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Biblical Views: Dishing Dirt
An English garden is a wonderful thing. The flowers and shrubbery are laid out in neat, well-tended rows, attesting to the well-ordered English sensibility. But if you track any of the excellent soil into the house itself or—heaven forbid—the kitchen, then chaos is unleashed. The good soil has become dirt, and penance (and a bit of cleaning) must be performed. My own suburban lawn—which I’m told descends from the proper English garden—is less orderly and lush, but the danger of tracking in the soil still remains. Due to my wife’s encouragement, I have learned to honor the distinction between rich soil and wretched dirt.
The British anthropologist Mary Douglas—who recently died at the age of 86, a week after being knighted at Buckingham Palace—took this simple situation and built upon it a theory of human culture and an explanation of the Biblical food laws. She took the maxim of Lord Chesterfield that “dirt is matter out of place,” and unpacked its deeper implications. The presence of “dirt” displays the boundaries of our categories, including cultural, moral and religious categories. To put it another way, our prohibitions are the bright lines that trace the structure of the cosmos, that is, the experienced cosmos, the world that we subjectively live in. These prohibitions teach, justify and even create the ordered world that we inhabit. To investigate a culture’s system of dirt, therefore, is to explore the cosmos of that culture.
In several books, including her most famous, Purity and Danger,1 Mary Douglas explored the Biblical dietary laws and the Biblical cosmos from this perspective. She argued that the food prohibitions in Leviticus 11 link up, in a nested set of analogies, with the broader structures of the Israelite cosmos and therefore serve as illuminations of the moral principles of this cosmos. The animals that are prohibited as food—such as the camel, rabbit, pig, shellfish and raven—lack the characteristics of the exemplary or prototypical animals in the three cosmic domains of land, sea and sky. These three domains were created as part of the structure of creation in Genesis 1. In these domains, exemplary land animals have cloven hooves and chew the cud, exemplary water animals have scales and fins, and exemplary sky animals seem to be vegetarian. The most exemplary—that is, physically perfect—land and sky animals were also permitted for sacrifice. The sacrificial animals serve as gifts for God’s altar and provide a model for the proper (kosher) food for the Israelite table. In this way, Israel’s food is aligned with God’s food. God is holier than Israel—and God’s sacrificial food must be in a higher state of “wholeness”—but through its daily meals the Israelites in some sense imitate God and align themselves with his holiness. The prohibited animals are the “dirt” that mark and reinforce the boundaries of these nested categories of the moral and cosmic order. By honoring these prohibitions, the Israelites continually enact and celebrate their religious cosmos.
Mary Douglas extended these meditations on dirt and Biblical prohibitions to include broader issues of Biblical culture. She found a systematic contrast between the moral order envisaged by the rules in Leviticus, for example, and the moral order in the prohibitive rules of Deuteronomy. She found that a correlation exists between these moral visions and the social institutions of the books’ authors—the P (Priestly) source for Leviticus and the D (Deuteronomistic) source for Deuteronomy. The priests were a hierarchical institution, and they had what Douglas calls a hierarchical “thought-style.” Priestly speech (i.e., Leviticus) conveys meaning by repetition and analogies, and it asserts its claims by its authority, not by argument. In contrast, Deuteronomy was rooted in scribal schools, which were individualistic institutions in which one was ranked by wisdom and eloquence, not by the circumstances of one’s birth. Deuteronomy conveys its message by persuasive rhetoric, consistently explaining why its rules are right and just. It appeals to inner dispositions—including love and personal memory—to ground its claims. It is a more individualistic thought-style than Leviticus, and it gives a distinctive interpretation of Israel’s religious tradition.
To give a small example, consider the prohibition—the “dirt”—of work on the Sabbath, as formulated in the Sabbath Commandment (Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15). The Priestly justification of this prohibition links it with God’s creation of the orderly cosmos in Genesis 1: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). The Sabbath is Israel’s reenactment and commemoration of God’s rest in the week of creation. It is, in a sense, an imitation of God and a celebration of the cosmic order.
The prohibition of work on the Sabbath has a different justification in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Deuteronomy links the prohibition of labor with God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The Sabbath celebrates and commemorates freedom from slavery. The reference to divine deliverance is colored by the metaphor of God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm,” an evocative and comforting image. According to this verse, each Israelite personally experienced this act of liberation, for each has a personal memory of it—the verbs “remember” and “(he) delivered you” address the individual Israelite. In the language and thought-style of Deuteronomy, the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath calls to mind the personal experience of each Israelite—and his or her moral conscience—in celebrating this God-given freedom.
The differences between the Priestly and the Deuteronomistic justification of the Sabbath show the subtle differences in their understandings of the moral order of the cosmos and the place of Israel within it. The rule is the same, but its meaning differs. For the one, the Sabbath is part of the structure of creation, which inserts Israel into the cosmic hierarchy. Although Israel is subordinate to God, Israel’s rest is analogous to God’s rest, creating a nested structure. For the other, the Sabbath appeals to personal memory of the Exodus, as if each individual had been a slave and was personally liberated by God. The different emphasis on the collective structure versus individual memory and freedom is characteristic of the difference between the moral worlds of the P and D, and correlates with the distinctive social institutions which support these thought-styles.
In these differences we see the complexity and richness of Biblical culture, which included varied institutions—such as the priests and the scribes—and their respective modes of moral discernment. This example illustrates how Mary Douglas’s theoretical perspective on dirt and culture allows us to read the Bible more richly. The Bible is an intertwining of different thought-styles that each use the prohibition of dirt to define their orientation to God and the world. Mary Douglas shows how the humble concept of “dirt” can mark a garden path into the complexities of the Biblical cosmos—and our own.
Further Reading:
Strata ( BAR 29:01, Jan/Feb 2003)
Food Laws
Why Milk and Meat Don't Mix ( BAR 34:06, Nov/Dec 2008)
Law, Biblical
When Job Sued God ( BAR 38:03, May/Jun 2012)
What’s in a Name? ( BR 20:01, Feb 2004)
Bible Books ( BR 19:06, Dec 2003)
Bible Books ( BR 15:02, Apr 1999)
Readers Reply ( BR 14:04, Aug 1998)
Queries & Comments ( BAR 24:04, Jul/Aug 1998)
How Women Differed ( BAR 24:02, Mar/Apr 1998)
The Law in the Gospel ( BR 14:02, Apr 1998)
Bible Books ( BR 14:01, Feb 1998)

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