“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”

Advertisement

Holiness in Leviticus 5:1-4

As I frequently mention, it is unfortunate that people often overlook literature regarding cult practices because it does disservice to the text by ignoring the context. Hence it is essential to recognize the text’s context and proceed by translating the concepts into the 21st century. In agreement with Yizhaq Feder, “perhaps the nonverbal symbolism of the sin-offering, though relatively crude and unarticulate, was the seed from which all of these more elaborate theological discourses would emerge” (Feder, 260). In essence Feder suggests that the ancient sacrificial system of ancient Israel was the beginning of the major theological issues of the 1st and 2nd millennium, such as Jewish and Christian concepts of debt to a deity. Thus, in order to fully understand the major theological issues of this era, it is important to understand the seed of the theological discourse. One of such places is the first four verses of Leviticus 5’s discussion of guilt offerings.

Within Leviticus 5:1-4, the editor presents four basic things requiring a guilt offerings in a chiasm.

A1. Not bearing witness in court (5:1)
B1. Touching animal uncleanliness (5:2)
B2. Touching human uncleanliness (5:3)
A2. Making an oath thoughtlessly (5:4)

A1 is connected to A2 because both discuss the issue of public witness. B1 is connected to B2 because both discuss the issue of cleanliness. Rather than skimming over the miniature chiasm, one must seek out why the editor utilized a chiasm at this moment within the text. In order to do so, one must take seriously ancient Israel’s outlook and not dismiss the issue of cleanliness. The purpose is not to provide an explanation for laws about cleanliness; rather, it is simply to demonstrate why cleanliness was so important.

Throughout Leviticus cleanliness relates to animals (Lev 5:2), food (Lev 11), and humans (Lev 5:3, 13:11, Lev 15). Each law of cleanliness is directed related to ones ability to participate within Temple worship. Hence cleanliness also determines ones ability to approach the holy place of God. Because sin, tied to uncleanliness, was considered to be a sort of debt within the ancient world (Feder, 260), inability to participate in Temple or Tabernacle worship literally cut off people from God and His  representative, whether Moses or the anointed priests (cf. Lev 7:21). Consequently as the individual was cut off from the representative of Israel and God, he was also cut off from the people of Israel. Thus cleanliness was essential to maintaining proper standing within the community of God.

Returning to the chiasm of Leviticus 5:1-4, it is then clear why cleanliness is the center of the guilt offering. Through poetic form Leviticus 5:1-4 highlights the importance of maintaining connection to God. Unlike the common way of writing in the 21st century, which places the climax nearer to the end, Hebrew poetic devices, such as chiasms, often place the important statement in the center. Thus, for the author of Leviticus, the most important thing is maintaining a close proximity to the holiness of God.

The outer-brackets of Leviticus 5:1-4 (A1 and A2) relate to the public sphere of behavior and purity.  Leviticus 5:1 focuses on the legal system on the guilt of one who fails to testify even as a witness, while verse 4 attributes guilt to thoughtless oaths to other people or God. While A1 focuses on public courts and A2 focuses on personal interactions, both relate to ones interactions with man. Ones interactions with man are ultimately centered upon mans vertical connection to God. Thus there are two aspects to the editors chiasm: “… Purity expressed in what is sacred and responsibility in taking an oath… This twofold nature of biblical religion is reflected in the Ten Commandments, which begin with one’s personal relationship with God and then move to one’s relationship to others” (Rooker 2000, 118). However, these two aspects, personal relationship with God and relationship to others, are more intertwined than Robert puts forth. Relationship with God can only take place within a community in which one relates to others, hence the editors willingness to unite the issue of oaths and testimony to cleanliness for proximity to God’s holiness through an ancient poetic device.

In conclusion, Leviticus 5:1-4 expresses the absolute importance of people and God. Apart from maintaining purity, which has been interpreted differently throughout the centuries (cf. Kazen 2010), one is unable to truly be part of the people of God. In effect he is cut off from the people of God. At the same time, one must maintain honesty and integrity with his words and witness because it directly affects the public sphere and relations with others. Even within this day and age, the same thing should be sought after within churches and synagogues: purity with God must be maintained simultaneously with purity towards others. Only in doing so is one truly able to adhere to the commandments of God.

References:

Feder, Yitzhaq. Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning. N.p.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Kazen, Thomas. Coniectanea Biblica. New Testament Series. Rev. ed. Vol. 38, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman &Holman Publishers, 2000.

Posted by William Brown