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Tracey Emin

Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (The Tent), 1995; destroyed 2004, Appliqued tent, mattress, and light, Formerly owned by Charles Saatchi; destroyed in Momart warehouse fire, 2004, All rights reserved DACS / Artimage, London and ARS, NY 2018. Image courtesy White Cube

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Leviticus, part of Divine Violence, 2013, King James Bible, Hahnemühle print, brass pins , 101 x 112 x 5 cm, Collection of the artist, Edition of 3, © Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin; Courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery

James Tissot

Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Agnus-Dei. Le bouc émissaire), 1886–94, Opaque watercolour over graphite on grey wove paper, 256 x 171 mm, Brooklyn Museum; Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.265, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

Hingeing on Holiness

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

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