From *The Skeptical Review*, 2002 / May-June:
by Farrell Till
In the mailbag column of this issue (p. 12), Vallon England saw divine guidance in the Israelite Levitical law that required ceremonial bathing and various ritual cleansings. This is an argument that has made the rounds as long as I can remember. I even recycled it myself when I was a fundamentalist preacher. Usually, dietary restrictions are also touted as part of the divine guidance intended to protect Yahweh's "chosen ones" from diseases. He declared pigs unclean, so the argument goes, because pork can transmit trichinosis if it isn’t sufficiently cooked. If that was Yahweh’s concern in giving this law, one has to wonder why he didn’t just command that the meat be cooked thoroughly? Why ban the entire product when there is a simpler solution, but who am I to question the creative genius of the universe?
If there is any merit at all to this argument, then surely there were health reasons for Yahweh’s ban on the eating of camels and hares (Lev. 11:4-6), fish without scales (v:9), and various birds like eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls (vs:13-19). What were these reasons? What risk to his health does a person take if he eats a catfish or a rabbit? Of course, we know that catfish and rabbits, as well as any other kind of food, would pose a health risk if it is contaminated, but the fundamentalist argument is that the danger from trichinosis was so overwhelming that Yahweh ordered "his people" not to eat pork at all. If this is so, then surely the omni-one had similar reasons for banning all the other prohibited foods in Leviticus 1l. What were they? Unless such dangers can be demonstrated, fundamentalists have no convincing argument in this matter.
Probably nothing more than tribal custom and personal whims were involved in these dietary restrictions. As a nation, we avoid eating horse meat, whereas other countries consider it a delicacy. We don't generally eat insects either, but they are a staple in some parts of the world. The ancient Hebrews apparently ate locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers, because they were permitted under the dietary laws, whereas all other insects were prohibited (Lev. 11:20-23). Yuck! If I had written Leviticus, I would have banned all insects and thrown in broccoli for good measure. Whoever wrote this book had probably been conditioned by tribal customs to eat certain insects and not others, and so what he wrote reflected the tribal preferences and revulsions that he was accustomed to. In "Kosher Baloney," Dr. Tim Gorski, a physician in Arlington, Texas, wrote on this subject from a medical point of view to show that there is no basis at all for arguing that the Levitical dietary laws were Yahweh's way of protecting "his people" from health hazards. In his article, Dr. Gorski made a statement that is worth reconsidering.
Even allowing that these [previously listed examples] may be instances of kosher practices having some practical utility, this would hardly argue for their being of divine origin. The operation of natural selection on the simple process of trial and error would be sufficient to result in the prevalence of useful, and especially lifesaving traditions. Nor does anything in the Bible argue to the contrary. God never tells his "chosen people," for example, that the reason they’re to avoid pork or not mix milk and meat products is because of "creeping things" too small to see that can make them sick (The Skeptical Review, November/December 1998, p. 6).
If the Levitical dietary laws had contained any explanation for the restrictions, such as the one that Dr. Gorski mentioned above, that would have given biblicists a strong argument, because a reference to tiny or invisible "creeping things" that could cause illness would be hard to explain in a time when microscopic organisms were unknown. Without any direct reference like this, however, any apparent benefits that seem to be derived from some of the Levitical restrictions could be explained as nothing more than what Gorski mentioned above, i. e., the result of having learned through trial and error. After all, if even a primitive people observed outbreaks of illness (now known to be trichinosis) enough times after pork was eaten, it shouldn’t have taken them too long to conclude that eating pork was not a good idea.
Mr. England (page 12, this issue), however, focused primarily on ceremonial bathings and other hygienic rituals, so I’m more than happy to follow his cue and look at these to see if there is any basis for arguing that they were divine in origin.
The designated place: Mr. England referred to Deuteronomy 23:12-14, which required the Israelites to designate a place outside their camp where--uh, there is no delicate way to say this--they would be required to go when they needed to defecate. They were to take with them a "paddle" so that they could dig a hole in which they were to bury their feces. Our letter writer saw this as an indication of divine sanitary guidance to protect the "chosen ones" from disease, so I suppose he thinks that ancient tribes that didn’t have the advantage of having the creator of the universe traveling before them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21) just squatted in camp wherever the urge hit them. The same principle would be involved here that Gorski mentioned above in reference to dietary laws. How much trial and error would even a primitive people have to experience before they would realize that it wasn't a good idea to relieve themselves right where they would be eating and sleeping?
I realize that those who are incarcerated probably won’t have access to the internet, but readers who do may be interested in an article ("When Nature Calls") that I posted to alt.bible.errancy on this very issue. It can be accessed here. In the article, I discussed this issue in much more detail, and those who read it will see that rather than showing divine wisdom, this "paddle" command indicated some questionable hygienic practices pertaining to waste disposal in a camp that was populated by 2.5 to 3 million people (if census figures in the book of Numbers are accepted).
Infectious diseases and discharges: Mr. England also sees divine guidance in the requirement that those afflicted with leprosy and bodily "discharges" be quarantined outside the Israelite camp (Num. 5:1-4), but he didn’t mention that this passage also required that those who were "unclean through contact with a corpse" be quarantined too. Does this mean that touching a dead body poses a health threat? If so, a lot of people in modern society are exposing themselves to health hazards.
Touching carcasses under some circumstances could admittedly pose a health threat, depending on what had caused the death, but when the Levitical law is considered in its entirety, the various pronouncements of "uncleanness" seem more rooted in superstitious taboos than divinely imparted scientific knowledge. A woman, for example, was unclean after she had given birth. Does Mr. England expect us to believe that Yahweh had revealed to "his people" this provision of the Levitical law in order to protect them from some health hazard that would obtain from touching a woman who had given birth? If so, he needs to explain why modern science seems not to know of any danger that would result from touching a woman who has recently given birth. Also, he needs to explain the scientific reasons why a woman was considered unclean for seven days if her child was male (Lev. 12:2) but was unclean for two weeks if the child was female (v:3). May he excuse me for thinking so, but this all sounds like ancient superstitions that were at least partly rooted in the belief that males were superior to females.
My point is that if biblicists are going to appeal to divine protection from health hazards as the reason for some of the Levitical laws pertaining to uncleanness, they should be consistent and claim that all such laws were divinely given in order to protect the health of Yahweh's "chosen ones." Otherwise, they will be using a "smorgasbord" approach to biblical apologetics by which they choose what seems to help their case but ignore everything that is damaging to it.
Admittedly, quarantining has been shown to be effective in controlling the spread of contagious diseases. However, the Israelites were not the only ancient cultures that used quarantining to control diseases, although they seemed to have applied it much more rigidly than others. The Iliad, for example, related the story of Idomeneus whose return to Crete after the Trojan war was accompanied by the outbreak of a plague. The people deemed him responsible for the plague and exiled him, so the banishment had the effect of removing the carrier of the disease from their island. The Babylonians, who believed that special curative powers resided in rivers, would build huts along the banks in which they put the sick. This practice both isolated the sick and put them where curative powers were thought to be.
Biblicists will argue that these weren’t true cases of quarantine, but neither was the Israelite practice, which seemed to be a catch-all plan that banished from their camp those who also had noncontagious diseases. Leviticus 13 and 14 describe a variety of skin diseases, some of which were not characteristic of leprosy. True leprosy was a chronic infectious disease now known to be caused by a rod-shaped bacillus known as Mycobacterium leprae, and it was untreatable until the 1940s, yet the passages in Leviticus refer to periodic disappearances and recurrences of the symptoms (13:5-6, 16-17). These periodic remissions and recurrences have led many experts to conclude that some who were banished from the Israelite camp for "leprosy" were actually suffering from other skin problems like psoriasis, a chronic skin disease believed to be caused by defects in the body’s immune system. Psoriasis will go into remission and recur, just as described in Leviticus, but it is a noncontagious disease. One cannot catch it through contacts with those who have the disease, yet the Levitical law would have required quarantining those who suffered from psoriasis, because it was a skin disease.
That the Levitical quarantine laws did apply to noncontagious skin diseases as well as leprosy was recognized in chapter 13 where even boils required a seven-day quarantine, after which the priest would decide whether the person was clean or unclean.
When there is on the skin of one's body a boil that has healed, and in the place of the boil there appears a white swelling or a reddish-white spot, it shall be shown to the priest. The priest shall make an examination, and if it appears deeper than the skin and its hair has turned white, the priest shall pronounce him unclean this is a leprous disease, broken out in the boil. But if the priest examines it and the hair on it is not white, nor is it deeper than the skin but has abated, the priest shall confine him seven days. If it spreads in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean it is diseased. But if the spot remains in one place and does not spread, it is the scar of the boil the priest shall pronounce him clean (vs:18-20).
Anyone who studies Leviticus 13 should be able to see that the Israelite quarantine laws were extended to cover just about any kind of skin disorder from simple inflammations (vs:24-28) to probable dandruff (vs:29-37). One would think that if divine guidance were indeed involved in these laws, as fundamentalists claim, the omni-one would have given the priests instructions explicit enough to enable them to distinguish between true leprosy and noncontagious skin afflictions. As they were written, however, these laws required banishment from the camp of those who suffered from noncontagious skin ailments that posed no real danger to others. Furthermore, one would think that if the omni-everything Yahweh had really revealed these laws to "his people," he would have also revealed the proper way to treat them. What modern physicians would treat leprosy or psoriasis or any other skin disease in the way prescribed in Leviticus 14?
This shall be the ritual for the leprous person at the time of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination. If the disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed. The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel. He shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall sprinkle it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease then he shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the living bird go into the open field (vs:2-7).
I suspect that anyone today with a skin disorder would soon be looking for a second opinion if his physician prescribed such a treatment as this. Mr. England would have us believe that Yahweh "revealed" to his chosen ones that leprosy, which isn’t nearly as contagious as some diseases, could be controlled by quarantines but that he didn’t bother to reveal how the disease could be treated. Instead, he let treatment methods go until AD 1873, when G. A. Hansen discovered that the disease was caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacillus, and then waited even further until the 1940s when dapsone was found to be an effective treatment for the disease. Is that any way for an omni-everything deity to reveal health information to his people?
Finally, we have to wonder why the Levitical quarantine laws were so obsessed with skin disorders but didn’t require quarantines for diseases like diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, whooping cough, and other highly contagious diseases. After all, "plagues" seemed to break out rather routinely in the Israelite camp during the wilderness years (Num. 11:33 14:37 16:46-50 25:8-9), usually because Yahweh himself had sent it to punish the people for acts of disobedience, yet the Levitical quarantine laws seemed unconcerned with whatever diseases these plagues were. Apparently Yahweh was obsessed with skin disorders and touching carcasses and "unclean" women.
Bathing and washing: What most likely accounted for the Levitical quarantine laws was nothing more than trial and error, which Dr. Gorski mentioned above in reference to dietary laws. By simple observation, even a primitive people could have discovered that avoiding contact with lepers controlled the spreading of the disease. Such discoveries were not at all uncommon in ancient cultures. Greeks and Egyptians were both known to use willow leaves to treat pain, and some American Indian tribes chewed willow leaves and/or willow bark to treat toothaches, headaches, other pain, and fever. We now know that willow trees contain acetylsalicylic acid, which is better known by its trade name aspirin. I'm sure that if anyone should argue that these ancient people must have been divinely guided by their gods to know about the curative powers in willow trees, even biblical inerrantists would have no difficulty understanding that this was simply something they had more likely discovered by trial-and-error experimentations with different herbs.
The same could be said of the various Levitical laws pertaining to washing and bathing. After all, how much observation would have been required for even primitive people to discover that washing with water will remove dirt and other contaminations? Molysomophobia is a fear of dirt or contamination, and those who have it are compulsive bathers and hand-washers. Just one influential priest with this phobia at the time that the book of Leviticus was written would have been enough to account for the various references to bathing and washing found in this book. Beyond this, nothing supernatural would be needed to explain why the Levitical law emphasized washing rituals. What the Levitical law did not say in prescribing these rituals, however, is enough to cast serious doubts on fundamentalist attempts to make them evidence of divine guidance. As Dr. Gorski pointed out in the quotation above, these washing requirements said nothing about tiny, invisible "creeping things" that made the washings necessary, and neither did these laws stipulate requirements that would have made the washings maximally effective in controlling diseases. If, for example, a priest examined clothes that had been worn by a leper, they were to be burned if the priest found that the "plague of leprosy" was in the garments (Lev. 13:47-49), but if the priest did not find the plague was "spread in the garment" [as if a priest could detect the Mycobacterium leprae bacillus just by looking at a garment], it was to be washed and then isolated for seven days (vs:53-54). Wouldn’t an omni-max deity have known that microscopic creatures could not be detected by visual examination and commanded that the clothes be burned regardless of their appearance, or at the very least commanded that they be boiled in water instead of just "washed"? If a deity who knows everything there is to know really undertook to reveal to a chosen people facts about hygiene, why did he do such a poor job of it?
I still stand by the comment I made that prompted Mr. England’s letter. When what the Bible did not say is compared to the silly trivia that it does contain, a rational person will find it hard to believe that it was inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity. Such a belief necessitates believing that the creator of the universe was more interested in petty details about making curtains and furniture for the tabernacle than he was in looking after the health and welfare of his "chosen ones."