Atonement for Sick Bodies

Mary Douglas

in Leviticus as Literature

Published in print March 2001 | ISBN: 9780199244195
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191600548 | DOI:
 Atonement for Sick Bodies

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This chapter looks in detail at the four chapters following Leviticus 11, which take off from the theme of reproduction therein to form a distinct literary unit: Leviticus 12 is about blood impurity of a woman menstruating or giving birth, and then two chapters on leprosy (Leviticus 13 and 14), are followed by Leviticus 15 on genital discharges from men or women: all sources of impurity. The peroration in Leviticus 15: 33 closes a ring by referring back to the opening of chapter 12 – the impurity of menstruation, and with this reading the whole section becomes a formal abba pattern. It is a mistake to ignore the connections between these chapters: the first and last are directly about the reproductive process, and God’s compassion has been demonstrated in Leviticus 11 by the rules declaring it ‘abominable’ to harm corpses of the teeming, fertile creatures of water and air. The next set of rules returns to impurity, hence they are about the tabernacle: the writer has returned to the theses of Leviticus 11 on the dangers of impurity in the approach to the tabernacle. In Leviticus’ favourite literary form, chiastic composition, the meaning is at the pivot or the middle of a series of parallel verses: on either side of the sections on leprosy there stand supporting verses on human reproduction, like steps or like framing pillars, and within the series on a leprous person, two additional afflicted objects are introduced, a leprous garment, and a leprous house; the alternation makes an abab pattern; this signals a return to the body/ microcosm.

Keywords: atonement; Bible; birth; chiastic composition; fertility; genital discharges; human reproduction; impurity; leprosy; Leviticus; literary form; menstruation; pattern; structure; tabernacle

Chapter.  7186 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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