#189. What is the punishment for having sex with an animal: Death OR being cut off OR being cursed? (Ex 22:18; Lev 20:15-16 vs Lev 18:22-23 vs Deut 27:21)

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The ancient scrolls that centuries later came to be labeled the Bible by a later generation of readers contain variant punishments for having, or in one case intending to have, sex with an animal. It is clear that this act was intolerable and highly offensive to all biblical scribes. However, whether it was punishable by death or not may have been a point of contention.

Our oldest text, E, clearly assigns death for this hideous act: “Anyone who lies with an animal shall be put to death” (Ex 22:18). Clear and simple.

Likewise, Leviticus 20 deems this act punishable by death.

And a man who will have intercourse with an animal shall be put to death. And you shall kill the animal. And a woman who will go up to any animal to mate with it: you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall be put to death. Their blood is on them. (Lev 20:15-16)

What is telling here is that in the case of a woman just the mere intention of sleeping with an animal, and not necessarily the act itself—“and a woman who will go up to any animal to mate with it”—incurs the death penalty. Additionally, “their blood is upon them,” is a typical priestly expression which highlights the intentionality of the crime. In other words, it is not an inadvertent sin. It is a conscious act, a direct violation of one of Yahweh’s prohibitions. Recall that for the Priestly writer only inadvertent crimes or sins may be expiated through sacrifices; all conscious violations of Yahweh’s laws could not be atoned for (see #174). Thus, “their blood is upon them.”

Leviticus 18, however, lists the punishment for this offense, together with others, as that of being “cut off” (18:29). It is an aberration. According to this author, it violates the borders, which Yahweh created himself at the creation, between the pure and the impure (see #183). And Deuteronomy 27:21 merely denotes such an individual as “cursed.”

Scholars have long noticed that the contents of Leviticus 18 and 20 are practically identical. Both chapters deal with sexual offenses; however, each one employs a unique set of expressions for speaking of these sexual relations. They are duplicate lists of sexual violations and were most likely written at two different times and later assembled together in an attempt to reinforce one another and stress the hideous nature of these crimes, as viewed by the Aaronid priestly guild. But how different was death from the punishment of being “cut off”?

The “divine” punishment of karet

The expression “cut off” or karet is only found in the Priestly literature. It is a unique feature of the Aaronid priestly guild’s lexicon, and as we saw in other instances (#183, #185, #186, #188) it is presented as a divinely-decreed punishment from Yahweh’s own mouth. Furthermore, it is never explicitly explained. What does it mean to be “cut off”? Presumably, we would understand that the individual is cut off from the people of Yahweh, and perhaps also the land that Yahweh gave to his people according to this writer. In other words, in this corpus of literature Yahweh decrees that an individual will be “cut off” from his people and his land if he:

  • neglects the “eternal covenant” of circumcision (Gen 17:14; see #30, #31)
  • does not keep the “eternal covenant” of the Sabbath (Ex 31:14; cf. #171)—our Saturday!
  • does not observe the festivals of Unleavened Bread (Ex 12:15, 19), Passover (Num 9:13; #109-110, #118), and the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29-30; #186)
  • comes into contact with the dead and does not expiate this sin through a sacrifice (Num 19:13, 20; cf. #175)
  • bootlegs holy oil or incense (Ex 30:33, 38)
  • eats a sacrificial meal in a state of impurity (Lev 7:20, 21; cf. #178)
  • eats fat or blood (Lev 7:25, 27; #172)
  • slaughters or sacrifices an animal outside the temple (Lev 17:4, 9; #187)
  • commits a number of sexual violations including homosexuality and having sex with a menstruating woman (Lev 18:29; 20:17-20; see #185)
  • performs necromancy (Lev 20:6)
  • sacrifices a child (Lev 20:2-5)
  • and last but certainly not least of all, commits any intentional sin! (Num 15:27-31; cf. #173, #174)

Again (see also #184, #186), properly understanding what ancient literature is and specifically here the agenda of this elite priestly guild, we see that all these prohibitions and their punishment of karet are the expressions of the Aaronid priesthood, legitimated and sanctioned by presenting them through the mouthpiece of their deity. All of these “crimes” were punishable by expulsion/exile from the community. In other words, they were not tolerated by this elite priestly guild and its god. Any violation of these laws irrevocably led to being cut off and exiled from the people of Yahweh and his land.

In conclusion, since the punishment for some of these crimes is also presented as death in other layers of the priestly source, we may ask what would have been seen as the worse punishment: being cut off or death? Maybe the two were not all that dissimilar.

4 thoughts on “#189. What is the punishment for having sex with an animal: Death OR being cut off OR being cursed? (Ex 22:18; Lev 20:15-16 vs Lev 18:22-23 vs Deut 27:21)

  1. Recall that for the Priestly writer only inadvertent crimes or sins may be expiated through sacrifices; all conscious violations of Yahweh’s laws could not be atoned for…

    What about the following? Is intentional sin involved, or is it somehow considered inadvertent to P?

    Leviticus 5:1, 5-10
    When any of you sin in that you have heard a public adjuration to testify and—though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter—do not speak up, you are subject to punishment…5When you realize your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed. 6And you shall bring to the Lord, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin. 7 But if you cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the Lord, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering. 8You shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin-offering, wringing its head at the nape without severing it. 9He shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin-offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin-offering. 10And the second he shall offer for a burnt-offering according to the regulation. Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

    Leviticus 19:20-22
    20 If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man but not ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed; 21but he shall bring a guilt-offering for himself to the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram as guilt-offering. 22And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of guilt-offering before the Lord for his sin that he committed; and the sin he committed shall be forgiven him.

  2. Beautiful, beautiful website. Thank you. A wealth of information packaged just the right way. I googled “contradictions in the bible” and the linked to your website came up on page two of the search results. I hope it’ll move up to page one because I was looking just for the kind of information found here. All the other websites that are a list of contradictions simply list them without going into detailed explanation for their basis and meaning. I love your scientific and very broad approach, looking at the Bible from historical-critical point of view. That is just great. Thanks again.

  3. Ben,

    Welcome! I have tried to engage the people at Google by telling them that what they claim as their search criteria—written by experts in the field, well-written prose, informative and educational—are not actually the criteria by which their search engine operates. If it did, this site would be, and should be, number 1. As far as I am aware, I am the only biblical scholar discussing this material on a public forum. All other contradictions in the Bible websites are done by non-experts and are often of poor quality, misleading, and unfortunately fuel even more ignorance about the Bible, its compositional history, authors, etc.

    @John,

    Scholars have concluded that in the Priestly literature only inadvertent sins may be atoned, and only through sacrifice, because of the wording in Leviticus 4-5:

    Lev 4:13-14. And if all the congregation of Israel will make a mistake and something will be hidden from the community’s eyes, and they do one of any of Yahweh’s commandments that are not to be done, and they are guilty, and the sin over which they have sinned will become known, then the community shall bring forward a bull…

    Lev 4:22-23. When a chieftain will sin and do one of the commandments of Yahweh, his god, that are not to be done, by mistake, and he is guilty, or his sin by which he has sinned has been made known to him, then he shall bring forward a goat…

    Lev 4:27-28. And if a person from the people of the land will sin by mistake by doing one of Yahweh’s commandments that are not to be done and is guilty, or his sin that he has committed has been made known to him, then he shall bring forward a goat…

    These verses suggest that the guilty party has unknowingly committed the sin, and that furthermore upon learning of his crime—that he has committed a sin by mistake—he is to bring forward a sacrificial offering to atone for this inadvertent transgression. Even the passage you cite above implies this:

    Lev 5:2-4. Or a person will touch any impure thing or the carcass of an impure wild animal… and it was hidden from him, so he had become impure and had become guilty; or when he will touch a human’s impurity…and it was hidden from him, and then he had come to know and had become guilty by one of these…

    Verse 5 thus continues from this: “And it will be that when he becomes guilty by one of these…”—that is his inadvertent sin has been made known to him.

    Although the phrases “it was hidden from him” and “when the sin he has committed has been made known to him” are absent in Leviticus 19, it might be argued that the man had nonetheless slept with a man’s slave unknowingly. I don’t want to push the issue too far here since Leviticus 19 is part of the Holiness code and its priestly authors could have seen things differently from the Aaronids who penned Leviticus 4-5.

    Lastly,, Numbers 15:27-31—which Friedman marks as part of the redactor; remember that the Redactor for Friedman is the Priestly writer or someone from that guild; others have labeled this as H or P proper—puts it succinctly:

    And if a person shall sin by mistake, then he shall bring a she-goat in its first year for a sin offering…. For the citizen and for the alien who resides among the children of Israel, you shall have one instruction (torah) for one who acts by mistake. But the person who will act with a high hand, a citizen or an alien, he is blaspheming Yahweh, and that person will be cut off from among the people because he has disdained Yahweh’s word and broke his commandment.

    Although not explicit, the context seems to dictate that the person “who acts with a high hand” against one of Yahweh’s commandments has intentionally acted against Yahweh’s word and committed a sin not by mistake but knowingly done so.

    I hope this clarifies the issue.

  4. Yes, Google’s search algorithm’s results aren’t always the most relevant. I hope it’ll change for this gem of a website on the subject.

    Could I bother you with a question? Which editions of the ancient Hebrew and Koine originals with interlinear translation into English, in your opinion, are based on the texts of the best and oldest manuscripts? I’m asking this because often when studying the Bible, I come across the numerous variant readings and variant translations in the different versions of the Bible in English and Russian that I’m using… This is quite frustrating, because sometimes you just can’t come to a more or less definitive conclusion, as the tricky question arises, “was that really what the original said?”

    Thank you in advance for your time.

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