Wibble Wednesday: Precious Bodily Fluids (Leviticus 14:1–15:33)

Man, the Comp threw me completely off track. We’re nearing the end of the semester, so hopefully I can calm down a bit. This week continues excruciating details of personal cleanliness in the holiness sense rather than the hygenic, with פָּרָשַׁת מצֹרע (“Leper” portion).

The quick snarky summary: Suffering from leprosy is really fucking expensive, involving a series of gradual reintroductions to society, priestly consulations and, as always, sacrifices. Be careful of mildew and mold in your house, and report it to the civil authorities, who will either help you clean it up or destroy your home. Also, your naughty bits are bad and everything that comes out of them is bad.


So, at the end of the last parsha, we learned how to recognize leprosy (or צרעת, whatever that is). Now we learn what to do about it. Admittedly I’m not an expert on leprosy — pretty much everything I know about the disease I learned from Fantasy Bedtime Hour — but there’s not much here of particular medical utility: this really comes across more and more like a particular type of unholiness than an actual medical condition. When last we saw our poor leper, he’d been kicked out of the camp, in torn clothes, with a shaved head. Presumably staying outside the camp untreated eventually results in either his recovery or death (the latter case isn’t discussed here, but presumably it’s pretty simple). So when he believes himself recovered, the priest will inspect him and confirm the diagnosis. But even this positive development is only the first step in a very long rehabilitation.

We start with a quirky little sacrifice ritual unlike the rituals elsewhere, involving a presumably once-symbolism-redolent act in which one bird is killed, its blood is spread on another bird, and the other bird is released. There are also a couple of objects which aren’t part of standard sacrificial practice at all which are mentioned as part of the ritual (hyssop, red thread, and cedar wood), but they don’t actually play any role in the proceedings. Also, w aren’t told who provides these sacrifices and ritual accouterments. I sure hope it’s the temple, because the actual supplicant has a pretty big outlay ahead.

So, after the first phase of ritual (and possibly expense), there’s a little bit of public shaming and shunning, as the leper gets to live in the camp but not indoors, and then shave off all his hair. The removal of hair seems to be a sign of shame, although since so little of what is here has any medical utility, it’s awfully tempting to see it as medically indicated, perhaps if the skin affliction is the result of some sort of skin-living creature. The shaving is certainly the closest this particular practice comes to medical-purpose hygiene.

Now comes an insanely big sacrifice (or at least insanely big for a single nomad of limited possessions). The leper needs to provide three choice lambs and quantities of flour and oil given in obscure ancient units (some glosses suggest that these quantities are approximately 21 cups and of flour and a cup of oil). A lamb is offered, together with the oil, in a variant of the צרעת sacrifice describd back in chapter 4; here the wrinkle is that the oil, which is not part of the standard sacrifice, is used to anoint the leper. The other two lambs are offered as basic sacrifices of the other two types, the uncleanliness-curing חַטָּאת and a עֹלָה, which is the basic offering for any sort of miscellaneous compulsory sacrifice.

This is a lot to be provided by an Israelite of small means, and the text seems to realize this, suggesting that the two variable sacrifices, the חַטָּאת and עֹלָה, could be replaced with turtledoves or pigeons. Oddly, instead of simply saying “a poor man can substitute birds for two of the lambs” the whole damn ritual is repeated. Seriously, verses 14:23–29 are a very nearly verbatim repetition of 14:11–18.

But after all this rigamarole, the leper is free to re-enter society, and live in his house and whatnot.

So, we’ve dealt with discolored wool and discolored skin: we close out our consideration of the peculiar uncleanliness known as צרעת by looknig at discoloration of houses. This one, unlike the previous sections, seems to realize that the end goal of the exodus is actual settlement in Canaan: up until now the text has talked a lot about people’s tents, and the tent of meeting, and suchlike, describing the practices of a nomadic culture, while the uncleanliness of houses is a matter explicitly associated with the permanent settlement in Canaan. Here as elsewhere, we only get a nebulous view of what צרעת actually is, but since houses don’t get leprosy, I’m inclined to think of it as some sort of mold or mildew. The description includes streaks, which could be a moisture issue, in reddish or greenish colors, which says some sort of humidity-loving microorganism like mold. In that context, this chapter actually mostly seems to make sense: if you see mold in your house, that’s a health risk, and you want to excise it completely, scraping down to the rock, and if you can’t eradicate it even then, then you tear down the house. That all actually seems to make a certain amount of sense, if the Israelites were aware that musty homes can be illness-inducing. Of course, there’s got to be a little bit of ritual to put the lie to my claims of public-health significance, so for houses, just like people, you go through the whole procedure with the birds and cedar and hyssop and red string.

Thankfully, we’re done with leprosy for a while now. We’re not totally done with an unhealthy obsession with bodily perfection, though, since in this chapter we also get details on just how nasty various genital discharges are. There are two different types of male emissions discussed, one of which is pretty obviously ejaculation and the other of which is presumably something else (and not something commonplace like urination, I presume). Ejaculation results in a pretty low-level uncleanliness: mess your clothes and you have to wash them, and even if you don’t, you have to wash yourself, all of which seems like fairly good manners and hygienic practice, really. Also, women who have sex (and are presumably as semen-befouled as their lover) suffer the same uncleanliness, which also isn’t terribly surprising.

So much for the intelligible male emission. But there’s also some sort of mystery genital emission from men which appears to be much more severe in the resulting uncleanliness: bedding and seats and saddles and pretty much anything the sufferer sits of lies on is tainted, whether or not any of the mystery discharge actually gets on them, and in addition anybody who touches those things is unclean.

This is of course all a precursor to discussing menstruation, which the Israelites (like a lot of ancient peoples) found icky and disturbing and ascribed unwarranted power to. So it’s not surprising that even the weird noxious unknown emissions of men pale in horrificness beside menses, as far as ancient Israel is concerned. In addition to having the same super-contagious uncleanliness as the male discharge, a menstruating woman is unclean for 7 days after the end of her period. And this extra-long defilement is actually contagious as well, since anyone who has sex with her is also defiled for a week. In addition, an extra-long or irregular period requires sacrifices.

Interestingly, the Talmudic sages seemed a lot more freaked out about menstruation than the Torah’s authors were. The Torah-law is harsh and a bit unreasonable, but not much more than I’d expect, while the later Sages totally interpreted these fairly mildly worded prohibitions with all the vigor which only people who really, really get freaked by women’s bodies could do. The שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך (a standard distillation of the law code) has, for real, three chapters on how men shouldn’t even touch or hand objects to menstruating women, how women can examine themselves for menses, and how to calculate menstrual cycles so that man don’t accidentally come into contact with their wives at the onset. I’m not actually sure if this is a setting down of long-held prejudices or whether these views became more pronounced later; a lot of semi-fictional texts make much of the (not actually proscribed) laws of separation, as in the eponymous structure of the Bible fanfic The Red Tent, but I’m wondering if this might be a later addition to the interpretation of these laws.

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

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