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.