Scene from a Shechita, believed to be 15th Century, unknown artist and location

So, remember in the previous blog post how Aaron and his sons were finally invested as the first Jewish priests and everything was awesome? Well, hold on to your hat because that happiness doesn’t last long. Really, at all. Why are we surprised? The very first verses in Chapter 10 are: “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” I’m like, dang, Nadab and Abihu! You just put on your cool new priest clothes, got all ordained, and POW. Unauthorized fire in the censers = fiery death. Old Testament God does not mess around.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: So, I’m getting to be all like Job (we’ll come to him much later) asking God, “What’s the deal? You have a chosen people FULL of men, yet you choose Aaron’s lineage for the priesthood. Aaron has already messed up quite a bit (the whole golden calf incident is just one thing) and now his sons are proving that they aren’t really that good either at following directions to the letter, as God likes them. So why them? Didn’t He know there would be issues? Well, the answer from God is probably similar to what Job hears in his own story, basically, “You don’t know what I’m about and you can’t possibly understand, so don’t question the Almighty Me.” A’ight, then. Biblical researcher Michael Mulhall, though, has an interesting take on this whole situation. He says that when Leviticus was first written, there were only priests around who were believed to be descended from Aaron’s other two sons – Eleazar and Ithamar. The Leviticus authors’ thinking was that this could only have happened if something had happened to Nadab and Abihu and they created a story that would explain their own contemporary situation. He adds, “Did God do this? Winners write or pass on the interpretation of events. It is up to later generations to look into all of this.” As most Biblical scholars believe that figures like Moses and Aaron are legendary characters and not real, it seems likely that the narrative was written to suit the authors and their community.

So anyhow, Nadab and Abihu are burnt up into smithereens. Moses has their cousins carry what’s left of the bodies out of the camp and God gives Aaron and the other sons additional instruction as to how to undertake their many offerings, because it would seem that they need follow-up lessons.

In Chapter 11, God tells Moses and Aaron about the many rules related to eating clean animals and not eating unclean animals. The rules come down to: for livestock, they must have a divided hoof AND chew cud. There are many animals like rabbits or pigs that have/do one or the other but not both, so they’re unclean. Regarding fish or seafood, Jews can eat animals that have fins or scales, but can’t eat anything without fins or scales. So tuna = clean and shrimp = unclean. God then gives a list of unclean birds, which include a variety of owls, ravens, gulls, and oddly enough, bats. For insects, most flying insects that “walk on all fours” (sixes, maybe?) are unclean, but flying insects that walk on all fours but also have disjointed legs for hopping on the ground are clean. So, locusts, grasshoppers and crickets are clean. Delish!

For animals that go about on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean (so…..all of them? I can’t think of any animal that walks on all fours but not on their paws, except for kangaroos and I’m not sure they ever lived in the Middle East), including rats, lizards and weasels. They also aren’t to eat animals that move on their bellies (no snakes) or have many feet (no centipedes).

God then says that even touching the carcass of an unclean animal will make one unclean, and if an unclean animal dies but lands on something while dying, that item is also unclean for the rest of the day. God is very specific about some rules, saying in Verses 37-38: “If a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.”

Chapter 12 is all about a woman’s uncleanliness after childbirth and how she must purify herself to rejoin society. If the baby is a boy, the woman is unclean for seven days after childbirth. The boy must be circumcised on the eighth day and then the woman must wait 33 days to be purified. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for two weeks (?) and then she must wait 66 days to be declared clean again. My feminist brain says, “What the heck!” My mother brain says, “That might have been awesome to not have to deal with everyone for one to two months after childbirth.” When the new moms are finally clean again, they are to bring the priest a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or dove for a sin offering to make final atonement.

Wait, What? Unexplained Issues in the Bible: Why are new mothers considered to be unclean, and why are they impure for twice as long if they have girls? Good questions. According to Biblical scholars, there’s no real consensus on why these rules came about. Jewish Professor (and woman) Tikva Frymer-Kensky suggests that, “…like the person who touched death, the person who has experienced birth has been at the boundaries of life and non-life.” It is indeed an uncertain process, full of blood and pain and moments of crisis, so perhaps it’s not surprising that early societies would have dealt with childbirth as mysterious and needing some social control.

One thought on “Leviticus 10 – 12: Goodbye, Half of Aaron’s Sons, Plus All about Unclean Animals and New Moms

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