Castration, Excrement Disposal, and Similar Issues in the Bible
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[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:

  1. "Today, if a woman's husband should be attacked, shoe would probably know that a swift way to rescue him would be to administer a quick, hard blow between the attacker's legs, but that's today. back in the Twilight Zone of biblical times, a woman dared not do this unless she wanted to run the risk of being known the rest of her life as Lefty."

    First of all, this law does not forbid a kick to the gonads at all -- that's not what it says, even in English, although administrative law might have supported the same punishment had enough damage been done. The Hebrew word here is chazaq, and it means to "fasten upon" in the same sense that is used to describe someone taking someone by the hand and leading them somewhere (Gen. 19:16; Ex. 3:19). In other words, this is not merely an attempt to end a fight; this is a determined attempt to do damage above and beyond what is necessary. But is the punishment reasonable?

    The Skeptics may not think so, but they do not live in an era when having heirs is particularly important: Ancient people did not have Social Security to keep them afloat, nor did they have government programs; there was no Meals on Wheels to deliver food to the elderly and infirm. If you wanted to survive, you needed heirs; there was no other way.

    This law should be understood in the context of what precedes it, for it makes the matter quite clear:

    Deut. 25:5-9 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, "I do not want to marry her," his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line."

    Neither a man nor a woman of this period would want to live without heirs. This loss of a hand is hardly to be construed as a severe punishment for someone who kept you from having descendants. It has nothing to do with the rule of Deut. 23:1, since that involved self-inflicted damage with a cultic purpose. It has everything to do with destroying a couple's means of support beyond a time when they could fend for themselves properly.

    It is also probable, given the context of the previous verses, that the "brothers" fighting here are actually brothers in a physical sense, and are fighting over the very issue of Deut. 7-10. If this is the case, then the wife's actions are even more in sense with the context, and that would mean that this is not just any old fight -- and, it is probable in that case that a rescue attempt is not forbidden in principle where a continuation of heirs is not at stake.

    And thus is it appropos that a hand be lost -- for it matches equally the loss of ability to provide descendants to be one's "hands" in old age. That it is thought of as equitable under the "eye for an eye" rubric is demonstrated by the fact that the phrase "your eye shall have no pity" also introduces the lex talionis laws in Deut. 19:21.

    Furthermore, if our critic still thinks this rule unreasonable, he should compare it to this Middle Assyrian parallel: "If a woman has crushed a man's testicle in an affray, one of her fingers shall be cut off." That's just for one testicle. There's a second rule if both testicles are crushed, and the punishment is that "both" of something of the woman's will be cut off -- we don't know what, since the text is damaged, but you can take a guess if you want. - Crai.Dt, 315.

    We should point out, too, that the Assyrians apparently didn't differentiate between a "rescue" situation for the husband and a woman fighting a man that is beating up on her. If the Israelite law were truly "anti-woman" it would prescribe the punishment under any circumstances. As it is, it seems clear that a kick to the gonads was NOT forbidden when, say, a man attacked and raped a woman.

  2. It is then said: "For some reason, Yahweh said nothing about the opposite situation in which two women would be fighting, and the husband of one should grab the crotch of his wife's attacker. One can only conclude that Yahweh, in his inscrutable wisdom, considered copping a feel to be a much worse offense for women than men."

    Tactically, "copping a feel", is NOT what is in mind in Deut. 25 at all, as we have shown --- in this situation wouldn't make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if some man was indeed trying to "cop a feel", then chances are some administrative version of the Mosaic laws against sexual assault would kick in. "Copping" isn't specifically mentioned in the Mosaic law (or in any ancient law code that I know of, for that matter), but nor are a host of other specific acts, and it is not as though the Hebrews were any different from anyone else in legal history in determining applications where the laws lacked specifics. As a scholar of that field notes [Hillers' Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, 88-9]:

    ...(T)here is no evidence that any collection of Near Eastern laws functioned as a written code that was applied by a strict method of exegesis to individual cases. As far as we can tell, these bodies of laws served educational purposes and gave expression to what was regarded as just in typical cases, but they left considerable latitude to local courts for determining the right in individual suits. They aided local courts without controlling them.
  3. "In a fight, a man's wife could not assist him by seizing his opponent's genitals, but what were Yahweh's chosen ones supposed to do if two men were fighting and no wife intervened, yet one of the men grabbed the other's genitals? Would this have cost the man his hand? If not, why not?"

    No, it wouldn't cost the other man his hand - it would cost him his own testicles, in accordance with the "eye for an eye" principle. It's a pretty good indication that no man would take this step against another man. What if you tried and missed? In that case, you just opened yourself up to be the first to get a painful squeeze in the wrong place with nothing to show for it. Even in the most violent fights, one may note that men tend to keep to an unspoken agreement about this sort of thing; even today we think of such a move as "fighting dirty".

Added 12/2010: A slightly different answer related by Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster? [121] 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.

Excremental Issues

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.



  1. Crai.Dt - Craigie, Peter C. The Book of Deuteronomy. Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.
  2. Merr.DT - Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy. Broadman and Holman, 1994.