Leviticus and the Body Pt 1: Israel and Canaan

Like Jay Michaelson, if asked, “Do queer sexualities pose a threat to society,” I would answer, “Definitely.” Moreover, I agree with Michaelson when he argues, “Power and oppression begin on our bodies… the human body has been the site of boundary-drawing, nation-defining, and, most importantly, the control of desire. This is why gender and sexuality remain such contentious sites of religious and political debate today. Sexuality is where law is engendered, and where patriarchy begins” (Michaelson 2010).

My goal is to start a series posts on reading Leviticus because it is, by far, the most important book of the entire Hebrew Bible. Not only is it the first book good little Jews read when we begin reading Torah, it is the book that is used more than any other to justify the oppression of queer persons. Moreover, it is the the book of the Torah that deals most with the body itself. The Covenant Code and Deuteronomy rarely talk about the human body in the same way Leviticus does. It marks, in some ways the brilliance of Leviticus. Unlike the Covenant Collection and Deuteronomy, which maintain social control through the social body, Leviticus maintains social control of the social body through the bodies of individuals. It also marks why Leviticus is problematic. My first meditation, however, is less on Leviticus itself and rather on Israel and Canaan.

Leviticus states, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived, and oyu shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk by them” (Lev 18:4). Egypt and Canaan are set up in order to allow God to expound on social legislation that relates specifically to the body, although earlier in Leviticus there are other ways of legislating the body (bodily discharges). The difference between the earlier Leviticus (the Priestly source) and the latter Leviticus (the Holiness code) is that Leviticus 1-16 never mentions the practices of the Canaanites, nor does God separate the Israelites from the Canaanites in the same way that God does in Lev 17-26. In other words, the law is used explicitly to mark the separation of one group from another. Moreover, it is bodily practices in the Holiness collection that mark this separation. In this way, Israel and Canaan are socially constructed.

In fact, they’re not just social constructs, they are social constructs within a literarily constructed world. Identities are constructed, often through practices that separate one group of people from another. We do not know, precisely, how the conquest of Canaan happened by the Israelites or if it even happened at all. Most biblical scholars, as far as I know, would not advocate that Israel moved en masse destroying the Canaanite people through military campaign. Archaeological  evidence shows that Jericho was destroyed two centuries before Israel is supposed to have settled in the land and was not inhabited until two centuries after Israel had settled into the land. In other words, it seems unlikely that military conquest occurred with two separate peoples, Israel and Canaan fighting each other.

Two other arguments use a model that envisions either the conquest happening little by little, with each tribe of Israel entering into the land at different times and creating an Israelite identity in the land itself (c. Josh 1, which does posit that Israel only becomes Israel when it enters into the land. Moreover, the book of Deuteronomy itself admits that it can only be practiced within the land itself, meaning that while the Deuteronomic code creates the Israelite identity before entering into the land, it is only in the land that Israelites can claim that identity). Other scholars claim that Canaan became Israel through peasant revolt: Canaanite peasants revolted against the oppression of their Egyptian overlords and the Canaanite city-states acting as Egypt’s surrogates.

However, most scholars would have to admit that as best we can tell, there is no evidence definitively proving these other two theses either. Rather, we simply have to admit that Joshua and the Canaanites as understood in the Torah and Hebrew Bible represent a literary fiction. What we can conclude is that three of the four arguments, whether implicit or explicit, make it clear that the Canaanites and Israelites are one and the same (Carden 2006: 150, cf Levinson 1997:148-9).

Bernard Levinson’s work, for instance, is extremely helpful in recognizing this fact. The plurality of cultic sites (כל המקמות), which was assumed in Exod 20:24, is now a prohibited practice in Deut 12:2-3. Moreover, the cultic pillars (מצבה), justified because Moses himself erected them to ratify the covenant (Exod 24:4) is now also a prohibited practice in that same legislation. Altars and cultic pillars, as Levinson notes, were part of popular public piety and were part of “Israelite Orthodoxy,” even though I might take some issue with his use of the term “orthodoxy” (Ibid). Even the worship of Asherah, was part of public piety. As Levinson notes, “If these Canaanites did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them” (148). Canaan is a literary device constructed in order to construe what was legitimate practice in Israel as foreign and taboo: the rejected past becomes foreign and the praxis without historical precedent becomes the native (149).

In Joshua, Israel only becomes Israel when Joshua commands the circumcision of males in Israel (Josh 5.2-9). The mass circumcision and Passover celebration affirms Israelite identity and marks Israel as being different from Canaan. With Leviticus, it is only through bodily practices that Israel marks itself as separate from the Canaanites. What I think Leviticus begins to offer us, is the possibility that such bodily practices were legitimate in Israel. Like in Deuteronomy, Leviticus uses Canaan as a literary trope. I think this is something that we need to keep in mind when we read Leviticus, or any other book of the Bible. There is always a multiplicity of arguments, no one less or more legitimate than the other. It is often those with the most power who win the debate. By employing this dichotomy between Israel and Canaan, I am merely beginning to set up a methodology of reading biblical texts.

There are several conclusions I want to make to this post. First, we can begin to see that the rationale for many of the laws in the Torah are as means of boundary markers: they determine who is in and who is out. Second, they don’t simply construct identity, they construct orthodoxy. The reason why I disagree with Levinson’s use of orthodoxy is, in large part, because orthodoxy cannot exist without heresy. Deuteronomy and Leviticus construct orthodoxies over against practices they find abhorrent. These sentiments precede the Law but only because they exist as sentiments and practices within a larger cultural context. These different law codes, therefore construct Israelite identity into  definitive identities and act as polemical against visions of Israelite identities that they find abhorrent. Third, as such the Law itself produces, or at the very least, preserves the very desires and practices that it seeks to repress. By prohibiting “Canaanite” practices, it constructs those very same practices and preserves them in legislation. To be sure, the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus ensures that its authors’ practices remain in authoritative force. However, recitation inevitably opens up the possibility of its own failure. Fifth, this means that we can ultimately contest the practices of the Law. It can be turned against itself.

I am not necessarily arguing that we go back to Canaanite practices over against Israelite practices because that still assumes a dichotomy, and one that is constructed vis-a-vis polemic. The point is that as a literary construction, Canaanites are really Israelites. While Israelite identity might have become a break-off from a larger Canaanite identity, the Canaanite identity as preserved in the Hebrew Bible does not ultimately reflect actual Canaanite practices. Rather, it reflects a broad range of Israelite practices with which certain camps of Israelites- Josiah’s scribal court in the case of Deuteronomy and Priestly ranks in the case of the Holiness source-disagreed. In other words, “homosexuality” or rather, male-on-male anal sex actually constitutes an Israelite practice. The Holiness school simply didn’t like that practice, so they termed it Canaanite to render it foreign and odious. To bring this back to Michaelson, our sexualities definitely constitute a threat to society, but only that society is one that attempts to embody the Levitical ideal.

I’d like to end with a metaphor. The forrest fire. Our society view forest fires as a threat to civilization. However, in attempting to prevent the forrest fire, we are prohibiting a process that occurs naturally. Moreover, when we do that, more brush hits the forrest floors, meaning that when a forrest fire occurs, means that it will be more destructive than if we did allow them to occur. My point here is that our very notion of ‘threat’ is relative to our position in society. Alternative sexualities are a threat only to those who have the most power to lose within a system. The reality is, like inclusion of non-Whites, and women in our society, inclusion of sexual minorities will ultimately teach society as a whole, a broader vision of what it means to be human.


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