Uncleanness and Taboo Draw the Lines of the World

Mary Douglas

in Jacob's Tears

Published in print November 2004 | ISBN: 9780199265237
Published online January 2005 | e-ISBN: 9780191602054 | DOI:
Uncleanness and Taboo Draw the Lines of the World

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Taboos are effective for guarding thought, and this chapter is about the equivalent role of performance in protecting what is known: it suggests that taboos should be seen as performative acts that stop the confusion of categories of purity/impurity. The author advances her thinking on the dietary rules of Leviticus from her earlier intellectualist approach that considered the rules as isolated categories of infringement, to a consideration that they are a codification of the law of impurity, in which food impurity is related to the defilement of the temple or body: Leviticus, then, is not just a ritual handbook, but much more. The first part of the chapter discusses approaches to taboos in relation to impurity, the politics of purity, forensic problems – as illustrated by the development of the extensive classificatory taboo systems for hunting by the Huaulu of the Celebes Islands, and taboos as building blocks for world‐making. The last part of the chapter turns to Leviticus itself, looking at silence about forensic impurity in Leviticus 1–17, at Jacob Milgrom's view of impurity in Leviticus as a defilement of the tabernacle and the divine power to purify it in a grand ceremony every year on the Day of Atonement, at clean and unclean animals, at the defiling of bodies listed in Leviticus 12–15, and the tabernacle as a microcosm in the context of the final editing of the priestly books during the Babylonian exile (when the temple had been profaned and destroyed, and there was no place to sacrifice or purify). Within the frame of reference for everything is the relation of the people of Israel to their God, and the dietary laws are here viewed as analogies: what cannot be offered to God at the altar may not be consumed as food, and there is no way to understand the law of impurity without considering the whole priestly project.

Keywords: Celebes; clean animals; Day of Atonement; defilement of the body; defilement of the tabernacle; defilement of the temple; dietary rules; exile; food impurity; forensic impurity; Huaulu; impurity; Israel; law of impurity; Leviticus; Jacob Milgrom; priestly editors; purification; purity; taboo systems; taboos; unclean animals

Chapter.  7095 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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