|Castration, Excrement Disposal, and Similar Issues in the Bible|
[Introduction][Lev. 21:21-2][Deut. 23:1][Deut. 25:11-12][Deut 23:12ff]
The topics here are certain laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which have been declared illogical and unfair. The reader is forewarned, however, that laws in question cover some, well, rather frank and straightforward issues, to put it mildly, and thus by necessity we will need to follow suit.
In the first of the two articles we shall consider, a Skeptic takes to task the following OT law from Leviticus 21:21-3--
No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the LORD by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.'"
It is said:
In modern civilized societies, special considerations are given to people who are physically handicapped...Rather than showing special consideration for the handicapped, Yahweh expressed a contempt for such people and even decreed that they were not to be allowed in his presence. Above all else, he did not want them profaning his sanctuary.
From the start it must indeed be admitted that this chapter is pretty strict as far as who can enter the sanctuary. For one thing, only Levites are allowed inside; and I suppose we might argue that this indicates "contempt" for non-Levites, who could not help their non-Levite condition anymore than the blind and deaf.
Even worse, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that once a year. Maybe everyone in Israel should have been made a High Priest, and maybe special calendars should have been issued so that every day was that one day when the Holy of Holies could be entered?
What, at any rate, is the point of this prohibition? No answer to an "argument by outrage" can satisfy he who is outraged, but Christian theology avers that the rules operate as a typology of Christ. Only the perfect lamb of God may be offered as a sufficient sacrifice; so it is that in the model of that sacrifice, those with imperfections won't fit the bill; likewise sacrificial animals with imperfections would not fit the bill.
Discriminatory? Of course it is. God is not politically correct. If He were, there would be no Hell. On the other hand, the Levitical laws did permit even those with disabilities to eat of the offering. As this food symbolized the blessings of God, it indicates that all were open to receive God's blessing equally.
Also, there is no hint of these offerings as actually providing sustenance for the Lord; rather, when the texts refer to the food "of" God, it is asserting possession. For more on the ancient thought lines that lie behind this picture, and the necessity of such thought in ancient times, see here.)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
Some suppose that there is some connection between these verses and those in Leviticus. Regarding the former, one critic says:
Yahweh seemed to have a special contempt for crushed testicles. Any male who suffered such an injury couldn't even enter into Yahweh's assembly...As my wife once said after I had read this verse to her, "Hasn't the poor guy suffered enough? For God's sake, let him into the assembly!"
The critic seems to think that this is an extension of sorts of the Levitical prohibition against those with damaged testicles serving at the altar, only more so, thus making it yet another, even worse, case of discrimination. It is discrimination indeed, but it is not likely the sort of discrimination that the critic thinks it is.
A key here is the difference in the Hebrew words used in each verse. Leviticus used the word merowach - meaning bruised or emasculated. This "bruised" refers perhaps to a temporary injury (which would allow the priest to serve after he recuperates -- of course, one supposes that he would be rather be in bed anyway), or to some inborn physical imperfection, as with the rest of this section. On the other hand, we have noted that such people can participate in the blessings of God with equity.
But what, then, of the folks referenced in Deuteronomy? The Hebrew word here describing the damage done to the genitals is dakkah - meaning mutilated or wounded. Although some suppose that this can refer to an accidental or genetic defect [Merr.Dt, 307], the context and the difference in language from Leviticus suggests that this isn't a case of someone who has been through an accident or a fight and can't help what has happened.
Rather, as our socially-informed commentators tell us, this most likely refers to someone who has wilfully and purposefully damaged themselves, probably as part of a pagan religious ritual. And this is right in line with a theme of Deut. 23 itself, which forbids various foreigners from entering the assembly: The only person who would undergo such treatment would be a foreigner (in pagan practice, deformity was "not only acceptable but frequently central to the practice of the cult", as for example were the assinnu of the Babylonian rituals - Merr.Dt, 307) -- or else someone who so dedicated themselves to a pagan god that they took this extra painful step to demonstrate their devotion.
Have they suffered enough? Perhaps they have -- but it would have been their own choice in the matter. It's not surprising that God declared that anyone who went this far in devotion to false gods ought to be excluded from the assembly of the true God. They would be unable to receive the seal of circumcision. But then again, if they've gone as far as having their genitals destroyed in an age when procreation was so central to corporate survival, chances are that they wouldn't be inclined towards conversion in the first place.
Finally, there is this, focussing on Deut. 25:11-12 --
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
One critic connects this to the laws regarding crushed testicles in the previous laws; but as we have seen, there is neither social nor linguistic basis for this argument. On the other hand, this is also said:
Added 12/2010: A slightly different answer related by Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?  is that the word used of the woman's hand actually means "palm," which in turn is a known euphemism for the pelvic area, and that the words for cutting off are used in other places to mean "shave". So the argument goes that the actual punishment is the shaving of the pubic hair -- which would be regarding as a form of humiliation, appropriate to the humiliation the woman heaped on the man for "copping a feel," as the critic puts it.
The focus here is on Deut. 23:12-14 --
Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.
Some have noted that this practice has sanitary applications, but the reason actually given in the text for this practice is in verse 14. Of this it is said, "So that was the real reason for this law. If Yahweh had stepped in anything while he was walking about in the midst of the Israelite camp, it might have disgusted him so much that he would have turned away from his chosen ones." Then it is said:
The chosen ones were to carry paddles with them so that they could bury their excrement, but they had with them large herds and flocks of livestock. So what about the excrement from these animals? Did they have to bury it too? Or was a cow chip less offensive that human excrement?
Good question? Hardly. Livestock was not an issue at all:
When you are encamped against your enemies, keep away from everything impure.
In short, the objection has confused the camp of the Israelite nation in the wilderness with what is actually described here -- Israelite military parties out on maneuvers. The rules for the civilian camp are unknown, but probably followed whatever was normal for the period, and that may have involved sanitary procedures that were already in place.
It is no answer to say that "when the entire 23rd chapter is read, it should be apparent that the commandments it contains were intended to apply to all Israelites and not just to the soldiers" because "the entire 23rd chapter" is a modern, artificial division; it is clear that these verses are for solders on maneuvers, period.
What we're talking about here, then, is parties of perhaps a few thousand men, without any livestock at all, except, perhaps, a few horses, which would be no trouble at all to take care of.
Assuming, of course, that piles of uncovered excrement are actually what is at issue. A glance at the Hebrew indicates otherwise, however. The word used in 23:14 is 'ervah, and it refers to nakedness (as in Gen. 9:22, the nakedness of Noah). What concerns Yahweh here is not the excrement itself. What he doesn't want is, to put it rather crudely and in the context of a society where publiuc nudity was considered extremely shameful, the public sight of folks whipping it out and taking a whiz, or bending over and taking a dump, as some less-disciplined army with less integrity might be inclined to do.
This is a modesty issue -- not applicable in places where one is able to duck into a tent, as in the main Israelite camp; but more likely an issue for an army on maneuvers which may not have all the niceties of habitation at their disposal -- not a sanitary one, although one might argue that sanitation was also a concern, but one that could hardly be explained when the science of microbiology and disease transmission was several thousand years away.