A Developmental Approach to Understanding the Bible
Excerpt from Transgender Good News: Chapter Nine
(An exemplification of a developmental approach to understanding the Bible.)
The rule against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 is part of a long list of rules. Following are several of the other rules in this particular list:
- . If you find a bird's nest, you must let the mother bird go free and take only the young birds.
- When you build a new house, you must build a parapet to avoid the guilt of bloodshed if anyone falls off your roof.
- . You shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.
- . You shall not wear clothes with two kinds of yarn in them.
- You shall not make twisted tassels of the four corners of your cloak. (I'm doing pretty well with this one.)
There are a lot of rules in the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy). Some are good safety rules, like the building code for roofs. Others of the rules could be read as fashion statements of that day and time. All readers bring interpretive principles to the Bible, and one result is that it is common to give more weight to some rules than others. Sadly, most Christians dismiss most of the rules in the Torah as irrelevant expressions of a different culture that carry no saving truth. Fundamentalist interpreters, and those who call themselves biblical literalists, are selectively dismissive as well.
One positive way for Christians to work with the rules in the Torah is to see them as small pictures of Hebrew culture as that culture evolved over two thousand years. For example, the rule of an eye for an eye moderates the escalation of violence that is part of blood feuds. In turn, Jesus takes this concern a step further when he urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies.
In the case of Deuteronomy 22:5, we learn that at least one writer thought it was important to write a rule against cross-dressing. One learning from this fact is that there was apparently enough cross-dressing that someone felt a need to make a rule against it. Many of the rules in Hebrew Scripture, especially the rules related to fashion and eating, seem aimed at creating a distinctive cultural appearance and practice so that those standing in the tradition of Moses could be distinguished at a glance. This felt need to distinguish the Hebrew people leads to some of the harshest stories in Hebrew Scripture: genocide, slavery, treachery, rape, divorce of foreign wives and war after war after war. In this context, the rules of appearance don't seem so trivial.
The felt need to be a distinct people becomes visible in the varied circumstances that influence different books of Hebrew Scripture: escape from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, guerrilla warfare, a time of judges and then kings, of empire and dissolution, of diaspora and periodic regathering. The function of law as it relates to culture is very different when the context is competing tribes, empire, and learning to serve God when your culture is oppressed. The diverse challenges faced by the Hebrew people forced them to repeatedly reconsider the meaning of their laws and how they can best be followed. In such rethinking we get to see another of the major themes of Hebrew Scripture, the quest for what is universal in God's revelation, true in all circumstances. The Hebrew people lived in a creative dialectic, trying to remain distinct while also trying to serve a non-parochial God. Any specific expression of the law in Hebrew Scripture deserves to be evaluated in this dialectic context. The ongoingness of this dialectic as it relates to appearance and gender standards is visible in our day in the contrasts between Orthodox and Reform Jews.
Traditional Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5 is that it is a rule against homosexuality rather than transgender expression, probably specific opposition to the cult prostitutes (kadesh) mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:18 as a foreign influence on temple worship. There is debate about who the kadesh (or qaddesh) were, but, whatever the original meaning of this passage, it seems reasonable to understand its later importance as part of the strong patriarchal theme in Jewish culture, which separated the lives of men and women and limited women's education and participation in ritual practices.
In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were taking paths that emphasized cultural distinctness in the midst of the Roman Empire. Jesus, in sharp distinction, challenged the cultural laws of Judaism that had no saving power. Jesus continuously placed himself in opposition to the distractions of the purity laws. One example is found in Luke 11:37-42.
When he had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to a meal, and he came in and sat down. The Pharisee noticed with surprise that he had not begun by washing before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "You Pharisees clean the outside of cup and plate; but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside too? But let what is inside be given in charity, and all is clean. Alas for you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and rue and every garden herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. It is these you should have practiced, without overlooking the others.
Some may point out that the Luke 11 passage is about eating rather than cross-dressing. True, but the Luke 11 passage is a far stronger rejection of the purity laws in the Torah than would be found in a remark about cross-dressing. The Torah is loaded with rules about eating whereas only Deuteronomy 22:5 refers to cross-dressing. Instead of appearance, Jesus emphasizes intent. Such a radical position contributed to the enmity that hastened his death. Following Jesus, I suggest that the core ethical standard for assessing transgender experience and expression is whether it expresses Christian virtues.
For the context of this excerpt, or for a broader engagement with my theological work related to transgender experience and expression, click on Transgender Good News