#185. What is the punishment for a man who lies with a menstruating women: he merely becomes impure himself OR he is “cut off” from the community? (Lev 15:24 vs Lev 20:18)


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!??

8 thoughts on “#185. What is the punishment for a man who lies with a menstruating women: he merely becomes impure himself OR he is “cut off” from the community? (Lev 15:24 vs Lev 20:18)

  1. The phrase “ordinances and judgments” often turns up in what I call the Mosaic Laws. The Ten Commandments might be better rendered as the Ten Principles from which the nitty gritty laws are derived from.

    For example, Thou Shalt Not Steal is then broken down into how much to fine a person who steals – do they bring the object back, is it found on them, or have they sold it? Intentionality plays a part, this is also true in murder cases, and indeed the menstrual case that has been discussed.

    The Mosaic Code appears to be, in addition to a system with which to honor God, a legal system, a detailed legal system by which to solve disputes. My interest in the Covenant is the success that it has lent to Christian societies who have adopted some of the old testament principles. The Hindu religion, for example, while colorful, fails to provide a stable and prosperous system. Buddhism, while very tolerant, and compassionate, was unable to prevent communism from pulping many of its adherents. In my view, a religion is as useful as the protection it affords. Does this religion, once all the laws are extracted from the narrative, frame a workable code?

    We are told in Deuteronomy 13 and 8 that the Lord tries the Israelites, to see if they will hear and obey, so this would negate the necessity of the Bible being an easy to read book, such as the Koran is supposed to be.

    The Redemption is to occur when the Israelites return to their God with all their heart and all their soul, which would indicate more than a cursory reading is required to be considered to be using all of ones heart and soul. Do the Israelites care enough to decipher the manuscript, or will they give up, and attempt either other religions or a secular life?

    As for the Levites, as they are to be the judges of life and death, and performers of various rites to honor God, they are subject to a more rigorous moral code, and different property laws.

    I appreciate you squirreling out contradictions, in what appears to be a puzzle, or test, but it seems the interesting contradictions are to be found within the words of Moses, as he negates Genesis and Joshua onwards with the verses I mentioned in my previous post.

    In fact, here is an interesting contradiction – The god of the Garden of Eden.

    This is a god that commands that Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree in order that they know good from evil, yet Moses says in Deuteronomy 30

    30:15 Behold, I have set before thee this day life and death, good and evil.

    Thus, the God of Moses is more analogous to the Snake character from the Garden of Eden, whereas the god who walks through the garden would be acting as a kind of satan, or “Adversary”.

    I look forward to reading through your site, and looking at the contradictions you squirrel out from the books involving Moses.

    For as we know, many things in the book of Joshua onwards have little or no archeological evidence, such as Solomon’s Temple, or the Davidian Kingdom.

    And Exodus itself was either done by the Hyksos people, or at least modeled on them, as there is no archeological evidence of someone leaving Egypt in such huge numbers at any other time.


  2. I think there are two very important laws to note when looking at what I call “The Covenant”.

    The first being Deut 5:3, and the second being Deut 4:2.

    It clears up a lot of confusion.

    Deut 5:3 frames the beginning of the Covenant, by showing this Covenant did not apply to the fathers, but only those that are there that day. This also means that their covenants did not apply to the Israelites either.

    This is typical Law in a Last Will and Testament, a very sensible law to prevent confusion from earlier documents.

    The second, Deut 4:2, indicates that no new laws are valid, nor may we remove some of the laws.

    Thus, the covenant has been Framed, a constitution, if you will, which includes only the 4 books in which Moses gives law to the Israelites.

    This makes ironing out contradictions much easier.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mike, but remember we’re really not interested in what “you” call the covenant, nor theological speculations about the covenant from later perspectives, NT writers and ours included, but rather with what our biblical scribes thought of Yahweh’s covenant, or more accurately how they each conceptualized it, differently. In other words, we’re interested in textually based observations and the conclusions drawn from those observations.

      So with that in mind, the author(s) of the book of Deuteronomy, contrary to Exodus 20-23 and P, uses the Hebrew berith, “covenant,” to refer to 3 distinct covenants:

      1. “the covenant made with our fathers” (4:31; 7:9, 12; 8:18). This covenant is the promise of the land of Canaan as it was known in earlier traditions. Here the Deuteronomist presents it, contrary to the Yahwist source (see #29) as a conditional promise—i.e., keeping the land (Yahweh’s promise to the fathers) depends on obeying the current covenant, Deuteronomy 12-26 (see #3).

      2. “the covenant at Horeb,” which for this author, and contrary to Exodus 19-24 are only the Ten Commandments (4:13; 4:23; 5:2-3; 9:9, 11, 15, etc.; but see #169). The Deuteronomist rewrites the earlier tradition here and authenticates it by having Moses say that at Horeb Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments (Deut 4:13, 5:28, 10:3)—a forthcoming contradiction that I will spend greater time with—contrary to the Moses and Yahweh of Exodus 20-23! Why does the Deuteronomist alter the tradition that he himself inherited, which was a normal scribal practice by the way? And there are numerous other alterations here. So he can insert new laws into the tradition! These new laws the Deuteronomist has Moses proclaim to the people on the plains of Moab, the narrative setting for Deuteronomy, and he authenticates them by having Moses claim that he alone received them from Yahweh 40 years earlier at Horeb to give to the people now, but this again contradicts the Horeb event per Exodus 20-23. Point blank: this alteration and amendment to the inherited tradition is exactly what scribal writing in the ancient world was! Many moderners are ignorant (unaware) of this very fact.

      3. “this covenant” or the law code/covenant of Deuteronomy 12-26, which is currently being delivered on the plains of Moab (4:2; 28:69; 29:8, 11, 13, 20; 29:24). It is a tactic of literary subversiveness that the author of Deuteronomy has Yahweh through Moses state that none of these laws, which are about to be given (Deut 12-26), are to be added to since this is exactly what our author here is doing in adding to, and amending, the covenant law code of Exodus 21-23 which was an older text, and one which the Deuteronomist most likely had in front of him.

      If you’re interested in this type of subversive rewriting of tradition in order to present new laws into this tradition while at the same time claiming these innovations are merely part of the older tradition—thus the subversive nature of this type of normal scribal writing—I’d recommend Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, an excellent read!

      Notwithstanding, the later Priestly source written a century or two after Deuteronomy does exactly the same thing that the Deuteronomist does—insert a whole host of new laws and covenants into the older tradition, but directly into the Sinai event! The book of Leviticus is a whole other law code written by these elite 6th century BCE priests. It too has many differences and contrary views when compared to the law code of Exodus 20-23 and Deuteronomy 12-26. Noteworthy here, this priestly author reconceptulaizes Yahweh’s covenant(s) in radically different terms than the author of Deuteronomy did. There is NO mention of the Mosaic covenant in the Priestly literature; rather for this priestly guild, there were 3 “eternal” covenants of Yahweh: Circumcision (Gen 17; but see #31); the Sabbath (Ex 31:16; Lev 24:8; but see #245); and the Aaronid priesthood itself! (Num 25:13).

      So we see, paying attention to the texts and the beliefs, views, and even reinterpretive projects of our biblical scribes actually reveals multiple and contradictory understandings and conceptions of the covenant! Furthermore, what the Deuteronomist and Priestly writer do—present new innovative laws and understandings of the covenant as part of ancient authoritative tradition by subversively claiming that it was part of this older tradition is exactly what NT writers will do centuries later!

  3. It’s one that could go either way, and there are scholars who see a contradiction. For example, Nathaniel Micklem, writing for *The Interpreter’s Bible*, volume 2, says of Leviticus 15:24: “It would seem that in the Holiness Code the death penalty or excommunication was to be incurred for this offense (18:19; 20:18). If this is true, the present passage may represent a later mitigation of an earlier law.” Baruch J. Schwartz, in *The Jewish Study Bible*, says on page 242 regarding Lev. 15:19-24: “According to this ch, everyday nonsexual contact with the menstruating woman merely confers a minor impurity which, after cleansing, dissipates by nightfall. Even sexual intercourse with the menstruant is not forbidden; although it communicates a more severe impurity lasting seven days (v.24), if the necessary purification takes place no sin has been committed. Thus the law in 18.19, forbidding sexual relations with a menstruant on pain of ‘karet’…directly contradicts this ch.

  4. Could Leviticus 15 pertain to unintentional contact with menstrual blood–a woman who starts her period while having sex–while Leviticus 20 (and Leviticus 18:19, 29) refer to intentional sexual contact with a woman know to be on her period?

    Leviticus 18:19, 29
    19 You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness…29For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.

    Leviticus 20:18
    18 If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has laid bare her flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people.

    Leviticus 15:19, 24
    19 When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body…24If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean for seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

    1. John,

      I think you’re absolutely correct here. My oversight! It does seem as if the passage is concerned with unintentionally coming into contact with a menstruating woman, who as you suggest, might have started her period while the husband was lying beside her. This is a nice comment. I guess we ought to scratch this contradiction — although I rather fancy what I’ve written here, lol.

      More generally, we will spot some minor contradictions between what scholars more specifically refer to as the Priestly legislation (Lev 1-16) and the Holiness code (Lev 17-26).


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