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.

Semen

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.

Menstruation

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).