Leviticus 18: Uncovering nakedness

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In this chapter, we get a little list of all the prohibited sexual relationships. The list is introduced by forbidding sexual relations with “anyone near of kin” (Lev. 18:6), and then following that up with specifics:

  1. Your mother
  2. Your father’s wife
  3. Your sister or half-sister (on either your mother’s or father’s side), whether she “was born at home or abroad” (v.9)
  4. Your granddaughter (whether through your son or your daughter)
  5. Your father’s wife’s daughter, if she was “begotten by your father” (v.11)
  6. Your aunt by blood (whether through your father or your mother)
  7. Your aunt by marriage (only on your father’s side)
  8. Your brother’s wife (though I assume that this excludes the Levirate Marriage)
  9. A woman and her daughter, or a woman and her granddaughter (or, presumably, all three)
  10. Your wife’s sister, so long as your wife is still living
  11. A menstruating woman
  12. Your neighbour’s wife
  13. A man
  14. An animal (this is the only prohibition that is given to women as well)

My translation uses the euphemism “uncover the nakedness of” rather than “have sexual relations with,” which I’m definitely glad of. Should I ever be a grandmother, I will site “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter” (v.10) to get out of diaper duty. It’s in the Bible, okay? I’d love to help change diapers, but God forbids it!

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

A few of the rules come with justification, and the implications of ownership are interesting. For example, the list begins with: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother” (v.7). This is not a prohibition against sleeping with your father (which, I suppose, would be covered by “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” in v.22). Rather, it’s saying that you shouldn’t sleep with your mother because your mother’s nether regions belong to your father. Or, looking at a different translation, because it would “dishonor” (New International Version), “violate” (New Living Translation), or “shame” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) your father.

Again and again, we are reminded that a woman’s sexual act is a reflection of her patriarch, or that a violation of a woman is actually a violation of her patriarch. Having sex with your granddaughter, for example, is bad because “their nakedness is your own nakedness” (v.10), so you would be shaming yourself not because such a relationship would be inherently predatory, but because it would devalue your granddaughter and, thereby, devalue yourself.

On last note that I feel needs to be made is that there is no explicit prohibition against a man having sex with his daughter. It’s implied under the rule that he should not sleep with both a woman and her daughter, which does in practice cover his own daughters, but it’s not explicit. Given how inherently predatory such a sexual relationship would be, the omission is problematic. It makes it clear that the reasons for these laws have to do with cultic purity and not with the health or wellbeing of individuals.


Leviticus 18:22, along with Leviticus 20, make up the only two explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Old Testament. Which isn’t particularly impressive given how much air time homosexuality gets among conservatives, especially since both are mere one-liners while the prohibition on the consumption of blood gets a whole chapter (and multiple references).

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it seems to me that people might dislike homosexuality for personal reasons and are using the Bible as justification, rather than actually coming to the conclusion that homosexuality is worthy of the attention it’s getting after having read the Bible. Or, rather, the prohibition on homosexuality has been hyper-inflated in the cultural tradition, just like the story of Lucifer the fallen angel. Rather ironic given the sola scriptura basis for Protestantism (and, by extension, the very evangelical culture that is so quick to make a special case of homosexuality – singling it out among such a wide and varied field of abominations).

According to Collins, “the biblical prohibition of male homosexual intercourse is unique in the ancient world” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.80), but, as he points out, Leviticus doesn’t provide us with any reason for the prohibition.

Also notable is the absent of a corollary for women. Though some might argue that these sexual prohibitions are clearly written for a male audience so that the female corollary must be implied, Collins rightly points out that “the following verses carefully indicates that the prohibition of sex with animals applies to women as well as to men,” so it’s absence in the face of lesbian sex is conspicuous. As a possible explanation for the omission, Collins suggests that “sex between women did not concern the Priestly legislators because there was no loss of semen involved.”

Craig Smith, over at BLT, adds that:

Men who allowed themselves to be penetrated by another man were felt to have made themselves like women – who were, of course, not valued in patriarchal cultures. The absence of a similar injunction against “a woman lying with a woman as with a man” indicates that this passage does not refer to homosexuality at all, but to the “dishonor” that one’s maleness would suffer through being penetrated.


Female homosexuality poses little threat to patriarchal cultures primarily due to the low status of women within the culture.

There also seems to be a clear acceptance of polygamy. While not directly addressed, it does say that “you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister’s yet alive” (v.18). This could be a translation issue, but it seems to be negotiating respect against a backdrop of assumed polygamy.

Child sacrifice

Right in the middle of all these rules about who is off-limits to your penis, we get this rather jarring tangent: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech” (v.21).

That escalated quickly

I’m assuming that this was just sloppy editing work by someone trying to weave together multiple traditions, but there’s been some really interesting speculation about what the digression might mean.

For example, commenter Brian Hitt over at The King and I paraphrases Leviticus 18 as follows:

Yahweh: Please guys, don’t have sex with other men, animals, or close kin. . . but IF you DO. . . and someone gets pregnant and has kids (well, probably not the men or beasts). . . please don’t burn them to Molech, he’s a real jerk!

Strangers who sojourn among you

Leviticus 18 opens with the following preamble:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. (v.3)

Apparently, the Egyptians and Canaanites really know how to party.

As in Leviticus 17, these rules apply to everyone in Israel, not just to the Jews: “But you shall keep my statues and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you” (v.26). As I wrote in the post about Leviticus 17, the idea of requiring that people who do not belong to your religious community obey your religious laws does not sit well with me. It’s a bit less of an issue when we’re talking about incest rather than eating meat that hasn’t been slaughtered in sacrifice to a particular god, but it’s still an issue.

As an incentive to following these rules, God adds that: “you shall therefore keep my statues and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live” (v.5). Now, presumably, the Egyptians and the Canaanites – who are held up as examples of people who do not follow these specific ordinances – are living (or were living, you get my point). So the promise is not that following God’s rules will be rewarded with life, but rather that doing so will avoid the punishment of death, and that’s an important distinction.

So when it comes to the relationship between God and his Chosen People, cui bono – who benefits? The implication in this chapter is that God is the one who benefits, not the Israelites.

As when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – resulting in the deaths of far more people and animals than would have had God merely allowed Pharaoh to relent the first time it was his inclination to do so – the concern here is not with presenting God as good or just, but merely powerful. The rules must be followed not because they are good or reasonable, but because God has the power to enforce them. It’s nothing more nor less than ‘might makes right.’

To reinforce his threat, God tells Moses that the Israelites are getting the land “before you” because they are, so far, in his good books. The Canaanites, however, not so much. The Canaanites are painted harshly – “for by all these [the sexual ordinances] the nations I am casting out before you defile themselves” (v.24), so that “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (v.25).

This is a rather convenient excuse for a conquering people. In our own, more recent history, we saw the same rhetoric used in reference to the First Nations / Native American peoples.

Leviticus 17: Sorry, you can’t be a kosher vampire

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When I wrote about the Golden Calf story, I was confused about Aaron’s involvement. One of the explanations I found was that the Golden Calf may have begun as a positive story, perhaps mythologising the origins of one of King Jeroboam’s bull-shaped altars, just as many of the Genesis stories seem to attribute the founding of various altars and holy sites to the patriarchs.

Ceci n'est pas un bifteck.

Ceci n’est pas un bifteck.

Later, in the 7th century BCE, King Josiah tried to centralize worship in a split kingdom. We’ll cover this in more detail when we get to Deuteronomy, but, basically, King Josiah figured that a great way to maintain power was make sure that his subjects were dependent on a site under his control for their religious (and, potentially, dietary) needs. An important step in this process would, of course, have been to make the use of any other sacrificial site heretical.

We get to see a bit of this process when God says to Moses that “if any man of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, to offer it as a gift to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man” (Lev. 17:4). In other words, animals can only be killed as part of a ritual sacrifice, and ritual sacrifices may only take place at a single designated location.

Isn’t that, like, really impractical?

But that only addresses the issue of location. What may also surprise readers is that even butchery for food is restricted. That’s not a huge problem if we assume a nomadic setting where the entire group is travelling together, but would become far more problematic in a settled populace. Imagine living in Capernaum and having to walk 120 miles to get to Jerusalem, sheep in tow, just to slaughter it, and then have to carry the carcass all the way back. Imagine having to do that every time time you wanted a lamb chop!

We’ll see this issue addressed when we get to Deuteronomy 12, but Leviticus 17 is uncompromising. As Collins points out: “Such a law would have been difficult to implement” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 79).

No person among you shall eat blood

Leviticus 17 is the chapter Jehovah’s Witnesses point to when denying blood transfusion. In it, God says to Moses that: “If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people” (Lev. 17:10).

The reason given for this is that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (v. 11), and all life belongs to God, so all meat must be offered to him first.

I find it interesting that this prohibition applies not only to the “house of Israel,” but also to “the strangers that sojourn among them.” In other words, if you are travelling through Israel, you must either sacrifice to a god you don’t believe in, or forego that truck stop burger you’ve been craving.

I’m not a huge fan of religious rules that are applied to people of different religions. Just sayin’.

The Goat Idols

In the middle of all this blood, we get a really weird line: “So they shall no more slay their sacrifices for satyrs [other translations say “goats”], after whom they play the harlot. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations” (v.7).

In context, this is given as a reason for the centralization of worship. What’s really interesting about it is that we’ve literally just gotten through a chapter explaining how to “slay their sacrifices for satyrs.” On the day of atonement, a goat is to be released into the wilderness as an offering for Azazel.

According to Mike Heiser, it seems that sacrificing to some goat god was a folk practice, and that the sacrifice to Azazel was either a version of this that snuck in, or an attempt to provide an outlet for a practice that had been deemed illegitimate (though, as Heiser points out, it’s worth noting that the goat for Azazel is sent out into the wilderness to die, not slaughtered directly).

As for where this tradition may have come from, Heiser shares a few thoughts:

The Day of Atonement ritual was part of the solution to the practice of some Israelites to sacrifice to “goat demons.” We are not told why they did this, but the period of bondage in Egypt may have introduced them to deities identified with goat sacrifices, or they conceptually thought the demons of the wilderness needed to be kept at bay while on the way to the Promised Land. The latter has an Egyptian flavor to it, since Egyptians considered territory outside Egypt to be full of perils and chaotic forces. For Israelites, such sacrifices were ineffective and could descend to idolatry. Restrictions and prohibitions had to be made with respect to sacrifice. All sacrifices needed to occur at the tent of meeting (Lev. 17:1-7), and the Day of Atonement ritual was the only sanctioned “expulsion of sins” ritual.

Leviticus 16: The Scapegoat

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After our rather lengthy digression into the unclean, we are now ready to pick up the narrative where we left off in Leviticus 10. After Aaron’s two sons died, Aaron is next bidden to return to the tabernacle with incense, which as Skeptic’s Journey points out, must have been rather difficult for the poor guy:

Doing that process must have reminded him so tragically of the death of his sons who burned the wrong incense. Can you imagine the fear and anxiety you would have trying to make sure the incense was made perfectly after witnessing your sons die because of it?

There are two traditions of the Day of Atonement woven together, and this is one instance where the difference in writing style shines through even in English. One is the same, boring, instruction manual that we’ve been seeing, but the other is actually quite poetic. And, as usual when multiple traditions are woven together, we get a lot of repetition.

The Ritual

Because this section is made up of at least two different traditions jumbled together, it can be a little tricky to figure out the exact order of things. But, in essence, the ritual is conducted as follows:

  1. The high priest (still personified as Aaron) must prepare himself by washing and putting on his special goat-killing suit.
  2. Aaron must make a sin offering of a bull to atone for “himself and for his house” (Lev. 16:6). I assume that “his house” here refers broadly to the entire Levite priesthood, rather than to the priest’s family specifically or his literal house.
  3. The high priest must then take two goats and sing ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ over them to determine which gets to be given to God and which goes to Azazel.
  4. The blood from the bull and the Lord’s goat are splashed about, as priests are wont to do.
  5. Aaron must lay his hands on Azazel’s goat and “confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev. 16:21).
  6. The goat is then sent into the wilderness.
  7. Aaron must remove his special goat-abandonment clothes and wash himself again. The person who did the actual abandoning of the goat must also wash himself.
  8. It looks like the carcasses of the bull and Lord’s goat are taken up again, their fat burned and their blood splashed around for a second time; though it’s possible that all the blood-splashing is supposed to take place at once.

According to Victor Matthews (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p. 158), the Day of Atonement is not unique:

There are Near Eastern parallels to the events prescribed for the Day of Atonement. For instance, purification rituals during the Babylonian New Year’s festival include the decapitation of a ram, and the wiping of the carcass on the temple precincts. Whatever the origins, the Day of Atonement eventually became one of the most solemn rituals in the Jewish calendar.

Azazel and the Scapegoat

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854

I first encountered Azazel while reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In the book, Satan comes to Moscow and wreaks a little havoc while a novelist – known only as The Master – is persecuted by the Soviet government after a false report by a neighbour. In the novel, one of Satan’s associates is Azazello, a fanged assassin.

Azazel is also mentioned in Enoch 8, where he is a “Watcher” (thought to be a term referring to angels) who comes to earth and teaches humans to make weapons, armour, mirrors, jewellery, and makeup. Because of this: “Impiety increased; fornication multiplied; and they transgressed and corrupted all their ways.” (Enoch 8:2).

One thing that interested me in comparing Enoch to Leviticus is that the Leviticus version of Azazel seems to be a demon, while the Enoch version seems to be an angel. Of course, the words “angel” and “demon” are not used in either text, and the distinction between the two is a tangled theological mess. I think that later tradition trying to harmonize the two traditions would simply say that Azazel was one of Satan’s rebel angels who, after he became a demon, got a job eating goats in a fine sin sauce.

You may be interested to know that Leviticus 16 is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Or, more specifically, it comes from a mistranslation in Tyndale’s 16th century English Bible. According to Word Origins, he took “azazel” not as a personal name, but as the words “ez ozel,” literally “the goat that departs/escapes.” The term “scapegoat” itself was coined by Tyndale, but seems not to have been used in its current, broader sense until the 19th century.

The King James Bible still uses the term “scapegoat,” while most recent translations have switched to using “Azazel” as a proper name.

According to Mike Heiser, the interpretation that takes Azazel as a personal name is the correct one, given the juxtaposition with the other animal being “for God.”

As for the question of whether this constitutes a sacrifice to a second god or demonic force, Heiser responds:

It is important to note that this goat was not a sacrifice—it was not sent into the wilderness as an act of sacrifice to a foreign god or demon. Rather, the act of sending the live goat out into the wilderness—unholy ground—was to send the sins of the people where they belonged—the demonic domain. By contrasting purified access to the true God of the first goat with the goat sent to the domain of demons, the identity of the true God and his mercy and holiness was visually reinforced.

Leviticus 15: Dishonourable Discharge

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We jump right in with God talking to the Hebrews (via Moses and Aaron) about their discharges. We start off with a non-specific discharge which may or may not involve the genitals. My RSV simply says “a discharge from his body,” but the King James version hilariously reads: “a running issue out of his flesh” (v.2).

Leviticus 15It’s a bit of a catch 22, since the individual is unclean “whether his body runs with his discharge, or his body is stopped from discharge” (v.3).

So I’m going to go ahead and speculate as to what kinds of things can “run from the flesh” and be just as bad when they don’t run as when they do. I’m going to go for poopoo and peepee. In both cases, you don’t want it “running” from you, and in both cases, you’re in trouble if they are stoppered up.

Unfortunately, it seems that uncleanliness is contagious. Not only is the discharger unclean, but so is his bed and anything he sits on, and anyone who touches either. Even better, anyone the discharger spits on (this happened frequently enough to warrant special mention??) becomes unclean as well. I could see this having some serious prank potential.

After washing up and having his fill of playing the grossest game of Tag ever, the discharger must wait seven days and, on the eighth day, sacrifice two birds.


Next up, we get emissions of the nocturnal variety. In this case, he and anything that touches his spunk must be washed and is considered unclean for the whole day.

If a man and a woman are dancing the horizontal tango and the man pops his cap, both parties must wash and are considered unclean for the rest of the day. Considering the rules about uncleanliness (how contagious it is and the requirement to smash any clay pots the unclean person may touch, for example), I wonder how much of an impact this rule might have had on Jewish society – or, at least, that segment of it that follows the rules. Did people ever use “I’m totally unclean today” as a boastful euphemism for having gotten laid?

Now, while we’re here, I feel like we need to address the anti-sex interpretations of these passages. I think that’s a legitimate interpretation given the connection this chapter is making between sex and uncleanliness, but I think that there’s more to it given the context. Uncleanliness, here, doesn’t mean that something is dirty. Rather, it means that something is profane, as in the opposite of sacred. So the passages about sex are basically a prohibition against sexual activity prior to any kind of participation in ritual activities (something that is present in many different cultures, including some that we might view as generally sex-positive). So I don’t know how far we can apply these rules to a non-ritual social context.


Different cultures have different perspectives on this one.

Different cultures have different perspectives on this one.

Menstruating women are considered unclean for seven days. The number is explicit, and seems to indicate a total period of uncleanliness rather than one that begins after menstruation has ended, as we get above with the unspecified discharge. While I don’t want to get too far into TMI territory, I’ve had periods in the past that have dragged on a little longer than seven days, particularly when I first started menstruating again after the birth of my son. It was just spotting, mind you, but according to the Bible there would have been an overlap between bleeding and a state of cleanliness.

As with the unspecified discharge that is probably the runs, a menstruating woman’s bed and anything she sits on becomes unclean, and can transfer the uncleanliness to anyone who touches them. There’s a hilarious moment in The Year of Living Biblically where Jacobs’s wife is fed up with all his rules so, while menstruating, she sits on absolutely everything in their apartment. I wonder how many passive-aggressive Jewish women through the millennia have done the same thing.

Any man who has sex with a menstruating woman will find that “her impurity is on him” (v.24), and he will have to follow the same rules as a menstruating woman.

If a woman “has a discharge of blood for many days” (v25) but isn’t menstruating, she’s unclean (and you probably shouldn’t invite her into your mother’s tent until she’s had a full STI workup). Once she stops discharging, she’s still unclean for seven days and, on the eighth day, must sacrifice two birds.

Why all the rules?

The explicit reason given for all these rules is that they might “defil[e] [God’s] tabernacle that is in their midst” (v.31) (plus a quick threat about the possibility that they might “die in their uncleanliness”). To me, that sounds as though proximity to the holy of holies is the problem, since the uncleanliness is so contagious. Once the tabernacle can be safely bricked away in a temple, ritual cleanliness would no longer be an issue (except for people going to the temple, of course). So would the rules be void if the tabernacle were no longer “in their midst”?

Which raises an interesting question about the ark. If it’s now lost, it could potentially be anywhere, so maybe that’s why so many modern Jews still follow the rules. Better safe than sorry, right?

Collins, choosing to remain professional and serious despite the subject matter, has this to offer: “Impurity laws preserve vestiges of old taboos, based on the fear of the unknown. They have more to do with primal fears about life and death and loss of human control over the body than with ethical principles in the modern sense” (Hebrew Bible, p.79).

Leviticus 13-14: Identifying and treating leprosy

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463-283585Before we get into these chapters, we should spend a moment talking about leprosy and what does and does not qualify. Nowadays, we have a pretty specific definition for the disease – it’s a progressive bacterial infection that involves skin lesions, nerve damage, muscle weakness, and comes in both tuberculoid and lepromatous forms. It’s horrible, but not very infectious.

Biblical leprosy, however, seems to refer to a fairly wide variety of skin conditions. Given the description we see in these chapters, it seems that what we call leprosy today was probably a minority of what was considered leprosy then. In fact, the term “leprosy” was such a broad net that Leviticus 13 provides instructions for diagnosing leprosy in clothing, and Leviticus 14 talks about leprosy in houses (both being what we would today just call mold).

So, since leprosy covers such a huge range of ailments, the instructions for identifying it are rather convoluted and confusing. But amidst all the talk of swelling, quick raw flesh, eruptions of the skin, and other lovely symptoms, the authors take the time to reassure the readers that male pattern baldness is not unclean (Lev. 13:40).


According to Leviticus 13, lepers aren’t quarantined in the way that we would in a modern context, but would probably have been fairly effective (though rather cruel).

The leper is socially quarantined, having to appear as if dead or in deep mourning. The leper must wear torn clothing and let his hair fall loose, he must “cover his upper lip” (Lev. 13:45) and cry out “unclean, unclean” whenever in public. Lepers must live alone outside camp.

Cleaning a leper

The instructions of Leviticus 14 begin with: “if the leprous disease is healed in the leper” (Lev. 14:3). We can see from this that the physical disease of leprosy is related to, but separate from the social/spiritual identity of leper.

The cleansing ritual is pretty gross and involves using a live bird as a paintbrush to splatter the leper with the blood of another, dead, bird, which may well be how the guy got ringworm in the first place. Once the bird blood splattering is done, the leper must make a guilt offering and a sin offering, which implying that leprosy is a spiritual disease as well as a physical one.

To finish up, there’s an interesting little narrative nod in introducing the part about houses with leprosy. God calls Aaron and Moses and tells them: “When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession…” (Lev. 14:34). It’s a nice acknowledgement that the people are living in a camp and aren’t yet in houses. Of course, it also tells us that God is the one who creates these diseases. As we saw in Exodus, the primary concern here is with describing God’s power, not his goodness or morality or love.

Leviticus 12: The grossness of childbirth


This whole chapter is about how gross childbirth is, which I can definitely understand. When I was in labour with my son, my water broke and spewed forth a torrent of amniotic fluid and meconium, splashing all over my midwife who then had to leave the room and change. I’m also pretty sure I pooped myself. So let’s be honest here, childbirth isn’t exactly the neatest or cleanest of activities.

But even if we grant the authors of this short chapter that fact, there’s still a lot here to unpack.

Gender-based uncleanliness

Leviticus 12The first big issue we encounter is with the length of time that a woman is considered “unclean” after she gives birth. If she has a male child, she’s considered totally gross for 7 days, and then must spend the next 33 days in active purification (which means no touching hallowed things or going into the sanctuary – in other words, no religious activities). If she gives birth to a female child, her time spent in a state of total yuchiness is doubled to two weeks, and her time of active purification is also doubled to 66 days.

I can see the kindness in excusing a woman who has just been through childbirth from ordinary household duties for 1-2 weeks. I can also see the kindness in excusing a woman who has just had a baby from having to go to participate in religious stuff for 1-2 months. I can tell you, I was trashed for at least two months after my son was born – something that wasn’t helped by having some difficulty in breastfeeding and finding a good sleep rhythm – and getting out of the house was very difficult and tiring.

But the discrepancy between the period of uncleanliness for boys and for girls drives home the point that the Bible absolutely does not consider men and women to be of equal, nor of equal potential for either goodness or sin. No matter how much apologetics try to make excuses for this chapter, this discrepancy simply cannot be explained away.

Why is childbirth sinful?

In Genesis 1:28, God gives his command to “be fruitful and multiply.” And yet, here we’re told that at the end of a woman’s purification time, she must make both a burnt offering and a sin offering, which tells us that God views childbirth as something that is sinful. So what’s going on here?

The most plausible explanation that I’ve found is from EnduringWords: “The key to understanding this ceremony is to understand the idea of original sin. As wonderful as a new baby is, God wanted it to be remembered that with every birth another sinner was brought into the world, and the woman was here symbolically responsible for bringing a new sinner into the world.”

But does that jive with what the ancient Hebrews might have been thinking? Jewish websites are saying no, but there’s definitely a theme running through the Bible so far that humans are pretty given to sinfulness and that an individual can be born with the responsibility for the sins of his/her great-grandparent (Exodus 34:7) or even of his/her nation (we’ll mostly be seeing this later, but one example is Joshua 6:17).

Lastly, this chapter leaves me with a lot of questions. We were told multiple times and in excruciating detail about how to properly put on a priest’s loincloth, but the first chapter we’ve read so far since Genesis 1 to deal specifically with women’s issues seems rather lacking. What are the protocols for twins? Does it matter if the twins are different-gendered? What about intersex babies? What about miscarriage or stillbirth?

Leviticus 11: What’s on the menu?

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This is the Leviticus chapter on what is and isn’t okay to eat. So, what’s on the list?

Clean animals, okay to eat:

  • Any animal with divided hoofs, is cleft-footed, and chews cud.
  • Any animal that lives in the water that has fins and scales, regardless of whether it lives in the sea or in a stream.
  • Winged insects with “jointed legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground” (v.21), such as:
    • The locust according to its kind
    • The bald locust according to its kind
    • The cricket according to its kind
    • The grasshopper according to its kind

Unclean animals, not okay to eat (or touch the carcass thereof):

  • Any animal that does not have either a divided hoot or that chews cud, such as:
    • The camel, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoof” (v.4)
    • The rock badger, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs” (v.5)
    • The hare, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs” (v.6) – Which they don’t, by the way. Creation.com claims that it still counts as “chewing the cud” if you poop out your food and then eat your poop. Ergo, God – 1, Skeptics – 0. Whatever.
    • The pig, “for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud” (v.7)
  • This is a rock badger, properly called a rock hyrax

    This is a rock badger, properly called a rock hyrax

    The following birds:

    • The eagle
    • The vulture – Fair enough, I wouldn’t be too keen to eat carrion eaters either.
    • The osprey
    • The buzzard
    • The kite of any kind
    • Every raven of any kind
    • The ostrich – Despite being delicious.
    • The nighthawk
    • The sea gull
    • The hawk of any kind
    • The little owl – Wait ’till it grows up a little!
    • The cormorant
    • The great owl
    • The water hen
    • The desert owl
    • The carrion vulture – Either a repetition or, according to BibleGateway, a pelican.
    • The stork – Need to keep those alive for the babies!
    • The heron of any kind
    • The hoopoe
    • The bat – Yes, the bat classifies as a bird according to Leviticus 11:13-19, which is obviously rather laughable. That being said, how we classify things today – the features we use to distinguish between the various orders of animals – is clearly different from what it was pre-Darwin. Now, we’re trying to take evolutionary tree/bush into account, whereas the authors of the Bible would have just looked at a bat and said “it dun got wings, it’s a bird.” You’d think that God would know the evolutionary history of the bats and correct the Hebrews, but then again, if the stories we’ve been reading were actual historical accounts, there wouldn’t be an evolutionary history to begin with. So yeah, embarrassing to the True Believer, but not particularly remarkable for the secular reader fitting the book within a historical/social context.
  • No winged insects that “walk upon all fours” (v.20).  Nope. Again, we get word games from the apologists. EnduringWord tries to argue that “creeper” refers to movement rather than to biological family.
  • Any animal with paws
  • “Swarming” creatures (v.29), with specific instructions to break any earthen vessel into which one might fall. But at least it’s okay to still drink water from any spring or cistern into which one might fall (a rather necessary concession, I imagine). This category includes:
    • The weasel
    • The mouse
    • The great lizard according to its kind
    • The gecko
    • The land crocodile
    • The lizard
    • The sand lizard
    • The chameleon
  • An otherwise clean animal that dies on its own
  • “Whatever moves on its belly, and whatever moves on all fours, or whatever has many feet, all the creatures that swarm upon the earth, you shall not eat; for they are detestable.” (v.42) – Doesn’t that kinda cover most things?

Why all the rules?

There’s been a lot of debate about why the Old Testament has so many dietary requirement. EnduringWord sums up the apologetic position pretty neatly: “Not only did unclean animals defile one spiritually, but there was also a hygienic defilement, and Israel was spared many diseases and plagues because of their kosher diet.”

Of course, that’s not particularly accurate. Yes, eating undercooked pig is a bad idea, but eating undercooked anything is a bad idea, and there is no particular danger to having a properly cooked pork chop. And even if it was correct, even if God really was trying to protect the Hebrews’ health, wouldn’t a better strategy have been to talk to them about germ theory? The way this is set up means that a starving Hebrew who can find nothing to eat except a nice rabbit stew has to make a choice between keeping themselves alive and keeping themselves “clean.”

Javerbaum has his own theory in The Last Testament, p.87:

The Hebrew dietary laws were carefully conceived and calibrated by the angels and Moses and Aaron and [God], for the health and maintenance of the long-term neurosis of the Jewish people; That they may forever display their faith through the ritual observance of rules too emphasized to be ignored, too random to be logical, and too vague to be satisfying.

But I think we can find a good clue in the following verse: “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (v.45).

As Collins put it: “Observance of a distinct set of laws makes the Israelites holy insofar as it sets them apart from the rest of humanity” (Hebrew Bible, p.78). In other words, these dietary laws serve the same purpose as circumcision, they drive a wedge between the Jews and neighbours of different religious/cultural beliefs.

I think it fits with the idea that the Old Testament was gathered and written in a period of diaspora. There was a great danger of the Jewish minority in a foreign country to convert to local practices and religious observances. Therefore, the imposition of strict and numerous rules forced the Jewish people to conspicuously differentiate themselves from their neighbours, and thereby maintain a strong identity.

Did Noah know about the dietary rules?

According to the Biblical narrative so far, this is the first time that God is communicating these rules to the Hebrew people. Yet in Genesis 7:2-3, Noah already knows which animals are clean and which aren’t. I think that the author of A Skeptic’s Journey is right to assume that the communities carrying the traditions of the Noah stories were already familiar with the dietary restrictions and were anachronistically including details from it.

A Skeptic’s Journey brings up another issue that had never occurred to me: God doesn’t give the Hebrews permission to eat meat until Noah’s story, in Genesis 9:2-5. So when we’re told that Cain and Abel each made a sacrifice of something from their profession, and that Abel was a “keeper of sheep” (Gen. 4:2), we might ask ourselves why on earth he would bother given that he wasn’t even allowed to eat the sheep yet. There he was, toiling away, minding a flock of sheep, keeping them fed, etc just for the wool?

Leviticus 10: Going overboard


Aaron and his sons are getting into the swing of things, getting the hang of all their new priestly duties, when Nadab and Abihu muck up their duties and either put the wrong incense in the censer or light the fire in the censer incorrectly (the text isn’t quite clear and my five second internet search yielded both interpretations). God throws the diva hiss-fit to end all diva hiss-fits and “fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them” (Lev. 10:2).

So, what was the crime here? The Enduring Word commentaries think that they “sought out their own relationship with God, apart from the revelation granted through Moses.” But I think that they’re just trying to make God not seem like quite such a psycho. If Nadab and Abihu are doing an idolatry thing, it still makes God’s reaction way out of line, but it fits more easily with the Enduring Word‘s theology. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the text to support this. All we’re told is that they either used the wrong incense or lit it with the wrong fire, that’s it. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe it was an honest mistake.

The only hint we have is a contextless line later on forbidding the consumption of alcohol in the tent of meeting (Lev. 10:8-9), which may suggest that Nadab and Abihu were a little tipsy and that this may have contributed to the incense error.

The purpose of this story is clearly to warn against getting too casual with God’s instructions to the priests, but it serves another purpose as well: it explains why Aaron’s line is traced through Eleazar, his third son (Ex. 6:23-25).

Disposing of the bodies

Leviticus 10 - The sin of nadab and abihuAaron and his remaining sons are still all dressed up for the party and they don’t want to have to re-consecrate their outfits and all that, so Moses fetches Mishael and Elzaphan (sons of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle – see the begats in Exodus 6). The two of them come and take Nadab and Abihu’s bodies outside camp, which makes it an interesting parallel to what we’re told the priests have to do with the remnants of sin offerings in Leviticus 4:11-12.

This comes back to the idea of moral contagion, where the animal is magically imbued with the sin, corrupting its flesh. Therefore, the non-yummy bits have to be taken outside of the camp for disposal lest the sin re-enter the community. Nadab and Abihu get the same treatment – they are seen as unclean and corruptive and must be removed from the community.

Because they used the wrong incense.

An additional interesting note on this bit is that Moses is the one who fetches Mishael and Elzaphan, but they are described as being the sons of Aaron’s uncle. Maybe I’m imposing anachronistic narrative expectations on the text, but it seems to me that it would make more sense to describe Uzziel as Moses’ uncle.

Throughout Exodus and what we’ve read so far of Leviticus, I keep getting the feeling that the Aaron tradition emerged separately from the Moses tradition, and that Moses was appended onto Aaron’s family tree to lend it legitimacy.

Don’t cry about it

Just because killing a guy’s sons isn’t quite nasty enough, God/Moses (who seem pretty interchangeable ever since Moses got his shiny-face) tells Aaron and his two remaining sons not to show any signs of mourning, “lest you die, and lest wrath come upon all the congregation” (Lev. 10:6). That’s right, Moses is threatening to kill Aaron if he acts upset that he’s just lost two of his children.

But at least the same verse is okay with letting the rest of the Hebrews “bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled.”

Stopping for some lunch

In a totally tactless switching of gears, Moses tells Eleazar and Ithamar to go eat some bread and take a consecrated  lunch break.

But Aaron and his sons don’t eat their portion of the sin offerings and they don’t splash the blood around the altar just right.

Moses comes in all angry, but Aaron explains: “yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable in the sight of the Lord?” (Lev. 10:19) In other words, either he thinks that his heart just wouldn’t be in it enough for God or he’s concerned that God might be a bit angry at the Levites and not particularly interested in hearing from them for the rest of the day. Either way, Moses accepts their answer.

So why do priests have to eat the offerings, anyway? The purpose is so that the priests “may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord” (Lev. 10:17). The animals take on the sin so that they can be killed and the sin with them, and the priests take on the sin so that they can take it in to God for expunging where plebs aren’t allowed to be.

Leviticus 8-9: Aaron gets a job

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My Study Bible’s helpful grouping of chapters includes Leviticus 10 in the “ordination of the priests” narrative, but stuff actually happens in that chapter so I decided to save it for later. Unfortunately, that means that this week’s entry is going to be a real yawner.

Leviticus 8: The ordination of the priests

Leviticus 8We’ve gotten the instructions for the ordination of the priests, now we get to actually see it happen. Because there’s nothing more fun than reading the same text twice with the only variation being that all the “you shalls” turn into “they dids.”

Moses gathers all the Israelites together, which – with over 600,000 just for the men over 20 – must have been quite a crowd.

Once everyone is together, Moses consecrates the tabernacle by splashing some oil around and they make a bunch of sacrifices. Aaron and the priests lay hands on each of the sacrifices (one sin, one burnt, one special order ordination ram), I assume for the purposes of cleansing them and making them “new-ish” before they step into their holy roles.

Leviticus 9: Aaron’s first day on the job

Once ordained, Aaron gets straight to business sacrificing stuff for the people. Then he “lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Lev. 9:22), which I assume was a Vulcan salute.

It’s reasonable to assume that the priestly source wasn’t going around dropping passages into the Old Testament haphazardly. So when I see it dwell with such length and detail on a subject, it makes me rather curious to know what’s going on. Thankfully, I have Collins to come to the rescue: “Leviticus takes pains to emphasize that the consecration of the priests is stamped with divine approval” (Hebrew Bible, p.77). In other words, I’m bored to tears because some group a couple millennia ago felt a really compelling need to legitimize their social status.

Leviticus 1-7: Carpe Scriptura, sacrifice edition

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As I mentioned in my last post, Leviticus 1-7 is pretty much all about how to kill things and splash their blood around in just such a way as to be pleasing unto the Lord. Rather than spending nearly 2 months on which parts of the goat should be burned at the altar versus outside camp, I figured that we might just rip the bandaid off at one go and get it over with.

The types of offerings

We’re about to cover a couple different types of offerings, and I think it will be easier to follow if we have a basic idea of what these are before we dive in:

  • Burnt offerings: These are given when you just want to praise God. Think of it like your spouse grocery shopping and deciding to pick up a little box of chocolates for you just because s/he saw them and thought of how much you like them.
  • Peace offering: According to my Study Bible, this was “a covenant meal in which the worshipper was sacramentally related to the Lord and to fellow-Israelites” (p.124). In other words, the peace offering is about renewing/strengthening community bonds.
  • Sin offerings: This is when you unwittingly do something that’s against the rules but doesn’t have a victim. These offerings must be combined with a confession. It’s important that the sin was unwitting. We’ll be getting more information on what’s do be done with people who knowingly sin later on.
  • Guilt offerings: This is when you unwittingly do something that causes harm either to God or to others. In this case, the offering must be combined with some form of restitution to the harmed party.

Human Sacrifice

In several of the instructions, the person bringing the animal for sacrifice is instructed to lay his hands on its head so that “it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4). In other words, the animal becomes a stand-in for the person, so the person is symbolically sacrificing himself to God.

But what’s really interesting with this concept is when the person is not instructed to lay his hands on the animal. I have no idea why it would be important to lay hands when offering a burnt offering of cattle, but not when offering a burnt offering of goat, for example. If anyone has any theories, they would be most welcome.

Leviticus 1: Burnt offerings of meat

This chapter has instructions for how to properly kill, dismember, and burn the various bits and pieces of cattle, sheep, goats, or birds. What’s interesting here is that the cattle, sheep, and goats must all be male and without blemish. I can sort of understanding the “without blemish” portion since I could see it tied to ritual perfection and ensuring that people are giving their good animals rather than seeing sacrifice as a way to offload the sickly ones. But the rule that they have to be male? Well, I’m not sure I like the implications of that.

In a nice gesture, God includes the possibility of offering a bird (turtledoves or young pigeons) is presented for those who are too poor to be able to part with a larger animal.

I could summarize the instructions, but David Plotz does such a good job that I’d rather just quote him:

If, by some Connecticut Yankee-type time-travel miracle, you ever find yourself in the Sinai desert, standing outside the Tent of Meeting, here are some tips on sacrifice etiquette: First, offer an animal that’s without blemish. Don’t be alarmed when the priests fling the animal’s blood all over the altar. If it’s a bird (ideally a turtledove), the priest will “pinch off its head” and tear it open by the wings. If you’re bringing a grain offering, expect the priests to eat most of it themselves. That’s their “most holy portion.”

Leviticus 2: Burnt offerings of cereal

In this chapter, we are told that cereal can be offered either ground into a flour or baked into bread. In the case of a burnt offering of cereal, the priest only needs to burn an unspecified portion of the offering, and the remainder is kept to be eaten by the priests.

I find it interesting that vegetarian offerings are now considered okay after God’s reaction the last time. Obviously, these two passages are serving different theological functions, but I wonder if the poor schmucks who brought cereal offerings to the Temple got the same “this is a stupid gift” treatment from the priests that Cain got from God.

Offerings for Easter by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor's 'Bible Historiale', France, 1372

Offerings for Easter by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s ‘Bible Historiale’, France, 1372

When making a cereal offering, it absolutely must be seasoned with salt. This confused the author of A Skeptic’s Journey Through the Bible, who wrote: “We can tell from verse 11 and 13 that the priest writing this seems to have hated honey, but liked his food salted, because having the food salted would be done just purely for the flavor, which God has no use of.”

This is a rather facile conclusion. I think that when reading this text, we need to be very cautious about attributing the stories and rules to the preferences of “the author” – who may or may not have been a single person, and would certainly have been writing within the context of a broader tradition.

My Study Bible helpfully offers a much more satisfying explanation: The salt requirement “reflects the oriental practice of making a covenant by eating a meal seasoned with salt. Here salt symbolizes the covenant relation upon which the whole sacrificial system rests” (p.124).

The author of Skeptic’s Journey also mentioned the honey. In Leviticus 2:11, we’re told that “no cereal offering which you would bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as an offering by fire to the Lord.” According to my Study Bible, both of these are associated with foods that ferment. We read in Exodus 12 that fermentation was closely associated with corruption, so it’s about keeping corruption away from holy spaces.

As a side note, I wonder if this connection between fermentation and corruption is in any way related to the Islamic and Christian prohibition against consuming alcohol.

Leviticus 3: The peace offerings

For the peace offering, we get largely the same instructions as we did for cattle, sheep, and goat burnt offerings.

Given that the purpose of the peace offering is intended to strengthen community bonds, I have to question the morality of simply burning the meat rather than, say, burning a “memorial portion” (a symbolic portion that represents the whole) as would be done with the burnt offerings of cereal (Lev. 2:2), and then giving the remainder, say, to the poor.

I do understand the cultic issues around allowing non-sacred persons to consume consecrated foods, yadda yadda, but it seems like it could easily be made into a symbolically resonant gesture. For example, having the entire community partake in this single feast binding them together as a people with God. So even if we are constraining ourselves to Religion Logic, this would still make sense and would serve a secularly-noble purpose. So I find it conspicuous that the peace offering, in particular, is wholly burned.

Leviticus 4: The sin offering

The sin offering section breaks down the restitutions to be made by who commits the sin. The categories are: priest, ruler, an individual commoner, or the whole congregation. What’s interesting here is that only the individual commoner must offer a female animal, while the rest must offer up a male one.

The conception of a sin here is in interesting one, because the text specifies that it must be “unwitting.” From a secular perspective, I would take motive into account – for example, I’m not going to punish a 6 month old for ripping a page out of a book because a 6 month old doesn’t know any better. It’s not an “unwitting sin” because it’s not a sin at all.

But as Collins puts it, sin in the biblical context “is regarded as an objective fact – it must be atoned for even if it was not committed intentionally” (Hebrew Bible, p.76). You either sin or you don’t sin. The fact of it is external to the individual.

That’s not to say that there are no mitigating factors, since this chapter is proof that the opposite is true. This is the punishment for unwitting sin. The punishments for sin that is “witted” will come later, and are far more icky than animal sacrifice and confession (yes, confession is a required part of forgiveness – the sacrifice alone won’t do it).

Lastly, from a human sacrifice substitute perspective, I find it interesting to note that the remains of a sin offering must be burned outside of camp. The animal is seen to literally take on the sin of the individual, so the meat is both corrupted and corruptive. Keeping it near the people – or, even worse from a theological perspective, near the sacred space – would allow the corruption to remain inside the community.

These are the kinds of things I find interesting…

Leviticus 5: More sin offerings and some guilt offerings

One of the neat things about the sin offerings section is that there are provisions made for people who can’t afford to sacrifice livestock. “From each according to his ability…” and all that. Those who can afford it must offer a sheep. If not, a bird. Those who are too poor for either can give a cereal offering.

The sins listed are:

  • Not testifying when called as a witness (since this could lead to a miscarriage of justice, you would be sin to take on the “iniquity” of the accused).
  • Touching something unclean, such as a carcass of an unclean animal, so long as the thing was “hidden” to the toucher.
  • Touching “human uncleanliness” (Lev. 5:3). What this might be is unspecified, but I’m assuming poop falls into this category.
  • “If one utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good […] and it is hidden from him” (Lev. 5:4). Okay, two things: 1) Why is it a bad thing to swear to do good if one follows through?, and 2) How can something you say be “hidden” from you?

As I mentioned above, the sacrifice alone is not enough to be cleansed of sin. The sinner must first confess the sin. I find this interesting because it implies that the individual’s responsibility is not only to God, but also to the community. They owe it to the community to fess up, and then they owe it to God a more physical penance.

This chapter also gets us started on the guilt offerings, listing the following guilts:

  • “Breach of faith” (Lev. 5:14), or neglecting to pay religious dues (financial or sacrificial).
  • Breaking one of the many many religious rules we’ve already had a taste of in Exodus.

Leviticus 6: The guilt offering

Unlike sins which are “spiritual” crimes (meaning that they don’t have a victim), guilts are seen as crimes against another party. Of course, that definition isn’t quite as simple as we might think since God is considered a person who can be victimized, but it does get us started. The big difference between a sin offering and a guilt offering is that the guilt offering must also be combined with some kind of restitution to the injured party.

The crimes are:

  • Deceiving a neighbour in “a matter of deposit or security” (v.2)
  • Robbery
  • Oppressing a neighbour
  • Finding a lost thing and lying about it
  • Swearing falsely

In a pretty cool move, the first part of the punishment is: “he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by oppression, or the deposit which was committed to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he has sword falsely; he shall restore it in full, and shall add a fifth to it, an give it to him to whom it belongs” (Lev. 6:4-5).

The rest of the chapter just gives more instructions for the priests and it’s hella boring. There is an interesting detail to note on gender, though. When talking about what the priests get to keep as their portion, Leviticus 6:18 says: “Every male among the children of Aaron may eat of it,” and Leviticus 6:29 says: “Every male among the priests may eat of it.” So what’s going on there? Were there women in the priesthood?

Leviticus 6:28 says: “And the earthen vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken; but if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured , and rinsed in water.” The author of A Skeptic’s Journey asks: “Why would the earthenware pot need to be smashed at all?” Thankfully, my Study Bible helpfully provides an answer: “These verses reflect the ancient view of holiness as something transferable by contact. Holiness can be scoured off a bronze vessel; but an earthen vessel, because it is absorbent, must be destroyed” (p.128). 

Which makes total sense. It’s important that we keep people from stealing our holiness.

Leviticus 7: Minutia

Chapter 7 just blathers on about sacrifice, and when meat is clean to touch, when it’s unclean, who can eat what, blah blah. I think this post is quite long enough before getting into that boring level of detail.

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