Ah, the menstruating woman… what is to be done with her?
As we have already previewed (#175, #178, #183, #184), in the priestly sacred world, all bodily emissions are deemed impure—whether that be saliva, puss, urine, semen, or blood—and the “infected” individual must undergo a process of regaining his/her state of purity. In Leviticus this usually involved being quarantined off from the community for 7 days, a washing of one’s clothes and body, and then a sacrificial offering done after the 7 days which atones the individual of his/her “sin.” The example of the impure menstruating woman follows this outline (Lev 15:19-24).
Scholars have long noticed minute differences in theology and emphasis between Leviticus 1-16 and 17-26. These differences have led scholars to conclude that both of these textual compositions were penned by different Aaronid scribes, and perhaps at different times and for different occasions. That would explain the contradiction regarding the punishment for having lain with a menstruating women. Moreover, Leviticus 17-26 seems to be less tolerable with regard to such offenses. Indeed, as in Leviticus 15, so too in Leviticus 20 the man who lies with a menstruating women is deemed impure, but he and she are to be “cut off” from the people and presumably the land. They are no longer of Yahweh’s people, Yahweh’s covenant! (See other offenses that included being “cut off” in the Priestly Writer.)
So per our texts, any modern “Christian” man, therefore, who believes in “the Bible” and sleeps with his darling menstruating woman, let it be known that Yahweh himself has declared him and her unfit to be his people. It is not only appalling to the human species in general that 21st century human beings feign belief in this 3,000 year old text, but that they actually try to legitimate the texts as “morals” for today’s societies, values, and worldview. Are these people being honest to themselves, and more importantly to these ancient texts?
In fact, the ancient Israelites are here, as elsewhere, following ancient Near Eastern cultural norms and perspectives. Both in Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia, a menstruating women was also classified as impure and needed to be quarantined from the community for a set period of time. There is even literary evidence that suggests that the menstruating woman in her impure state risks spreading that impurity to others. In Leviticus 15, any individual who comes into contact with the woman, sits on anything the woman sat on, touches any item which she has touched, etc., becomes themselves impure!
Thus, we readily see that this perception and normative behavior and the purification or quarantine laws which such beliefs created are cultural attitudes shared throughout the peoples of the ancient Near Eastern world. This is the conclusion that studying the biblical literature comparatively in its own, and proper, historical and literary contexts leads us to. When modern readers, who know nothing about ancient literature, start pontificating that such culturally conditioned attitudes and norms were God-given laws, was a moral code given by God, capital G, these people are guilty of neglecting these very texts, of understanding them, the cultures that produced them, their authors, their historical and literary worlds, etc. Such people, “the people of the Book,” are in fact ironically the biggest enemies of these texts! They have pontificated views inline with their own belief system while on the other hand disparaged and ignored the actual views of the texts themselves, the cultures that produced them, their historical contexts, authors, audiences, etc.
Although prefaced by the formula “And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron saying…,” none of the book of Leviticus originates from a supernatural being or God. This is obvious to anyone who knows anything about ancient literature; but more to the point of what we’re doing here, it is the natural conclusion that studying the Bible scientifically and objectively leads us to—that is collecting the textual data itself, and here adding the textual data from other ancient Near Eastern cultures, and forming a hypothesis that best explains these data, naturally leads us to conclude that such formula are literary topoi, rhetorical and ideological expressions representative of a whole larger cultural matrix that, furthermore, is so utterly different and alien to our own culturally formed perceptions, values, and mores.
This is exactly why I have often articulated here that my aim is to defend these ancient texts. Defend them does not mean I’m advocating that we follow them or believe in them. That’s absurd as the above case highlights; these are after all texts that reflect ideas, perceptions, beliefs, and cultural norms of peoples living 2-3,000 years ago! Rather my aim is to defend them from the apologist, from the literal reader who, unbeknown to him/her, gratuitously defecates on these texts by conceiving them as a mere vehicle to pontificate and legitimate his/her own modern beliefs, cultural norms, and values. The Apologist doesn’t defend the biblical texts—he knows nothing about these ancient documents. Rather his job is to defend later interpretive traditions about these texts, later interpretive frameworks that prescribe how these ancient texts ought to be read, and often in ways violent, abusive, and negligent of the very texts themselves and the cultures that produced them, and the hows and whys behind their unique belief systems. As an historian, my goal is to understand the cultures behind these texts, their belief systems, etc., and what historical and cultural forces shaped such belief systems. My goal is also to indicate that such ancient belief systems, values, morals, etc. are in no way similar to, nor inform, our modern belief systems, values, and morals. Those who claim they do are quite frankly, ignorant of these ancient texts and the cultures that produced them, and dishonest toward them. They have been taught to read these texts through centuries-later interpretive prisms, the most powerful of which goes by the title “the Bible” as an identifier for 70+ different and competing texts, theologies, and ideologies representative of cultures, belief systems, and morals of peoples living over a period of 1,000 years! Isn’t it about time that we gave these texts back to their authors!??