Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

Antiquity and the Body

After reading the Covenant Code, a student commented on the preponderance of capital punishment, at times for what seemed to be minor offenses. I replied with a readily prepared response by Greenberg: Yes, ancient Israel is violent, but in the context of its surroundings they are quite progressive and lenient.

Later I regretted the apologetic aspect of my response. Part of it is true, and needs to be said, but I would prefer to avoid a discussion that somewhere in its background has an undertone of “whose tradition is better” with me presenting Judaism to the local Christians. Surely, that is not what I intend to do in academia.

Rather than placing this in moral terms, in which whoever kills the least is the most moral, it would be better to use it as another peephole to gain insight on how remote we are from the realia of ancient Israel. Death was much more prevalent, but more importantly, it was more visible. The harsh realities of the frailty and even repulsiveness of the body were ever present: people saw sicknesses, deformities, corpses, and healthy, mundane defecation much more than we do. Animal carcasses and animals mating were certainly not a rare sight, and even human copulation was probably not as private as we practice it today.

I heard Jodi Magness once say in a lecture that people of our time and hygiene standards would not survive one day in antiquity. Not only because we are supposedly more refined, but we are also less immune. Ofra likes to quote in this context the saying in Avot 5:5, that one of the ten miracles of the temple was that a woman never miscarried from the odor of the sacrificed meat. So repugnant was the smell, apparently, that only a miracle can explain it.

This brings up much more, far beyond the scope of the student’s question, or any other issue of my class. Longevity and health have increased due to these hygiene practices, but our culture makes most human detached from basic facts of life, denying the realities of the body. The material aspects of popular culture, including an obsessive preoccupation with looks and body image can then be understood not as an actual engagement with the body, but a denial of what the body is, the beautiful and powerful, alongside the limited and blemished. As long as this denial continues, it is hard to imagine a greater acceptance of body image. An image can only reflect on reality.

As I said, this last point is not one that I would introduce to a Hebrew Bible class. I try to stick to the subject matter, and avoid the stance of the preacher or the theologian while in the classroom. And still, there are some thoughts of how I could improve my response for the next time this question comes up.


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