In some respects, Leviticus seems to stand apart from other parts of the biblical text: a long list of laws and prohibitions, ‘an unappetising vein of gristle in the midst of the Pentateuch’ (Damrosch 1989: 68). A legacy of centuries of often baffled interpretation has legitimized the labelling of ‘uncleanness’ laws in particular as primitive and irrational, explicable in terms of a socio-disciplinary ethic, perhaps even a pseudo-medical one.
Here, the artworks under consideration help us to reframe our modern reactions to the style and substance of Leviticus 15–18 by attending to aspects of the laws’ theological significance: their sophisticated conceptualisation of uncleanness and the stitching of humanity’s sacred corporeality to God.
In Leviticus 15, we come to the end of a section of purity laws (chapters 11–15) pertaining to animals, skin diseases, and latterly, genital discharges (male and female). Chapter 16 follows with the priestly instructions for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, later described in Leviticus 23) and the treatment of the scapegoat (Azazel). Chapters 17 and 18 begin what is Leviticus’s second half, the Holiness Code, a body of ordinances that seems likely to have been separately inserted. It is loosely directed to the people as a whole, and is more disparate in style than the first part of the book (widely identified as the ‘priestly’ or ‘P’ source). In this case, the subjects pertain to the sanctity of an animal’s blood (Leviticus 17) and of family relations (Leviticus 18).
Something of a hinge in the book, Leviticus 15–18 forms a section which constitutes, in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible (2013), a visual lacuna in a Bible otherwise covered in photographs. In their work, the word ‘unclean’ receives the prominence it has in these chapters: a concentrated 98% of the total number of occurrences of the term in Leviticus as a whole.
A hinge, a lacuna, and a concentrate: Leviticus 15–18 has these qualities. In what has something of a resonance with the opening chapters of Genesis, the post-Edenic relationship with God is being defined not through narrative but through an account of God’s ordinance whose highest concern is union and atonement. The marking of two goats in Leviticus 16 clearly differentiates between either a centred or a decentred life, either a state of being with YHWH at the centre of the Israelite camp or removed from YHWH in the chaotic wilderness. Indeed, while God speaks to Moses from the tent of meeting (Leviticus 1:1), the people do not move from the base of Sinai, and the priests confirm the concepts of purity and holiness (vertical relation to God) over and above the strata of ritual custom (horizontal relation to the world).
When the horizontal comes into play, this vertiginous state of vertical relation to God becomes also precipitous: a tension that is dynamically captured in James Tissot’s painting Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (1886–94) where we are in danger of flying rocks. We see a hinge, both in the above/below peopling of the landscape, and in the directionality of the main figure of Jesus who serves to introduce an Old Testament/New Testament typology into Tissot’s view. In its vertical axis, the painting is like Leviticus 16’s conceptual and ideal centre at the heart of the Israelites’ focus on God. In its horizontal movement, it hurtles towards potential death.
A closer inspection of that to which chapter 16 is hinged reveals one of the most misunderstood aspects of Israelite moral standards. Even though so much is about purification and defilement laws between God’s people, ‘there is absolutely no sign of social demarcation maintained by pollution rules’, and this is strikingly different from other Near-Eastern cultures (Douglas 1995: 240). The kind of interpretative eclipse here, whereby the ancient text is not read with proper attention to its concern with cultic purity, is mirrored in the way that Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995) is also interpreted. A sensationalist rhetoric commonly denies her careful and inclusive accounting of human reciprocity. Hers is as principled a declaration of non-hierarchical personhood as that which rings out from Leviticus 19:18’s ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, yet it also unavoidably relates to the physical register of sex and bodily function in chapter 15.
In chapter 18’s even more stringent terms, the proscriptions surrounding bestial and homosexual behaviour warrant an even more sensitive contextualisation of what was a differentiation from other cultures’ ritual practices. Here, it is Broomberg and Chanarin’s image of a child ‘giving up’ on the path of violence that dissolves the intensity of the ‘unclean concentrate’. It evokes purity of worship, and radical newness of relationship—just those things that so underpin the laws of Leviticus 15–18.
Damrosch, David. 1989. ‘Leviticus’, in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (London: Fontana Press), pp. 66–77
Douglas, Mary. 1995. ‘Poetic Structure in Leviticus’, in Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom, ed. by David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman, and Avi Hurvitz (Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns), pp. 239–56
Watts, James W. 2007. Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Whitekettle, Richard. 1996. ‘Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World’, Vetus Testamentum, 46.3: 376–91
15 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2“Say to the people of Israel, When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean. 3And this is the law of his uncleanness for a discharge: whether his body runs with his discharge, or his body is stopped from discharge, it is uncleanness in him. 4Every bed on which he who has the discharge lies shall be unclean; and everything on which he sits shall be unclean. 5And any one who touches his bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 6And whoever sits on anything on which he who has the discharge has sat shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 7And whoever touches the body of him who has the discharge shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 8And if he who has the discharge spits on one who is clean, then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 9And any saddle on which he who has the discharge rides shall be unclean. 10And whoever touches anything that was under him shall be unclean until the evening; and he who carries such a thing shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 11Any one whom he that has the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 12And the earthen vessel which he who has the discharge touches shall be broken; and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.
13 “And when he who has a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, then he shall count for himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes; and he shall bathe his body in running water, and shall be clean. 14And on the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and come before the Lord to the door of the tent of meeting, and give them to the priest; 15and the priest shall offer them, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord for his discharge.
16 “And if a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. 17And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening. 18If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening.
19 “When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20And everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. 21And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 22And whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening; 23whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24And if any man lies with her, and her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.
25 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. 27And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 28But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting. 30And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.
31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
32 This is the law for him who has a discharge and for him who has an emission of semen, becoming unclean thereby; 33also for her who is sick with her impurity; that is, for any one, male or female, who has a discharge, and for the man who lies with a woman who is unclean.
16 The Lord spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died; 2and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. 3But thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4He shall put on the holy linen coat, and shall have the linen breeches on his body, be girded with the linen girdle, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on. 5And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
6 “And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azaʹzel. 9And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10but the goat on which the lot fell for Azaʹzel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azaʹzel.
11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house; he shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small; and he shall bring it within the veil 13and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat which is upon the testimony, lest he die; 14and he shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.
15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood within the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat; 16thus he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he enters to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18Then he shall go out to the altar which is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar round about. 19And he shall sprinkle some of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat; 21and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.
23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there; 24and he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn upon the altar. 26And he who lets the goat go to Azaʹzel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be carried forth outside the camp; their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned with fire. 28And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
29 “And it shall be a statute to you for ever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you; 30for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. 31It is a sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute for ever. 32And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments; 33he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded him.
17 And the Lord said to Moses, 2“Say to Aaron and his sons, and to all the people of Israel, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded. 3If any man of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, 4and does not bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, to offer it as a gift to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5This is to the end that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they slay in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting, and slay them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord; 6and the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting, and burn the fat for a pleasing odor to the Lord. 7So they shall no more slay their sacrifices for satyrs, after whom they play the harlot. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations.
8 “And you shall say to them, Any man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, 9and does not bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it to the Lord; that man shall be cut off from his people.
10 “If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 11For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. 12Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. 13Any man also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust.
14 “For the life of every creature is the blood of it; therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. 15And every person that eats what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or a sojourner, shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening; then he shall be clean. 16But if he does not wash them or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity.”
18 And the Lord said to Moses, 2“Say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord your God. 3You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. 5You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the Lord.
6 “None of you shall approach any one near of kin to him to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord. 7You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. 9You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or born abroad. 10You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 11You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. 12You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s near kinswoman. 13You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s near kinswoman. 14You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; she is your brother’s nakedness. 17You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your near kinswomen; it is wickedness. 18And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is yet alive.
19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20And you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 21You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it: it is perversion.
24 “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; 25and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27(for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); 28lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29For whoever shall do any of these abominations, the persons that do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never to defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.”