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Journal for the Study of the Old T estam ent

01 37.3 (2013): 265-294


The Author(s), 2013. Reprints and ? e u s s io n s :
http://www.sagepub.co.uk/joumalsPem 1issions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0309089213475397
http://JSOT.sagepub.com

W here here Is Dirt, Is here System?


Revisiting Biblical Purity
onstructions*

T.M. LEMOS
Huron University College at Western University, 1349 Western Road, London, Ontario
N6G1H3, Canada

Abstract

article contends that biblical scholarship on impurity has often been concerned with
attempting to hnd one symbolic system underlying Israelite purity constructions. This
tendency is clear 111 the work 01' Maiy Douglas and Jacob Milgrom, but even in more

scholarship hie tendency to treat the diverse body of teHs discussing impurity as a
system has continued. Even recent attempts to place all of lliese texts into Iwo or more
categories 01' impurity have had to force biblical texts to ht categories ttiat supposedly
encompass all ofthe HebrewBible. This article presents various important inconsistencies

1the purity constructions of different biblical texts in order to demonsirate tliat these
constructions are not ill fact systematic. There is no system oflsraelite impurity. Moreover, 111 positing such a system, scholars have displayed assumptions and utilized metliods
* Earlier versions of tiiis study were presented at the Society of Biblical Literature
Amiual Meeting 011 24 November 2008 in Boston, MA and at Rhodes 011ege, Memphis.
TN 0 1 1 12 February 2009.1 ttiank Baruch Schwartz and the others present on both those
occasions for tiieir comments and suggestions, as well as Thomas Kazen, Saul Olyan.
Brent Nongbri, Chaya Halberstam, Matthew Neujahr, and Aiidrea Stevenson Allen, all of
whom read and commented 011 the 111
its various stages of dwelopn!ent.

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Journal for the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

that are at odds with those of contemporary ritual studies. This article argues instead for an
embodied approach to studying Israelite purity constrictions tliat moves beyond Cartesian
dichotomies and seeks to contextualize the evidence from different biblical texts, treating
differences between texts not as obstacles but as analytical opportunities.
Keywords: impurity, ritual studies, embodiment, priestly writers, Leviticus, Ezekiel,
Ezra-Nehemiah.

1. Introduction
In her sem inalw ork '
and Danger, Mary Douglas wrote, 'W here
there IS dirt there is system '.1 That is, where one finds eonstruettons 01'
purity and
' . one finds a symbolic system that gives rise to sueh
constaterions. Purity and Danger, 1think most w ould agree, is fire single
most important book ever written on the study o f purity, and it has
u ^ rp risin g l} / had a great influence upon the work ol'biblieal scholars.
Though many have found fault with various details o f Douglas's schema,
often scholars have followed her irr attempting to uncover the rationale,
the single unifying system behind Israel's purify laws. At least a dozen o f
tire books o f the Hebrew Bible refer to eustoms regulations surrounding purity, texts as disparate in style and provenance as Leviticus
and Lamentations, Lzel<iel and 1 Samuel, Genesis and Ezra-Nehemiah.
Yet, tirse who have written on Israelite purity ideas have in the majority
o f cases tried to subsume all of the referenees to purity under one
overarching rubric. In this article, I seek to problematize this venture:
first, by discussing the most important attempts to schematize Israel's
purity constructions; second, by detailing various noteworthy differences
and inconsistencies among the many biblical texts that speak o f
defilement and assessing the implications o f these dil'I'crcuccs: and, last,
by proposing ^tcrirativc approaches for examining these texts. My
overarching objective in this article is to demonstrate that tlrcrc is no one
rubric that can make sense o f all o fth e sources o f Impurity attested in
Israelite texts and that fee attempt to uncover one structure, symbolic or
otherwise, underlying all o f these sources is at best counterproductive and
at worst a dlstraefiou I'l'oni the task o f analyzing how different biblical
texts construct Impurity I! sometimes very divergent ways. Even attempts
to complicate the picture by proposing two or three overarching systems
1.
Maty Duuglas, Purity andDanger: An Analysis ofthe Concepts o f Pollution and
Taboo (Eondun: Routledge, 1966), p. 36.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

267

at work have often distorted the evidence and not accounted well for the
diversity 0 'i 1npu 1'it> language !'ornicl in the biblical corpus. It is my view
that assessing this diversity should play a far more central role irr scholarship 0 >r impurity, as should, too, examining the relationship between
impurity eonstnretions and the live( c^rcricuccs o f Israelites.

2. Attempts to Systematize Biblical Purity Constructions and


Critiques of these Attempts
'lhat Purity and Danger was an cvtrcincly influentialW 01'l< for biblical
scholarship on Israelite purity is beyond question. So compelling was it in
fact that many '1> or Israelite purity ideas written after ft have
followed Douglas's lead irr attempting to hud the one system that underlies these ideas, even as they have often critiqued the details oflrer work.
The major arguments o f Purity and Danger are quite well known, and so
I will review them only briefly here. In this work, Douglas argues for a
close correlation between purity ideas and concerns over social bouirrlaries. Conceptions o f impurity not only lend order to human experience
Douglas famously wrote that impm'ity. or dirt, 'is matter out ofplace' and
that ft 'offends against orelcr'3 but also reflect a group's social con
cems. Anxiety over social boundaries is symbolized by a preoccupation
with the body and with bodily orifices. She writes: 'W e cannot possibly
interpret rftuals concerning excreta, breast mftlr. saliva and the rest unftss
we are prepared to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure
reproduced in small on the human body'.3 She says o f the Israelites
specifically: 'The threatened boundaries o f their body politic would be
well mirrored in their care for the integrity, unity and purity o f the
physical body '. Douglas treats Israelite dietary laws at Icmgtlr in Purity
andD anger in a chapter entitled 'The Abominations ofLeviticus', where
she explains the particularities o f which animals are considered pure or
impure in terms 0 !'Israelite conceptions ofw hat animals o f different (
should be, tliat is, what physical characteristics a land animal or a hsil
should possess or not possess. Animals seen as anomalous were deemed
impure. Although influential, this chapter does depart in some ways from
the arguments and methods ol'flrc rest o f the book, and this is even more
the case in Douglas's most recent rt^ iirc iits o f Israelite religion, where
2. Douglas, Purity and Danger, pp. 2, 36.
3. Douglas, Parity and Danger, p. 116.
4. Douglas, Parity and Danger, p. 125.

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Journalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

she exhibits a very different approach to Israelite texts and customs than
tire one she utilizes in Purity and Danger to assess the purity coirccptioirs
o f other groups throughout the world.5 Nonetheless, Purity and Danger
was and remains an influential work among biblical scholars both for its
trcatincuts o f Israelite ideas and for its wider analysis o f purity rituals
cross-culturally. In both, Douglas emphasizes the systematic nature o f
purity conceptions. "Where there is hrt'. she avers, "there is system'.
Like Mary Douglas, lacob Milgrom has been a towering figure hr the
study o f Israelite purity, and like Douglas, Milgrom has proposed a
unified basis for the purity laws. According to Milgrom, Israelite purity
conceptions are grounded not in a symbolic view o f fire body, as Douglas
argued, but rather in a priestly regard for life. Thus, things that were

5. In fact, in the preface tile 2002 edition of,Purity andDanger, Douglas goes so far
as to reverse her earlier analysis oflsraelite dietary laws, stating it was a major mistake
in various ways. She writes tliat she was particularly mistaken to have accepted uiiquestioiiingly that the rational,, compassionate God ofthe Bible would ever have been so
inconsistent as to make abominable creatures (pp. xiii, X V ). This is a remarkable aboutface, corresponding 1 Douglass move away 0 antliropological approaches toward
the theological ones exliibited in her books. In the Wilderness (1993; rev. ed., London:
Oxford University Press, 2001); Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1999); and ' s Teat's: The Priestly Work o f Reconciliation ( 0 : Oxford University Press, 2004). For ail extended critique of tiiese works, see T.M. Lemos, The
Universal and the 1 '11 ;Mary Douglas and the Politics 0 fI 111purity,./jR 89.2 (2009),
pp. 236-51. The fact that Douglas calls the analysis found in her 1966 book a major
mistake should 110t, I believe, prejudice one unduly against that analysis, considering the
influence that PurityandDangerlias had and the fact tliat Douglasmore recent work 011
tile Israelites departs so drastically the methods tliat have been seen nonnative in
the discipline of anthropology for decades, as varied as that discipline is and has been.
6. otliers before Milgrom, too, have comiected purity/impurity to a life/death opposition, but the tlieory best associated with Milgrom, who most developed it. One rlier
discussion of note may be found August Dill11)11111. Die BftcherExodus mid Leviticus
(ed. Victor Ryssel; Leipzig: F. Hirzel, 3rd edn, 1897). While Milgrom is sometimes
thought of as limiting his impurity-as-symbol-of-deatli explanation to p, this is in actuality
not borne out by Milgroms own words. For example, he wi'ites /. / .A Book /
' / ' ( Mimieapolis: Forfress Press, 2004): 111the Israelite liiind, blood was
tile chief symbol of 1. .. Thus it was tiiat Israelalone among tile peoplesrestricted
impurity solely to tliose physical conditions involving tile loss of vaginal blood and
en, the forces oflife, and to the coqise and to scale disease, wliich visually manifested
the approach 0 'deatli (p. 123). Virtually the exact saille statements are found 111
Mrtgroms masterworkhis Anchor Bible commentary, Leviticus 1-16: .4 Translotion with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991),p. 767.
In speaking of tile Israelite mind rather

the Priestly mind, and 0 'Israel ratiier

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System?

269

considered defiling were so deemed because they were associated !rot


with life, but with death. In keeping with this position, ^hlgroin disputes
many ofD ouglas's proposals regarding the Israelite dietary laws. I will
examine first the disagreement between h'lilgrom and Douglas concerning
that most famous o f taboos, the prohibition 0!r eating > While
Douglas sees the pig as defiling because it is an anomalous creature,7
according to ^hlgrom. the pig is prohibited !because it is a!romalors.
and not because it was highly Impractical even to raise pigs in the
highlands oflsrael,8 but instead because ofits association with cl!tl!omc
deities. This association ol'tlrc pig with the underworld is an association
whir death, and it was this association and the rcoulslon it inspired

tiian tire Aaronid priests, he niakes clear tliat he sees his explanatien of tile basis of
impurity as applying to Israelite texts and cnltnre in general.
7. Milgrom states in response to tiris that it is eqnally logical, it' not more so, to
argue. ..the pig was declared anomalous becarrse it was inherently repugnant as to say the
reverse, that it was repugnant because it was anomalous, as Douglas claims (Leviticus 116, p. 649). R. Bulmer (Why is tire Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem ot'Zoological
Taxonomy among the Karam ofthe New Guinea Highlands,A/WS 2 [1967], pp. 23 -)
aird others had earlier criticized Douglas orr the same grounds. An interesting back-andfortlr exchange occurs between Milgronr and Douglas orr tills matter. See Douglas,
Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975],
p. 272; Milgronr, Leviticus 1-16, p. 649; and Douglas, Sacred Contagion, irr Jolm F.A.
Sawyer (ed.), Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Alary Douglas [.TSOTSup, 227;
Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996], p. 105).
8. As Frederick L Simoons, Joseph Henuiirger, and Marvin Flarris have argrred. See
Sm100ns,EatNotThisFlesh:FoodAvoidancesintheOldlfrorld(Madiso11:\Jnive1sityoi
Wisconsin Press, 1961 ); Heiminger, Puret et Impuret, Supplment au Dictionnaire de
la Bible 9(1979), pp. 398-554; and Hauls, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles
ofCultttre (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), andCulturalAIaterialism: The Snuggle
yreMgo/L/rre(NewYork:RandonrHouse,1979).Henningerstatesfurtherthat
tire Israelites, and various 0 tirer groups in tire region with strong ties to pastoral!snr,
rejected tire pig because of its association witii the sedenta!y lifestyle (Puret et
Impuret, pp. 476-82, esp. 479 Even Douglas makes a similar statement; seePurityand
Danger, p. 56, Flemringer outlines the various explanations of tire prohibition on pork
given by different scholars
to the 1970s, For more recent treatments oflsraelite dietary
prescriptions, see Walter .1. Houston, Purity andAlonotheism: Clear mid UncleanAnimals
in Biblical Law (JSOTSup, 140; Sheffield; JSGT Press, 1993), and Towards an Integrated
Reading of tire Dietary/ Laws ofLeviticus, in Roll'Rendtorff and Robert A. Kugler, with
Sarah Smith Bartel (eds.). The Book ofLeviticus: Composition and Reception (Leiden:
Brill, 2003), pp. 142-61; and Naphtali Meshel, Food for Thoughts: Systems ofCategoriZation m Leviticus W'. llTR 101.2 (2008), pp. 203-29, among other works.
9. Milgronr, Leviticus 116, p. 650.

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Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

towards this particular animal that was the primary impetus for the
requirement that animals must chew tlicir cud to be considered clean. In
this way, Milgrom connects prohibited animals with death. He 1'urtlicr
hirhs the dietary laws to his life/death opposition by arguing that diese
laws are meant to 'teach die Israelite reverence for life by...reducing his
choice o f flesh to a animals'.'''
W hat o fth e other sources o f defilement? Douglas sees the proposed
purity system as symbolizing the social body by assigning impurity to the
physical one. Hence, purity rules centering on the body's cirlranccs and
exits relate to social boundaries and not merely physical ones. Yet,
Milgrom A approach, as we saw, is very different. According to him and
various others before and after him, the' sources o f impurity all relate to
death. In the case o f some impurities, tliis relationship is obvious. For
example, one ofthe major sources ofim purity is tliat brought on by contact with an actual corpse. Another major source is skin disease, which is
explicitly associated with death ill Num. 12.12. There. Yahweh punishes
Miriam for criticizing Moses by striking herw ith skin disease, and Aaron
pleads with Yahweh, saying, 'Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose
flesh is half consumed when ft comes out o f its m other's w om b'.11
Connecting the other sourecs o f defilement with death requires a bit more
creativity. According to Milgrom, abnormal genital discharges in men or
women defile because, like skin disease or corpses, they 'symbolize the
forces o f death '.'1Milgrom, however, is not as explicit as one would like
about how this is so, leaving one to surmise that it is because these
discharges interfere with tire bodys reproductive system, and thus with
its ability to produce life. Milgrom connects menstruation with death in a
similar fashion. Menstruation defiles because blood represents the 'life
force' and its loss 'represents death '.'1 One also surmises that urenstruation defiles because a wom an's blood fiow marks the time where she is
unable to conceive, and is thus in opposition to her ability to produce life,
though Milgrom does not state this explicitly. Certainly, Milgrom is clear
in rejecting Douglas's rationale for such impurities, which is that a
discharging body lacks wholeness, and that 'the idea ol' liolliress was
10. ^lilgrnin, Leviticus 1-16, p. 735.
11. Biblical translations are 0 tire N R S V , unless otiierwise note!, though I substihite
impure and impurity fortheNRSVs urrclean aird uncleanness irrfranslatiirg forms of
the Hebrew mot t-m~ and render tire tetragrannnaton as ahweh rather tiran L ord.
12. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, p. 768.
13. Mrigrom, Leviticus 116, p. 46.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

271

given an external, physical expression in the wholeness cITbe bcdy seen


as a perfect container'.14As Alllgi'cur summarily states: physical perfection is required only for saerifiees and priests', not for lay Israelites.15
But what o f seminal emissions and ehildbirdr, whieh also defile?
Despite the het that semen is a necessary part o f conception, Alllgi'cur
connects it with deatlr by stating that it, like blood, is a h l'c force, and that
its loss, too, symbolizes death.10' Childbirth, tliough it is obviously the
beginning o f life, defiles because o fth e loss 01' blood and lochial fluids,
which symbolizes deatli. And what o f human waste, which varion s
biblical texts treat as defiling? ^'lllgrcm hr fact do^uplays the defiling
nature ofhum an waste, presumably because the Priestly, or p, texts5 of
Leviticus and Numbers do not seem to consider it an Impurity. He states:
'Human feces were... not considered impure (despite Deut. 23.10-12: and
Ezek. 4.12)2* Why, wonders Dillmann, does uot fee Bible label human
feces im pure...? The answer is clear. The elimination o f waste has
nothing to do wife death; on fee contrary, it is essential to life. This
seems an odd statement, however, in light o fth e fact that semen and
.ild b ir th , too, are essential to life.
^'lilgi'om's rationale for the sources o f impurity, though it remains
fairly popular in some quarters, has been faulted for other reasons, as
well.20 Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has pointed out that although various
biblical texts do state that 'blood carries the essence o f life (Gen. 9.4;

14. Duuglas, Purity Danger, p. 53.


1. Mllgroni,Leviticus / / p. 766.
16. In his comments on Leviticus for The Harper Collins Study Bible, Milgrom
writes: O ne can understand tirat seminal emissions, being a total loss oflife-giving fluids,
were regarded as impure, but what of the emission in conjugal union, the act of procreation? Obviously, the priestly legists were aware of flie fact that it is Are rare seed that
results hr procreation; mostly it is wasted (Harold w. Atiridge etal. [eds.j, The Harper
Collins Study Bible [San Francisco: HarperCollms, 2006], p. 173).
17. Throughout this shidy, I will capitalize the word Priestly when it refers to the
texts biblical source critics have attributed to the Priestly author, or P; I will leave tire
word lower-case when it merely refers to texts or matters related to Israelite priests more
generally,
18. 1 would add to fliese 2 Kgs 10,27 and probably Zech. 3.3-5; these texts will be
discussed at a later point.
19. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, p. 767.
20. For a useful critique 01 Milgroms views on the dietary laws, see Houston,
Towards an Integrate Reading, pp. 147-50, who writes: Milgrom ean hardly be said to
have proved his case that tire dietary laws form an ethical system (p. 150).

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Journalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

Lev. 17.11-14; Deut. 12.23)', ...only [the loss some kinds ofblood
are contaniinating'. 'Richard Whitekettle similarly states:
Note that tire Levitical interest 111 blood was limited to vaginal discharges.
Numerous situations in which there is potentially fatal bleeding, as
woimds or 111
the workplace, are not the subject of legislative
strictures. If there is no concern with an aura of death ill many situations in
which it would seem appropriate (e.g., a woodchopper whose hand has been
cut off), it could not have been a concern 111 more inappropriate situations
(N.B., 110 Oman has ever menstruated to death).

Eilberg-Schwartz points 10 Stil other anomalies that stubbornly resist


|h'lilgrom 's| symbolic 1" . among them the t'aet that semen is
less polluting than menstrual blood and that the 1'oriiier is contaminating
even during intercourse, die very aet o f procreation'.23 Furthermore', he
writes, the priests do not proscribe sexual relations during pregiianey
even though there is no chance o f eoiieeption. And if life and death
symbolism totally controls the distinetions among the body fluids, why is
the blood o f birth impure, when it eould be a sign par excellenee o f
reproductive success?24
These are valid questions indeed, but they do not in 1'aet lead EilbergSchwartz to reject Mllgroiu's schema out o f hand. On 1 contrary, he
feels that the a n a ly sis which treats body emissions as symbolic o f life
and death has a great deal to recommend it . Eilberg-Schwartz therefore
deals with the anomalies just listed by introducing another criterion that
works in conjunction with the life/death dichotomyuncontrollability.
21. Hnward Eilbg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism. An Anthropology o f Israelite
Religion and Ancient Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 179.
22. Richard Whitekettle, Levitical Thought and tile Female Reproductive Cycle:
Womb, Well springs, and the Primeval World, IT 46 (1996), pp. 379-91 (377).
23. Eilbeg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, pp. 183-86.
24. Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, p. 186,
25. Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, p. 184. It is wortir noting tiiat, hr
anotlier work, Eilberg-Schwartz critiques the tendency to systematize Judaism. He writes:
In relying on the idea of cultural contradictions, 1 depart from the general tendency to
1of Judaism as a system or series of systems, a lnetaphor tliat implicitly and often
explicitly guides research on Judaism. This metaphor induces interpreters to produce a
coherence tliat does not always exist; the result is that one impulse of the culture is
selected as exemplary at the expense ofthe others (The Problem ofthe Body for the
People of tire Book, in Timothy K. Beal and David M. Grum [eds.j, Reading Bibles,
Writing Bodies: Identity mid the Book [London: Routledge, 1997], pp. 34-55 [34]). Yet, as
1 see it, Eilberg-Schwartz himself treats the purity conceptions 111 the Priestly
sections of Leviticus and Numbers as exemplary of Israelite purity.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

273

^[ i s . more controllable a 1
1

is, the less defiling it is. This, in his


view, explains why semen is less defiling than menstrual blood, because
one has greater control over the emission ofthc former. It also accounts
for why urine, saliva, and mucus do not contaminate because they are
coatiOllablcaad why non-seminal discharges are so defiling because
they are not.20'
Though the proposal o f Eilberg-Schwartz has won some acceptance
among scholars, it, too, has been critiqued. As M eir Malul points out:
"Eilberg-Schwartz stresses the idea ofbeing able to control one's bodily
discharges... This, however, does not seem to explain the whole picture . He gives the examples o f nocturnal emissions ol'seumu. which,
despite being uncontrollable, are not more defiling than regular seminal
emissions, and o f emissions o f other bodily fluids such as sweat and
vomit, which are almost always uncontrollable, but are considgfed
defiling.28 One could add to this list blood flowing <
a serious wound,
which is also both uncontrollable and non-defiling.
is not too difficult to see that biblical texts are on the whole more
concerned wiffi genital fluids than they are with other types o f bodily
emissions.2This has led David p. W right to add to Milgrom's death
symbolism an emphasis on sexuality. He states that the sources o f ritual
impurity
ill p have a character.
lar
They arise from distinctly human conditions
which parallel the traits acquired by the man and woman [in the creation
account ill Genesis 2-3]: death, disease, and sexual processes. Animal and
cnhic impurities do lot invalidate the analogy. The is parallel to coipse
impurity and the latter exists only as a response to the oilier types. Hence,
from a structural point of view, the garden story and P s purity laws reflect
similar ideas: the mortal condition is incompatible with Gods holiness.30

Thus, what is labeled defiling is what is distinctively human and, perhaps


more important, what is contrary to lie nature o f the Israelite god, who
does not die or engage in sexual activities.

26. Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, p. 187.


27. Meir Malul, Knowledge,

and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture


and Worldview (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publication, 2002), p. 387.
28. Malul, Knowledge, Control, mid Sex, p. 387.
29. But see below for a discussion of whether or not fecal matter deflles.
30. David p. Wright, Unclean and Clean (OT), iwABD, VTj p. 739.

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Journalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

W rights work 0!r impurity is both insightful and important. As with


the other explanations discussed, however, one could raise various
questions in response to his proposal. First. W right's explanation seems
not to make sense o f the duration o f impurity assigned to different
polhiRtirts. For example, why is childbirtli more polluting than corpses? Is
birth more contrary to Aahweh's nature than death? Sm ilarly, why is
eating certain foods defiling rather than the act o f consumption in general? Another issue with W rights proposal is that Robert Parker makes a
comparable argument for ancient Greece, despite the fact that in Greece
divine beings were seen as being sexual.31 Parker's reasoning, in light o f
the latter point, seems 'oi'cccl to me, and would be forced, as well, were it
applied to ancient Mesopotamia, where gods at times also engaged in
sexual acts and could even be killed. The explanations proffered by
Parker aud W right see ritual practices as secondary to theological ideas;
that is, purity conceptions derive 1'roin certain conceptions o f deities. As
even Milgrom concedes, the sources o f impurity in Mesopotamia in many
cases parallel those o f ancient Israel. Thus, ouc cannot help but wonder
how Israelite theological ideas, which at least according to biblical
texts see the deity as immortal and 132.-
could produce pru'ity
conceptions in which the same bodily events are seen as elcfiliug as was
the case in a culture area, Mesopotamia, whose theology /// allow for
divine death and copulation.
Despite the potency o f criticisms sucfi as these, the scholarship that has
most threatened to derail the procct ol' fiiidiug one underlying rationale
f'or Israelite purity rituals has done so almost by accident. I rA'crto recent
scholarly discussions o fth e issue o f'm o ra l iirrpurity'. Beginning in
1980s or, if one counts the work o f Adolph Bficlficr and David Zvi
Hoffman, many decades earlier scholars began to notice that the way
academic work on Israelite conceptions o f impurity described these
conceptions failed to account for the manncrin which some bibhcal texts

31. Robert Parker, Kliasma: Purification and Pollution in Early Greek Religion
(Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1983).
32. Of eourse, there is a fair amount of evidenee that some Israelites did see Yalrweh
as having a eonsort. See, among other works, Jndith M. Hadley, The Cult ofAsherah in
AncientIsraelandJudah:EvidenceforaHebrewGoddess(Can\b 1idge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk
Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
33. Irr speaking ofthe death of gods, I refer primarily to the slaying of Apsu, Tiamat,
and Qingu 111 tile Babylonian Epic of Creation.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

275

talk about impurity.34


11- discusses various sources o f defile^!, most o f which are temporary, and prescribes different ritual
procedures for purifying oneself 1'1'oin each o f tliese defilements. The
Priestly texts do not attribute to these impurities sinfulness or transgression. One should in fact be I'ruitl'ul ajid multiply, but one must deal with
the fluids associated with one's fecundity in the manner outlined by these
texts. Leviticus 15.16-18 reads: T f a man has an emission o f semen, he
will bathe his whole body in water, and be iiupurc until the evening.
Everything made o f cloth or o f skin on which the semen falls will be
washed with water, and be impure until the evening. 11' man has sex with
a woman and has an emission of semen, both o f them will bathe with
water, and be impure until the evening.' This text is straightforward,
technical, and not in any explicit fashion concerned with morality, and it
is typleal ofthe ritual laws in this section ofLeviticiis. Y. one has only
to look to the Holiness Code in Lcvltieus 17-26 to find different conceptions o f impurity. For example, Lev. 18.19-25 reads:
ou shall not approaeh a woinan to uncover her nakedness while sire is in her
menstrual mipurity. or; shall not have serial intercorrrse35 witlr your
klnsnians and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your
offspring to pass them over as a Wiofet'-offering3 and thereby profane the
name pi your GodI am Yahweh... Do not defile yourselves hr any oftlrese
ways, for by all oftlrese practices tire nations I am casting out before you have
defiled tiremselves. Thus the land became defiled, and I visited its iniquity
upon it, and tire land vomited out its inhabitants.37

Prcvlcusly . when scholars addressed the very different impurity language


o fth e Holiness Code, they saw it as being a metaphorical, secondary
usage o fthe normative Priestly language ofim purity that is exemplified
by the earlier chapters ofLeviticus. Seeing the matter differently, Tikva
Frymer-Kensky suggests ur an article entitled 'Pollution, Purification, and
Purgation in Biblical Israel' that

34. See Adolph Bchler, Studies in Sin cmdAtonement in the Rabbinic Literature o f
the First Centnty (London: xford University Press, 1928), and David Zvi Hoffnramr,
Das Buell Leviticus (Berlhr: M. Poppelauer, 1905-1906).
35. As Milgrom writes, the plirase is literally You shall not use your lying for seed
(semen) or You shall not use your penis for sex (Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation
with Introduction and Commentary [AB, 3A; New York, Doubleday, 2000], p. 1550).
36. O rtoMlek.
37. Translation mine.

276

Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)


Biblical Israel had two separate sets of what anthropologists would consider
pollution beliefs: a set discussed extensively as pollutions 111 the ?riestly
laws...and a set of beliefs that we niight tenn danger beliefs. The deeds that
involve these danger beliefs dille! 1
1
11 1
11 from tile deeds that result ill
ritual impurily. Tliere is a clear implication ofwrong-doing, for the individual
has placed himself in danger by doing something that he and the people have
been expressly forbidden to do; the danger is seen as a divine sanction for the
deeds.^

Frymer-Kensky also points otfi that while the rilual pollubons last a set
period oftim e and can be cleansed by ritual Ul;aus. what she ealls "danger
pollutions last indefinitely, and eaititol be ritually ameliorated, Also,
while many l'itual pollutions are contagious for example, someone
suffering from skin disease or venereal disease can make someone else
defiled for a day through touching thmt daug;r pollutions are not
contagious in this way. As she puts it, "One does not share the danger of
an adulterer or o f someone who has eaten blood by touching h im ... There
is, however, an ultimate danger to fire people, for if too mauy individuals
commit these deeds, then the whole society might be considered polluted
and might thus be in langer 01'a collective catastrophe. 39 Lcvitieus 18
threatens just such a 0 against the Israelites if they engage in
certain behaviors, and asse'1'ts that the "vomhmg out' o f th e previous
inhabitants o fthe land was due to such mt'ractions
Like Frymer-Kensky, David W right also sees two major types o f
impurities in the biblical a ^ u s ; these he calls "tolerated impurities' and
"prohibited impurities .Temporary impurities like those deriving f'rom
sexual contact, disease, and , as well as those deriving 1'roin
certain types o f sacrifices, all o f which may be cleansed through ritual
means, are classified by W right as tolerated impurities. This eatygory
generally corresponds with what Ftymer-Kensky calls ritual pollutions.
W right's category o f prohibited impurities, however, does not overlap as
neatly whir F^urcr-K cusky's Imrgcr belief's. For example, Wright subdivides prohibited impurities into two classes, those that are intentional,
38. Tikva Fiymer-Kensky, Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel,
in Carol L. Meyers and Michael Connor (eds.). The Word ofthe Lord Shall Go Forth:
Essays <Honor

o f David Noel Freedman his Sixtieth Birthday (Winona Lake, IN:


ASR/Eisenbrauns, 1983), pp. 399-414 (404).
39. Ptymer-Kensky, Pollution, Purification, and Purgation, p. 404.
40. See David Wright, The Specfrum ofPriestly Defilement, in Gaiy Anderson and
Saul lyan (eds.), Priesthood Cult in Ancientlsrael (JSOTSup, 125; Sheffield: JST
Press, 1991), pp. 150-81.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

277

such as adultery, incest, sacrificing ones child, and purposefully defiling


sacred items, and those that are unintentional, for example, the case of
someone who becomes defiled and only realizes it after the period of
purification has passed, or the case o f a Nazirite, who is prohibited fiom
becoming corpse-contaminated, coming 1 0 a ecrpse accidentally.41
While W right attempts to achieve a greater degree o f precision 1
Frymer-Kensky, both his teriniiietogy and that o f Frymer-Kensky have
been critiqued by Jonathan Klawans in his influential reels / ? /;/'// and
Sin in Ancient Judaism for being cumbersome and imprecise. Klawans
objects particularly to W right's use o f the terms 'tolerated' and permitted' to refer to elefileuieuts resulting from 'activities drat are obligatory,
including procreation and burial'.42 Klawans instead suggests that the
terms 'ritual impurity' and 'moral impurity' be used. According to his
definition, ritual impurity is contracted primarily through natural and
unavoidable processes such as menstruation, ejaculation, and ^uldbirth.
and may be cleansed through rites o f purification. It is a temporary state
that is not connected with uiorality. Moral impurity. however, is brought
about by 'idolatry, murder, and sexual sins', canuot be ritually cleansed,
and lead s to the defileuieut o f the land and the vomiting out o f its
inhabitants. Klawans contends, moreover, dim Jacob Neusner and others
are wrong in seeing this impurity as being metaphorical and secondary to
ritual impurity. Moral impurity, he argues, is found in texts both early and
late.43 He also claims thatdre division between moral impurity and ritual
impurity is one that can encompass essentially all ofthe biblical texts that
use any type 0 l'defilm 1eut language.
I say essentially all' because Klawans concedes that the dietary laws
fit poorly into his schema. This is because eating impure foods is not ust
defiling, but prohibited, and unlike other prohibited behaviors, the

41. Wright, The Speetrrini efTriestly Defilement, pp. 1 6 2-8 .


42. .
1
Klawans, Impurity mid Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000), p. 17.
43. Klawans, Impurity andSin, pp. 10-12,32-33. See also Jacob Neusner, The Idea o f
Purity in Ancient Judaism (Leiden; .J. Brill, 1973). Thomas Kazen, however, critiques
Klawanss understanding of metaphor and his distinction between ritual hiipurity and
moral impurity more generally. See Thomas Kazen, Jesus / ITalakhah: Was
Jesus Indifferent Impurity? (ConBNT, 38; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2002),
pp. 204-207, and Dirt and Disgust: Body and Morality in Biblical Turity Laws, in
Baruch .1. Schwartz et al. (eds.), Perspectives Purity and Purification in the Bible
(London: T&T Clark International, 2008), pp. 43-64 (44-45).

7-7*

Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

defilement caused by eating a forbidden food or even touching the corpse


o f a forbidden animal is ritually, rather than morally, defiling. That is,
unlike the defilement brought about by murder or adultery, the defilement
caused by touehing 0 < can be cleansed. Klawans thus decides that 'the
best option is for the dietary laws to [be] seen on their own terms: as a set
01' rcstrletlons which overlap in some ways with each o fth e impurity
systems laid out here'.44 Yet. as W alter Houston writes
in discussing tliePentateuchal material, Klawans leaves the dietary laws eut
of the elassifieation, as a tiring Sid generis... [when the] overlap [that he
describes], rather than calling for file bracketing out ofthe dietary laws, mighi
have led Klawans to reflect on their 1

to undermine the neat distinction


which he is engaged in drawing.4

A very trenchant critique o f Klawans has been put forth recently by


Thomas Kazen, whose work on impurity is arguably the most groundbreaking in several decades. In addition to problematizing Klawanss
understanding o f metaphor, Kazen also states: 'W hile there is a nioral
aspect to the idea o f purity in ancient Judaism, talking o f moral versus
ritual purity becomes a problem, as if purity ceases to be a ritual category
when applied to moral m atters'.* Rather than arguing for a neat divide
between ritual and moral purity, Razcn utilizes evidence I'roin cognitive
science to make foe case that foe emotion o f disgust is a common
denominator in what Klawans would call 'ritual impurity and 'moral
mpurlly . This emotion is both rooted in our evolutionary biology and
shaped by cultural contexts.* Kazcu thus demonstrates major weaknesses
in Klawans's proposal for there being two related, but separate, purity
systems in the Hebrew Bible

44. Klawans, Impurity and Sin, p. 32.


45. Walter .1. Houston, Review of Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient
Judaism', JTS 52.2 (2001), pp. 722-25 (724). See also Kazen, Dirt and Disgust, pp. 44,
54.
46. Thomas Kazen, Emotions in Biblical Law: A Cognitive Science Approach
(Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011) P- 27.
47. See Kazen, Dirt and Disgust, and Issues oflmpurity in Early Judaism (CB, 45;
Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), as well as Emotions inBiblicalLcrw. While I would
disagree with minor points 111 Kazens treatment, his work 011 the whole is quite sophisticated, and because he recognizes the variegated and sometimes confradictoty nature 0 '
biblical purity texts as well as the fact that botl-1 evolutionaiy development and culturally
variable socialization practices influence conceptions of impurity, he avoids tile problems
iitiierent 111 virtually all ofthe otlier proposals made for understanding Israelite purity.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

279

Interestingly, Klawans recognizes that in drawing a distinetion between


ritual and moral defilement, he is problematizing the venture o f finding a
single symbolic system that can explain all o f the biblical purity laws. He
cites in particular the ideas 'Douglas and Wright, the latter o f whom
statesthat 'all the defilement-creating conditions in the priestly legislation
are o f the same conceptual I'amily and system '.48 While 1 certainly agree
witlr Klawans that his proposals, and the very similar rrps1ls o f
Frymer-Kensky and Wright, only highlight fire inadequacy ofattempting
to fit all o f the Hebrew B ible's purity constructions ntto one system, he
him self could be seen as going in the same direction by attempting to
t'orcc the great variety o f impurity constructions found in the biblical
corpus into only two rigidly defined categories.
This problem is seemingly also inherent in ffiristiirc Hayes's proposal
that one add to Klawanss categories o f defilement 'genealogical impurity', which she finds Ezra-Nehemiah,49 and perhaps also in the recent
work ofE ve Levavi Feinstein. Feinstein, drawing on the work ofKazen,
has been critical o f Klawans's conception o f 'moral impurity' while
putting 'ortli instead a different category o f defilement she calls 'sexual
pollution' that overlaps with some o f what Klawans would group undvr
the rubric ' moral impurity'. Feinstein's proposal is far more limited in
scope than that o f Klawans, but does argue that this type 'im purity is
'
irr a variety o f texts throughout the biblical crpus. She defines
sexual pollution as toe pollution arising 'roin 'my sexual act that departed
from toe ideal I'lll'etong marital fidelity o f a female to a m ale' and cliaracterizes this type o f pollution as generally affecting only women.51
Feinstein sees this pollution at work irr Genesis 34; Num. 5.12-31; f)eut.
24.1-4, and in various passages in Ezekiel. It is also present in Leviticns
18, which presents 'striking departures' from the other texts in its
cnst1nctin o f sexual pollution defiling men rather than women, and in
Ezra 9, tlruglr that text presents a new type ofsexual pollution, according
to Feinstein.51 Although it is surprising that Feinstein does not explicate
48. Wright, Spectrum, p. 165.
49. Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and
Conversionfrom the Bible the Talmud (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
50. Evehevavi Feinstein, Sexual Pollution in tire Hebrew Bible: ANew Perspective,
111 S. Tamar
and Wonil Him (eds. ), Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology o f
f/eferew,SWe(LHBOTS,465;NewYork:T&TClarkIntemational,2010),pp.ll4-45
.( .

1
. Eve Levavi Feinstein, Sexual Pollution ill the Hebrew Bible (unpublished PlrD
dissertation, Haivard Universit, 2010),
288, 326, 330-31.

280

Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

! ritual purity and 'sexual pollution' relate te one another or


how 'sexual pollution' might overlap with conceptions o f shame, what is
more im portantfor our purposes is that even a proposal as comparatively
limited as that of Feinstein, where only a few passages are addressed,
arguably 'alls short in being able to encapsulate the purity language found
in those texts without major qualifications. Within this limited category of
pollution, there are still 'striking departures' and new types. Feinstein
states further that sexual pollution is a 'non-technical' category whose
particular usage depends on the 'rhetorical needs o f passages. One might
ask, , whether not it makes sense to group the particular construetious o f impurity found in these texts under a new label, rather than
exploring instead how conceptions o f impurity, gender, and shame
intersect in each o f these passages and how individual texts and autlrors
draw upon and manipulate these conceptions. Is this intersection not what
leads to a certain similarity o f thought in these texts, rather tiran the
similarity arising from the texts' ^ inplil'ying a bounded category o f
thought that one might term 'sexual pollution?
It is, I think, by now elearthat scholars' attempts to schematize Israelit: purity construetions have raised and continue to raise many questions.
One may identify yet further trends ill this scholarship. A prime example
is that many ofthe proposals for understanding Israelite purity construetions demonstrate an internst in symbolism on the part o f scholars. This is
obvious in the case o f Douglas, but also in the case oltylilgrom. Wright,
and others. If one penetrates inore deeply, however, one sees that a large
number o fth e explanations ol'biblical impurity texts maki the assumption that rituals stem from a symbolic structure, aparticular theology, ora
distinct worldview. Thus, beliefs are primaty and ritual practices are
secondary. For example, h'lilgi'om argues that the Priestly regard for life
led substances and events associated with death to be classified as impure.
Once classified as such, certain ritual praetiecs followed. This assumption
o fth e primacy o f symbolism or o f beliefs in general is at odds with the
approaches and arguments most influential in contemporary ritual studies.
I refer te the approaches o f Catherine Dell and others who, influenced
very much by Foucault and Bourdieu, share a similar outlook that the
body and mind are not separate entities, and who see the eoueomitaut
ritual/bclicfdichotomy arising from the body/mind divide, too, as false.
<

52.
See particularly Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, //

' // -)( New York: Oxford


University Press, 1992), who discusses trese issues at length and cites the relevant works
of Foucault and Bourdieu, upon whose ideas her own proposals are very much dependent.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

281

None of the major works on impurity surveyed above seem to have


accounted forthis major shift having occurred in ritual studies.53The shift
is not overly recent, ft must be saidalready it began in the 1970s, and
was well established by the late '90s. Even those scholars who are not
very interested in symbolism, for example, Christine flaycs. have not
displayed the focus on ritual or pravis that one might expect.
This is not to state, let me make quite clear, that various biblical
scholars have not done work on ritual that is in conversation with current
trends in ritual studies. Certainly, such work has been done.54 But the
most influential works on Israelite purity have not been steeped in
contemporary ritual studies. Often, rcsearch on Israelite sacrifice has been
rite1^-l'oeusxl. in contrast to research on Israeli! purity, which has been
symbolism-focused or belief-focused, as if purity were at base an idea
rallier than a set ofpraetices. when in I'act biblical texts discuss purity
rituals as much as they do purity conceptions. One exception to this
tendency has been the work o f Saul M. Olyan, particularly (es and
Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations a/('I, which highlights
purity rituals and recognizes that purity and impurity are, in essence,
bases o f inelusiou and exclusion 1'or ntualized environments. Olyan
writes:
contrast between what is clean and what is unclean detennines who or
what gains admission to tire sanctuary. It detennines who, among tirse who
are privileged, may have contact with holy items or foods... All persons who
are classed as clean may enter holy precincts... In confrast, all persons and
tilings classed as rmclean are baimed from the sanctuary sphere, from contact
with holy items, aird from quasi-cultic rites requiring purity.55

Olyan examines in detail how cuhic and other social hierarchies are both
created and maintained by purity coirstructioirs. in contrast to Klawans,
wlro maintains, in my view unconvincingly, that biblical purity laws
are not fuirdanrcntally concerned with promoting social hierarchies.51
53. The work ofKazen is a noteworthy exception.
54. See, for example, Olyan, Rites and Rank, William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the
Hebrew Bible: Meaning mid Power (Baltimore: The Jolms Hopkins University Press,
2004); James w. Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric <Leviticus:

From Sacrifice
Scripture
(Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2007); GeraldA. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap:
Ritual mid Ritual Texts<
the Bible (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), among others.
55. Olyan, Rites and Rank, p. 38.
5b. Jonathan Klawans, Concepts of Purity ill the Bible, in Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi
Brettler, and Michael Fishbane (eds.), The
Study Bible (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2004), pp. 2041-47 (2041-44).

282

Journal for the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

Although Olyan's approach Is more line with what has become the
norm in ritual studies, his scholarship has not garnered the level o f
attention as has the wod ofKlaw ans and others whose primary focus has
bccu in grouping and systematizing conceptions o f purity rather thau in
examining w hatpurhy constructions do, lrow they functioned in Israelite
culture and society to establish and reinforce lines between social groups,
as well as to shape give order to the lives o f Israelites .
Anotlier tendency of scholarship on Israelite impurity is that many
seholars have made the assumption that the authors o fp , ifn o t explicit in
providing explanations f'or purity customs, were nonetlreless systematic in
theirpresentation ofim purity rules. Certainly, the p writers are systematic
in the sense that tlrey delineate in one collection a wide variety ofpru'ity
laws. This was clearly a conscious process on the part o fp , which dil'l'crentiates these writers treatment ofimpurity from that 01'. for example, the
writers o fth e books 01' Kiugs. who merely refer to impurity customs
offhandedly if they relate to the larger narrati ve they are presenting and
are not concerned with defilement as such. P s process o f compilation is
not equivalent, however, to inventing a purity system out o f whole cloth
As stated above, purity concerns are attested irr a wide range 01' biblical
sources. Virtually all ofthe major sources 01' impurity irr p are also seen
as defiling in other biblical texts. 'I'lris was tire case with seminal impurity. menstnral impurity, corpse impurity, and so forth.58p may have been
organizing and delineating, and in all likelihood expanding, but what the
p writers were building upon were purity conceptions and practices
stirrin g ly already widespread in their own culture. It does not make good
sense, then, to speak ofthe symbolic system underlying P's purity collection in Lcr iticu 1 -

, as if p had invented these customs surrounding


impurity.
The purpose oftlris review o f scholarship has been to demonstrate that
various issues are inherent in tire most important proposals put forth for
understanding Israelite purity constructions. While it is in the nature o f
37.
The desire find the conceptual origins
'
' purity ideas seems in some
ways to be tied more to contemporary theological concerns tiran to a desire to understand
Israelite crrlture and society. For more on filis issue, see Lemos, The Universal and the
Particular
58.
For example, 1 am. 21.2-10 sees sexual intercourse as defiling; 2 Sam. 11.4
refers to menstrual impurity; 2 Sam 3.29 refers to someone witir an abnonnal genital
discharge; 2 Kgs 23.14 clearly sees human bones as defiling; Gen. 7.2,8; 8.20; and Judg.
13.7,14 refer to unclean foods or animals. These are just a few examples. 1 am unaware,
however, of any biblical text outside of Tew 12 that refers to the impurity of childbirth.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/


scholarship to attempt to 1 1 . and it is incumbent upon scholars to
present explanations that can uiulre sense ofthe material they study, it is
my position that the continuing search for a single rationale, or cecn two
or three' rationales, underlying all o f the biblical texts that speak of
impurity has in some ways distorted rather than enhanced our understanding o f Israelite culture and religion. This tendency has also, as 1 will
demonstrate below, glossed over major inconsistencies among different
texts $
o f purity while also placing undue emphasis upon
Lcvitieus 11-1 It is my contention that all o f this has resulted in an
obscured understanding o f biblical purity constmctions

3. Incnnsistencies amnng the Purity Ideas of I3ifferent Biblical Texts


Much o f the scholarship on Israelite impurity customs has shared a
propensity to smooth over the inconsistencies between texts or to treat
the construetions o f Priestly texts as paradigmatic md somehow more
legitimate than the purity constructions o f non-Priestly texts. 1 suggest
here that it is on the contrary not only necessary but quite [ ' <to take
seriously the dil'I'crciiccs between texts. One reason that it is important to
account 'or these inconsistencies is because of scholars' continuous use of
the word system to describe the eoiistellatioii o f purity ideas and practices in the Hebrew Bible and o fth e frequent attempts toward systematization outlined above. W hat does the word 'system ' mean? Definitions
ofthis term emphasize orgamzatou. coherence, and non-contradiction.59
Because o fth is, it is appropriate to turn now to some o fth e points of
contradiction between texts. If the io n s is te n c ie s are significant, as I
believe they are, this would problematize tire use cl'tire word 'system ' to
describe biblical purity constructions, as well as caution one against
attempting to uncover a system underlying these eonstruetioiis by finding
59.
Definitiun 1 a. in the Oxford English Dictionary states that a sy steni is: A set or
assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex
unity: a whole composed of parts hr orderly arrangement according to some scheme or
plan (http://www.oed.com.proxy2.lib.11wo.ca:2048/view/Entry/196665?redirectedFrom=
system#eid). The New Encyclopedia o f Philosophy states that a system comprises a
whole not contradicting itself but cohesive (j. GrootenandG. .10 steenbergen et al.,New
Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy [trails., ed., and rev. Edmond van den Bossche; New ork:
Philosophical Library, 1972], p. 425. William L. Reese, hi the Dictionary ofPhilosophy
and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980], 1.
565), states that a system is a set of elements with internal coherence and unity. Tliese
examples will, I hope, suffice to make my pomt.

284

Journalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

one rationale, or even two or more overarching rationales, by which they


coa all be explained. The hollowing examples suggest that there is not
one purity 'system ' in the Hebrew Bible, but rather many different sets o f
purity constructions.
Ezra-Nehemiah is a good starting point because it has created problems for Klawans and others. 1 referred above to Christine H ayes's proposed category o f 'geirealogical impurity', a category she generates
because she believes Klawanss category ofuioral impurity to be inadequate for describing the impurity in Ezra-Nehemiah.0 Aeeordiug to
Klawans, moral impurity results from certain grave sins, such as idolatry
adultery, that is, from immoral behaviors. !> Ezra-Nehemiah, intermarriage with Gentiles is strongly condemned. Klawans states drat this is
because 'inK'cnrarriage will lead to sin.1 While it is true that Neh. 13.26
says as much, orre finds a different rationale I'or prohibiting marriage with
foreigners in Ezra 9.1-2, which characterizes foe mixing o fth e holy
seed of Israel with the peoples o f foe lairds as a sacrilege (mcfal).
Though the word tcbt, or 'abominations- a t e r m that Klawans argues
is used ofm oral impurity is found in Ezra 9.1,the reference to the 'holy
seed' o f Israel and to intermarriage as a sacrilege makes clear that the
writers o f Ezra-Nehemiah were concerned not o n ly wifo Israels
behavior, but wifo the sanctity o f its very bloodlines, a sanctity maintained onty by retraining free o f contamination by the seed o f Gentiles.
(Ehis becomes even clearer when ouc considers tlrat the term 'seed' IS
used for semen in various biblical texts.) Tims, foe way that EzraNehemiah constructs sexual immorality is unlike dial o f any otlrcrbiblical text but not even Ezra-Nehemiah is internally consistent.62 B ofo
Klawans and Hayes strongly insist that ritual impurity is never attributed
to Gentiles in the biblical corpus. Yet. Nehemiah 13 calls tlris assertion
into question.* The text iirt'oi'ins us that Nehemiah grew extremely angry
60. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities, particularly p. 7.
61. Klawans, Impurity and Sin, p. 45.
62. Saul M. Olyans article, Purity Ideology as a Pool to Reconstitute the
Comm unity,2004 )35 /) ,p p .1-16,where he differentiates between various sources in
Ezra-Nehemiah and the imparity ideas found in each, is very much relevant here.
63. The book of Juditir, too, implies that Gentiles transmit impurity. As Jdt. 12.5-9
states, every night Juditir would leave Holofemess camp to pray, brrt before praying,
would batir herself. Verse 9 says: Then she returned purified (,kathara)... From what
would Judith have become defiled 011 a daily basis if not the Gentiles 111 Holofemess
camp? The text takes great pains to 1clear that she and the foreign general were not
engaging in sexual relations, nor does she eat the Gentiles food. The presence ofGentiles

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/


upon hearing that Tobiah the Aaunomte had been given a chamber in the
courts o f the Tempie and that after he had had Tobiah's belongings
thrown out o f the room, the space was ritually cleansed. According to
Klawans, moral impurity cannot be purged by ritual means, and so the
only way to make sense o f this text is if its writers /// attribute to
Gentiles ritual impurity. The importance o f all ofthis for our purposes is
that one huds in Ezra-Nehemiah a multi-faceted and perhaps even iuconsistent usage ofim purity language that, like the impurity language used in
the dietary laws, is unique and only with grcat elilfcult> grouped together
with the impurity constructions ofotlrer biblical texts.
A second area that has presented problems for some scholars is the
issue o f whether not fccal matter was considered defiling in ancient
Israel. We saw above that Mdgrom denies that this was so, as do FrymerKensky, Malul, and others.04 Yet, in Deut. 23.12-14, the text states that
Israelites must go outside the camp to relieve themselves, because the
camp is ^holy , and in 2 Kgs 10.27, Jehu and his followers destroy the
temple 01' Baal and make it into a latrine, presumably in order to pollute
it. Even more strikingly, hr Ezek. 4.12-15,Yahweh commands Ezekiel to
bake a barlcy-cakc on human dung as a sign-act representing that the
Israelites will eat their bread, impure, among the nations. Ezekiel, who
was in fact an Israelite priest, then protests, stating, 'Lord Yahwch! I have
never defiled myself; from my youth up to now I have never eateu what
died by itself or was tom apart by animals, nor has "carrion-ficsh" come
into my moutlr.' These verses make clear that Ezekiel, him self a priest,
considered human waste defiling. Why Leviticus and Numbers do not
seem to consider this substance elefiliirg is difficult to say, but one can
state with certainty that at least some people in priestly circles did and
that their viewpoint was shared by those in deuteronomistic circles ."
Another problematic area lies in the particular ways different texts
gender defilement.00' Eilberg-Schwartz and others have sought to problematize the longer period o f defilement prescribed by Lcr iticus 15 for

seems to be the only plausible reason for her ritual bathing. Jdt. 9 is also rife with
ambiguous pollution language that might refer to Gentiles eonveying impurity.
64. See
Pollution, Purification, and Purgation, p. 401; Malul,
Knowledge, Control, and Sex, p. 380; among ofiiers, Eilberg-Schwartz is a bit mom specific and says Israelite priests do not list excrement as a source of contamination (Tile
Savage in Judaism, p. 189).
63. Zech. 3 seems to share the same conception. See below for more 011 filis text.
66. Feinstein discusses tills matter, as well, though my treatment differs in some ways.

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Journal for the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

menstmation versus seminal emissions. However, when one considers the


fact that ejaculation normally takes place in under thirty seconds and that
menstruation lasts days, it is in my opinion difficult to see Leviticus as
somehow privileging males, especially in light of ffie chiastic structuring
o fth e chapter and o fth e severity it assigns to male venereal impurity.'
However, ffie gender balance o f Leviticus 15 is not shared by other texts
that refer to menstrual defilement. Interestingly, both Ezekiel and
Lamentations seem to regard menstruation as emblematic o f severe
impurity, even though Leviticus 12-15 considers venereal and skin
disease to be far worsc.'^ Ezekiel ffie I-Lililes Code ol'Leviticris even
list having sex wiffi a menstruating woman among the most grave o f
transgressions, with ffie latter stating ill Lev. 20.18 that those who
engaged in such an act would be cut ol'l'l'rom the people of Israel. Despite
this, not even in the Holiness Code and Ezekiel does one find agreement
in ffie way defilement is gendered. We see hr Eeviticus 15, and even iu
non-Priest!) texts such as 1 Sam. 21.2-10, that sex defiles males, as well
as ffie females they are having sex with through tlreir coming into contact
wiffi the semen, yet Ezekiel at various points describes illicit sex acts as
defiling only the woman. While one might attempt to see Ezekiel's
construction o f sexual defilement as being somehow peculiar to moral
impurity rather than peculiar to Ezekiel, the Holiness Code, which is also
extremely concerned with what Klawans calls 'm oral impurity', clcuriy
sees illicit sex acts as defiling Irotlr the woman and the man.
It is also useful to examine intersections between what mairy scholars
see as ffie separate categories !'physical cleanliness, or what one might
call 'hygiene, ritual purity, and moral purity in various biblical texts.
Zechariah 3 serves asausel'ul example o fthe connection between purity
and materialist hygienic concerns that one sometimes finds in ffie Hebrew
Bible. There, the prophet has a vision o fth e high priest loriinn standing
67. Tirzalr Meacham, An Abbreviated Histoiy of the Develepnrent of tire Jewish
Menstrual Laws , in Rahel R. Wasserfall (ed.), Women and \Vater: Menstruation in
Jewish Life Law (Hanover, NH: Brandis University/ University Rress 01' New
England, 1999), pp. 23-39 (26), makes a similar point about longer duration of
1
11'
versus ejaculation.
68. See, e.g., Ezek. 36.16; Lam. 1.8.
69. See Ezek. 18.6, lb, 15; 22.11; 33.26.
7b. See Lew 18.20,24-30; 20.21.
71.
Let me make clear tirt I do notrrse the term hygiene in a nmdem bacteriological
sense here, but rather in its simpler materialist sense, meaning concern with and practices
cohered ongettirrg dirt or guirk off of ones body or other things connected to oneself.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System?

287

flanked by the angel ofY ahw eh and the angebe accuser. Verse 3 tells us
that Joshua was wearing filthy garm ents', hegctdtm sfptn. The adjective
used for "filthy "dirty' refers elsewhere to vomit (Isa. 28.8) Ol'hunian
excrement (2 Kgs 18.2?: Isa. 36.12), and the noun form ofthis root
to human waste in those very passages in Dmt'rono1uy (23.14) and
Ezekiel (4.12) that attribute Impur t> to this substance. Perhaps even more
interesting is that the verses that follow state that Joshua's filth-covcrcd
clothing should be replaced with festal apparel' and with a "clean
turban'. The word used here for clean is thr, the very term signil'ying
ritual purity in so many biblical texts. One must ask, then, whether not
the author ol'Zcchariall truly recognized a distinction between "dirtiness'
and impurity, for certainly Joshua's clotlung would hall under both
categories. It would be difficult indeed to argue that clothing covered in
human feces was ever merely ritually defiling and not "dirty'. In a similar
I'asluom tire Hebrew root h-r-r can designate both ritual purity and
hygienic cleanliness. In Isa. 49.2 the root is used to describe polishing an
arrow, but just three ehapte rs later, in Isa. 52.11, the same root is used to
mandate ritual purity ("touch no impure thing... purify yourselves
[,hibbem't], you who carry the vessels ofY ahw eh'). A similar situation
obtains with the' roots z-k-'n and z-k-k. These roots generally refer to
cleanliness in a hygienic or aesthetic sense, but an adjective derived I'roin
fire latter root is used in Exod. 27.20; 30.34, and Lev. 24.2 to refer to
pure, as in unmixed, olive oil and frankincense to be used in ritual
contexts. Relevant, too, is Ps. ?3.13. which states, Vainly, I have made
my heart clean {zikkt I'hcihl) and washed my hands in innocence'.7
Proverbs 20.9 even puts fire root z-k-'n in parallel eoirstruetion wiffi the
root t-h-r: "Wlro can say, ""I have made my heart cffian {zikkt libb); I am
pure (.thart) from my sin?' Isaiah 1.16 similarly reads: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves ele'air (,htmakk); remove the evil ofyour doings
I'rom before my eyes'. These verses reveal a fuzzy semantic boundary
between hygienic eLanline:ss. moral cleanliness, and ritual purification.
The above passages also discuss washing in conjunction wiffi what
Klawans would call moral impurity. They are not tire only texts that
Klawans would classify as dealing wiffi moml impurity that speak of
iruril'ying oneself '
sin through ritual means. Another example is
Jer. 2.22-23, which reads: ""Though you wash yoursclf\ itl 1 lye and use
much soap, tire stain o f your guilt is still before , says the Tord

72. Translation mine.

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Journal for the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

Yahweh. "How can you say, '1 am not defiled, 1 have not gone after the
Baals'?' Here, moral impurity is tied to idolatry, one oftirc three major
elasses o f sins leading to moral impurity, according to Klawans, but ritual
purification is also described. If this 1 purification is only figurative,
tiren must not the purported 'm oral' inrpurityalso be figurative? (Klawans
has argued strenuously against moral impurity being merely figurative,
metaphorical, or secondary in nature to ritual impurity.) If the ritual
purification is a reflection o f real practices, then would this not demonstrate that at least some Israelites thought one could purify oneself from
sin by ritual means?73 O f course, Jerem iah's point is that this is not
actually possible; sin cannot be thus cleansed. Nonetheless, Ezekiel 36
presents a similar situation. Klawans cites this latter text as one that
evidences moral impurity,74 but V . 25 speaks ol'Yalrweh sprinkling water
upon the people to cleanse them. Again, is ft plausible to see the moral
impurity in this passage as non-metaphorical while maintaining that the
ritual purification is metaphorical, or while maintaining that moral
impur ly cannot be purged through tuai means? The writers ofthe Dead
Sea Scrolls saw impurity and sin as being clo$fly related, and prescribed
ritual purification for sin.75 If they confused these categories, perhaps
some 01' tire Israelites who came before tireur had done the same. Or
perhaps no such clear separation o f the categories o f ritual impurity,
moral impurity, siu. and hygiene even existed in the minds o f Israelites,
or some Israelites, to begin with.
All ofthe eases ust described make it abundantly clear that there is not
one, but rather various sets o f purity constructions in the Hebrew Bible.
While there are o f course areas o f agreement between these, there are also
many areas o f disagreement and even areas o f internal inconsistency. In
my view, none o f this should be surprising. It has been argued for some
time now that the desire for consistency, rather than being a universal
value, is instead a h a l l m a r k o f modernism and o f W estern intellectual
thought more generally?" Not even the writers o f ?, who are the most
technical and the most explicitly concerned with purity, claim to be
putting forth a consistent purity system or tell us why they think certarn
73. See alse Kazen, Dirt and Disgust, p . , saAEmorons in Biblical Law, pp. 2729, fer a critique ef Klawanss treatinent 1 'tliis and etlier passages.
74. Klawans, Impurity Sin, p. 30.
73. As Klawans himself discusses. See Imparity and Sin, particularly Chapter 3.
76.
See, for example, Beverley c. Southgate, Postmodernism in History: Fear
Freedom? (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 128-33.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System?

289

things are defiling. W hy does one find different ideas about purity in
different biblieal texts? It is because rituals are by nature constantly
sltil'ferg and. more often than not, localized. It also seems probable that
different Israelites may have had differing perspectives. There is no
reason to think that ideas about purity were any more static in ancient
Israel than were ideas about intermarriage, kingship, orthe proper way to
worship ahw eh, all o f which scholars widely agree changed over fee
course of Israel's history, and iu some cases varied from region to region.

4. Conclusions and Avenues for Future Researeh


What, then, can one conclude about Israelite purity constructions? While
one cannot know exactly how Israelites iu any one place and time conceived ofpurity, some conjectures can be made utilizing the broad range
o f biblical texts that discuss iui purity. The most important conclusion to
which one can come, examining the biblical corpus as a whole, is that
marking a distinction between purity and impurity was an important part
o f life throughout ancient Israel* There are references to such a
distinction in a wide variety 'biblical texts; these texts are ol'botli early
and late, priestly and non-priestly origins. Unlike what many scholars
have thought in the past, it was not just the Israelite priests who cared
about defilement, hi fact, it is perhaps more accurate to say that priests
cared about defilement because Israelites in general cared about defilement. In other words, priests, like oilier Israelites, were in all likelihood
socialized in such a maimer that they viewed certain bodily processes as
being impure. This would explain why many biblical texts seem nontechnical in their use ofpurity language; the Israelites were perhaps less
reliant upon rules laws in canying out practices surrounding impurity
than many scholars assume.
Another broad conclusion that one may draw is that the Israelites were
not nearly so consumed by the question o f why certain b()lily processes
and substances were impure as modern seholars have been. It is noteworthy that tire writers ofLeviticus 11-1 were frustratiiigly sitent on the
reasons underlying the purity rules they present. W hy do seminal
emissions mimstruation defile? The text does not tell us. W hy does the
former defile I'or one day and the latter I'or seven? Again, die text does not
say The Holiness Code is more forthcoming wife its explanations, but

77. Olyan makes a similar comment; see his Rites and Rank, p. 38.

290

Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

that text is normally seen as the produet o f a dil'l'ereut. though still


priestly, set ofwriters. And. though the writers ofthe Holiness Code were
<to tell us that nrurder. idolatry, and sexual sins, including sex with a
mcnstruajit, would lead tire land to vomit out its inhabitants, one still does
not leam what the reasoning was behind these writers' reactions to these
behaviors. The authors ofthese texts presumed that their rcaders would
share their views on the defiling nature o f certain activities orphenomena.
They no more explained why than an American, writing for an American
audience, would explain why sex with an animal or eating wriggling
insects is repulsive to (the vast majority Americans. As Kazen has
recently discussed, drawing upon the work ofthe anthropologist Richard
Shweder and others, many societies do not differentiate clearly at all
between what is conventional, that is, socially customary, and what is
moral. Both conventions and morals are naturalized, and the violation of
conventions is understood as being morally transgressive.' This seems
to have been the case in ancient Israel, a I'act which could also explain
why Israelite authors, including Priestly ones, toll no need to provide a
rationale for their purity customs.
One conclusion to which one can easily come in examining impurity in
the Hebrew Bible is that different biblical texts, and thus different biblical
authors, present dil'lb'rcnt perspectives on impurity. Various examples o f
divergences have already been provided above. This encourages one to
examine Israelite impurity customs !' a diachronic perspective, or in a
historically and culturally contextualized I'ttsl on. examining how Israelite
practices changed overtim e and how different Israelites negotiated and
manipulated > in stru c tio n s. Unfiartonately. such a trmt1nmt o f
Israelite impurity constructions is beyond the purview o f this article and
would likely require its own bool<-lmgth study. Nonetheless, 1 will treat
briefly a rtic u la r example ofhow Israelite purity constructions can be
examined !' ainore Instoricized. contextualized perspective in orderto
illustrate what <o f approach 1 am proposing.
In the books o f Ezekiel and "
one finds fascinating cases
ofhow impurity language in response to toe trauma o f conquest
and exile at the hands o fth e Neo-Babylonians. These books' impurity
78.
See Chapter 3 ef Kazen, Emotions in Biblical
. While Kazens treatment of
this issue is strong 011 the whole, I do 1that he underestimates the extent to which
W ^em ers, too, 11t1ralize conventions. A good example would be conventions surrounding gender. 111the minds of most Westerners, conventions, morality, and what is seen as
being part ofthe natural order are quite often blended,just as is the case 111 other cultures.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System '/

291

language has been seen as less precise and systematic than that o f the
Priestly authors o f Leviticus, and has thus been treated far less ol'tcii by
scholars. Yet, each ofthese books presents an interesting and potentially
instructive example ofhow Israelite impurity constructions were shaped
hr response to ccrtaiu historical events. More specifically, in Ezekiel and
Lamentations, impurity, shame, and othcrciuotious are all marshaled and
interwoven to convey trese authors" traumatized responses to exile and
defeat.
In the book o f Ezekiel, one sees this particularly in chs. l b aird 23 o f
tire book, where Jerusalem is described as the adulterous wife o f Y a h ^ h
In these chapters, the word zncL "whore", is applied to Jerusalem more
than two dozen times, and one also finds the following tenns repeatedly
used: tcbt, "abominations'; zim, "lewdness"; cerw, "nakedness";
krlimm, shame"; and various forms ofthe root t-m-3, to be or become
defiled". Ezekiel 23.28-30 reads: 'Lor drus says the lordYahweh: ! will
deliver you into the hands o f those whom you hate, into the hands of
those from whom you turned in disgust; and they shall deal with you in
hatred... and leave you stark naked (crm w cerw% and the nakedness of
your whorings shall be exposed. Your lewdness and your ^Irorlngs
(w mmmtk wetazntayik) have brought this upon you, because you
whored o u r s e lf out to the nations, and defiled yourself witli then Idols .
The combined and repeated use ofthe terms listed above woi'lss together
in these chapters to express the overwhelming sense o f disgust that
Ezekiel feels, and wants the reader to feel, toward the transgressions of
this allegorical woman, Jerusalem, and toward the defeated Israelites she
represents. Them is a primal nature to the emotions conveyed by this text,
a feature that it shares with Lamentations, a book that responds to the
selfsame historical events.
!amenlations, hl<c I3zcl<1cl. 0 l1rs together tlie language ol'clcfilciucnt
with that o f humiliation as it describes in highly evocative terms toe
conquest and suffering ofthe Israelites. La1nmtati01rs 1.8-9 states: "Jerusafrin sinned terribly, so she has become a nic/c/ci (menstmal impurity); all
who honored her despise her, torthey have seen hernakedness (cerw) ...
Her iiupiii'ity (tumcV) was to her skirts. ' Lamentations 1.17 again says that
Jerusalem fas become a "menstrual impurity'; 3.45 says Yahweh has
79. Translation niine.
80. 1 draw here upon Kazens argmnents regarding tire eoimection between disgust
and impurity, though he does not examine these passages 111 particular or how ^purity
language is used 111 an exilic context.

292

Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

made the Judeans 'trash refuse'; 4.14 states that the people wander
the streets 'defiled with blood'; 4.21 again speaks o f nudity; and 5.1 of
herp, 'sham e'.81 Although there is no partieular reason to think that the
author 01' L^umtatons was a priest like the prophet Ezekiel was, one
nonetlreless sees here a blending ofim purity language with othertypes of
language, tire purpose o f which is to articulate a eery deep sense o f disgust and humiliation. The fact that these Israelite writers, who very much
appear to have been suffering 1'rom what we would term 'traum a',1 draw
upon impurity language to express their traumatized emotionality in my
view demonstrates the centrality ofim purity to Israelite culture. A sense
ol'uuirurity.1 and seemingly one centered very much in the body, was just
as present irr their ^ y c h e s as was a sense o f shame, rage (in the case o f
Ezekiel), and profound loss ( the case 01' Laiucntations). There is no
systematizing objective in these works and, in the case 01' f omentations
in particular, tire cult is not the primary 1'ocal point. Yet, the book still
repeatedly uses impurity language. 1 would argue that attempting to plaee:
the impurity language in these texts into one particular category o f
impurity misses the point, telling us far less about these texts and their
writers than does examining how these writers were responding to the
traumas that bcfidl them and using the imagery and terminology of

defilement to so.
W hat I suggest, then, is a move away from a synchronic approach in
which one examines the biblical purity system' to a more lustoricizctl
perspective assessing how different authors and different communities
made use o f purity construetions. and also manipulated these construetions in different contexts and as a response to different lustorieal
situations. While the question o f how biblical texts reflect actual social
practices is athom y one, it is a question that eannot be sidestepped if one
is to make any attempt to reconstruct Israelite culture and society, pr even
8 . Translations mine.
82. On the ! ;
of Ezekiel, see T.M. Lentos, They Have Become Women:
Judean Diaspora and Tostcolonial Theories of Gender and Migration, in Saul M. Olyati
(y.\SocialTheotyar 1dtheSfttdyofIsmeliteReligiorr:Essaysin Retrospect aidProspect
(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), pp. 81-109, where I cite recent works
discussing Ezekiel and trauma. See also Ruth ?oser. Das Ezechielbuch / TraumaLiteratur (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2012).
83. I draw here upon tile ideas of ?ietre Bourdieu regarding tile sense ofhonor, and
Catlierine Bells related idea of die sense of ritual. See Bourdieu, Outline ofa Theory
Practice (touts. Richard Nice; Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology;
Cambridge: Cambridge University ?ress, 1977); and Bell,
Theory, RitualPractice.

LEMOS Where There Is Dirt, Is There System?

293

if one is [0 utilize evidence from anthropology or ritual studies. Shifting


our 'oeus away from texts toward communities, cultures, and even
individual authors would not only bring biblical scholars' approaches
more irr line with those o f the anthropologists and ritual theorists [
whose work they draw, but ft would also and more importantly curich the
study o f ancient Israelite culture and society by focusing, as aiulrropologists do, on the lived experiences ofpeople.84The contemporary focus on
lived experiences and embodiment in the humanities and social sciences
is an important shift away from Cartesian dichotomies toward a richer
way o f understanding human lives. But, let us not forget, embodiment
requires bodies. The Israelites botlr the individuals and social groups
who are responsible for the texts o f the Hebrew Bible were human beings
with material and psychological needs. They were also products o f and
participants in their own eultums and societies, just as all human beings
are. W e cannot let an emphasis on studying texts distract us I'roui
reconstructing, however imperfectly, the individuals, social groups, and
cultures that produced these texts.
If nothing else, it is clear that eonstructlons o f impurity in ancient
Israel were multifaceted and complex. There was no more one system,
symbolic otherwise, uuelcrlyiug impurity ideas in ancient Israel than
there is one system underlying ideas o f sanctity or hierarchy even
propriety in American society or British society or any other modern
soeirty. There are on toe contrary mauy competing systems in our own
contemporary cultures, and it is highly likely that toe same situation
obtained in ancient Israel. I would in I'aet state that toe biblical corpus
contains incontrovertible evidence for not ouly eompe'tiug symbols, but
competing rituals, competing hierarchies, and competing discourses. In
looking for the meaning, the rationale underlying Israelite purity constructions, we have not only failed to recognize their complexity, but have
in fact mischaracterized them as being static, unitary, and subsumed to
84.
For nrore on tiiis, see T.M. Lemos, Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew
Bible, hr Steven F. McKeirzie et al. (eds.), Oxford Encyclopedia o f Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Fress, forthconiing). I do not mean to discount here the
study oftextual interpretation hr the Second Tenrple period and following. Of course, one
cannot understand early Judaism without taking hrto account tire histoiy ofhrterpretation
of authoritative texts. Yet, this textual mterpretation itself generated new practices and
influenced the lived ^ ^ rie n c e s ol'people, aird so a focus on textual mterpretation and one
on experiences and embodmrent are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In any case, tire
study of how later auflrors and communities interpreted biblical purity texts is alive and
well in the fields of religious studies aird Jewish studies.

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Joiirnalfor the Study ofthe Old Testament 37.3 (2013)

theological concerns. To put the matter simply, the type o f analysis that
seeks ever to schematize almost always sees ritual as secondary to belief
and the body as secondary to the mind. Yet, in assuming such simplistic
dichotomies, we lim it ratlierthan expand our knowledge oflsraelite ritual
and Israelite culture more broadly.


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