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Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible$

Eve Levavi Feinstein

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199395545

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199395545.001.0001

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(p.177) Appendix E Is H’s Conception of Pollution Dependent on P’s?

(p.177) Appendix E Is H’s Conception of Pollution Dependent on P’s?

Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible
Oxford University Press

One of the arguments for dating H later than P is that H expands and develops P’s major concepts and themes, including the idea of pollution. One proponent of this view is Baruch Schwartz, who argues that H develops P’s literal, technical concept of ritual pollution into the metaphorical conception of pollution found in Leviticus 18. Schwartz argues that H’s conception of pollution would be inexplicable without the concept of ritual pollution established in P.1

In considering this argument, it is important to distinguish between the linguistic categories of metaphor and technical usage and the conceptual categories of ritual and sexual pollution. As I argued in the introduction to this book, it is problematic to characterize all nonritual uses of pollution language as metaphorical, but it is true that P’s prescriptive ritual texts use pollution language in a technical sense, which is clearly circumscribed. However, there is no reason why a nontechnical use of a term must have developed from a technical use and not the reverse.2

Turning from the linguistic to the conceptual, Schwartz’s argument is problematic in part because it seems to imply that the concept of ritual pollution is P’s original and sole pollution idea and that H is unique in extending the concept beyond these confines. The concept of ritual pollution is not, however, original to P,3 so even if it were a necessary foundation for H’s pollution idea, H would not necessarily have to have access to P to have known and developed it. Moreover, although I have argued that H’s conception of sexual pollution has its own distinct and innovative characteristics, the idea of sexual pollution can be found in P as well, in the rite of the suspected adulteress.4 In fact, as discussed in chapter 2, a variety of pollution ideas can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible. That P uses pollution language mainly in the ritual sense is a product of its subject matter, namely the cult. H, in contrast, deals with a variety of topics, including cultic matters but also sexual relations, agriculture, and jurisprudence, among others. Thus, it includes a few references to ritual pollution but also applies pollution language to nonritual matters.

(p.178) Notwithstanding these underlying problems, Schwartz’s basic argument is not inherently invalid. P and H use similar language and style, which suggests that the authors of one source adopted and developed the idiom of the other source. A text that dealt with cultic purity would have to use the language of pollution: There is no other way of discussing the topic. On the other hand, it is possible to discuss sexual transgression without employing pollution language. If the extensive use of pollution language in one source prompted its use in the other source, the direction of influence would have to be from P to H.5 This influence, however, would be stylistic: H’s concept of sexual pollution is not inherently dependent on the concept of ritual pollution found in P.6

There is also a specific instance in which H invokes a purity law found in P in a way that argues for H’s relative lateness. H prohibits sex with a woman “in her menstrual pollution”(נִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ‎; Lev 18:19), whereas according to P, a man who has sex with a menstruant is simply ritually polluted and must undergo a seven-day waiting period to be purified (Lev 15:24). The idea that menstruation pollutes is not unique to P,7 so the author of Lev 18:19 would not necessarily have to have been aware of Lev 15:24. But again, given the overall uniformity of P and H—including the use of the term niddah for menstruation, which hardly ever occurs with this meaning outside priestly literature8–it is reasonable to conclude that one of these sources influenced the other, and, if so, the direction of influence would have to be from P to H. It is difficult to conceive that an author who considered sex with a menstruating woman a capital offense would have authored a law detailing the process of purification after the act, but the reverse seems plausible: An author who accepted that menstruation is ritually polluting might have added that it is prohibited. This is, notably, the only overt contradiction between P and H,9 and one can imagine that the author of the later text might not have viewed it as such: The fact that a man can be purified from the pollution of sex with a menstruant does not necessarily mean that he has not committed a capital crime. This overall agreement supports the view that H was written with full knowledge and acceptance of P, probably as a supplement to it.


(1) Schwartz, The Holiness Legislation, 26, 30; see also Milgrom, Leviticus 2: 1326. H also uses pollution language in Num 34:34–35, which deals with bloodshed; for discussion, see Appendices A and F. However, the pollution of bloodshed is mentioned only briefly, and Schwartz does not discuss it in his book, which focuses on Lev 17–26.

(2) Similarly, Klawans points out that there is no reason to assume that the pollution language in Lev 18 is a secondary derivation of ritual pollution language (Klawans, Impurity and Sin, 33–35).

(3) See section 2.2.2.

(4) See section 3.2.

(5) I offer this suggestion somewhat tentatively, since the pollution language of H is concentrated in one chapter. However, this concentration is heavy enough that, in conjunction with H’s general use of P’s language, it is reasonable to suppose that the choice of terminology was influenced by P.

(6) Schwartz offers a variety of similar arguments for H’s dependence on and development of the language and ideas of P. For example, Lev 17:11 (H) discusses the “well-being” offering (זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים‎), the basic regulations for which are laid out in P (Lev 3), and it employs P’s technical term for purgation, kpr (כפר‎), in the sense of a homonym meaning “ransom”; Schwartz, The Holiness Legislation, 29–30; see also Baruch J. Schwartz, “The Prohibitions Concerning the ‘Eating’ of Blood in Leviticus 17,” in Priesthood and Cult in Ancient Israel, ed. Gary A. Anderson and Saul M. Olyan, JSOTSup 125 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991), 34–63. In this case, it is less problematic to assert that H developed P’s technical cultic language, since H’s use involves a play on words, which integrates the technical meaning with another meaning.

(7) See section 2.2.2, n. 10.

(8) The one exception is Lam 1:17. For further discussion, see Appendix G.

(9) See Schwartz, The Holiness Legislation, 26–27.