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Can the Israelites ever have sex again?

August 5, 2010

As part of the revisions for my dissertation, I am looking at the ritual proscriptions in Exodus 19 where by Moses sacralizes the people of Israel through lustration and prohibition of sexual contact. However, what I am trying to discover is when this state of heightened ritual purity ends.

Source-critically, the passage begins in Exod 19:10-16aβ, 18:

10YHWH said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11and prepare for the third day, for on the third day YHWH will come down upon Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people. 12You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13No hand shall touch them, but they shall be surely stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live. When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 14So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. 15And he said to the people, “Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.” 16On the morning of the third day, 18Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, for YHWH had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.

I believe that this source next appears in Exodus 24:1-2, 9-11bα (for arguments, see David Wright, Inventing God’s Law, 498, n.79):

1Then he said to Moses, “Come up to YHWH, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. 2Moses alone shall come near YHWH; but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” 9Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement lapis lazuli, like the very heaven for clearness. 11God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the children of Israel; also they beheld God.

However, where do these proscriptions end? I am entertaining the idea that this source next moves to Exod 33:1-3a and perhaps even the theophany in 33:12-34:28. However, none of this enters my concern of when these proscriptions are complete. When can the Israelites have sex again? Any thoughts?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 5:37 pm

    Isn’t it natural to assume that they were to refrain from sexual relations up to and including the third day? The day following whatever happened on the third day (a descent of the Lord to Sinai and an ascent of Moses to him on the peak according to Exodus 19; the giving of the Ten Words according to Ex 20), they needed to be in a state of preparation no longer.

    • August 5, 2010 6:50 pm

      I don’t really think the Ten Commandments or the Covenant Code is from the same stratum as the account of the smoking mountain, but you are right in your summation that the people would be able to return to quotidian activity after the crucial cultic event (the theophany in Exodus 24 is my bet, but the later theophany to Moses and giving of the “Ten Words” in Exod 32-33 is also possible). However, usually such temporary changes have explicit rituals at the beginning and the end. I really am expecting a marker here.

  2. August 6, 2010 2:28 pm

    I agree with you, of course, that the book of Exodus is a composite in which various materials have been spliced together. It also seems likely that an Exodus narrative of some kind once existed which was devoid of the Ten Commandments, the Covenant code, the Tabernacle material, and so on. Not because ancient Israel in, say, the 11th, 10th, or 9th century, was Torah-free and complex ritual-free as Wellhausen had it, but because it wasn’t until the late 8th century (so Brian Peckham) that the collection, consolidation, and meta-narrativization of pertinent tradition began in earnest.

    Was there an early tradition that associated the giving of Y’s torah and huqqot with Moses and Sinai? I would guess so. In accordance with lines of research developed by Cross and Halpern on the one hand and Milgrom on the other, and consistent with the archaeology of Shiloh. pre-monarchic Shiloh (Ps 78:60) is the most probable locale for such a tradition to have developed. Still, the Bible provides few if any clues about the chain of custody as it were from there to its retailoring, summarization, expansion, and insertion into Exodus and Deuteronomy and beyond, in the Dtr History.

    I look forward to your own thought experiments in stratigraphical interpretation of the book of Exodus. As in archaeology, there is the question of relative chronology and absolute chronology. In terms of the textualization and metanarrativization of ancient Israelite religion, in line more or less with Wellhausen it makes sense to date JEDP narrativization absolutely to the 8th-4th centuries. On the other hand, parts of the inserted law and ritual therein may have reached a fixed written form in the 9th century (I’m thinking of parts of the Covenant Code and P) . Here, of course, I am keeping open alternatives to Wright’s global hypothesis.

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