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!


Anonymous said...

This is brilliant. You are brilliant. Thank you so much for this.

microtone said...

Nice article. I wanted to mention that the dollar value representation may be mis-leading to non-US readers. I don't know how easy it is to come by $100 to $150, but where I stay in Kenya it isn't that easy (KES 8,500 to KES 12,800). However where I live, a lamp will go for about $35 to $47 (KES 3,000 to KES 4,000). To bring out my point even further in my rural home (Western Kenya, Malava) a lamp will go for $11 to $18 (KES 1,000 to KES 1,500).

The value in urban areas is alot higher because of scarcity. I believe it was alot more accessible or rather cheaper for them in the days of Moses because a large percentage of the population were farmers. Chances are for most Israelites, it wasn't an out-of-pocket cost. One would simply pick a lamp from their flock.

My point is a lamp was very affordable, but for the few who were really broke there was an alternative. Otherwise this is agreat article. It has helped me get an overall view of the Biblical clean and unclean concept.

Thanks for sharing.