Every few years I get an inexplicable urge. This compulsion is not to bring Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow to life through the magic of interpretive dance, nor is it to craft a fondant tribute to the early twentieth century labor movement. No, my inexplicable urge might strike many as stranger than either of these suggestions, or it would if I didn’t guard my secret undertaking like…well, like some kind of secret undertaking. But you aren’t the judgemental type, so I’ll share my dark secret with you: Every few years I get out my New Oxford Annotated Bible and I begin reading.
The NOAB is not the Bible with which you might be familiar–no textured leatherette cover, gold leaf edges, or built in satin ribbon bookmark. The thees and thous are gone, too, as are the begats and the red lettering signifying the Almighty’s quotes. My New Oxford Annotated Bible is a scholarly, modern translation with ample footnotes, as the name suggests.
What I enjoy about the NOAB is its approach to the material. Its annotations treat the source texts (i.e., the Bible itself and the sources from which it was culled) purely as historical texts. One might learn that a certain verse or story belongs to an even older tradition, for example, or that a clumsy phrase like “uncover her nakedness” was a common euphemism for sex back when the Bible was written.
My NOAB provides much missing context for the sometimes (well, often) cryptic information articulated in the Bible. This information wasn’t cryptic for its intended audience, meaning the people of that region and that religion during that historical epoch, but I’m reading it two millennia and thousands of miles away. We’ve come a long way since leaving Egypt–just look at the dizzying variety of Oreos now available to us. A few footnotes go a long way toward making sense of the Bible’s content.
I read neither to denigrate nor to embrace the religions which consider the Bible their holy text. For me the exercise is rooted in cultural literacy rather than faith. Myriad Bible stories and expressions found their way into common usage in Western culture, so reading them in their original context is interesting. I enjoy those “oh, that’s where that came from” moments of discovery. Additionally, some argue that our collective moral and legal compasses find their true north in that book, too. One doesn’t need to be a believer to find value in the Bible: One simply needs to be a little curious about why we think what we think, do what we do, and say what we say.
What becomes quickly apparent to the “cultural literacy” reader is that in terms of civil and criminal law the Bible isn’t much of a factor in the modern Western world. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as the origin of our laws, so much so that the occasional faithful politician advocates for their stony presence somewhere on the courthouse grounds, but aside from murder and theft the Ten Commandments don’t correlate with modern penal codes.
But in the ancient world the Bible was a wealth of civil codes, expressed both as things you will do and things you won’t do, and they aren’t limited to the aforementioned commandments. Biblical mandates crop up beginning in Genesis, but the “thou shalt” ball really starts rolling in Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament. (Speaking of Genesis, why isn’t the Noah story discussed in the context of climate change? If one function of Bible stories is to convey moral lessons across the eons, “Only those who pay attention to the signs will survive the environmental apocalypse” seems like a good one. Anyway.)
During this particular read, I’ve been noting all of the prohibitions that I come across. This is an imperfect exercise, mind you, but my guidelines are this: If the phrase “you shall not” or its variants appear in a directive, I write it down. Also, if the penalty for a given action is death I make a note of it regardless of whether an explicit “you shall not” is present. Death is the ultimate penalty, after all.
My curiosity regarding biblical prohibitions is rooted in their contemporary use as weapons. Want to marginalize gay people, for example? There’s a verse for that–a couple, in fact. Care to condemn a politician for adultery? The Bible’s got you covered. Bacon-wrapped shrimp? Don’t even get me started.
I have a subordinate interest in focusing on the prohibitions, too, which is trying to understand how the American evangelical community, the group perhaps second only to the Hasidic Jewish community in terms of their literal interpretation of biblical verse, can so enthusiastically support president Donald Trump. Spoiler alert: Reading the Bible doesn’t help one to understand how they rationalize their behavior. In fact, Exodus clearly states that “You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness,” so there you go.
When one reads the Bible with an emphasis on its prohibitions, it doesn’t take long to recognize that even the most sincere contemporary believer is cherry picking what he or she shalt and shalt not. For example, unless you’ve never left your house on Sunday (Saturday if you’re Jewish) you have violated biblical law and you should be put to death, yet my grocery store was awfully busy this morning. And even if you stayed home but made yourself a little snack, you’ve still earned the death penalty as all work on Sundays is prohibited. This isn’t some obscure, oddball passage, by the way: Exodus alone cites this sabbath prohibition a half dozen times, and that’s only counting the “you will nots,” not the “you wills.”
The Bible’s prohibitions against eating pork and shellfish are well known, though “shellfish” is inaccurate. “But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins or scales…of their flesh you shall not eat and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable” reads Leviticus 11:10-11, which rules out ocean eels, turtles, sharks, adult swordfish, and Aquaman.
Perhaps no prohibitions better reflect that these rules were written during a specific time for people living in a specific region as do the dietary prohibitions. Pork and clams aside, here’s what the first three books of the Old Testament explicitly state that you may not eat. Why some of these need to be explicitly called out seems odd to a modern, westernized reader:
- The thigh muscle that is on the hip socket
- Passover lamb, raw or boiled in water
- Passover leftovers (day after)
- Leavened bread (during Passover)
- Any meat outside of your house (during Passover)
- Meat with broken bones (during Passover)
- Any Passover food, if you aren’t circumcised
- Any meat that is “mangled by beasts in the field”
- Baby lamb or goat boiled in its mother’s milk
- Any consecrated food, unless you are a priest
- Consecrated leftovers, even if you are a priest
- Thanksgiving sacrifice leftovers
- Flesh that touches any unclean thing (no five second rule)
- Wine or “strong drink” prior to church
- Rock badger
- Anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins or scales
- Raven of any kind
- Hawk of any kind
- Little owl
- Great Owl
- Water hen
- Desert Owl
- Carrion vulture
- Heron of any kind
- All winged insects with exception to locusts, bald locusts, and grasshoppers
- “Creatures that swarm upon the earth”
What I find interesting about this list is how little modern food it includes, at least in the western hemisphere. Is the notion of eating great owl disgusting because owls taste bad, or rather because they’ve been on the “do not eat” list for over 2,000 years? We came to terms with ham and lobster, so my guess is that great owls simply don’t make for good eatin’. It’s also worth noting that only certain varieties of owls are prohibited, which either means: A) The authors only knew of the types of owls that they listed, or B) All other owls might be available in your local grocer’s freezer section.
As for sexual prohibitions, the homophobes are right: Homosexuality absolutely makes the list. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” states Leviticus 18:22, and then again in Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death….” So yeah, two references to homosexuality in the first three books of the Old Testament versus a half dozen warnings to stay home and relax on Sundays. Frankly, I’d rather worry about my own easy Sunday than my neighbor’s sexual preferences anyway.
Homosexuality is just one of many sexual prohibitions in the Bible. Leviticus dedicates a lot of space to clearly stating who and what is off limits in terms of sexual activity, including:
- Your father
- Your mother
- Your father’s wife (remember: Polygamy was okay for men, so this isn’t necessarily your mother)
- Your sister
- Your father’s daughter (could be your step or half sister)
- Your mother’s daughter (isn’t this your sister?)
- Your granddaughter
- Your father’s wife’s daughter (assuming this is Dad’s second or third wife, are you even related at that point?)
- Your aunt
- Your daughter-in-law
- Your sister-in-law
- A woman and her daughter (assuming this means your stepdaughter)
- Her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter (assuming this means your step grandchildren)
- A woman as a rival to her sister while her sister is still alive (this is oddly specific)
- A menstruating woman
- Your kinsman’s wife
- A man (assuming you are a man)
- Any animal
- Your neighbor’s spouse
- Your mother-in-law
Like the food prohibitions, most of these have survived into modern society, and like the food prohibitions it’s probably because the notion of most of these couplings is pretty disturbing. The overwhelming majority of us find incest and bestiality as repulsive as an eagle dinner, though the idea of sex with the neighbor is bacon-wrapped shrimp (assuming your neighbor is hot, of course).
The Old Testament’s early books weigh in frequently on immigrants. Exodus is an immigration story, after all, and God frequently reminds his people to treat “aliens” well because they, too, were once aliens. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” reads Exodus 22:21, and again in Leviticus 19:33: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” God even insists that immigrants be provided for: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” says Leviticus 19:10, and again in chapter 23 verse 22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien….”
The first three books of the Old Testament cite many prohibitions that we can group under a loose heading of religious observance. I already mentioned no work on Sundays–that’s a big one–but how about beard trimming? “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” sayeth Leviticus 19:27. Do you check your clothing labels before getting dressed? “…nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials” reads Leviticus 19:19. Getting out the beard trimmer before tossing on the cotton-poly blend is a recipe for biblical disaster, yet I’m guessing not many people outside of Orthodox communities give these prohibitions a second thought.
If you’ve ever called the Psychic Hotline, are a fan of those hustlers who claim to speak to your deceased love ones, or enjoy Penn and Teller, you’re in the soup. Exodus 22:18 insists that you kill female sorcerers, and Leviticus 19:31 clearly states, “Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them….” It’s worth noting, though, that there’s no express prohibition against having sex with mediums, wizards, and sorcerers, which is good news for Piff the Magic Dragon groupies.
The two most common maneuvers used by the devout to justify non-compliance with any of these prohibitions are:
- Well, that was a long time ago. That doesn’t really apply to modern society. Wizards and rock badgers? Come on.
- I’m a Christian, and Hebrews 8:13 states that the Old Testament doesn’t apply to me because Jesus wiped the slate clean: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the old one obsolete.”
Both of those are reasonable arguments. Many of the rules applicable in the Middle East 2-3,000 years ago simply make no sense in America circa 2018. Where does an urban apartment dweller find a flawless calf to sacrifice? Do we really need rules about selling our daughters into slavery? Who boils lamb in milk?
As for the notion of Christ’s new covenant superseding the Old Testament: If that’s what you believe, then believe it in earnest. Don’t cherry pick the Old Testament prohibitions that prove your point. That is an exercise in confirmation bias, or choosing only the facts that suit your point. By your own admission, your rules for living are in the New Testament, so live by those. No fair reaching back into the Jewish Bible just so that you can condemn someone else, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway (“Judge not lest you be judged”–Matthew 7:1).
The Bible is a fascinating text for understanding not just what people of Judeo-Christian faith believe, but to some extent how all of us in the western world got to where we are. I highly recommend picking up a New Oxford Annotated Bible and turning some pages. You might be surprised by how interesting it actually is. Regardless of your faith or biases, familiarity with those texts is essential to basic cultural literacy.
And it just might keep you from going out for a cormorant dinner with a wizard.