Wibble Wednesday: Visual Surveillance of Extremities (Leviticus 12:1–13:59)

OK, good to be back on track. I should probably be judging the IFComp instead of writing about the Bible, but, hey, this is what happens when we take on obligations. This week brings us back into holiness-code territory with פָּרָשַׁת תַזְרִיעַ (“Conception” portion).

The quick snarky summary: Women and their naughty bits are icky, so every time anything comes out of them we’d best shun her. But women aren’t even nearly as icky as people with skin diseases are.


Chapter 12 is basically a short prologue to the whole theme of uncleanliness, dealing with a rather benign and much-anticipated form of uncleanliness, which is that suffered by a woman after childbirth. It could be pointed out that the Torah Law is, to say the least, somewhat nonprogressive on gender equity, but that’s honestly rather obvious and not worth belaboring. One interesting note is that some of the incidental details of this description suggest that the Law isn’t meant to be read in order, as there’s an offhand reference to the uncleanliness being handled the same way as menstrual uncleanliness, which suggests the reader’s expected to already be familiar with that, but rituals concerning menstruation don’t show up until 15:19.

Anyways those particular rules we’ll get to when we get to them, but for now, it’s mostly worth noting that they’re really severe, but after the seven day period of extreme uncleanliness, childbearing women still have to undergo thirty-three days of lesser, less inconvenient uncleanliness. And just for a nice misogynistic fuck-you to society, the lengths of all these periods of uncleanliness are doubled if she bears a daughter. Why, you ask? Why not?

Finally, the end of her impurity is marked by an offering of sacrifices: one that’s the standard all-purpose bribe offering (עלה), and one that’s the offering for expiation (חטאת). The latter’s kind of interesting, since it makes it clear that the offering is expiatory in the text, as well as simply by the classification of the sacrifice. For what, one wonders, does the woman undergo this shame? The explusion of uncleanliness, and the offering of sin, suggest that the woman is somehow regarded as culpable and blameworthy with regard to something which is not, on a societal level, an actually shameful or undesirable development (being fruitful and multiplying was, after all, an injunction given to humanity). So all this shaming and blaming kinda creeps me out, and, yeah, I know, my read is a victim of shifted values and views of women, but I reserve the right to call this Not Cool.

Onwards to Chapter 13! Chapter 13 is extremely long and alarmingly detailed on the procedure for identifying and treating skin diseases, which means we can add dermatology to the long list of things which post-Biblical commentary is embarrassingly aggressively ignorant about . The big question this chapter serves to address is how you tell if something is the disease referred to as צרעת. This skin ailment is generally translated as “leprosy”, which may burden it with an awful lot of post-Biblical connotations. Pretty much every sort of not-completely-transitory skin discoloration, it seems, is צרעת. Blasically it boils down to the fact that if the hair within the skin affliction is white or if it lasts more than two weeks, it’s צרעת. A lot of specific cases are addressed: scaly afflictions, discoloration in burns, red inflammations, streaking on the skin, redness in a bald spot… but for most of these it comes down to whether the hair is white or whether it persists. One bizarre edge case is that if someone’s entire body is coated with צרעת signs, then apparently they’re ritually clean.

Anyways, צרעת is a bit of a peculiar form of uncleanliness, because it doesn’t have a distinct end point. Most proximate-cause uncleanlinesses end a set time from the cause, while a leper remains unclean, and expelled from society, until the leprosy goes away. This extreme response suggests that there may have been something akin to a quarantine protocol in effect, but why for skin diseases in particular? There doesn’t seem to be an uncleanliness-determination protocol for someone who has a persistent cough, say, even though that probably would present greater danger than any given skin disease.

QA good argument that צרעת isn’t strictly translatable as leprosy comes in a somewhat different series of צרעת-determination protocols at the end of the chapter. Not only can people possess this disease, but so can objects, and verses 47–59 discuss what to do when your garments come down with the disease. Needless to say, we don’t usually think of afflicted clothing as ‘leprous’. And in fact the description given here suggests some sort of mildew, as the צרעת of cloth is described as green streaks. The procedure for treating these growths actually seems, remarkably, to be fairly common-sense: they wash it and see if it goes away, and if it spreads they deem the object unsalvageable.

So, in a nutshell, I’m not sure I’d refer to the Bible for obstetric or dermatological advice, but it seems to be pretty solid on how to do laundry.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Visual Surveillance of Extremities (Leviticus 12:1–13:59)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Ever hear of any commentary traditions out there that allow for saying “Yeah, the bits on skin disease are deprecated. Refer instead to the Hints from Heloise chapter in Proverbs or your dermatologist.” As that seems like it would be useful if heretical thing to have in such a commentary approach.

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