Centralisation and forbidden sex

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The article is interested in addressing two issues: the debate about the democratisation of holiness in the Holiness Legislation (H) and the interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

Until recently, quite a few scholars working on Leviticus 17−26 have presented the call to holiness (Lev. 19:2; 20:7 and 26) in the parenetic frame of H in a very positive light. Scholars such as Kugler (1997 n.50), Bibb (2009:2), Artus (2013:172), Hieke (2014b:613) and Kamionskowki (2018:iv) refer to the “democratisation” of holiness. They all understand this call to holiness in a very positive light as a process of empowerment. The ordinary addressee could now strive for something that could previously be attained only by priests.

A recent PhD dissertation by Rhyder (2018, published in FAT in 2019) has questioned these positive portrayals of holiness. She interprets the call to holiness as representing something hegemonic by reading it through the lens of cult centralisation. This article draws on Chapter 5 of her dissertation, titled “Holiness as Hegemony”, which offers a number of essential arguments that can be summed up as follows: First, some scholars (e.g. Wenham 1979:265; Hieke 2014b:703) argue that the way the addressees can strive for holiness is by embracing specific ethical prescriptions in everyday life, including the Ten Commandments, caring for vulnerable people and respecting certain sexual taboos. Rhyder understands this concern for regulating daily life as a kind of conventionalism, a concept she takes from Adorno and which is for her “a trait of authoritarianism” (Rhyder 2018:302). Rhyder does not think that these aspirations to become holy mean that ordinary people could become equal to priests. A text such as Leviticus 22:8−9 clearly shows that a higher standard is expected of the priests, who may not eat animals that died of natural causes, something ordinary Israelites were permitted to do.

Secondly, Rhyder engages with H’s parenetic frame and identifies two rhetorical strategies: othering and standardisation. Othering is especially clear in texts such as Leviticus 18:24−30, where the previous inhabitants of the land are portrayed as sexual perverts who transgressed all the sexual taboos listed in Leviticus 18. For this reason, the land spat them out. These others may not be allowed to influence Israel. Furthermore, regarding the rules for right eating in verse 25, Rhyder identifies the strategy of standardisation, whereby the Israelite diet is standardised “in accordance with a shared central authority” (Rhyder 2018:316).

A third rhetorical strategy identified by Rhyder (2018:317−20) is what she calls collective loyalty. She identifies this strategy in Leviticus 19, which is all about “their ability to show loyalty to one another” (Rhyder 2018:320). These identified strategies all focus attention on the central sanctuary, because it “consolidates the authority of the central authority of law and sanctuary, along with the interests of those whose place is at the apex of hierarchy” (Rhyder 2018:324). The addressees are solicited or co-opted to centralise power in the cult through their ethical conduct.

A further question would be who would profit from this centralisation project. The obvious answer is the priests, but apart from them, who would benefit from this centralisation strategy when the text is read in the context of the Persian Empire? If the temple was completed in Darius’s time, then the critical question is what role it played in Yehud in service of the empire. Scholars such as Schaper (1995:536−7) and Balentine (1999:5−7) understand the temple as a place where taxes were collected on behalf of the empire. Any rhetorical strategy for centralisation could then be viewed as a strategy in support of the empire. Rhyder (2018:350) follows other scholars such as Bedford (2015:341) and Altmann (2016:182), who reject this idea and argue that Ramat Raḥel was actually the seat of the Persian governor, which would have been the place for tax collection, not the temple.

One could also ask whether the strategies identified by Rhyder could be understood as resisting the empire or functioning in its service. Could the strategy of othering, where Egypt is portrayed in a bad light, be seen as currying favour with the Persians by making fun of their enemies, as Yee (2010:218), for instance, interprets the references to Egypt in Exodus 2−12? Is the prohibition of male-on-male sex a critique of the Greeks, another enemy of the empire (Römer 2018a:217)? But then Hieke (2014b:679−87) sees the banning of giving your children למלך in Leviticus 18 and 20 as a warning that parents should not allow their children to work for the Persian king and thus as a form of pushback against the empire. The question is thus what the purpose of H was. Was the text about resisting the empire or being loyal to it?

The article then focuses on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Quite a few Old Testament scholars have recently engaged with these texts, with Joosten (2020) and Leuenberger (2020) being the most recent. Most of these scholars (i.e. Römer 2018a:213; 2018b:48−9; Leuenberger 2020:207) agree that we should not apply the modern-day concept of homosexuality – the term was coined in 1869 – to these texts. The ancient authors had no idea of sexual orientation. Scholars agree that the texts prohibit sex between two men, although there is a larger debate about whether the text is aimed at the active or passive partner (see Hollenbeck 2017, or Olyan 1994 and Walsh 2001). Many scholars also agree that one clear issue in the text would be a man playing the role of a woman (e.g. Leuenberger 2020:227−8). Some scholars (Joosten 2020:4; Römer 2018b:53) also point out that references to male-on-male sexual intercourse are fairly scarce in the Ancient Near East, with exceptions being Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian texts. The article also engages with and rejects Joosten’s (2020) most recent attempt to translate Leviticus 18:22 differently to mean that a man is forbidden to sleep with a married man.

The argument now moves to the possible impact of Persian texts on the Holiness Legislation. In the Avesta in Vendidad 8:32, sex between a man and another man is forbidden. The problem with reading H as if it is responding to the Avesta is that the Avesta is dated to a much later period than the Achaemenid period, but some scholars argue that the ideas go back to the first millennium (Kazen 2015; Kiel 2017; Dershowitz 2017). The text of the Avesta also encourages incest, which is the main prohibition in Leviticus 18 and 20. If the authors of H thus knew about these Persian ideas, they were following the Persians by prohibiting anal sex and at the same time showing resistance to Persian ideas by outlawing incest. Scholars such as Kazen (2015) and Jonker (2019 and 2016) have used insights from postcolonial criticism to explain the possible interaction between H and specific Persian texts. Kazen shows how H and later texts took corpse pollution more seriously, first applying it only to priests and then making this pollution applicable to ordinary Israelites (Num. 19). At the same time they rejected Persian ideas about demons. Jonker (2019) compares H with Darius’s grave inscriptions (DNa and DNb) and interprets H as a response. Both use terms such as hybridity and mimicry to explain the complex picture of colonised people responding to their conqueror’s texts and ideas. The trickiest aspect of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is how to interpret them within the context of the Persian empire.

The article concludes by underlining the following aspects of the complexity of interpreting these two verses: First, Rhyder reminds us that texts are not innocent, and if she is correct, then the agenda of Leviticus 17−26 was to support the larger project of centralisation, which was something that would have profited the priests. Secondly, Rhyder’s identification of the rhetorical strategy of othering that is so pervasive in these texts should remind any church that would like to apply these texts in any contemporary debates that they are drenched in an obsession with boundaries and a certain “us-versus-them” view of the world. Also, the article offers some critique of Rhyder because, despite showing the prevalence of “community solidarity” in Leviticus 19, she ignores a text such as 19:33−6, where the addressees are asked to love strangers, who are usually understood as standing outside the community. Thus, at times the text does undermine its own view of othering. Lastly, the article concludes that although we might like to interpret texts from H, including 18:22 and 20:13, as part of a larger strategy to maintain Israelite identity in the Persian period by resisting Persian ideas, it is difficult to support such an argument convincingly.

Keywords: anal sex; centralisation; democratisation; holiness; Holiness Legislation; Leviticus; othering; Persian period; postcolonial criticism


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