Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Pentateuch, Part 4: The Levitical Memeplex

The book of Leviticus isn’t widely popular in Sunday schools.  It only has two narratives, one about “strange fire” which results in the death of Aaron’s sons (chapter 10) and the other about a blasphemer being put to death (chapter 24), neither of which are as child-friendly as other Bible stories like Joseph or David.  Most of its content is law, specifically the ones that Christians don’t observe like ritual sacrifices or dietary restrictions, but also more adult themed subjects about forbidden sex or bodily fluids.  Yet interestingly, the traditional starting point for children learning the Torah in the early synagogue was Leviticus, not Genesis.

The Mosaic Law is, to me, the point where primitive Judaism graduates from being an isolated tribal cult to a world class religion.  Although the narrative continues to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, the text is firmly settled at this point.  Not just in the sense that it describes permanent dwellings (Lev. 14:33-53) and cities of refuge in the promised land, but in how it evaluates the surrounding culture from an objective standpoint.  It is not written in a bubble by a dogmatic authoritarian, but rather the author has evidently taken inventory of his neighboring legal codes and freely borrowed what was good, improved upon what was lacking, and rejected what was bad.  Leviticus is such a fascinating book for comparative religious studies mostly because it is itself a study of comparative religions.

Some of its practices, like the purification periods after childbirth (Lev 12:1-5) were simply commonplace in the surrounding cultures, as similarly prescribed by Hippocrates, or the custom of priests keeping the hides from animal sacrifices (Lev 7:8), presumably for subsistence, which is also found in Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VII 8:96 “The priest on skins of off’rings takes his ease”).  Surrounding cultures had similar laws governing what to do if an ox or bull gored someone to death (Ex. 21:28-32), such as Hammurabi’s code (251) and also the laws of Eshnunna.  Examples like this seem to be borrowed without commentary, just with minor cultural slant.  Comparative study of other laws, however, sometimes reveals a deliberate underlying repudiation of the gentile legal and purity codes.

The controversial “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17-26 is where we see the most prominent examples of this when contrasted with the sexual permissiveness of Israel’s neighbors.  The Hittite Code of the Nesilim, for instance, condemned intercourse with one’s mother (188), while allowing it with a stepmother if the father was dead (190).  The Levitical code, on the other hand, prohibits both sexual relations with one’s mother (Lev. 18:7), as well as with any wife of one’s father (Lev. 18:8), presumably from polygamy or remarriage.  Prohibiting both would seem common sense today simply because that’s normative, yet ancient societies had to thoughtfully establish their sexual ethics, and it seems these decisions affected the fitness of their cultural survival.  Hence, Judaism is still a living faith whereas Hittite culture is long extinct.

The Zoroastrian Avesta, a text which also happens to intersect with several narratives in the Torah, particularly the Flood, has a clear example of cultural lending and the modification that results:

Ahura Mazda [the Zoroastrian deity] answered:  “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]”

compared with Leviticus 18:22:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Scholars still debate which version preceded the other, but the debate will probably remain forever unsettled as the Zoroastrian scriptures have a more chaotic history of preservation than the Hebrew canon.  Proponents of a later, post-exilic origin of the Torah will argue that the books of Moses did not reach their final form until exposure to Zoroastrian influence during the Babylonian captivity (7th century BC), but of course this theory works both ways.  Personally, I lean towards the Zoroastrians borrowing from the Jews for the simple reason that their text complicates the subject with the reference to demonology, and from my own experience, borrowed texts tend towards embellishment, not reduction.  It would be unusual for a culture to have co-opted a phrase like this while deliberately excising the superstitious element, but either way the Jewish version doesn’t rely on such magical thinking.  This is consistent with the rest of the Levitical Holiness Code, which grounds its laws in reality and common sense while its neighbors chose mythos instead.  (As a side note, it amuses me when supposed fundamentalists attempt to insert these elements into the Bible like this)

I think the relationship between Judaism and other ancient near east religions is best understood through memetics.  A meme is basically a piece of information that is copied from one person to another, like stories, songs, laws, recipes, etc.  A collection of memes that are passed down together like the Torah are considered a memeplex.  A memeplex self-replicates and preserves itself, demonstrably in the way that a religion spreads.  The memeplex fittest for survival ultimately preserves not only itself, but also the culture that promotes it.  It would be easy to say that the middle eastern culture that prohibited eating foods like pork and shellfish that posed a serious health risk, and also enforcing stabilizing sexual policies that reduced promiscuity and maximized procreation, might have a natural selection advantage over its competitors that was purely accidental or coincidental, if it were just a coincidence.  However, as we’ve learned, memes have a guiding intelligence behind them and the endurance of the Torah through the ages is not an accident of evolution, but rather a deliberate effort to overcome the weaknesses that brought other cultures to decay.

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