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!


Jennifer said...

Wait a minute. . . so at one point, you're just going to be unclean for 7 days if you sleep with a woman during her period, and a chapter or two later, you're going to be exiled? I know we've seen inconsistency before, but it really hit me since you were putting it in context of male homosexuality--if you went the other direction on gay sex (putting it in the bodily fluids list), you'd get off (so to speak) with being unclean for 7 days. It also raises the question of how long the exile is--permanent? or 7 days?

I'd also just like to mention that at some point, I read a book that argued that we ought to bring back the idea of uncleanliness for women's periods because if you were a woman, you'd get a week's vacation once a month. (You couldn't go to work or everything there would get unclean, you know.)

Jessica said...

My friend Abby and I decided to read the Bible together (sort of the way people buddy up on exercising: that two sided coin of support and guilt if you falter). Anyway, when we actually saw each other at summer camp, we were at these very chapters. Unfortunately we had the idea to read aloud. Yeah, not cool! Eventually, we started paraphrasing to cut down on our peanut gallery retorts-- "Fluid: unclean: seven days: don't sleep with your sister *woah! haha!* unclean..."

:-) Currently, I'm still stuck in the book of Ruth. Although I started in Psalms.

Michael5000 said...

@Jennifer: I see what you're saying, but I don't actually "feel" an inconsistency here. I suspect the penalty of uncleanliness is meant to apply to secondary (touching the woman, touching her bed) contact with the fluids in question, or -- shall we say -- accidental contact. The arrival of a woman's period is sometimes discovered, after all, during a sexual act. In this case, it's a relatively innocent mistake; the male is unclean, but not culpable.

As opposed to an incident when the couple is aware that the woman is menstruating, but they, uh, do the freaky-freak anyway. In that case, willfull disobediance has gone down, and it's exile time. And exile is for good, baby.

The vacation concept wouldn't work. You could still work, there would just have to be stringent restrictions on what you could and couldn't touch. Back to the fields, you.

@Jessica: It's funny to think of reading Leviticus out loud at a summer camp. And it's also funny to imagine this stuff being at all titilating. Ah, childhood.

Thanks for the comment. Ruth, eh? Let's see, that's 1,2,3,4,5 books ahead of me. Nah, I'll never catch up....

Rebel said...

LOL @ Jennifer, I was going to mention that they never covered this stuff when I went to church camp!

brownleatherpants said...

The author of the article conveniently omitted that the list of sexual actions not authorized although going in great detail about what is not allowed never ever condemns sex/incest between a father and his own daughters. That is because a father owns as property his daughters. Wow! Typical great common sense and moral Christian value.

Michael5000 said...

@pants: The "author of this article" didn't mention a LOT of things that are not listed in these chapters. That was "convenient," I suppose, but more to the point it is the nature of a summary. So cool it with the inuendo about my intentions, if you don't mind.

It's true that the early chapters of the Old Testament do occasionally seem soft on father-daughter incest, something I've alluded to here for instance.

However, although you are correct that there is no explicit prohibition (that I have found, anyway) against father-daughter incest in Mosaic Law, I'm not at all convinced that this indicates that it was an acceptable practice. The Law explicitly and repeatedly bans sleeping with your mother or step-mother, and since there is a deep assumption of both male readership and heterosexuality, it's not much of a stretch to construe this as covering the waterfront on parent-child incest. If you've got evidence to the contrary, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

ESearch said...

The sex during menstration thing isn't inconsitant. Lies with can be a euphamism but, it also can mean adopt a horizontal position beside. The first one says if you sleep (become unconscious) with your wife during her period and the blood touches you, you are unclean where as the second one actually says have sex. Accidental law breakage is covered (like if the period starts during sex) is covered somewhere else (Numbers 15).

ESearch said...

Oh and by the way the list does say you can't have sex with your daughter. Unless I've been misinformed you have to have sex with a woman to produce a daughter. So if you shouldn't have sex with a mother and her daughter all of the man's daughters are covered by this rule.

Byron Arnold said...

Actually, if you read the prohibition on homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 in the original language, the Hebrew verb translated as "lie with" is shakab. When this word is translated in a sexual sense (as it is here), it implies coercion or deceit. Every passage in the Old Testament that uses the verb shakab in a sexual sense is describing a sexual act done by either coercion or deceit. (For proof, check out the word study done here: ) A better translation of Leviticus 18:22 is "You shall not forcibly lie with a man in the manner one lies with a woman: it is detestable."

This verse is prohibiting the rape of men to humiliate them, a common practice in the ancient world (See the story of Sodom and Gomorrah for an example of this). God is saying here, you shall not use this practice as other nations around you do, separate yourselves from them and be holy as I am holy. This seems to be the theme of Leviticus, after all.

For information on the other passages that supposedly condemn loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, see my blog post here:

Michael5000 said...

Hi, Byron Arnold. Thanks for reading and responding -- several months ago. This project is currently coming out of hibernation.

I respect the intent of what you're trying to do here, and cheerfully admit a total lack of any knowledge of Hebrew.

However, I have two serious reservations. First is that the source scholarship you give us to for "proof" provides nothing of the kind. It offers an blind assertion, followed by a list of how specific Biblical passages could be reinterpreted if we buy that assertion. That's not adequate groundwork for the paradigm shift you're wanting to introduce.

I might be more fired up if what your source is saying about shakab made intuitive linguistic sense. But it doesn't. It is simply hard for me to imagine that a word in any language that means "lie down next to" would also mean "rape, force to have sex with," yet skip over the much more logical associated meaning of "have consensual sex with." I suppose it's within the realm of possibility -- language is a strange beast, and see "total lack of any knowledge of Hebrew," above. But if you are going to advocate for such a substantial alternative reading of the text, I think you're going to need to find a citation that brings much, much more scholarly heat to the issue.