Friday, June 22, 2007

Yea, I throughly washed away thy blood from thee (Lev. 15:24 & 20:18)

Well, I was going to let it sit until a future date, but then, in writing the last post, something came up that truly troubled me, and I decided to jump ahead to an issue that I originally meant to leave for much later: sex with a menstruating woman.

Those who have had dealings with me before elsewhere, and perhaps a few times in this blog, will know that I sometimes will say something like "Well, that's a contradiction, but not an important one." You know, like one verse says 700 horses, and another says 7,000? That doesn't bother me, and I know there are problems like that in the Bible in quite a few places. Well, in wrapping up the last post, I came accross a problem that I could not simply shrug off. It's found here.

Seriously, there's a big difference between "unclean seven days" and "cut off from among their people." While the latter phrase is perhaps a bit vague, it's clearly something harsh; probably a person who is "cut off" is exiled from Israel. This isn't like other sins where it says nothing about punishment in one place, and in another lists a big one; those cases are just a matter of omission in the former verse. Saying one punishment here and a different punishment there, where both punishments are very different? That would be a serious problem, and I have to admit, I was stumped and ready to admit defeat on this point.

I wasn't going to gloss it over. At first, I thought I'd admit that it disturbed me and open it up to suggestions from readers. I figured I'd toss in a lame half-hearted attempt at partial reconciliation that didn't even really convince myself. Perhaps both punishments were to be performed? You know, "Leave town...and don't touch anything on your way out!" It doesn't make much sense, though.

Then something occurred to me that doesn't answer the issue, but I still think is thought-provoking: If a man broke this commandment, how would anyone know? Seriously. "Morning, Abiathar, how's things with you?" "Not so good, last night I had sex with my wife while she was menstruating. That's not a problem is it?" Well, it's not likely that you'd tell anyone, and if you didn't tell, who would ask? Still, there must be a purpose for this law anyway, and as such, there needs to be a reconciliation between these verses.

So as I prepared to gather my thoughts and post an admission of defeat, I read the verses again. And it hit me: read carefully "...lie with her at all..." vs. "lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness..."? The second verse uses two phrases that are both euphemisms for sex; why does a sentence need two euphemisms for the same thing?

I realized in this case, it is not the same thing. This is key. The little phrase "at all" is making it clear that we are not talking about a euphemism here. This is a case of a guy literally lying with his wife, and some of her menstrual blood happens to get on him in his sleep! No sex is involved, but he is still unclean. The latter case is a man who intentionally gets menstrual blood on him in an act of sex. It's that intentionality that makes the difference; being unclean and being sinful are not the same thing. In the end, there is no contradiction, only confusion brought about by unfortunate use of euphemisms. I wonder if it's clearer in the Hebrew? I'll have to check next chance I get.

So, the remaining issue (no pun intended)? Why is menstrual blood unclean? I don't know. There's no particular reason I can think of. Perhaps it's just another Mosaic Law oddity?

16 comments:

Brucker said...

Regarding the Hebrew of these verses, there's only so much I can say. For one thing, I've recently switched to Firefox, which seems to be having problems with displaying Hebrew, and my hardcopy Hebrew Bibles are packed away somewhere at the moment. If anyone knows a of a good online Hebrew reference that works well with Firefox (or if I'm missing a plug-in for the thing) please let me know.

Nonetheless, there is one thing I can see which is amusing. In Lev 15:24, the verse starts with a phrase that appears to translate literally as "If a man lies with her lies with her..." That is, the verb is repeated, which is how I think one would say it in English if one wanted to make it clear that it was meant literally.

Brucker said...

It was suggested to me via e-mail that I should speculate as to what the big deal is about sex with menstruating women. As I said, I don't know, but I could make a few guesses.

Sure, it's possible that the issue on some level could be "grossness", but it seems unlikely that that alone would be worth having a couple of consenting adults "cut off from among their people." It seems like there ought to be something either practical or at least symbolic about it.

On the symbolic side, I think it might be worth noting that on some level all three of the things that will earn you the death penalty in ancient Israel involve blood. Worship often if not always involved sacrifice, which meant the shedding of the blood of animals. Murder usually involved shedding blood, but even when it did not, the connotation is there; even today we use the term "bloodshed" to refer to the killing of people, even when the actual literal shedding of blood is not involved. What about sexual immorality?

Those in the know biologically (far more than I; even though menstrual blood doesn't gross me out, it's one of the few things about human physiology that doesn't) are aware of the fact that sex often involves a small amount of blood anyway, not visually detectable. That's part of the reason that safe sex is so important. The sexual act is the most intense act of sharing bodily fluids short of actually opening up a vein and getting a transfusion. Condoms are the best protection short of abstinence, but they run a distant second. (Yes, I know stats on abstinence-only sex education have a poor showing, but realistically, the issue of failure rate is harder to measure. Condoms, when properly used, will protect from pregnancy at around 97% success. Abstinence, when properly used, will protect from pregnancy with 100% success.)

Sex during the menstrual cycle is just sex with more blood than usual. The nature of sex during this part of the cycle has two implications. Sexually-transmitted diseases, which are mostly passed through blood, are passed more readily during this time. Pregnancy risk drops to about as close to zero as it gets (but never completely to zero, and that's also important). It may be that some people would use this as a window of opportunity for "safe sex" due to the extremely low risk of pregnancy. In a day before condoms, this would relly be your best bet. Perhaps God is trying to promote procreation among the Israelites. Perhaps He's trying to keep people from using this as an opportunity to get away with illicit sex outside of marriage by making it a double crime. In any case, there is increased danger, both of sexually transmitted diseases in the case of extramarital affairs, and in all cases of ectopic pregnancy. I don't know the statistics on this, but I did read years ago that sex outside of a woman's most fertile time is not only not a guarantee of pregnancy avoidance, but in some cases may increase the chance that if pregnancy occurs, it will be with complications. Still, all of this is statistically far from significant, especially during that era and in that culture, so it doesn't necessarily mean anything here.

Jason said...

I think you're missing the bigger picture, especially in Leviticus 15.

"Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them." (vs 13) The examples of uncleanness in this chapter go beyond just menstruating women. There's the "running issue out of flesh" in verse 2 and there's also "seed of copulation" in verse 16.

Therefore, what makes someone unclean in this chapter doesn't just have to do with blood, it has to do with something specific coming out of someone (pus(?), semen and blood). WHY these things are considered unclean, we're not told (other then the reasonable conclusion that they're not clean) but it obviously has something to do with defiling the tabernacle.

Brucker said...

That's verse 31; you had me confused for a moment.

While I think you're right that this is part of a larger issue, it's still not 100% clear what that issue really is. After all, sex with a woman who is not menstruating involves getting her bodily fluids on you, but no mention is made of that being unclean. Apparently some bodily fluids are considered more unclean than others.

Now we do know today that pus, semen and blood are more likely to carry disease than other bodily fluids such as tears, sweat, urine and saliva, all of which (yes, including urine) are very clean. That may be a factor.

At the same time, it's also true that the items in the Tabernacle were made holy by anointing them with the blood of animals. Also, while sex with one's virginal wife will often involve blood, there is no mention of that blood being unclean.

Lucy said...

Just passing through, but I wanted to applaud you for your blog! It's excellent, erudite and very well thought-through. Just so you know where I'm coming from...I'm an atheist who makes frequent reference to the SAB ;) Still, you have done a very fine job here. Bravo!

ramatheson said...

"You know, like one verse says 700 horses, and another says 7,000? That doesn't bother me, and I know there are problems like that in the Bible in quite a few places."

If there is one contradiction, then anything in the book could be wrong. How do you know that the part about Jesus dying was not some sort of error?

The point of contradictions being pointed out is that it shows that the "word of god" is obviously fallible and flawed to a high degree. It is just a carefully constructed work of not-so-great literature created simply to control people.

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Brucker said...

There are plenty of people out there on the Internet who will explain far better than I why it is that the Bible is one of the most accurately-transmitted books of antiquity. The point I am trying to make above is that there is such a thing as both minor and major contradiction, and the latter is, in my opinion, all one really needs to worry about.

As far as whether or not a singular error can cause problems in fundamental doctrine, There's a very interesting belief that Hebrew scholars have, being that those things in the Bible that are most important are repeated often in many places in the scriptures. The fact that Jesus died is not reported in one single place for an error to creep in, it is reported over and over again in all four Gospels, several times in the book of Acts, most certainly in just about every Epistle, and even in the book of Revelation and hinted in the Old Testament. A better case-in-point might be to talk about Jesus' resurrection (which is probably what you meant, as I assume you don't dispute that if there was an historical person named Jesus, he certainly died eventually). The resurrection account in Mark's Gospel is somewhat suspect, as I'm sure you can read about in the SAB. In the end, though, that presents very little in the way of a doctrinal problem, because the other three Gospels cover the matter in detail, and it is reiterated elsewhere in the Bible.

As I have said elsewhere, I don't personally believe that the Bible is 100% accurate down to the finest of details. Those who do may indeed have a problem to deal with.

Steve Wells said...

After reading all this, I still don't know what you make of Leviticus 15:24.

Here's the verse: "And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean."

It seems clear enough. Menstruating women are unclean. Anyone who has sex with them (or maybe even just sleeps in the same contaminated bed) is unclean for a week.

If you read the entire chapter, it's clear that God is completely disgusted by menstruating women. They are unclean and anything that touches them (bed, chair, clothes, or husband) is also unclean. This is so important to God that he repeats it several times.

Now a man who is touched by a menstruating woman can become clean again just by washing his clothes and taking a bath. But a woman is unclean for seven days and can't become clean again until she has a priest kill a couple doves or pigeons and offer their burnt bodies to God as a sin offering. (It's a sin for a woman to menstruate.)

Now my question is this: Why is something that is so obviously important (and disgusting) to God so completely ignored by Bible believers today? God felt strongly about all this when Leviticus was written. Has he changed his mind since then? Is he no longer the infantile misogynist that he obviously was back then?

I'm not interested in the contradiction. You can exile men who have sex with menstruating women or just call him unclean for a week. That's entirely up to you. But you should do one or the other. God hates menstruating women; you should too.

Brucker said...

I actually had a discussion about this topic with one of my favorite Hebrew scholars, and I'm almost tempted to rewrite the whole thing. This friend of mine made a suggestion to me that turns this whole concept on its head, and I'm really surprised I didn't post it before now!

Back in the post, I asked a question that I should have pondered more: "If a man broke this commandment, how would anyone know?" It was pointed out to me that this may actually be the KEY to understanding the true nature of this law and why God gave it.

God doesn't make it illegal to have sex with a menstruating woman because He hates menstruating women, He does it out of love for them! There is essentially one and only one person who would know if a man broke this commandment: the woman herself! Therefore, the only person who could condemn a man for committing this sin would be the woman with whom he had committed it!

If a wife is having her period, and due to it, she just doesn't feel in the mood, she has the law behind her in saying, "Not tonight, dear." If he doesn't respect her wishes, she can go the next morning to the elders and turn him in. God is giving women a little extra power over their own bodies during that time of the month.

As for the "sin offering", no, it is not a sin that a woman menstruates, but it is a result of the sin of Eve that causes a woman to menstruate, or at least I strongly suspect it to be so. The full nature of sin in the Judeo-Christian theological spectrum is far more nuanced than even I fully understand, and we as fallen beings suffer both from our own sins, and the sins of others, including especially the sins of Adam and Eve.

You do bring up a very good question that I thought I had covered in the post, but see now I did not. What does this say for Christians? One of the hardest things to deal with when going over the Mosaic Law as a Christian is deciding what laws apply to gentile believers and what ones do not, because it is true that a follower of Jesus is not responsible to every Jewish law, but is certainly responsible to some of them. I think we are explicitly told that gentile believers need not practice circumcision, nor are they held to the dietary laws, nor to the sacrificial system. One thing that is said, however is that Christians are required to avoid sexual immorality. This may fall under that category, although I don't know for sure. Although as I said, it doesn't gross me out, I probably would advise a Christian to err on the side of caution.

Steve Wells said...

So God made the rules for menstruating women to give them a way to refuse to have sex with their husbands if they weren't in the mood during their periods?

I guess that's why:
a menstruating women is unclean for 7 days (v.19, 25),
whoever touches her is also unclean (v.19),
every bed that she lies on or chair that she sits on is unclean (v.20, 26),
whoever touches her bed is unclean and must take a bath and wash his clothes (v.21, 23, 26),
whoever touches anything that she has sat on is unclean and must wash his clothes (v.22, 27).

Notice that none of these rules has anything to do with sex.

And yet you and your Hebrew scholar says it's all about giving the women a chance to say, "You know, I just don't feel like it tonight, sweetheart."

Darn, your God makes some clever rules!

But let me see if I've got your Hebrew scholar's theory straight here, Brucker.

God doesn't think menstruating women are dirty or unclean in any way. He just spent 15 verses telling us over and over again in every way he could think of that menstruating women are unclean and that anyone who touches them or who touches anything that they touch is unclean.
But that's not what he meant and when you read it in Hebrew it's clear that he's not saying they are unclean.

But the part I like the most is where you say, "As for the "sin offering", no, it is not a sin that a woman menstruates, but it is a result of the sin of Eve that causes a woman to menstruate, or at least I strongly suspect it to be so."

The poor woman has been told that she is so damned dirty (I'm sorry, unclean) to God that anyone who touches her or who touches anything that she has touched is also filthy. And now after spending a full week as an untouchable, unclean person, she must have a priest kill a couple birds "as a sin offering" to "make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness" (v.30).

But she didn't sin by menstruating and God didn't consider her unclean, God just forced her to make a sin offering to atone for her uncleanness. That's all.

I'm glad you cleared all that up, Brucker.

Oh, and did you decide what we should do (i.e., what God wants us to do) with a man who has sex with a menstruating woman? (Ask one of your Hebrew scholars about it.)

And do we still need to get the priest to kill the birds?

Brucker said...

Steve, you may not agree with my answers, but I have already answered these questions. The idea about these laws being a convenient way for a woman to have privacy during her menstrual period is just a theory that makes sense to me, as only the woman herself can enforce these laws. Who else would ever know that these laws were broken?

I don't pretend to fully understand the sacrificial system in every minute point, I only know that the purpose of the system as a whole was to keep the Israelites constantly minding the fact that they were dependent on God.

To resummarize my conclusion in the post above: A man who has sex with a menstruating woman is exiled from Israelite community. A man who accidentally gets his wife's menstrual blood on him, he can't participate in any religious rituals for a week.

Anonymous said...

As an atheist, I'd like to say it's a commendable effort you've given. But if a menstruating woman were to turn in her husband because of sex "both of them shall be cut off from among their people." Therefore I cannot see how that would be for the woman's protection since she is punished as harshly as her husband.

Brucker said...

You make a very good point. A lot of the ideas I'm putting forth admittedly hinge on a minor technicality of the language, but that's one that doesn't seem to quite fit. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) debates over the content and meaning of the Bible will probably always be around. There's more to ponder here.

Gen said...

Here are my suggestions:

If you look at the structure of the Torah, Leviticus is the middle of the 5 books and it is about worship. The offerings and the feasts are in view together witht he congregation.

When we come to Leviticus chapter 15 it deals with being unclean with a view of the worship and tabernacle in mind, not everyday life; but being around the congregation in terms of their feasts and offerings and the tabernacle; otherwise, how can a doctor treat certain people who may be hemorrhaging, or has stuff oozing out of them or has a sexual dishcarge that doesn't stop?

Also, it seems to me that Leviticus 15:24 is coincidental or accidental; but 20:18 is pre-meditated or intentional. I didn't have much time to research all of this, but I think what I found in the above is clear and understandable so far and I hope it helps in some way, although my wording is an imperfect expression of what I mean.

With this understanding, we must understand God's greatest commandment is love. There is no tabercacle today, it was destroyed in AD 70. How in the world can it even apply today when there is no tabernacle for the offerings and feats in the midst of the congragation?

It is about defiling the tabernacle when they are in His presence when they gather together or are among each other as one congregation. If you are unclean you cannot be involved in the celebration because your defilement and unholiness would probably cause you to die in God's presence, like the men who touched the ark and died automatically when God said not to touch it.

I hope all of this together helps and gives you some insight; to remove the baffling nature of it away. Good luck in understanding. I have to go!

deemattice said...

is this topic still open?
how about the idea that the blood of a woman during menstration is unclean because it contains the dying or dead egg, and the lining of the uterous. how about the idea that the other bodily fluids a woman has while ovulating is holy because that is when a child can be conceived, and that was God's plan in the first place. how about the idea that lev 15 talks about what is unclean and for how long, and lev 20 talks about the reprecussions of disobedience to the laws.
and as for christians, i still don't know if it is considered sexual perversion to be united during menstration. i do know, however, that it would not be a time for conception, and may not be a holy motive to make love.
i wonder if protected sex would be unholy because of going against God's plan of procreation? it's just a question i have, not a belief, just a question.

Brucker said...

Topics never close, they just fade away...for a while.

It's occurred to me before that while most of the O.T. law does not apply to Christians, this may be one that does. After all, when the early church was trying to decide what portion of the Law applied to gentile believers, they charged "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well." (Acts 15:29) Note my emphases: sex with a menstruating woman could arguably be either/or.

As for the issue of procreation, there are two problems with that. First, I'm fairly certain that it's mainly the Catholic Church that has declared that sex is for procreation only. Secondly, it fails to explain the original conundrum: why accidental exposure to menstrual blood is a problem. Um, no wait, that wasn't the original question, but I think it's important.