall costume was so similarly, men were to appear as men by the plainer, duller colour of their outer garments or wrappers.

Does this sound familiar within modern context? We could say, for example, men and women’s clothing, including trousers, may appear very similar. However, there are small but significant differences. Men should not wear trousers that are shaped for women’s bodies, nor vice versa.

Again, we see that the grammatical analysis supports the context: it is not about resemblance per se, but about distinguishability. Two things can look alike but still be distinguishable from one another. This is the force of the command both grammatically and contextually.

Conclusion: To wear or not to wear?

Throughout this three part series we have been able to establish a number of helpful facts:

  1. The Bible does not say which clothes pertain to men and which pertain to women. It certainly never mentions trousers.
  2. Society determines what clothes are worn by the sexes.
  3. This definition changes constantly over time. Sometimes there are regressions into old fashion styles, but most of the time changes are new. This is what is called fashion.
  4. Deuteronomy 22:5 is a reminder to society that fashion must always maintain a distinguishing difference between the clothing styles of the sexes. But it does not tell society what to make for each sex.
  5. The Spirit of Prophecy does not forbid the wearing of trousers by women. In fact, it encourages it within the limits of personal freedom of choice, modesty and respect for gender distinction. Recall that it was a part of the Reform Dress that was later taken to extremes by feminists. Ellen White however maintained:

We recommend the reform dress to all. We urge it upon none. When Christian women see the wrongs of the fashionable style, and the benefits of ours, and put it on from a sense of duty, and have the moral courage to wear it anywhere and everywhere, then will they feel at home in it, and enjoy a satisfaction and blessing in trying to do right.”

Ellen G. White. The Dress Reform, pp. 13, 14

She adds the caution:

“But those who adopt the reform dress should ever bear in mind the fact that the power of fashion is terrible; and that in meeting this tyrant, they need wisdom, humility, and patience…”

Ellen G. White. The Dress Reform, p. 14

We conclude then that the Bible upholds physical, social and spiritual differences between men and women (these are not our subject today), and that we should always behave in a manner that upholds these differences. The Spirit of Prophecy supports this view. This includes the way we dress, but also the way we relate with one another especially in the home.

Secondly, beyond upholding gender categories, we must all be mindful – men and women alike – to dress in such a manner as becomes children of a holy God, with fear and trembling, not being a stumbling-block to others, but supporting and edifying one another even by our appearance.

It is not too little a service to render to our Lord.


[1]  Reparative Therapy of The Transgendered. Retrieved from: http://www.gendertree.com/Reparative_Therapy.htm

[2] Deuteronomy 22:5. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez. Retrieved from https://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-ot-texts/deuteronomy-225

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.
  • Uriah Karikari

    not very convinced. There’s a part of me that feels there’s something missing, I don’t know what but I know it’s not been touched or mentioned. When I finally get hold of it, I’ll not hesitate. A statement that I however find it difficult coming to terms with, though not the focus of this discussion is; ‘ Society determines what clothes are worn by the sexes.’ Per the discussion, women’s garment were brighter, more colorful as compared with men’s. men or women who wear either clothing was associated with spiritism. Now with all the fashion, should society decide that, health, lifestyle and liberation, men should now wear skirt as the new trend, should it be agreed? Society has introduced distinctive women fashion which the church (Adventist church) and even some other churches frown upon. If it’s ok to follow societal trends why the fashion discrimination? Then it was the use of color, now we are using shapes…hmmm. what is the thin line between culture, society and religion? Is culture and society always right? Your answer to this question will be a probable no.

    • Agana Agana-Nsiire

      I hear you. One would hope your disagreement is based on more than gut feeling. FYI, in Scotland, men wear skirts called kilts. In India they wear skirts called dhoti. Often what makes us uncomfortable with culture is that we do not expose ourselves to other cultures. We grow accustomed to what we know and come to think it is right simply because it is what is natural to us. We must always force ourselves to keep an open mind to other ways of life.