Thursday, July 26, 2007

Michael Reads the Bible -- One Year Anniversary

So, it was one year ago that I started this project. I said that getting through the whole Bible would take "at least a year."



BTW, this week's coverage of the middle of the third book of the Old Testament will come out on Monday rather than Sunday.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Leviticus 15-18: Sex, Blood, and Bodily Fluids

Advisory: This entry discusses adult topics. Also disgusting ones. But it's religious scholarship, so everything's cool.

Leviticus 15: the Fluids

The first 15 verses of Leviticus 15 are about men's "bodily discharges," which raises a fairly obvious question: What's a bodily discharge? At first, I thought we were talking about good ol' fashioned ejaculation, but since verses 16 - 18 are specifically about semen that can't be it. Browsing around in different translations, I see that some of them specify -- I hope that none of you are reading this before breakfast -- oozings from, you know, genital sores. Other of them don't make this distinction. So, based on this Biblical scholarship, let's preliminarily define bodily discharges as "any pussy oozings, especially if they are coming from your naughty bits."

Discharges are, as you might well imagine, ceremonially unclean. So is anyone who touches the oozing guy, or his bed, or sits in the chair where he sat. Anything wood he touches has to be scrubbed; any pottery he touches has to be broken. Once he stops oozing, he has to wait seven days, do some serious bathing, and then take a couple of doves or pigeons to the priest for sacrifice.

Semen is less of an issue. When it is "emitted," the folks involved are merely unclean until evening. They just need to wash themselves and anything the semen got on, which is always a good idea anyway in my opinion.

Verses 19 - 24 are about regular menstruation. For the seven days of her period, a woman is unclean, as anyone who touches her. If you touch her, or her bedding or chair, you've got to wash yourself and be unclean until evening. And if, in the delicate wording of the text, a man lies with her and her monthly flow touches him, he then in unclean for the next seven days, along with his bedding and clothing, much as if he was himself having a menstrual period. Verses 25 - 30 unusually prolonged menstruation or other female "discharges," which are treated much like the male discharges discussed above.

This might be a good moment to remember from last week that "uncleanness" is a ceremonial deal, and doesn't necessarily carry a moral weight. But no one really knows. (Personally, I'm pretty skeptical that it wasn't considered pejorative. There, I've said it.)

The point of all these regulations, God says to Moses at the end of the chapter, is that:

31 'You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.'
It's an interesting passage, in that it again gives God a specific physical location of being, which is an idea I'm not used to. It also seems ambiguous about the nature of God's relationship to the law. Will God kill unclean people because he wants to, because he feels it right that they should die? And if so, why?

(Alternatively, sometimes God seems to be explaining something that just is, as if people will simply die if they come into his presence with no volition on his part one way or the other. Saying so they will not die instead of so I will not kill them makes the giving of law sound more like a practical warning of the way of things, rather than the willful imposition of a set of commands.)

Leviticus 16: More Ritual

Recall that, when we last saw Aaron the priest, two of his sons had just been struck dead for ad libbing during a religious service. To ensure against a repeat, God now gives very detailed instructions for how priests are to enter the sanctuary of the Tabernacle. This involves goats, bulls, rams, blood, linen garments, and so on, and since I do not believe any of my readers are considering the priesthood I will skip over most of the details.

Two interesting tidbits, though. For one, this is the chapter that introduces the "scapegoat." The scapegoat is a sacrificial goat that the priest ceremonially burdens with all of the sins of the community, after which it is led out into the desert and released. It makes a nice piece of symbolism, and a heck of a metaphor. Then, at the end of the chapter God creates a new sabbath on the tenth day of the seventh month, given over wholly to atonement. I imagine this is the basis of Yom Kippur. [note: I'm right. I checked.]

Leviticus 17: Eating Blood

Actually, the main thrust of this chapter is that sacrifice has to be done in the temple, by the priests, damnit! Any sacrifice outside of the Tabernacle is designated as equivalent of manslaughter, punishable by exile. Wow! That's very harsh! But the reason for this draconian rule is pretty transparent; as the chapter goes on there is first a complaint about how too many people are sacrificing in the open fields. Then, we get to the REAL problem:
They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves. (7)
Ah-ha! God wants sacrifices under strict control of the priests to make sure nobody is sneaking in a sacrifice to some other deity, or supernatural power.

Then, there is the part about blood. It is put in very strong terms, and also made punishable by manslaughter. Here, though, the reasoning is less clear: for the life of a creature is in the blood. (11) Apparently, since animal blood is so important in sacrifice rituals, it is not to be messed without outside of those rituals. Maybe this is another way to close a backdoor to sneaky polytheistic practices outside of camp? Just guessing.

Finally, anybody scavenging an animal that they found already dead is ceremonially unclean, and needs to bathe and wash his clothes. Not a bad idea.

Lev 18: Unlawful Sexual Relations!

OK, you've been very patient. Here goes. God tells Moses that the Israelites must avoid certain behaviors common among the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who were apparently some serious, serious swingers. In the interest of your moral enlightenment, I will summarize the rules here, in the order in which they are given:
  • Don't have sex with your mom.
  • No, don't have sex with any other wife of your father either.
  • Don't have sex with your sister. No, not your half-sister either. No, not even if she didn't grow up with you.
  • Don't have sex with your granddaughter. Freak.
  • Again, don't have sex with your half-sister.
  • Don't have sex with your aunt on your father's side.
  • No, don't have sex with your aunt on your mother's side, either.
  • No, you still can't have sex with your aunt even if she is only your aunt by marriage.
  • Don't have sex with your daughter-in-law.
  • Don't have sex with your sister-in-law.
  • Don't have sex with both a woman and her daughter. Don't have sex with both a woman and her granddaughter; "that is wickedness." (17)
  • Don't have sex with your wife's sister.
  • Don't have sex with a woman during her period.
  • Don't have sex with your neighbor's wife.
  • Don't give any of your children to be sacrificed to the bull-god Molech.
  • Don't "lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."
  • Don't have sex with an animal. No, not even if you are a woman.
  • All of the above applies to alien residents as well as full Israelites.
  • All of the above punishable by exile.

OK, much of the above lays out what I hope we can all agree are good common-sense tips for avoiding really, really tense Thanksgivings with the family. But then, there are some surprises. The prohibition against sacrificing your children to Molech, an incarnation of Ba'al, is the real oddball on the list. (And the kind of law that makes me think: "If I was the kind of guy who sacrificed my children to Molech, would the rule stop me?) Strict prohibitions against beastiality aren't surprising, although it's not especially flattering to your aunt to have her and Fido on the same list.

Prohibition of homosexuality.... or at least male homosexual intercourse... is not a big surprise; we knew we'd run into it eventually. Its equal billing with the prohibition of sex during a woman's period is maybe more of a surprise. Now... let's be delicate here... I am aware that there is more than one school of thought out there about sex during a woman's period. Yet, I have always understood this to be a question of, shall we say, practicality and personal qualms, not a moral or religious issue. Just saying.

Next Week: More laws! More punishments!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Leviticus 12 - 14: Keepin' it Clean

Leviticus 12: Childbirth Law

Leviticus 12 deals with the procedures to be followed following childbirth. Knowing that at least a couple of the gentle readers have buns in the proverbial oven, I thought it would be a good public service to summarize the protocol here.

First of all, if it's a boy, the mother will be "ceremonially unclean" for seven days. After that, there will be 33 more days when she will also be kind of unclean, although perhaps not quite as unclean. (And day 8 is when you circumcise the lad.)

If it's a girl, on the other hand, Mom is ceremonially unclean for 14 days, and then kinda unclean for 66 more days. No circumcision, of course.

Dad is off the hook in either case.

At the end of the 40 or 80 days, bring a year-old lamb and a pigeon or dove to the priest, and he will do the sacrificing necessary to make you ceremonially clean again. If you can't swing a lamb -- $100 to $150 currently, if I'm reading the ag reports right -- you can bring two pigeons (around $20 apiece for a non-racing bird) or two doves instead.

And that's that. Now, you might be thinking "what does 'clean' and 'unclean' mean?" Excellent question!

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, as well as the very wording of the New International Version translation, are rather at pains to emphasize that this isn't about hygeine or literal cleanliness. No no no. Nothing like that. It is "a system of ritual purity."

Yes, but what does it mean? Turns out that no one is sure. The OCB lays out three theories, all of which seem like they would come off as rather pie-in-the-sky to the earthy, practical Israelites. So we are left wondering. It might be a matter of "Brenda has just given birth and is unclean -- not that there's anything wrong with that." Or, it might be a matter of "Brenda has just given birth and is unclean. Scumbag."

So, if you are planning on keeping it old school, there are going to be some details to work out. However, the OCB points out that with the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the cultic basis of the system of ritual purity was first disrupted and then destroyed. The Second Temple was sacked by Emporer Titus in 70 A.D. So, it has been a while since this set of laws was in active use.

Leviticus 13 and 14: Infectious Skin Diseases and Mildew

Eew. The two chapters that deal with procedures for dealing with infectious skin disease and mildew take up three pages, roughly the same real estate spent on the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man, and Cain and Abel put together.

Looking at things historically, keeping flesh-eating diseases and destructive mildews under control was clearly a public health imperative. Chapters 13 and 14 make examination, diagnosis, and quarantine of these problems the job of the priests. Detailed descriptions of various skin conditions are provided, with instructions given for each as to whether an unclean state is indicated.

Treatment is a combination of the practical -- scrape and replaster a mildew-infested house, for instance -- and the ritual. The rituals, as usual, involve animal sacrifice and highly detailed procedures. For regaining purity after infectious skin diseases, for instance, part of the procudure is

14 The priest is to take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall then take some of the log of oil, pour it in the palm of his own left hand, 16 dip his right forefinger into the oil in his palm, and with his finger sprinkle some of it before the LORD seven times.
And so on. It is pretty long and involved. And, as appears to be the usual case, there is a sliding scale -- if you can't afford a big expensive sacrifice animal, a dove or a pigeon will usually do the trick to get you ceremonially clean again.

And really, if you have an infectious skin disease, you definitely want to get ceremonially clean again ASAP. There's a special rule for people with skin trouble:

45 "The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' 46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.
This kind of suggests that, at least in the case of infectious skin diseases, ceremonial cleanliness might have a little more weight than the Oxford Companion to the Bible is letting on.

Next Week: Orgasms! Unlawful Sexual Relations! Eating Blood!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Leviticus 8-11: Mind the Fine Print

Continuing from the very detailed descriptions of sacrifice procedures in Leviticus 1 - 7, Leviticus 8 and 9 describe the ritual sacrifice attendant upon Aaron and his sons being ordinated as priests of the Hebrews. The description is both graphic and rather tedious. Sample text:

22 He then presented the other ram, the ram for the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. 23 Moses slaughtered the ram and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron's right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses also brought Aaron's sons forward and put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet. Then he sprinkled blood against the altar on all sides. 25 He took the fat, the fat tail, all the fat around the inner parts, the covering of the liver, both kidneys and their fat and the right thigh. 26 Then from the basket of bread made without yeast, which was before the LORD, he took a cake of bread, and one made with oil, and a wafer; he put these on the fat portions and on the right thigh. 27 He put all these in the hands of Aaron and his sons and waved them before the LORD as a wave offering. 28 Then Moses took them from their hands and burned them on the altar on top of the burnt offering as an ordination offering, a pleasing aroma, an offering made to the LORD by fire.

It goes on like this for a long time. The point, I think, is less to capture the pomp and pageantry of the moment than to emphasize the importance of doing everything exactly per instructions.

This emphasis on exact protocols is hammered home in Leviticus 10 when two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, start burning some incence during the ceremony. There's nothing that suggests that this was anything else but some well-intended freestyle praise. Yet, fire leaps from the presence of God and kills them both.

Moses tells Aaron, essentially, that this is the kind of thing that's going to happen if the rules aren't followed, and that there will be yet more trouble if he or his other sons react at all. As other relatives carry the smoking bodies off for burial, Moses gives Aaron grief about another infraction of the complex sacrifice rules:
16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and asked, 17 "Why didn't you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the LORD.
It's worth mentioning, too, that these rules are brand new -- this is the first time anyone has ever performed the ordination sacrifices. The take-home message: when God gives instructions, follow the rules to the letter, immediately, or else!

Mmmm... Split-hoof ruminent.....

In Leviticus 11, we have the first chapter of what looks like it will be a great many laying down additional laws and moral codes. This particular chapter is concerned with food prohibitions. If it is representative we are going to see less emphasis in Leviticus on laws that mandate solutions to everyday social problems -- what to do when somebody steals somebody else's goat, say -- and more emphasis on rules of behavior that are, on their face, somewhat arbitrary.

Now, I have often heard that many of the Old Testament prohibitions are public health measures in disguise, and that the prohibition against certain foods were the Hebrews' way of avoiding potentially diseased or contaminated meats.

Well, maybe. But this point is not addressed in the text. God doesn't say "don't eat bats, because they carry disease." He just says not to eat bats (11:19). He doesn't say that, although flying insects are forbidden, locusts, katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers are OK because they have a great protein content and, not being scavengers, are less likely to carry disease. He just says of these you may eat. (11:22)

I won't rehearse all of the restrictions, as they are very numerous. The pig is of course a leading offender, joined by camels, rabbits, and shellfish. Unlikely to be problematic for my readers are specific prohibitions against eating ravens, horned owls, geckos, skinks, and snakes.

With much of the rest of Leviticus looking to be similarly legal in tone, the sheer volume of law accumulating in the Bible is really starting to add up. And the law is not always straightforward, either; there are lots of puzzling exceptions and loopholes scattered throughout, a typical example being:
37 If a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. 38 But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.
Given the increasing complexity of the law, and the apparent neccessity of getting it exactly right, it is no surprise that a professional priesthood is necessary. Aaron and his sons have been ordained just in time.

Next Week: All sorts of uncleanliness, but no sex yet. That's not until the week after. You'll just have to be patient.