We have reflected on Leviticus 12, though in a cursory way befitting a blog series. Already this “Levitical woman” has turned out to be what women in Scripture and experience always prove to be: much more than she is at first sight. Let’s turn now to another passage in Leviticus to bring new considerations alongside the ones already suggested, and see if the glimmering big picture I have promised you comes somewhat more clearly into focus. This post is rather lengthy, I know, and involves some intricate textual discussion which may not suit every reader. I strongly recommend you keep Leviticus 15 open before you as you read, but if you’d rather skip the middle sections of this post and move directly to the last section, I think you’ll still get the heart of the argument. We continue to benefit from the scholars of Leviticus mentioned in previous posts, and especially (though in different ways) from Richard Whitekettle and Jacob Milgrom.
The Great Puzzle of Uncleanness in Lev. 15:18
In Leviticus 15:18, we read “If 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.”
Now, pause for a moment and think about what that verse says. It is rather puzzling, says Wenham (perhaps with every Christian reader of this verse), that the consummating act of marriage and the physiological prerequisite for children should be deemed to result in impurity. It is puzzling in no small measure because of the overwhelming evidence within the Pentateuch itself that children and marriage are highly prized. Hebrews 13:4, too, cannot be ignored: the marriage bed is, at least potentially, kept – in the language of the cult – undefiled. Undoubtedly it will be helpful to us to remember that, as Ephraim Radner has put it, “Lev. 15, like so much of the book, exposes from one vantage the history of giving life.” But how does it do so? By seeing the woman as a figure for sacred space, and therefore as requiring priestly protection and care. We will build our case in steps.
Wenham turns to the aforementioned and important work of Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, and her symbolic-structuralist method, to sort out what may be going on here. Douglas’s study of the dietary laws in Lev. 11 argues that these laws were tied closely to a notion of physical perfection or wholeness within the created order. An animal was classified as normal or abnormal depending on how closely it conformed anatomically or physiologically to an ideal type of creature for that realm of creation. This, in turn, implies a concern for boundaries and their maintenance, which itself reflects a concern for distance from surrounding Canaanite culture.
Wenham, though, correctly finds this scheme incapable of handling Lev. 15, and especially our verse. Why would uncleanness be connected with childbirth, menstruation, and sexual intercourse – all of which Israelites would have regarded as normal, not abnormal? Instead, Wenham proposes an analysis in terms of the polarity of life and death, which he thinks provides the rationale for these laws in Lev. 15. These laws, he suggests, concern conditions which involve the loss of “life liquids” and thus involve movement away from life toward death. Recalling what we noted earlier regarding Wenham’s model, this defilement occurs because the person has the “aura” of death.
There is a lot of value in this proposal, but there are problems too, as Whitekettle and others have noted. Firstly, the place of semen in this schema is far from clear. Unlike blood, nowhere in Scripture is the loss of semen what leads to death; the connection of semen with an “aura of death” is untenable.
Secondly, in our verse (Lev. 15:18), there is an association of impurity with the emission of something called “seed.” This is a connection with life being created, so the focus isn’t on maintaining life (as opposed to death) but nascent life. Further, a child created through the emission of semen in intercourse is spoken of only as a sign of the father’s strength (Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17), never as having sapped his strength.
Thirdly, and most importantly, in the “one-flesh” union of husband and wife, ejaculation isn’t conceived of as loss but instead as a movement within a unitary whole (physical and “emotional”), as a movement from one part of a whole to another part of that same whole. Consider, fully taking at face value the scenario as conceived in the biblical world: the seed moves from an environment of origin to an environment of growth, but all within the “one flesh” of the husband and wife. Thus, here, defilement does not come from a violation of the body’s boundaries (as per Douglas), not if we are to conceive of such boundaries in terms of the biblical world of the body. Instead, the theological physiology of Lev. 15:18 concerns a movement within the confines of the one-flesh unity in which the boundaries remain intact. So, why the defilement?
Where to Put Verse 18
Again it is helpful to keep Wenham’s proposal at hand for reference. But first we need to read the chapter as a whole. (Go ahead, I’ll give you a few minutes.)
Now that you’ve read the chapter, note that Wenham proposes a chiastic structure for the chapter as follows:
A vv. 2b-15 long-term male discharges
B vv. 16-18 transient male discharges
B’ vv. 19-24 transient female discharges
A’ vv. 25-30 long-term female discharges
It has a certain prima facie plausibility, except for one critically important oversight: this structural proposal mistakes v. 18 for a subdivision of the second unit – transient male discharges. It is no such thing. Instead, v. 18 is independent, as its conditional syntax makes clear. (For Hebrew readers: each distinct legal unit in this chapter begins with a conditional clause formation (see vv. 2b, 16, 19, and 25), but v. 18 begins with asher which, in this case, is not a relative pronoun (the subject is plural, not singular feminine for the woman). It is instead a conditional particle. This means v. 18 is written with its own conditional construction comparable to the others used throughout the chapter to demarcate legal units.)
Also, v. 18 is unique within the chapter because its subject is plural. If it were a case of contagious impurity, v. 18 would have a singular subject, a clause similar to v. 24 (“and her menstrual impurity comes upon/touches him”), and there would be no need to mention that man in the verse.
The impurity of v. 18 is, thus, not simply that of the emission of semen. Nor is it simply intercourse. Instead, the impurity stems from some aspect of the whole event: the emission of semen in sexual intercourse. Here is a better structure, drawn from Whitekettle:
A vv. 2b-15 long-term male discharges
B vv. 16-17 transient male discharges
C v. 18 intercourse male/female
B’ vv. 19-24 transient female discharges
A’ vv. 25-30 long-term female discharges
Doing better justice to the uniqueness of v. 18 in the chapter, this structure accents how v. 18 serves as the fulcrum of the whole passage. This is further suggested by the way components of the verse interlock with sections B and B’:
B v. 16 And a man… a laying of seed
C v. 18 And a woman… a laying of seed
B’ v. 19 And a woman… a flow of blood
What, then? Well, let’s look at the passage as a whole again. What is the chapter as a whole concerned with? Not physiology in general, but sexual physiology specifically. Given the Gen. 2:20-25 ideal for sexual relations (always in view throughout Leviticus), which of the various settings imagined in Lev. 15 is most akin to that ideal? Only v. 18. The chapter’s concern does not appear to be simply regulating sexual processes per se but to develop in the reader some deeper understanding of the ideal sexual physiology, more specifically, the ideal physiological functioning of the reproductive system, theologically considered. Is the reproductive “system” functioning so as to bring about reproduction, or is there some physiological deviation from ordinary sexual processes which departs from the ideal setting for those processes? Note, now, the following way of capturing the relationship of each section in the passage to the question of physiological integrity (PI) and systemic function (SF):
A vv. 2b-15 Abnormal PI Abnormal SF
B vv. 16-17 Typical PI Dysfunctional SF
C v. 18 Normal PI Normal SF
B’ vv. 19-24 Typical PI Dysfunctional SF
A’ vv. 25-30 Abnormal PI Abnormal SF
A and A’ describe physiological settings that are pathological: the reproductive system is unsound. Neither discharge can lead to the creation of life.
B and B’ are not pathological (not life-threatening or degenerative), nor physiologically abnormal. But, while typical they are not the ideal conditions for reproduction.
C, which is the fulcrum of the chapter, portrays sexual, reproductive physiology in its fully functional setting: each individual in the scene evidences the physiology appropriate for the ideal sexual physiological setting for intercourse and, more specifically, reproduction – ejaculation of seed by the male and the absence of menstrual discharge in the female.
Now, notice how the chiastic structure of the passage noted above contains a chiasm for contagion and cultic resolution. Each section concerns a tabernacle contagion, and each contagion corresponds to a resolution in the form of washing. Furthermore, the degree of impurity decreases as the reader moves through the various physiological settings toward the center, and then increases from the center back to the periphery of the unit. No doubt you are starting to see what is happening here: the center and periphery of the unit correspond to the center and periphery of the sanctuary. But notice, too, that the degree of impurity decreases as one approaches the center, but it does not disappear. This is the more focused way of asking our question about that center (v. 18): why is there still impurity of some kind here?
The Key to Leviticus 15
The often-overlooked key to the passage is in v. 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.”
“Thus,” that is, by attending to the foregoing sexual and physiological scenarios, you will not defile my tabernacle in your midst. This is the chapter’s motive statement: if the body is not cleansed from the discharges in the prescribed way, the tabernacle is defiled. As noted previously in our studies in the Levitical woman, this treatment of the sexual encounter, and particularly (as we will see below) its way of interpreting here the feminine body, is another example of the biblical homology. A homology is a resemblance between two objects based on similarities in structural and functional aspects which provides a hermeneutical guide to the reader: understanding one means understanding the other more fully.
The presence of both body and tabernacle in Leviticus 15, and their prominence as blended motifs, is therefore not peculiar. It suggests that the defilement of intercourse might be understood in light of some aspect of the correspondence between the body and the tabernacle, with the most overt commonality being the need for cleansing for full access. This takes us a step further in understanding what is going on in v. 18.
The Holy Center, the Mixed Middle, and the Unholy Periphery
But with only a moment’s reflection on this relationship in light of what we’ve seen in the carefully crafted structure of the chapter, the wonder of this link comes more clearly into view. The tabernacle, of course, was the center of spatial and theological perception within Israel’s wilderness encampment. At the center was the presence of God in the “Most Holy Place” of the tabernacle. The divine presence transformed it into sacred space.
Organized around that center was a continuum of various degrees of consecration to the sanctity/sacredness of this center (see Numb. 1-4). Needed for access was “purity,” “wholeness,” “perfection,” being “unblemished,” and so forth – for Wenham, life, the fullness of life, being wholly and unambiguously given over/devoted to life. At the periphery was the wilderness which encircled the community. As periphery, notes Whitekettle, it reflects the obverse of the center: death or non-life. A corpse, empty of life, could contaminate a priest whose allegiance is toward the center (Lev. 21:1-4). Sacrificial animals, because they are marked out as full of life (unblemished, perfect), were brought to the center. But once their resemblance to life was erased through their destruction and the sacrificial rite, they were taken to a place of death and non-life outside the wilderness encampment (Lev. 4:11-12).
Within the camp, even social organization was devised so that there was increasing consecration/purity with movement toward the center, and decreasing purity (impurity) with movement away from that center. Socially, theologically, cultically, here is the dynamic of the degrees of sancta: from the center through the encampment to the wilderness, and again in reverse.
How does this find expression in ordinary life? One way is this: what else was removed to the realm of death or non-life? Among other things, waste products (Deut. 23:12-14). Waste products belong to the realm of death, on the outside. I mention this specifically because it is critically important to understanding v. 18. But before we make this further connection, note a few other important observations.
Restrictions were placed on approaching the center: only the High Priest could enter it, and then only after undergoing purification rituals, and then only on one day a year. This is described immediately after our chapter, in Lev. 16. Even though the center was sacred space it was not immune from the impurity of the community, since a sacrifice was needed for it to be cleansed (Lev. 16:16). We recall Hebrews 10:1-4 – if it were possible to attain absolute and abiding purity in the old tabernacle commensurate with the purity of Yahweh himself, through mere cleansing and sacrifice, sacrifices would have ceased and approach to the center would then be wholly unrestricted. This tells us the old tabernacle enjoyed no such absolute and abiding purity, and that this is signaled in the need for cleansing or purification even by the High Priest. Within Leviticus, cleansing is a continuous process because absolute and unambiguous purity is not yet possible in that order, in that fallen world. One could not remain at the center, and any access to that center retained, even in the nearly ideal scenario of v. 18 (nearly ideal because optimal and normal for sexual intercourse and reproduction), an element of ambiguity requiring cleansing. But what accounts for that ambiguity?
Identifying the Ambiguity in the Scene of Verse 18
Leviticus 15 depicts intercourse and its physiology as a tabernacle scene. It places ordinary and proper sexual intercourse at the center (v. 18), and, as the chiastic structure makes clear, varying levels or degrees of impurity occupy the surrounding “areas” of that center just as in Israel’s encampment and wilderness. We notice now that some of the discharges in the passage (at the “periphery”) suggest waste or non-life, which are more appropriate to the peripheral wilderness of the encampment. Thus, those examples of pathological discharges on the extreme outside of the chiasm are wilderness non-life and/or waste. On the one hand, the bloody discharge of the female, though typical, would still qualify as waste or non-life, though not pathological. Similarly, on the other hand, the seminal emission of the male, though typical and not pathological, is also waste or non-life because it is not in the context of normal intercourse.
But at the center (v. 18) there is no female blood, nor is there wasted seed. What, then, is the ambiguous element which compromises the cultic integrity of that setting? What in that setting is potentially alien to the “fullness of life,” not wholly and unambiguously given over/devoted to life in its cultic sense: absolute and abiding purity or sanctity? It is not the woman. There is nothing in her physiology as it would apply in this scenario that partakes of that ambiguous quality. But recall what belongs outside the camp, in the wilderness: waste.
What, then, is present here that partakes of ambiguity on this front? The male sexual organ. It is inherently ambiguous in terms of sanctuary sancta for it is the same organ which produces both waste and semen or seed. In the emission of semen, it fulfills the appropriate function for this setting. But, as Mary Douglas has noted, it is not wholly given over/devoted to this function. It is also used for urination, and urine is waste and non-life; it is of the periphery.
In 2 Kings 18:27 and 31-32, at a time of chaos on the periphery encroaching on the covenant community, urine is set opposite abundance and life. As non-life and waste, urine also shares in the textual or literary periphery of Leviticus 15.
Woman and Priestly Concern
Thus, Whitekettle’s conclusion seems most able to account for all the phenomena in the passage: the male organ is not wholly given over/devoted to the reproductive setting, the “fullness of life” setting, of the center of Lev. 15 and of Gen. 2. It is anatomically and functionally ambiguous, confusing features of both the production of life and the production of waste, features of the center and of the periphery. Only with the emission of seed does the functional ambiguity become actual: it isn’t actually doing anything in this setting until it does one of these two things. Thus, a scene of sexual intercourse, with the emission of semen, defiles not because of the center (the woman herself now is clearly the center, not only her relationship to something removed from her) but because, with the emission of semen, “that” (the organ) which “structurally” unites husband and wife as one flesh crosses functional boundaries. And with that, an ambiguous element of the periphery intrudes upon the event, requiring an accompanying cleansing, just as even the High Priest required cleansing to inhabit sancta.
The upshot so far? The woman, in the biblical world, figurally represents tabernacle sancta. We will discover this is true of Israel as woman, the Lady Zion, the Lady-Mother Jerusalem, of Eve and the matriarchs, of various Old and New Testament feminine figures, and of the glorified Church-Bride of Christ. In light of this, in the range of biblical texts we will soon move on to consider, the otherwise strange biblical preoccupation with feminine welfare, protection, nurture, and love, and the otherwise strange ways in which this preoccupation is a land, temple, life, and Gospel issue – become more understandable. To violate the feminine (and we have yet to review what constitutes such violation or violence in Scripture) is tantamount to the violation of sacred space, and thus calls upon the perpetrator the holy wrath of Israel’s Husband. Other forms of violence against any image-bearer are of course terrible and deserving of judgment, but violence against females partakes of a special character biblically.
By way of a faint gesture for now of what is coming later… Think in light of Lev. 15:18 of the birth of Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, without male semen. Think, too, of the way this discloses the glories of what Paul says in Eph. 5: Christ in his union with her cleanses his Bride through and through, and in relation to Hebrews 10: Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice has provided unambiguous, absolute, and abiding access in the union with his Bride. The Gospel pulls us into that sacred space of Lev. 15:18 intimacy, and then leads us through it to resolve its nagging ambiguity. We’ll see this more clearly soon, but Christ comes to render fully glorious his temple-Bride. He makes clean, he protects, he nurtures. He is the paradigm of the loving husband as the safety of the woman.