God created Adam and Eve with natural, physical gender distinctions. Later, after they sinned, He clothed them. At least in some measure, their gender-specific attributes would now be covered. Could it be that the clothing was intended to show gender distinction?.
Men’s Clothing vs. Women’s Clothing
I can only think if one verse that addresses gender-specific clothing. It’s found in Deut. 22:5.
Deut. 22:5 – “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God. ” (NASB)
At first reading, it does seem that clothing can be used for gender distinction. However, this is worth a closer look. Let me make some observations:
- The Bible never ever defines what “man’s clothing” is so as to distinguish it from “women’s clothing.”
- Such stylistic ideas are culturally invented.
- At the time this was written, the typical clothing for men AND women was essentially the same! They wore a simple tunic, and perhaps an outer garment like a robe. Headwear was the same and so was footwear.
- Pants/shirts/dresses/etc. were not in the picture at all, and so they cannot be what the passage is talking about.
- This passage must be interpreted in light of the clear Scriptural truth that while “man looks on the outward appearance, God looks upon the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)
- If such a thing is truly an “abomination” to the Lord, then it must be that there is something about this law that reveals the heart.
- If we stop at the surface understanding that God is saying that people must conform to cultural norms for gender-distinct clothing, we are elevating cultural conventions to moral absolute. This simply cannot be the force of this passage.
These observations by themselves should give us pause before we conclude that clothing is to be a means of gender distinction. But if we look closer at the meaning of the Hebrew terms behind the English text, that interpretation becomes even more unlikely.
Is it Really Clothing God is Talking About?
Let’s look more closely at the words God used here:
“A woman shall not wear man’s clothing…”
The word translated “clothing” here is the Hebrew word, kelē. A review of how this word is used reveals that even though it is found in the OT over 300 times, it is never translated “clothing” except here! The most common word used is “vessel” (122 times). Also used are these words: “instrument” (39), “weapon” (21), & “jewel” (21).
So is it really clothing? Or could the passage actually be intended to forbid a woman from taking up the role of a man, along with the items a man uses to fulfill that role?
Perhaps the King James Version is actually more accurate here: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man….” It’s not just about wearing men’s styles in clothing, it’s about assuming the place of a man.
This understanding finds corroboration in the New Testament in Paul’s words to Timothy:
1 Tim. 2:12 – “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (NASB)
But what about the next part of the verse?
“…nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing…”
The word translated “clothing” here does refer to a garment of some sort. But again, can we conclude from this phrase that some kinds (or styles) of garments are truly gender-aligned?
Is there any sort of garment described in the Bible as a “woman’s” garment? I don’t think there is. If God never defines what a “woman’s garment” is, how can we possibly know how to follow this command? Once again, we dare not elevate cultural norms to the level of moral absolute.
May I suggest that there is one type of garment that would be identifiable as “woman’s clothing”? It is the one which she uses to catch the flow of blood during her menstrual cycle. There are no other laws in the Bible about any gender-identified clothing, but there are plenty that regulate the response to a women’s period. Lev. 15:19-24 make it clear that she is to be considered ritually “unclean” during her flow. Furthermore, her bed and anything she sits on are likewise unclean. Finally, anyone else who touches anything that she has made unclean is also considered unclean.
In other words, it is possible that the “woman’s clothing” that Deut. 22:5 refers to is actually her menstrual cloth. This would be identifiable in any culture or time, and it is consistent with the fact that there are other laws which govern a woman’s menstrual cycle.
What the Passage May Really Mean…
If we take the passage to mean what it sounds like on the surface, we are faced with a HUGE gap in our knowledge of exactly what God is referring to… what kind of clothes are to be identified as gender-specific? We simply don’t know.
Based on my discussion of the Hebrew words above, let me offer an alternative interpretation of this the verse in Deut. 22:5…
God wants women to respect the role of men… including the implements men use to fulfill that role. God wants men to respect the role of women… including the garments that she must use specifically as a woman.
But there could be a simpler meaning…
God wants both genders to accept themselves as God made them. If a woman rejects her own gender and longs to be a man, or if a man rejects his own gender and longs to be a woman… she, and he, are literally rejecting God’s will for their lives. That rejection would indeed be an insult—an “abomination”— to God.
One way or the other, there is simply not enough information to conclude that clothing is intended to be a means by which we identify gender.
Clothing for gender distinction is not clearly confirmed in the Bible.
There is only one verse that would come close to validating this purpose for clothing, but there is no way to know from the Bible how it should be followed if we were to interpret it that way. Close examination of that one verse makes it yet more doubtful that such and interpretation is sure.
But let’s go one more step and see if it could fit the context of Gen. 1-3.
Does it Fit “Before and After” the Fall?
There was no need for any external gender-identification for Adam and Eve before the fall. Did anything change at the Fall that now required clothing to identify gender?
Obviously not. The physical distinctions of male and female were the same after the fall as before.
Furthermore, for all we are told in Gen. 3:21, God made the coats of skin the same for Adam as for Eve. They wore clothes of the exact same “material” and in the same “style.”
Finally, if they were clearly and naturally gender identifiable while naked, there would simply be no reason at all to give them ambiguous and unnatural external garments to “distinguish” their gender.
Even if we were to conclude that clothing does have some purpose for gender-distinction, it does not in any way offer an explanation for why God' clothed Adam and Eve in Gen. 3:21.
— Matthew Neal
This article Series:
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Introduction
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 1 – Shame and Fear??
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 2 – Clothing as Currency
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 3 – Sign of Position
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 4 – Communicate About the Person
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 5 – Gender Distinction?
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 6 – Warmth and Protection
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Part 7 – Controlling Lust??
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Conclusion
The Biblical Purpose for Clothing – Epilogue