October 03, 2014

Fun with Bible: Leviticus and Feminism

God-willing, this could be the start of a series of posts. The Fathers, in their writings, show an unbelievable knowledge of Scripture, not only in their ability to quote entire chapters from memory, but also in their understanding of the application of individual, often difficult, verses to salvation in Christ. In an attempt to emulate those far beyond me in wisdom, I have recently taken to a more structured and frequent study of the Bible. So, you may sometimes receive some thoughts on the interpretation of some passages or others.


In talking to some of my feminist friends, I sometimes hear about how the sexual laws in Leviticus, and other places in the Pentateuch, demonstrate a misogynist or patriarchally sexist view of human sexuality. One example is Lev. 18:22, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." The text prohibits male homosexuality, but does not mention female homosexuality. This, according to one of my friends, who happens to be a feminist, indicates a general ancient tendency to disregard or deny the existence of feminine sexuality. According to this friend, the ancient view on sexuality would be that "sex" is proper to males, and would be acted upon females. Thus, no males, no sex, and therefore no prohibitions against lesbianism in the Bible. This makes sense, especially when compared with similar passages in Leviticus: for instance, the period (pun intended) of uncleanliness after female menstruation is longer than that after male nocturnal emissions, and the time of uncleanliness for a mother after a female child is twice that of a male child. This would seem to indicate that female sexuality is lower than male, resulting in steeper penalties for expressions of female sexuality than expressions of male sexuality.

However, after some reflection and some time in class with Fr. Tim Schehr, I think there's a deeper level of meaning here which actually presents a view of women and female sexuality which would have been starkly counter-cultural in the ancient world. But first, disclaimer: what I am presenting here should not be viewed as an attempt to dictate how Leviticus should be read. This is a personal reflection from someone who, although with a bit of Biblical studies, is by no means a Biblical scholar, and although with a bit of gender studies and a lot of genuine sympathy for the problems of sexism, is by no means a card-carrying feminist. Also, a note about my method: I will use a primarily analogical look at Biblical text and subtext, using the Patristic method of comparing texts from different parts of the Bible with similar themes. I have a good bit of historico-critical data and literary criticism in the back of my mind, but these are secondary to a more theological approach.

My initial response to my feminist friend's critique was counterexample: although Leviticus may not have an explicit prescription against lesbianism like it does against male homosex, it does legislate explicitly against first male and then female bestiality within a single logoi (Lev. 18:23). Further, other ancient sources bear witness to specifically female sexuality: for instance, the myth of Zeus and Hera asking the prophet Tiresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years, whether males or females found more pleasure in sex; or in the poetry of Sappho, which is regarded both as the first written love poetry, and as an expression of amorous desire of a woman for another woman. As a result, it does not seem to me correct to assume that the ancients did not think sexuality was proper to women. They clearly thought male sexuality was different from female sexuality, but they just as clearly considered sex as properly something for and by women. As an explanation for why there is no direct condemnation of lesbianism in Leviticus, I offer this hypothesis: immediately succeeding the condemnation of male homosexuality and male and female bestiality is the following explanation for these prohibitions, spoken in the voice of God: "Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves..." (Lev 18:24) God, here, would then be specifically legislating against the practices of the Canaanites, and perhaps even specifically the Sodomites, who are famously interpreted as a bunch of males actively seeking other males to rape (see Gen 19:5-9). As such, a specific injunction against lesbian sex could be seen as unnecessary: God only needs to legislate against the sins which His people might commit, in imitation of "the nations."

However, I was not happy with this explanation. Although it seems like a suitable counterargument, and perhaps a better reading of ancient sexuality, it doesn't satisfy the question of why God inflicts harsher penalties on female menstruation than on the somewhat comparable male emissions, or on mothers of girls than on mothers of boys. In order to answer this question, I think we need to make some analysis of our deeper theological assumptions on what is going on in Leviticus. First, what does impurity mean? A hypothesis which Fr. Schehr offered in class, drawn from the Midrashim, is about God's relationship with Israel. In Leviticus, God is prescribing laws because of a newly deepened relationship with the Israelites: God is now dwelling in their midst like He has not done since Eden. Just like God walked with Adam and Eve in Eden, just so God journeys with Israel, leading them to the promised land. However, humanity is not as it was in Eden - the Fall has completely changed our condition. Thus, specific injunctions in Leviticus are meant to lead humanity from a fallen state - with bodily bleedings and emissions, pain in childbirth, and sin - into a relationship with God more akin to that in Eden, where such things were not present. Ritual uncleanliness, as a result, is not seen as a punishment for sin, with longer times of uncleanliness for more serious sins. Rather, the time of uncleanliness is meant to teach the Israelites the dignity proper to what would have been the unfallen state of their bodies. Menstruation does not have a longer time of uncleanliness than male emissions because female sexuality is lower, but rather because it is more sacred.

This is tied to a Biblical view of women and motherhood which seems to me strikingly different than other ancient views. The common ancient view of reproductive biology is that the complete child is carried in male semen (a Latin word literally meaning "seed"), which the woman carries until it grows up. Thus, the male sows a seed, and the woman, like the earth, bears that seed to life. The Israelites do share this view, but they infuse it with a fundamentally different meaning as a result of their fundamentally different creation narrative. Whereas other creation stories frequently have human beings come into existence through a male act of generation without females (for instance, Egyptian mythology has a male god masturbate to create the other gods, and Greeks have men grow out of stones), the Bible has God shape both male and female in His own image. He then places them in a garden - the garden which, in the agricultural analogy of human sexuality, is the woman. John Paul II's Theology of the Body connects this "image of God" imparted in man and woman with the creative act which God has just completed: man and woman share in God's creative power by means of working to shape the earth, and by human generation. Genesis 2 and 3 describe this twofold participation in God's creativity as specifically male and female: Adam's curse after the fall is to toil, and Eve's is pain in childbirth. It would be silly to view this association as exclusive: clearly, women also work, and men also take part in the generation of new human beings. However, there still remains something in the Genesis narrative specifically connecting women and Divine creation through motherhood: Adam means "from the earth," but Eve means "Mother of all the living." With this deeper view of the Pentateuch's thought on motherhood, the Levitical text makes significantly more sense. Mothers spend more time coming back to ritual purity after a daughter because that daughter shares in her mother's capacity to share in God's own giving of life. Women spend longer coming back to ritual purity after menstruation than men after nocturnal emissions because, first, it includes blood, which itself is the sign of life, but also because the woman's womb is a more sacred sign of God's life-giving nature.

Again, this is only one way to read the Biblical text and to draw meaning from it. I am absolutely certain that other people could find other edifying messages, and other ways to grow in the life of Christ by examining these passages. However, I think that it is necessary to view texts like this as still edifying: a hermeneutic of suspicion, which views everything hinting at sexism as not consistent with God's message, and thus not authentically "Bible," but some kind of perversion, retroactively applies our views of gender to the inspired text. Instead of being challenged to meditate more deeply on what God means by the sexual differentiation which He has created in God's own image, this encourages a sculpting of humanity as we would like ourselves to be. Instead of trusting God's inspired word to be consistent with God's own truth, we artificially slash from the text any iota which does not conform to our understanding of ourselves. By taking a more Patristic hermeneutic of Biblical consonance and continuity, we are able to draw other passages into the discussion, and find a deeper truth which enlightens a troubling text. This views the Scriptural body as a whole, where individual parts make more sense in the context of others, and no verse contradicts another. This is hard, and requires definitively more faith and time in mediation than I have. I am sure that my own interpretation is lacking in depth and full understanding, but I trust that through discussion and prayer we can gain wisdom. The Church's understanding of the Bible will always be hindered by individual failings, however, we can truly grow in this area, as we always have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit guiding us as a Church in our communal meditation upon the text, correcting any individual errors. In conclusion, then, I pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten us as we read the words which that same Spirit inspired.



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