RuPaul and the Clarity of Scripture

I’m confused. Let my children and former students echo a mighty “Amen.” I’m confused these days by statements that speak of “clear Biblical teaching” about same-sex attraction (and related LGBTQ issues). To speak of my field of study (Old Testament), I find that the text is simply not as straightforward as it might first appear. Previously, in the post The Sin of Sodom? or America?” I attempted to demonstrate this lack of simplicity by examining Genesis 19 (the episode at Sodom) through the eyes of ancient Israel via other O.T. texts. The result was both startling and convicting. According to the prophets, the problem at Sodom was a failure to seek justice and defend the poor and needy. Instead of helping, they oppressed those without access to power: “Might makes right” for those living in Sodom. Or, to put a clearer lens on the issue: Sodom “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Jer. 16:49). What we may see when we read the text is not how Israel read the text: what we may identify as the obvious issue, they don’t appear to notice.[1]

Deuteronomy provides a second example that contributes to my confusion. The text reads:

    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. (22:5 NIV)

If we know his name, this verse might make us think of RuPaul dressed in fish-net stockings, short skirt, low-cut blouse with maybe a hint of cleavage and ample breasts, high heels, lip stick, eye-shadow, dangling ear rings, and a wig. In other words, a man dressed in women’s clothing. If not Rue Paul, we might think of Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie (1982), or Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Or we might turn to movies such as To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995, with Patrick Swayze as “Vida,” Wesley Snipes as “Noxeema,” and John Leguizamo as “Chi-Chi”) and The Birdcage (1996, with Nathan Lane as “Starina”). Or turning the clock back further, numerous productions have featured men in women’s clothing: from ancient Greek and Shakespearian theatre in which men played all the male and female roles, Ricky and Fred in an episode or two of I Love Lucy, the musical South Pacific, and the popular Texas play The Greater Tuna. On stage, most appear to rescind or lift the “clear teaching” of Deuteronomy 22 (though not everyone agrees).

Off stage, is the text still really all that simple? After all, no men (or women) looked like Rue Paul in ancient Israel. And awareness of even the recent history of interpretation suggests things might be a little more complicated than they first appear. After all, who wears the pants in your family? I remember when this verse was part of a hot discussion about women wearing pants to church in the 1970’s. Then, the practice found acceptance as long as women wore “pant suits” (isn’t that odd?) or anything but blue jeans (which women wore elsewhere). And speaking of elsewhere, we can be sure that Deuteronomy was part of the discussion back when women began to wear pants elsewhere (except church). In less than one hundred years, little by little our understanding of the text has changed.

So, I wonder if it’s possible for us hear what those originally reading or hearing this text heard? Would this clear my confusion? If so, naturally we must begin with a closer look at the text itself. The NIV (above) as well as CEB, NLT, NASB, and the Message translate the first two lines as identical parallel statements: a woman must not wear men’s clothing and a man must not wear women’s clothing. The underlying Hebrew, however, is not the same in each line. First, while the general term for a woman (ishah) appears in both lines, the opposite term for a man or male (ish; cf. Gen. 2:23) does not appear. Instead, we find the term geber which generally denotes strength, thus: a strong man, powerful man, grown man, a real man (as we might say it), or often a warrior (Judg. 5:30).

Second, the term for “clothing” also differs. While the second line forbids the man from wearing women’s simlat (literally, clothing), the first line forbids the woman from wearing men’s keli (literally, gear, baggage, equipment for war, implement for hunting, weapons, or stuff).[2] For these reasons, some English versions translate the first line as “a man’s apparel” (NRSV, NJPS) or “that which pertaineth to a man” (KJV, ASV).

Given these differences in the Hebrew, it seems a bit misleading to translate the phrases identically, especially in our culture when we are apt to get the wrong idea. Even worse is the translation of the CEV: “Women must not pretend to be men, and men must not pretend to be women.” If the writer had wanted to say this, he could have done so, just as the writer could have used identical parallel phrases, but didn’t.

My questions about the text are easy to ask but difficult to answer: What’s the meaning of the first line with its special vocabulary for men and their stuff? And what’s the idea of the second line with its typical words for women and their clothing? Why the difference between the two lines and what is the significance of this difference? I’d love to stop and answer these questions, if I knew the answers. But I don’t, at least not yet. Before we race ahead of ourselves with quick answers, we need to put more information on the table, a lot more information. So despite the problem with “to be continued” blog posts, if we’re to understand Deuteronomy 22:5 we must continue a little later—and fair warning: I can’t promise that we’re going arrive at “clear Biblical teaching.” Maybe we will, maybe we won’t; I may be fated to live by faith with a little (or a lot of) confusion.

 

Notes:

[1] I deliberately bracket out the N.T. (and later writers) so that we can hear the text as ancient Israel originally heard and understood it. How N.T. writers interpreted and used the O.T. another set of issues, perhaps for another day.

[2] Hebrew dictionaries that include the meaning “clothing” for keli refer to Deut. 22:5 for support.

Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.

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Author:  Publish Date: March 19, 2018

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
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Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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