“Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible” by Eve Levavi Feinstein

Eve Levavi Feinstein. Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In Eve Lavavi Feinstein’s most recent publication, the conceptions of sexual pollution in the Hebrew Bible are explored. Looking beyond the simplification of the relationship between sexuality and defilement, she draws out the various threads in the Hebrew Bible from a common root: women were viewed as sexual property of men. Chapter one is rooted in Thomas Kazen’s model of morality, sexuality, and pollution from Jesus and Purity Halakhah, namely the idea of disgust as the beginnings of pollution. Chapter two establishes “some fundamental characteristics of the biblical concept of pollution” and draws out the fundamental ideas of pollution that reach across space and time (11). Most notably, “pure” describes the absence of pollution or sin, “abhor” and “sin” the idea of disgust, and terms for “pollute” to the specific contagious property. Following the terminological definitions, she draws upon modern psychology so as to demonstrate the psychological roots of “disgust” and “pollution”.

Chapter three continues with a discussion of the sexual pollution of women with the exclusions of Ezra, Ezekiel, and Leviticus 18, as they are approached in later chapters. First, she analyzes Numbers 5:11-31 and draws out an important conclusions regarding adultery in the Hebrew Bible: disgust language is harnessed to pollution not to call out women as disgusting but to act rhetorically as a voice against adultery. This same idea, as she demonstrates, is present through some of the prophets in their rhetoric that “function as shaming discourse” (53), an effort to encourage certain moral behavior. Second, she discusses the nature of pollution of the woman in the divorce law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and refutes seven major interpretations of the passage, settling on the idea that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is rhetorical in nature, harnessing disgust via pollution “suggesting to men that they ought to be repelled by sexual contact between their former wives and other men” (65). Thus, this passage focuses upon the individual man who has divorced his wife rather than any transcendent concept of moral restriction. Third, Feinstein explores the pollution language of Genesis 34 and Dinah’s “rape”. While she does concede that rape may have very well been an angle of the historical event of Genesis 34, she concludes that the issue of the sex of Dinah and Shechem was the polluting nature of Shechem that made Dinah polluted in an unmarried context, premarital sex. Hence, because she was polluted, her family became polluted by relation. And a violent purge was the proper reaction by her brother’s standards. Finally, she notes the strict laws for priestly marriages that illustrate how the “essence” of man was present in women. Thus, priests were held to higher expectations in that their wives, and historically sexual property, required a high amount of purity, unpolluted by another man’s “essence”.

Chapter four shifts to the unique rhetoric of Leviticus 18 in which men become the objects of potential pollution based on their sexual interactions. Sexual interactions of the men addressed in Leviticus 18 are said to affect whether or not the land vomits them out of itself. Chapter five focuses on two major strands originating from Leviticus 18: Ezekiel and Ezra. Ezekiel “rests on the idea that the people of Judah… have polluted themselves through their actions” and illustrates sexual pollution as a component of “moral pollution”, which thereby contaminates the land and demands expulsion (141). Ezra expands the pollution language of Leviticus 18 to stigmatize certain peoples rather than, as in Leviticus 18, stigmatize certain behaviors. In effect, foreign polluted women, and thereby their children, must be exiled. Chapter six concludes with coverage of 2nd Temple Period, New Testament, and rabbinic literature.


Eve Feinstein’s work is a jewel for biblical scholarship. Her broad analysis of the Hebrew Bible’s perspectives on sexual pollution carefully observes the nuances missed by glossed readings or presupposed ideas about it and pull the threads of the topic throughout the Hebrew Bible. Most notable is her careful exegesis of Leviticus 18 that elucidates a distinctly different approach to sexual pollution from other discussions of sexual pollution in the Torah. Furthermore, Feinstein’s thorough coverage of Ezekiel and Ezra demonstrate the variety of traditions within the Hebrew Bible and nuances which flow and ebb, contributing to its living nature as a dialogical character.

Yet, in the midst of her expertly crafted exegesis, thorough coverage, and skilled untangling sexual pollution, she lacks analysis of the book of Ruth. Although the book of Ruth never directly discusses issues of sexual pollution at a surface level or utilizes language of sexual pollution, it acts as a “indie” commentary on Leviticus 18 and comments on the sexual pollution developments of Ezra-Nehemiah. By “indie” commentary, I mean that it does not discuss texts through language, but through actions, namely Ruth’s attachment to Naomi, participation in Israelite society, sexual allusions with Boaz, and identity as a Moabite. Each of these points are relevant to discussion of sexual pollution. As taught in a biblical interpretation 101 classes, one must be attentive to not only what is said but also to what is not said. Ruth is a perfect example. While Ezra-Nehemiah denies status to foreign women and their children, Ruth is open to a Moabite woman joining into Israelite society, even to the extent of a sexual encounter. Although the sexual encounter is silent about issues of purity, it speaks through the silence about how one might be able to understand sexual pollution in light of characters like Ruth. Thematic elements distinct between Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth are traceable back to common issues, especially the issue of sexual pollution.

Ruth 3 is a perfect example. In Ruth 3, Ruth lays at the feet of Boaz, a clear reference to sex. Thus, recognition of sexual pollution adds a new level to the conflict and tensions of Ruth. More importantly, they demonstrate the author’s perspective on sexual pollution. Perhaps the reason the kinsman redeemer remains unnamed is because the author is aware of the concept of sexual pollution. As an endeavor to demonstrate that Boaz and Ruth are neither transgressing nor polluting another person, the authors shapes the narrative to end with marriage to Boaz, the one from whom Ruth may have received the “essence” of impurity at the threshing floor.

Regardless of this missing key to Feinstein’s work, her work is still comprehensive and provides fantastic grounds for future research on sexual pollution and purity issues as a whole. Her careful exegesis and unique approach to studies of pollution will, hopefully, result in future scholarship of sexual pollution and purity issues within 2nd Temple Period literature. And as a whole, her work unlocks the variety of theological traditions within the Hebrew Bible, demonstrating the depth and value of the Hebrew Bible by untangling the mess of theological tradition. Perhaps her work will help others to more thoughtfully consider how issues of sexual pollution, purity, and disgust have relevance for the modern context.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy of “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew bible”

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