Why Deuteronomy 23:1 Isn’t About Trans People

Deuteronomy 23:1 is one of the “verse grenades” that bigoted, intellectually lazy Christians lob at trans and gender-diverse people as part of a specious claim that this short passage “proves” that God opposes us having any surgeries.

But before I get into that, I’d like to state that even if this verse and every other one said, word for word, that people shouldn’t transition — so what?

First, not everyone is a Christian — or religious at all. So their moral compass isn’t going to be tethered to the Bible.

Second, America is not a Christian theocracy. Our civil rights, our access to medical care, and our ability to exist in public shouldn’t be based on the whims of bigots.

I don’t care if you think Jesus Himself whispered into your ear directly that I’m gross for being trans: Keep your hands off my rights.

Now, back to Deuteronomy 23:1. Let’s have a look at it using a couple of different translations.

If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis cut off, he shall not enter the sanctuary. (The Living Bible)

A gelding when his stones be broken, either cut away, and his rod cut off, he shall not enter into the church of the Lord. (When a man is made a gelding, or a eunuch, that is, if his stones, or his ballocks, be broken, or cut off, or if his rod is cut off, he shall no longer be part of the Lord’s congregation.) (Wycliffe Bible)

While most of the translations of this verse specifically refer to men, more recent ones have become suddenly gender neutral. If you want to see this verse in almost every English translation, here’s a link.

First, let’s look at the bigotry implied in throwing around a verse that refers to men if the actual object of your bigotry is trans women. This particular practice puts it right out there that you’re intent on forcing trans women into the same category as trans men, ignorant of the reality.

Second, the things that are listed as happening to the penis are forms of mutilation, which reveals how these people view medical transition: They reject out of hand its liberating and integrating qualities.

Where do we go from here?

I mean, if we want to be seriously technical, no one is having anything “crushed” or “cut off.” A penis is inverted as part of creating a vagina. Everything else is surgically removed. And some people keep their penis. When this verse is “whipped out” (pun intended), I see it as just an extension of cishet people’s morbid fixation on what’s between our legs.

And this isn’t limited to a Christian understanding of the text. For the verse-grenade throwers who claim they’re doing it because they care so much about “Judeo-Christian values,” here’s what Rashi’s Torah commentary, one of history’s most essential, has to say:

[A man] with injured testicles or whose member is cut, may not enter the assembly of the Lord. בלֹֽא־יָבֹ֧א פְצֽוּעַ־דַּכָּ֛א וּכְר֥וּת שָׁפְכָ֖ה בִּקְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה:

• with injured testicles: [I.e.,] one whose testicles have been injured or crushed. — [Sifrei 23:111] פְצֽוּעַ־דכה: שֶׁנִּפְצְעוּ אוֹ שֶׁנִּדְכְּאוּ בֵיצִים שֶׁלּוֹ:

• whose member is cut: Heb. וּכְרוּת שָׁפְכָה, one whose male organ is cut, [to the extent] that his semen no longer shoots forth in a continuous flow, but rather drips and trickles, and thus he cannot produce children. — [Yev. 75a]

So, historically speaking, there’s much more to this than a simple “Eeewwww, trans women, get out of our church!”

If a cis man can’t shoot sperm properly, he’s not supposed to be in church either.

If he can’t get anyone pregnant, out he goes!

Have you injured your balls on the job, camping, or in sports? No more church for you!

Fighting anti-Semitic tropes

I hear and see a lot of people who fight these Hebrew scripture verses with the chestnut that “Those aren’t for us. Christ freed us from the laws of the Old Testament. We’re under the New Covenant.”

Please don’t do this.

We can’t gain freedom for gender expression and transition by veering into anti-Semitism. Supersessionism, or replacement theology, feeds a “new covenant” worldview that Jewish people were disobedient to God, and that Christians replaced them in God’s favor. It’s connected to the shallow conspiracy theory that all Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. Which has given rise to to thousands of years of murder, persecution, torture, and the Holocaust.

So please, as you fight for justice for us, remember two things:

  1. Rights for us should never be at the expense of others.
  2. When you use this line of argument, you’re erasing the existence of trans and gender-diverse Jews.

Marriage as the ‘Assembly of the Lord’

There’s always a deeper meaning to verses that can be found in rabbinical commentaries. For example, the very next verse says that bastards shall not enter the assembly of the Lord. What’s interesting here is that Rashi takes “assembly of the Lord” as a metaphor. He says it means marriage to an Israelite woman. Check it out:

A bastard shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even the tenth generation shall not enter the assembly of the Lord. גלֹֽא־יָבֹ֥א מַמְזֵ֖ר בִּקְהַ֣ל יְהֹוָ֑ה גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹֽא־יָבֹ֥א ל֖וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה:

A bastard shall not enter the assembly of the Lord: [I.e.,] he shall not marry an Israelite woman. — [Yev. 77b]

So, why is the “assembly of the Lord” in Protestant Bibles only ever about churches, when it’s also about marriage and procreation? In this verse, we see that ancient Israel used this as a way to keep their nation pure and emphasize procreation.

So most likely, Deuteronomy 23:1 has a similar context.

These are the reasons I don’t stick to a simple reading of the words on the page. There’s so much more to the Bible than just what’s printed there.