“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”

The Essence of Exegesis: A Review and Response To Gordon Fee’s Hermeneutic

In his articles To What End Exegesis (1988) and Exegesis and Spirituality (2000), Gordon Fee explores how spirituality is an important aspect of exegesis. His article To What End Exegesis sets the framework for Exegesis and Spirituality. The 1988 article is essentially arguing for a hermeneutic that embraces the spiritual aim of Scripture, while the 2000 article explore the intermingling between spirituality and exegesis amidst the interpretative process.

In To What End Exegesis, Fee begins by pointing out that the academy psyche of a neutral approach is not viable because it is not how the texts themselves were written; thus, Scripture should be read as Spiritual from beginning to end, as that is the intention of the text . He demonstrates this through brief exegesis of Philippians 4:10-20, drawing out the importance of the doxology and response expected by the Philippians. The audience was the Church, and therefore the ones who interpret Scripture should be the Church. Published in 2000, Fee continues this exegetical tradition by examining the subject more closely: what “is the interface between exegesis and spirituality, between the historical exercise of digging out the original intent of the text and the experience of hearing the text in the present in terms of both its presupposed and intentional spirituality” (4, Exegesis and Spirituality). As in the 1988 article, spirituality is the ultimate goal of Scripture. So, he begins by reviewing the concepts from his 1988 article; however, his review is more geared towards explaining the worldview of Christianity in order to validate the interface between spirituality and exegesis. His interface takes place in that the exegetical goal is to understand the authorial intent, spirituality. Yet, as a traditional believing scholar, he holds Scripture in high regard, reflected in his statement that exegesis of Scripture is for believers and should be read as a means to spirituality. Through a brief case study, he exemplifies how Paul’s intention for the Philippians was that his spirituality would result in producing greater spirituality in Philippi. Thus, spirituality and history is one discipline that requires us to be good students of the Word and pray-ers (15, Exegesis and Spirituality).

Between the 1988 and 2000, there are 2 major developments: audience and spirituality. Both of these developments are connected because the audience changes how spirituality is represented. In To What End Exegesis, Fee does not explain the a priori of Scripture as God’s word. It is assumed. Additionally, the 1988 article is more focused on the spiritual aspects of exegesis than the interface between exegesis and spirituality, an interface which ultimately unites the two. Thus, rather than simply explaining how the aim of exegesis is spirituality, Fee more aggressively ties the two together inseparably in order to explain it to a broader audience. The development of the united spirituality and exegesis is also clear through how he even uses the term “spirituality”. In To What End Exegesis, “spirituality” is capitalized, giving it a sense of holiness. This is made clear by his statement that “Spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God” (80, To What End Exegesis). In Exegesis and Spirituality, Fee reviews his view of spirituality in more historical terms. That is not to say they are not theological; rather, they communicate the theological through historical scholarly language, not the theological through theological language. Through both 1988 and 2000, Fee maintains a relatively consistent view of spirituality and exegesis. However, his purpose and audience force him to adjust his language in order to present more effectively.

While it is respectable that he observes the goal of the text and the role of the Church, it is unfortunate that he does not address the issue of worldviews. From a Christian worldview, one with much diversity, his explanation is profound and effective for interpreting within the Church context. Yet, criticism from the secular world often stems from criticism of the spirituality, or hopes to understand a more universal spirituality not limited to the Church. By missing this goal of some scholars, Fee is too narrow in his hermeneutic and fails to acknowledge the vastness of worldviews from scholars and lay people. While his regard for the relationship between spirituality and exegesis is respectable, and often times agreeable, a Christian worldview should be willing and able to face the secular approach to Scripture. Christian scholars should know how to dialogue with secular scholars, meaning that they speak the language and traditions of the secular rather than the sacred. In arguing for biblical studies as a secular discipline, protestant scholar Ron Simkins notes that “faith may shape the kind of questions the scholar brings to his subject matter; it may even shape the manner in which the subject matter is treated, but it should not determine the results of the scholarship” (11, Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline). While a completely inclusive biblical hermeneutic is out of question, the exclusive hermeneutic of Fee, which limits interpretation to the Church, creates a system in which there is no question or critique of Scripture. To begin and end with spirituality as the primary goal comes dangerously close to what Simkins opposes. “Faith that demands certain results or is expressed through inviolable propositions is both a distortion of faith and contrary to scholarship” (11, Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline).

As a method, Fee’s approach is viable. But it is viable as one amidst a plethora of hermeneutics, which should be recognized. Biblical interpretation should critique the text, not solely seek spirituality. After all, if God’s word is truly inspired, it should stand up to secular criticism and approach. While faith demands an a priori of trust, there should be a willingness to address the faults of the text. Christian faith is not in the Bible, but God. Because Christianity is, in some sense, a human movement encompassing Christian traditions over 2000 years, that movement should not have absolute and unquestioning loyalty, as it easily pre-determines the exegetical results.

Works Cited

Simkins, Ron. “Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline: The Role of Faith and Theology.” Journal of Religion & Society 13 (2011): pg. 1-17. Journal of Religions and Society. Creighton University, 2011. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.