Monday, July 1, 2013

Leviticus: On Scapegoats and Uncovered Nakedness

Welcome back to my Bible slog… erm… I mean blog. In our last installment we realized that God has an attitude toward life and death possibly more appropriate to a preteen emo Goth chick than the almighty, all-loving creator of the universe. The whole life is icky, death is purity thing. On the broader scope, we’re in the middle of Leviticus, and had just gotten through the section on how horribly impure reproductive fluids and giving birth are.

Next, the Bible recounts how God instructed Moses to tell Aaron after his two sons died that he couldn’t enter the Holy Place until… can you guess? C’mon… it’s a pretty simple answer if you’ve been paying attention. I’ll give you a second…

Yes, that’s right, not until he kills more animals and sprinkles their blood around. Then burns them for that pleasing aroma of burning flesh that God keeps going on about. In this case, it will be a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. But these are just for himself – he also has to grab a couple goats and a ram as (respectively) a sin offering and a burnt offering for the people of the congregation.

Why two goats for the people instead of one? Glad you asked. The Bible is about to give us the concept of the scapegoat.

“Lev 16:8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for Yahweh and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for Yahweh and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.”

Later, this is clarified to say that Aaron is going to confess all the iniquities of the people over the live goat to put them on it so it can carry those sins out into the wilderness. That’s what the scapegoat is.

But who or what is this Azazel character? There’s no explanation at all, and it’s never been mentioned before in the Bible. So, back to the internet where I discovered (as seems to happen most of the time when there’s something that’s not clearly defined in the text) that nobody agrees on what it means. Common answers seem to be another god, some kind of goat-demon, or maybe just a Hebrew word that means “to go absolutely away.”

Personally, I like the last explanation, since it doesn’t seem to be within the character of the god described in the Bible so far to in any way allow an offering to go to some other god. But that’s just my opinion.

After all the details of how to conduct the sacrifices and scapegoating, God also makes it a statute forever that on the tenth day of the seventh month, nobody can do any work and must “afflict themselves” (alternately translated as “fast”), while the priest must make atonement for them before God. Interestingly, this law is specifically called out as applying to non-Jews living among them as well (I guess that for some reason forcing a fast – or afflicting themselves - on sojourners doesn’t count as oppressing them, which I believe we discussed as being specifically forbidden in earlier laws).

Also forbidden is making sacrifices in any place other than the altar of tabernacle. This is specifically stated to be so that they can’t go sneaking off to make sacrifices to “goat demons” under the guise of making sacrifices to God. This is another law that applies to non-Jews living among them, which for many people of the time probably amounts to specifically forbidding non-Jews to practice their own religions when living in Jewish territories. By modern American standards, at least, that would count as oppression.

Eating blood was also forbidden to Jews and non-Jews alike, and they must pour out and bury the blood of any animal killed while hunting. Eating any beast killed by other animals makes you unclean.

With that out of the way, the Bible moves on to everybody’s favorite subject: sex. Specifically, forbidden sex, starting with incest.

“Lev 18:6 ‘None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am Yahweh.’”

Firstly, what the hell is the point to throwing a self-introduction into that? Just in case Moses (who’s supposedly receiving this dictation) forgets who he’s talking to? A little stroking of God’s own ego? It’s kinda stupid IMO.

Secondly, “uncover nakedness” seems like a little bit of odd phrasing. So I looked it up, and apparently it’s a euphemism for “have sex.” And that raises the point of the inherent stupidity of laying down a law in euphemism. If you don’t understand the particular cultural context, then a literal reading of the text implies that it’s still permissible to have sex with your close relatives, so long as they’re clothed when you do it!

Anyway, the Bible moves on to defining who those close relatives are that you’re not allowed to bone. They include: your father, your mother, your father’s wife (remember that multiple wives are allowed, so you’re not allowed to sleep with your father’s wives that aren’t your mother), your sister, your granddaughter, your father’s wife’s daughter (if she’s brought up in the same household as you), your aunt, your uncle or his wife, your daughter-in-law, and your sister-in-law. And these generally seem to be a pretty good idea. But here’s a fun and ironic verse:

“Lev 18:9 ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or another home.’”

Now you may recall that Abraham, the wonderful founder of the religion who God routinely praised for keeping his laws and statutes, did exactly that! Abraham married his sister, and in fact every one of the people God is (at this point in the story) leading to become the great nation he promised to Abraham is directly descended from that forbidden act of incest.

There are, of course, some more restrictions. You can’t sleep with a both a woman and her daughter (sorry for any believers with MILF fantasies), or with a woman and her granddaughter. And you can’t be married to two sisters at the same time (you mean… like Jacob did with Rachel and Leah?). Menstruating women are forbidden, and your neighbor’s wife, other men (because “it is an abomination,” which seems to amount to saying “because it’s icky,” as opposed to for any logical reason), and animals.

God then goes on to explain that these forbidden acts are abominations practiced by the people whose lands they are on their way to steal, that by doing them those people have made their lands unclean, and that because of it the land is about to “vomit them out” in favor of the Israelites. Aside from the fact that it makes no damn sense whatsoever that land should “become unclean” as a result of whom the people living on it are having sex with, it’s already been made pretty clear that the Israelite invasion supported by God is what’s going to drive those people out of their lands. The land itself won’t be doing jack about it.

Nonetheless, God warns that if the Israelites take up these sexual activities, then the land will vomit them out as well.

Well, since this seems to be the end of God’s monologue on sexual restrictions, and I’ve gone on for a bit, it seems like a good place to call it a day. This law stuff is becoming about as dry as I’d feared it would, so I sure hope it won’t go on much longer. Guess we’ll find out!

As always, take care out there.

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