Leviticus 15:16-24, Temple Prostitution, and the Regulative Principle

16 “If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. 17 And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. 18 If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening.

19 “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean. 1

Strangers in a Strange Land

Often we read Leviticus and feel like we are wandering in a strange land. There are purity laws which seem arbitrary at times, or even seem to be offensive to our modern sensibilities. What’s worse is we often have these oft-misunderstood passages thrown at us by skeptical interlocutors and don’t know exactly what to do with them.

One such passage is a section out of Leviticus 15. Verses 19-24 are sometimes used to “demonstrate” that the Old Testament is inherently sexist or that the Jews believed that menstrual blood was somehow sinful. This, of course, ignores the fact that immediately prior the man’s semen was given basically the same status.

Sometimes this section is used to demonstrate that sex is seen as inherently negative in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and giants of the faith like Augustine and Jerome certainly haven’t helped to overcome this improper understanding. A broader reading of the Scriptures of a whole demonstrate that this isn’t the case, but if that is true then what is the deal with this strange passage?

Clean or Unclean

Now, it should be said that in the Old Testament there is a difference between Unclean (ritual impurity) and Sinful (moral impurity). I won’t go into that distinction here, but a good commentary on Leviticus or Deuteronomy should cover that.

However, I wanted to point out something else that struck me while I was reading. This is a bit of speculation, but I don’t think it is too far off.

In this passage what we see are three elements:

  • The sexual discharge of a man renders him and everything it comes into contact with unclean
  • The sexual discharge (in the ancient mind, menstrual blood was often associated with sexual discharge and was seen as the female equivalent to semen) of a woman renders her and everything it comes into contact with unclean
  • The sexual act, even in proper marital contexts, renders both parties unclean

Why might this be?

Well, in many ancient cultures, including Egyptian culture and the cultures of Canaan, temple prostitution was common. Sexual discharges —both semen and menstrual blood— were often used in pagan rituals. In many cases, potions or ointments were made of each and were believed to give those who used them special powers or connections with the gods. In one fell swoop, God eliminates all these detestable practices. Not only does he say that these practices garner no merit or favor with him, but he excludes them from use in worship altogether. It is not only ineffective to worship by means of sex, or by using sexual discharge… it is impossible.

We Must only Worship the way God Commands

Like all other aspects of our worship, we do not get to choose how best to engage. God determines how he will be worshiped, and we are obligated to worship him exactly as he commands. Rather than worship according to the vulgar patterns of our culture around us (for the ancient Israelites, and for many New Testament Gentiles, temple prostitution and fertility rites were the poison of the day), we are to worship in ways that are regulated by the commands of God which are given in the Scripture.