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Mary Douglas, Bridal Symbolism in Leviticus

Mary Douglas, Bridal Symbolism in Leviticus

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Published by: Sancrucensis on Mar 18, 2012
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Leviticus as Literature
Table 4.1. Mt Sinai

Mountain, Tabernacle, Body
Three paradigms of the tabernacle aligned Animaloffering Entrails, intestines, genital organs (washed) at the summit of the pile. Tabernacle


The word translated 'loins' (kesilim) is another circumlocution for male reproductive organs. If for humans 'feet' is a euphemism for genital organs, when it comes to animals, 'legs', accompanied by the word for 'entrails' suggests reference to the male animal's genital organs. Taken as a set it makes much more sense for the words to be translated as 'entrails and genitals'. At least that rendering explains why they are always together, and why they come last in the pattern of the reconstructed trunk and contents, and it makes sense with the association of the tabernacle with fertility. The orderly pattern made on the altar from a dismembered animal present the innermost soft partsof the body under an inclusive series of outer casings. The suet-covered area divides the top of the carcass from the bottom, making it into three parts, the thick layer of suet around the diaphragm which contains liver and kidneys making amiddie zone, while in the last zone are the other entrails. The procedures for sacrifice have broken up the order of the living body, separating each segment and drawing attention to the middle part, which would not otherwise have been distinguished from the rest. Ramban's model of the holy mountain has been transposed on a tri-zoned anatomy of the sacrificial animal. In the interior of the body is the pattern made by the suet covering the liver and the two kidneys, in the interior of the tabernacle is the pattern of its furnishings and activities, and both can be assimilated to the pattern of the holy mountain. At the entry to the carcass the enveloping skin has to be opened, which would correspond to ente ring the large court yard which encloses the whole sacred area. At the entry to the tabernacle is the outer court, the place of sacrifice, where the animal body is pierced. It is an area much bigger than the sanctuary; on the animal the corresponding front part is the enormous barrel-like rib-cage containing the heart and lungs. Note the animal shape tape ring up and off towards the withers, and note that the suet around the diaphragm makes an occluded zone. Beyond the suet and its contents, another small separate area of the lower abdomen containing the entrails and loins would correspond to the inner sanctuary.

Summit or head, cloud like smoke (Exod 19: 18); God came down to top, access for Moses (Exod 19: 20-2). Perimeter of dense cloud, access restricted to Aaron, two sons, and seventy elders (Exod 24: 1-9)· Lower slopes, open access.

Holy of hohes, cherubim, ark, and testimony of covenant.

Midriff area, dense fat covering, kidneys, liver lobe, burnt on altar.

Sanctuary, dense clouds of incense, symmetrical table and lampstand, restricted to priests. Outer court, main altar, access for people. Tabernacle consecrated (Lev 16).

Head and meat sections, access to body, food for people and priest. Animal consecrated (Lev 1-7).

Mountain consecrated (Exod 19: 23)·




On this reading the meanings of cloud and its association with fire for the people of Israel are enough to explain the suet being forbidden. The suet that divides the body at the diaphragm below the lower ribs is not just a covering. It corres ponds in the body to the boundary of a forbidden sacred space on the mountain. The solemn terms forbidding them to eat the suet fat support the parallel between body and Sinai. ' '\ The torso as a funnel going to the most intimate sacred area has a lot of meaning for Leviticus. The tabernacle runs horizontally with a slight tilt upwards, the holy mountain goes up vertically to the summit, and the sacrificial pile starts with the head underneath and goes up to the entrails. Each interpreted by reference to the others is a figure of the same


Leviticus as Literature

Mountain, Tabernacle, Body


world. Mountain goes up vertically, tabernacle and living body go along horizontally. The three exemplars come close to the inexpressible paradoxes of Jewish mysticism which allow going up to the Throne of God to mean the same as going down to the Chariot. If the tabernacle as a figure of Mount Sinai raises for the literal-minded enquirer further questions about the location of God at the summit of the one and at the same time in the deep interior of the other, remember that in mystical thought the whole scheme of spatial orientations can be reversed, 'upper' and 'inner' can be equivalent. Look at his creation where you will, the pattern is always there, with God in the depths or on the heights of it all. If the tabernacle is also a body, the polite scholar from another tradition may be beset with hesitation, perhaps supposing the obvious reading to be vulgarly unworthy of the great themes. Bashfulness apart, it is important to ask why the innards should be at the point of highest esteem, the position that corresponds to the holy of holies, instead of the face or head or heart to which we accord more honour. The question calls for difficult comparative psychography, but at least recall that there has always been in the J ewish culture a strong association between body and tabernacle in respect of fertility. The Bible locates the emotions and thought in the innermost parts of the body; the loins are wrung with remorse or grief; the innermost part is scrutinized by God; compassion resides in the bowels. The psalmist said: "Truth is in the inward being' (Psalm 74: 8). The same interiorizing movement is seen in the space of the body as in the space of the tabernacle building. The temple was associated with the creation, and the creation with fertility, which implies that the innermost part of the tabernacle was a divine nuptial chamber. Even from complete ignorance of mysticism, the analogy of the inner sanctuary with the centre of creation is intelligible. It was fitting that the sanctuary was interpreted as depicting 'in a most tangible form the union between God and Israel'. 21

The erotic interpretation is in accord with early Jewish as well as with medieval mysticism. An ecstatic, swooning union is described as taking place in the sanctuary, referred to as 'the couch'. Scholars who have been interested in tracing nuptial imagery across the region have tried to locate the Jewish erotic parallels in the Feast of Tabernacles. But Ralph Patai finds it in the holy of holies of the temple. He says that it is only in a late period that 'we find the express statement that the couple, whose nuptial chamber it was, were God and the Holy Matrona, personifying the Community of Israel'. 22 The medieval Zohar is much too late to be relevant to Leviticus, nevertheless the idea is worth noting. In Patai's felicitous words, creation was thought of as a 'time of abounding fruitfulness, a sort of cosmic rutting season'. 23 That the tabernacle was associated with creation and connected with 'abounding fruitfulness' should be carried forward for interpreting the rest of Leviticus.





So much for the trunk of the animal, and the prohibition of suet fat. What about the kidneys and the liver lobe? There has been a lot of learned speculation on why the long lobe should have been forbidden. In Aramaic, Hebrew, and U garitic it was the seat of the emotions. This part of the liver has been used in sacred ceremonies and in divination from very ancient times. In Greek divination a liver without a lobe was apresage of disaster .24 Ezekiel mentions it being used for consultation by diviners (Ezek 21: 26), but, as Milgrom says, that cannot have been the reason for its being forbidden, for in that case the whole liver would have to be prohibited. If there was a law forbidding the eating of things used in rites of ' foreign gods, those things would not be consecrated on the altar. He concludes cautiously: 'Why the caudate lobe was reserved for the deity is unknown.l "



Patai '947: 9'; Zohar Hadash '947: ,83.


Patai '947: 89. Halliday '9'3: '93; Van de Meer '987.

23 25

Ibid.: 69. Milgrom '99"


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