Saturday, March 29, 2008

More Christian Sex; Masculinity, Property, Primitive Paternity Testing - and Environmental Protection?: Leviticus 18, 20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Leviticus 18-20 is another of those weird oscillations where the laws jump unpredictably between behavioral prohibitions and social justice. It's particularly pronounced in this case because Leviticus 20 is basically a repetition of Leviticus 18, except with particular punishments specified for each offence. What's up with that? Earlier, I jokingly claimed that different chapters reflected which draft-writers showed up to the meeting on that particular day. It's a silly theory, but seriously, why does this happen? There's no apparent reason that God would be talking to Moses about what the NIV calls "unlawful sexual relations," would lose his train of thought and start talking about charity and harvests, then return to the same "unlawful sexual relations" once again.

The sex laws in this part are, for the most part, ones we still keep today - you can't sleep with your mother (or your father's wife, as the Bible puts it), your sister (this one's so important God mentions it twice!), your granddaughter, your aunt, your uncle's wife, your wife's mother (or daughter), your sister-in-law. Done with specific women, God moves on to a series of miscellaneous laws: no sex with "a woman... during the uncleanness of her monthly period," no sex with other men, no sex with animals. Weirdly, in the middle of the sex laws he gets off the subject and, out of nowhere, warns the Jews not to sacrifice any of their children to Molech. What's going on with this verse? It seems like a later addition, it's so out of place - why, at this point in time, would he be referring to a specific false god by name? It's a strange and sudden introduction to whoever this Molech character is supposed to be.

What are we to make of these strange laws? A conservative literalist has no problem - we should just keep all of them, no questions asked! (Why this doesn't translate into similar political campaigns to ban banks charging interest to their customers is beyond me, since the Bible said that was a sin too.) Liberals could just reject them, but strangely, they don't, even though they have a perfectly reasonable argument -- this is the 21st century and we don't need to follow all the rules set down by some goatherders 3000 years ago. Some of them actually do this, though most fall into the same trap as the conservatives in arbitrarily proclaiming which "cultural" and "ceremonial" regulations can be dumped and which have to be kept. Others, more disturbingly, twist the verses out of context by taking the one that seems like a later tradition - the one about sacrificing children to Molech - and arguing that everything that follows (i.e. homosexuality and bestiality) are about banning pagan religious practices. I'm not buying it. No Christian group that I know of supports removing the law on bestiality, and that one occurs in the same context as homosexuality. May as well admit it: the Old Testament laws say homosexuality is an affront to God.

The justification God uses for these laws, especially in chapter 18, is an interesting and peculiar one. It's not, God implies, simply that the Israelites are expected to keep his laws or else he'll kill them. Instaed, God describes an unusual moral relationship between Israelites and the land they live in. Immoral behaviour makes the land "defiled," too, and it "vomits out its inhabitants" when they commit grave sins. Therefore, "if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you." This phrasing is especially ironic in light of the fact that modern-day evangelicals routinely condemn Christian environmentalists for embracing "pagan nature worship" whenever they talk about taking care of the planet. (A quick Google search should turn up plenty of results on this, or you could just go find an environmental debate thread on Rapture Ready or I guess God is guilty of pagan nature worship too!

Even more interesting is the implication that human sin is equivalent to, or leads to, environmental degradation. Today, a lot of evangelicals get most irate when it's suggested that human action is destroying the environment. They proclaim that this is a bunch of tree-hugging hippies trying to take over the government, when in reality nothing we do could destroy God's beautiful creation. So much for that bullshit. God himself says that we destroy the environment.

The sex laws in chapter 20 add an additional layer of meaning, and some additional context that helps us, I think, to explain the Levitican position on sex, and particularly on homosexuality. Most of the chapter is about ownership and paternity rights: women are property and inappropriate sex is therefore an abuse of someone else's property, particularly important in the case of sex because inappropriate sex could lead to inappropriate pregnancy and cause confusion about paternity - something a rigidly patriarchal society must avoid at almost any cost. Overlaid over this is the need to protect and preserve the sex order within which this ownership of women is justified - which is why homosexuality is banned, and bestiality is banned in a particular way.

Notice that every sex law except one is written for men. Certainly chapter 20 prescribes punishments for everyone involved, but they're all written in the form: man does action X to woman Y, and this is sin. Women don't initiate these acts. Chapter 20 specifies what makes the inactions immoral, and this is where the property issue becomes apparent. A man can't sleep with his father's wife - this would "dishonour his father." You can't sleep with a daughter-in-law, because this would offend your son; with a neighbour's wife, because it would offend your neighbour; with an aunt, because this would offend your father; and so on. The offence isn't against the woman involved, or even - apparently - against God, because sleeping with an unmarried woman isn't part of these laws. It's part of some other laws, but that will come later. Here, women belong to men and sex is permitted only with your own property. The only property you can't have sex with is a "close relative" like a daughter, and that's because you're holding daughters until they become the property of another man, their future husband. Thus far no one seems all that concerned about prostitutes, because they're already dishonoured by their freedom; no one owns a prostitute.

It's important to preserve this sexual hierarchy, in which men own and women are owned, and this is where the Levitican commands about homosexuality and bestiality come into play. To God, sex is an act of penetration followed by an "emission of semen" into the vagina (recall the earlier Levitican commands about uncleanness, and Onan's fuck-up way back in Genesis). It is a specific form of property ownership in which a man owns a woman's body and uses that body for recreation and procreation. For two men to simulate such an action is an abomination because it goes against the established "natural order of things." Under the Levitican and Exodus slavery laws, men can own other men, but only as servants, and only with certain restrictions and protections - i.e. they can own their labour, but not their bodies. When two men have sex, one of the men is symbolically becoming a woman, and that is a grave affront to the ancient Jews' hegemonic patrimonial masculinity.

To this end, notice that God is cheerfully unconcerned about lesbians. It's possible that this is because, like most of the loudly heterosexual men you'll find in the average pub, he thinks that lesbians make good porn. It's more likely that Leviticus doesn't care about sex between women because it's not really sex - there's no penetration by a penis - and because, as a result, there's no "abomination" against nature - because they're already both women. No one is being reduced and owned in sex acts between women, at least not in any way that they weren't already.

In contrast to the homosexuality laws, there's something that stands out about the bestiality laws which follow: they're written for BOTH men and women. This is an exceedingly rare event in Leviticus and so it's something that bears mentioning: God specifically declares that a sin has occurred both when a man has "sexual relations with an animal," and when a woman "presents herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it." Sex with animals is generally wrong because it's not natural penetration (especially because no pregnancy can result); for a woman to do it is doubly wrong because she is symbolically being owned by an animal, i.e. she is "presenting herself." This is why only the command about bestiality specifically mentions women - to a man, both homosexuality and bestiality subvert the appropriate form of sexual ownership, but to a woman, the principle of ownership could only be subverted by sleeping with an animal. According to Leviticus, even a woman outranks a farm animal.