Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Applying torque to opposing corners of my Bible

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4 minutes to read Fundamentalists claim that I am mishandling Deuteronomy 22:5 by going beyond its literal meaning. I illustrate how their literalist hermeneutic makes nonsense of not only this passage, but all of human discourse.

This may come as a shock, but some people don’t like how Deuteronomy 22:5 looks under a magnifying glass. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Why a woman bearing the sword is an abomination to the Lord (May 2018).] One counter-punch goes like this:

My exegesis is too much of a stretch; I hang more weight on the phrase keli geber than it can actually hold. It does not mean armament, and nowhere does the passage talk about gender roles—it is simply about what to wear. This is its literal meaning, and by going further, I am—and I quote—twisting the Scriptures.

This attack is so wild that I feel compelled to respond, not because it has a hope of landing, but rather to keep my opponent from overbalancing and falling on his head.

Now, in doing so, let me point out a little problem. Since I always try to interpret my opponents as they would want to be interpreted, and since they have explicitly demanded a “literal meaning” hermeneutic, I want to carefully apply their exegetical method to their own objection.

But doing so raises a confusing question: Why are they convinced that I’m applying torque to opposing corners of my Bible—and why does it worry them so?

Contrary to those with tin ears and ham fists, the literalist hermeneutic is not one which clings faithfully to the words of Scripture, because it is not one which reflects any normal use of language. Unless you think the Bible was written according to rules of rhetoric that are completely alien to how human beings communicate, the literal hermeneutic is nothing but skubalon. Every single sentence I have written thus far, with perhaps one exception, illustrates this point.

A reading of Deuteronomy 22:5 that denies the underlying principle of gender roles on the basis that it only mentions clothes comes straight off the fundamentalist lathe. Instead of taking the text seriously as human discourse, it trivializes it, treating it as something like a math equation, where each word has no more significance than that which it strictly denotes, and the overall meaning is constructed as a step-wise output of the sum of the parts.

Not only is this utterly at variance with how even the most ardently wooden fundamentalist actually uses language himself, but it reduces the text in this case to absurdity. Rather than trying to synthesize the concepts in view, and find the principles behind them, it demands a piecemeal, arbitrary application that can’t stand up to obvious counterexamples:

  1. It proves too much by still precluding women from combat and law-enforcement. Even if keli geber refers to clothing alone, and excludes all accessories, it remains that military and police uniforms are undeniably men’s clothes. Thus, women ought not to wear them. And if you think these uniforms have become unisex, just run the argument retro-actively; pick a date when they weren’t, and you will see that it was wrong then to ever normalize them as unisex by allowing women to don them in the first place. So either women should be going into combat and walking the beat in feminine civvies, or they shouldn’t be going into combat and walking the beat.
  2. It proves too little, because if keli geber doesn’t include accessories of any kind, then a man can be a transvestite as long as he sticks to wearing his normal clothes. Contrary to the fundamentalist’s ad hoc principle that the passage is forbidding cross-dressing, his own interpretation insists that fake breasts, makeup, jewelry and a clutch purse are all well outside the gamut of Deuteronomy 22:5—just as swords and bucklers are. I mean, Hebrew didn’t even have a word for stick-on eyelashes.
  3. For those fundamentalists who agree that keli geber includes accessories, the problem is even worse, because they all, to a man, want women to be able to carry sidearms to defend themselves. But it is absolutely without question that a sidearm in ancient Near Eastern times was a man’s accessory, just as a buckler and armor were. So if the prohibition is simply taken at face value, and isn’t reflecting a deeper principle of gender roles, then women can’t carry firearms for self-defense. Indeed, the literalistic approach reflects the hermeneutical strategy of the Pharisees: by refusing to look for principles, and instead adhering woodenly to the words, certain things become like talismans: mere contact magically contaminates you. In this case, a woman could, I suppose, touch or move a gun; but the second she slings it over her shoulder, she’s violating Deuteronomy 22:5.

Since these seem bitter pills to swallow, perhaps it would be better to give up the notion that cross-dressing is the fundamental principle behind the command here. Or, a better way to put this: let’s give up pretending that women bearing the sword aren’t cross-dressing; and let’s simultaneously acknowledge that the principle behind God’s hatred of cross-dressing is that it is contrary to the respective functions he created men and women to serve.


steve hays

In this case I take it that Bnonn is using an a fortiori argument (a minore ad maius). That’s a hermeneutical style of inference we find in St. Paul, the author of Hebrews, and Jesus.


Good post. I find this sort of hermeneutic so tiresome. Ironically, it’s used by many of the “liberals” that fundamentalists would decry with regards to issues like homosexuality (“you can’t hang your case on arsenokoitai… we’re not even sure what it means bla bla bla”). It’s also the kind of thing that led many evangelicals to support abortion in the past.


Regarding Deut. 22:5, what is your view on women wearing pants? I’ve seen this argument lately, that this verse forbids women wearing pants (a man’s garment), but like you I think the verse is directed toward women taking men’s roles rather than simply ‘dont wear pants’. Pants also seem to be a cultural aspect that changes with time, as they weren’t a thing back then (though i’ve seen people arguing ‘gird up your loins’ is a precursor to pants…somehow). Obviously a women trying to look masculine butch in pants violates Deut 22:5 (as a man in a dress to express his ‘femininity’ would), but if a women is wearing female pants modestly in a feminine outfit, is that unacceptable (similar to a man in a kilt–its a skirt but its a masculine skirt)?

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hi Franklin, I think women wearing pants is somewhat situational. There is nothing innately masculine about pants themselves; it is more to do with what they signify culturally. I think many instances, historically, of pants becoming women’s garments were violations of Dt. 22:5, because they were instances of women taking on men’s duties—duties that were prohibitively difficult to perform in skirts or dresses. But I don’t think it makes sense to say that pants, in the generic sense, just are men’s garments, any more than to say that skirts, in the generic sense, just are women’s garments; since this, as you note, would exclude kilts, along with all manner of other culturally-tuned attire across time and space.

That said, I do think that because of the signification of skirts as uniquely feminine in our culture, when meeting for church, women ought to wear skirts so as to more strongly differentiate themselves from men. I have noticed that in conservative churches, even though head coverings are no longer honored, feminine attire like this usually is. I think we should pay attention to our cultural instincts on this.

There is also the question of modesty. Most women’s pants are simply not modest. We have become so dulled to immodesty that we don’t even notice, but even most jeans are very revealing in that they simply display a lot more of a woman’s shape than is appropriate or wise. I ask my wife to wear skirts and dresses when we go out because they are innately more modest than any of the pants she owns. At home, I am not so bothered; modesty is tuned quite differently among family than among strangers, and I certainly like how they look on her!