Posted June 2000
I've recently been reading the Bible, specifically the Old Testament - for the
whorish women and the gory punishments of the unrighteous, mainly.
A lot of things in the Bible used to puzzle me when I was younger - for example that bit, 'Thou shalt not gaze on thy father's nakedness.' I couldn't see why anyone would want to. It made me wonder if there was some weird pagan cult of nudey father fetishists knocking around back then.
"Go on, Dad, just a peep."
All casual: "Are you, er, going to have a bath today, Dad?"
"Keep away from me, you strange offspring."
And then I realized, ohh, it means incest, it's just being coy. Very coy book, the Bible, at times. Another coy bit is: 'Thou shalt not lie down with animals.'
As a kid I thought this sounded quite a harmless pastime. And, you know, you go through that rebellious phase, and I would sneak into fields and lie down next to cows and sheep, thinking, 'Great, forbidden fruit, I am the most evil man ever, I am lying down with animals.' I got shit all over me, of course, and concluded it was just one of those Jewish hygiene things.
When you actually read the Bible it turns out there are pages and pages of similar injunctions. The ten commandments are a really elegant, streamlined piece of lawgiving, a sort of Napoleonic Code of sin. But then God completely blows the effect by calling Moses back and giving him a list of subsidiary laws that are incredibly prolix and go on forever giving detailed instructions for the most remote eventualities. God emerges as a bit of a worry-wart, frankly.
'If a man shall dig a pit and not cover it and an ox or an ass shall fall therein, the owner of the pit shall make it good.'
I suppose the drawback of omniscience is that you have to plan for everything.
'When a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the handle, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee.'
God envisages this sort of thing happening so often that he commands Moses to set half a dozen cities aside, when the Israelites come into their kingdom, specifically for hapless klutzes like that to flee to. I don't know if it turned out that people did get beaned by flying axe-heads with monotonous regularity, or what exactly the design flaw was with Hebrew axes, but it may explain why modern Jews tend to leave things like cutting down trees to the goyim.
Personally I think God has been watching too many Laurel and Hardy films. 'When a man carrieth a plank of wood across a timber yard, and another man calleth out to him, so that he turneth round and smiteth the foreman upon the head; they shall flee, and be pursued by an irate Scotsman with a big moustache.'
Here is another example of God's prescience:
'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'
God knows exactly what etchings lead to, you see.
God gives Moses a crash course in preventive medicine and goes on at at great length telling him how to recognize the symptoms of leprosy. A good job too, because apparently the Israelites have hitherto been unable to tell the difference between leprosy and male-pattern baldness. God drops a hint:
'And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald; yet is he clean.
And the man that hath his hair fallen off from the part of his head toward his face, he is forehead bald; yet is he clean.'
And the man that hath his hair fallen off from the top part of his head, but hath hair growing across it from the part of his head near his ears, he hath a comb-over; yet is he clean.
God also explains, quite patiently I think, that scabs, boils, zits and freckles are not leprosy.
God gets quite finicky about hygiene and uncleanness. For example, 'If any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall be unclean.' God tactfully suggests, 'He shall wash all his flesh in water...and every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water.' This is quite basic, unobjectionable stuff and one is only surprised it required a divine intervention to point it out. Certainly no-one likes to meet a tribe with sticky thighs and crispy stains on their raiments. Later on, though, God becomes positively phobic about the concept of uncleanness. A woman on her period is unclean. Anyone who touches an unclean animal or a dead body is unclean. Moreover, anyone who touches them, their clothes, or anything they've sat on also becomes unclean. We used to play a similar game at school, called 'You've got the lurgee.' Someone would touch something considered unclean, such as a chair still warm from the teacher's bottom, or the arm of a certain child who was forever wiping his nose on his sleeve until it was crusted with silvery tracks resembling snail ichor. They then had the lurgee, and could pass it on by touching someone else, who in their turn could give it to others, until half the class was infected and the rest were running round trying to avoid them and going 'Urr, you've got the lurgee, you've got the lurgee.' (This was probably why I failed my A levels.) But whereas we only had to mime giving ourselves an injection and go, 'Tss, injection,' to be rid of the lurgee, an unclean Hebrew has to purify himself with a sacrificial offering involving various pieces of livestock being cooked in rather elaborate ways. God can get quite Delia Smith about his burnt offerings and it is not enough simply to chuck the things on the barbie and leave until incinerated. A typical recipe involves prime cuts of meat with plenty of fat on marinated in oil and frankincense and served with a side dish of cakes or corn. It must all be good quality and if you keep the best food for yourself God will do something pointlessly nasty to you out of envy.
God has a lot to say on the subject of what the Hebrews can and cannot consume. The ban on eating pork and shellfish is merely the beginning of his blacklist. The following are also off the menu: 'The camel...the coney...the hare...the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the osprey, and the vulture, and the kite...every raven...and the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckoo, and the hawk, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the stork, the heron...and the lapwing, and the bat. All the fowls that creep, going upon all fours, shall be an abomination to you.' I am not sure what kind of four-legged fowl God is referring to here but I certainly wouldn't touch the buggers. Perhaps he has foreseen GM poultry. Then God loosens up for a moment: 'Ye may eat: the locust... and the bald locust...and the beetle...and the grasshopper.' However, the following are strictly verboten: 'The weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise...and the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.' Snakes are out, as are insects with more than four legs. God is quite squeamish about creepy-crawlies and starts to repeat himself at this point: 'Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth... ye shall be holy; for I am holy; neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.' Elsewhere God commands: 'Thou shalt not seethe [boil] a kid in his mother's milk.' He says this twice too, so it was obviously a favourite recipe, and a somewhat cruel one, even if it refers to goat kids rather than kid kids, which, given some of their other behaviour, is by no means certain.
The fact that God has to specifically forbid the eating of all these things causes one to suspect that the Israelites were either a bunch of raveningly gluttonous bastards who roamed the earth devouring everything in their path like a swarm of locusts (hell, they even ate locusts), or highly sophisticated gourmets. The mystery of the Lost Tribes is solved for me: those of them who couldn't take these culinary restrictions upped and migrated to France. When you consider the trouble it takes just to catch a chameleon...And then trying to fork it while it's blending in with the salad or turning plate-coloured. Honestly, what a bunch of Bronze Age Mr. Creosotes. Later on God threatens that if they ever cross him he'll send them into exile and they'll end up eating their own children. I can well believe it of them. They'd only have to get peckish. They'd only have to miss elevenses or run low on grasshopper snack-treats and they'd be straight down to the creche with a bib and a knife and fork.
As well as quelling the Hebrews' dietary excesses, God wants to introduce a dress-code:
'Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse sorts, as of woollen and linen together.'
And red and green shalt not be seen.
God doesn't like bowl-head haircuts:
'Ye shall not round the corners of your heads.'
God has highly developed aesthetic leanings, in fact, and has a grand old time indulging his penchant for dress design in the garment he commands Moses to make for his priest, Aaron: 'The curious girdle shall be of gold, of blue, and of purple, and scarlet, and fine twisted linen...And beneath upon the hem of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and bells of gold between them round about...' For I am a camp and tasteless God. 'And for Aaron's sons thou shalt make coats, and thou shalt make for them girdles, and bonnets shalt thou make for them.' And the heathens will quake and tremble at the sight thereof.
God also runs completely amok with his designs for a tabernacle and altar.
'Thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them...The five curtains shall be coupled together one to another...And thou shalt make loops of blue upon the edge of the one curtain...Fifty loops shalt thou make...' And on and on at interminable length. I knew someone at school who, whenever he was doubtful, discouraged or confused, would open the Bible at random and follow whatever advice he found there. I wonder how often he ended up sewing flounces onto curtains.
God commands that the altar and accessories be made of something called 'shittim wood'. I am sure this had to be a joke. I think God was giggling with his mates and said, 'Listen to this, I'm going to send Moses to fetch something non-existent.' 'Yeah, go on, make something up, shit him.' 'That sounds good, I'll send him for fifty cubits of shittim wood and a left-handed hammer.'
If it was a prank, it backfired on God, because later it turns out that there really is a place called Shittim. Predictably, all the women there are whores, and they entice the Israelites into following false gods. Predictably, because whenever the Israelites meet anyone else they always turn out to be swingers, and the Israelites always jump on their whorish women like sailors on a spree. Consequently God spends most of the Old Testament in a state of irascibility approaching that of James Robertson Justice in the Doctor films. The typical biblical story arc runs as follows: the Israelites come across a city of idolaters merrily whoring away. Half the Israelites immediately bag off with the whores and start worshipping a golden badger or something. God throws a wobbly. God and Moses or some other prude massacre all the naughty people. The surviving Israelites loot all the swingers' stuff and eat all their food and go on their way rejoicing.
You'd think the other tribes would wise up after a while.
"Oh, shit, it's the Israelites. Cover your tits and lock up the food. Everyone, quick, look virtuous, the Israelites are coming...Come on, close your legs...that's right, knees together, you remember how...oh, shit, where are my pants?...oh, look at this place... you, hide that erection...not in her!...oh, we're doomed..."
"Hello, we are Israelites. I suppose you are all fornicators and whores?"
"Not at all. We are a pious, clean-living people...You! Stop that!... It's all right, he's her gynaecologist...er..."
"I expect you spend all your time worshipping idols and having orgies."
"No, no. We spend our days in quiet contemplation and...oh shit, who left the vibrators out?...simple pleasures, and...hide them. And the Johnson's baby oil...I see you've noticed our 50-foot golden eight-breasted goddess. That was here when we moved in. It's listed, we can't pull it down...can you not stop wanking for ten minutes?... not really our cup of tea...we are a chaste, ascetic people...Get out of that sheep!... Vet...that man's a vet...Very fine and thorough vet...oh, shit..."
"Oh. No whores here at all, then?"
"No, our women are renowned for their modesty and demure behaviour...Take your hand off my cock, you silly tart...ah, may I introduce Jezebel the Frigid, a very chaste and virtuous maiden..."
"I love you long time."
"Why is she wearing crotchless panties?"
"Moths. She has been virtuous so long, moths have infested her knickers."
"There are quite a lot of naked people here."
"Moths. Moths. Plague of moths."
"Mm. Never eaten a moth, what do they taste like?"
"Bacon. Go away."
Anyway, once God has got his altar fixed up nicely, he decides he doesn't want any slightly imperfect people hanging round spoiling the place:
'Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that
hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.
For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous,
Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded,
Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;
No man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offering of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.
He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy.
Only he shall not go into the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish.'
What is it about Aaron that makes God worry he's going to breed a race of trolls who will lower the tone of his tabernacle? Perhaps God doesn't like the look of Aaron's in-laws.
Speaking of unsatisfactory offspring, do you have a lazy, bad-tempered child who lies around the place eating you out of house and home? I know my parents do. The ancient Hebrews didn't have that problem, not after God had his chinwag with Moses:
'If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
And they shall say unto the elders of his city,
This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice: he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
And all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die.'
What with this and acne being mistaken for leprosy, adolescence must have been a more than usually traumatic time for an Israelite.
Incidentally, in a couple of places the Bible uses 'stones' to mean gonads, raising the interesting possibility that miscreants were not pelted with rocks but bludgeoned with testicles. This may have been why women couldn't take part in stonings: they didn't have the equipment for it. This may also be the derivation of the expression 'to give a bollocking.'
On the same subject, the following is a very good law indeed:
'When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:
Then thou shalt cut off her hand.'
Quite right too.
Here is a law that everyone will agree with, which puts modern honeymoons to shame:
'When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business; but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife.'
Christ, you could cheer up Sylvia Plath in that time.
The Israelites seem to have had a lively sense of fun before God put a stop to their high-jinks:
'Thou shalt not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind.'
Well, they had to make their own entertainment in those days.
Then there's this:
'Thou shalt not see thy brother's ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them...
Thou shalt not see thy brother's ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them.'
Oh come on. If you can't play tricks on the disabled and you can't seethe kids in their mother's milk and you can't play hide and seek with stray cattle, what have you got left?
One thing you have left is cruelty to servants. God lays down a very bizarre rule with regard to slaves. If you take a fellow Hebrew as a slave, you have to treat him well and not smite any of his teeth out, and at the end of seven years you have to set him free. If, however, he then decides to remain in your service, being lulled into a false sense of security by your earlier kindness, you can then really show him who's boss - God insists on it, in fact:
'If he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house; because he is well with thee;
Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door.'
Live free or have your head nailed to the door.
Here is the lying with animals bit:
'If a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.'
The last part seems rather unfair, unless it was wiggling its rump enticingly or something.
Various other forms of fornication and misuse of a man's seed are proscribed. This one is intriguing:
'Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death.'
Who Molech was, what he wanted with other men's seed, and why they let him hang around them in the first place, beats me. Some shambling relative of Aaron's, is my guess. "You give seed to Molech? Molech like seed. Hurr!" Seems a shame to begrudge the poor brute, especially now they had to wash it off them anyway.
Regarding adultery God comes up with an interesting wrinkle. If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful but can't prove it, he is to bring her before the priest. The priest is to make her drink a magic potion made of holy water and dust from the tabernacle. If she is innocent, it will have no effect and she can go free. However, 'if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, the water...shall enter her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot.'
If we had this nowadays it would make divorce cases much more dramatic.
CLEVER LAWYER: I put it to you, Mrs. Trollop, that on the afternoon of May 23rd last
you were unfaithful to your husband with the cast and company of the
Guildford Amateur Players production of H.M.S. Pinafore.
MRS. TROLLOP: The accusation is absurd. I deny it.
CLEVER LAWYER: Mrs. Trollop. Are you familiar with the effects of the ancient Hebrew
Adultery Detecting Potion?
MRS. TROLLOP (virtuously): I have read my Bible.
CLEVER LAWYER (producing a glass of fizzing liquid): Then perhaps, Mrs. Trollop,
you would care to drink this for me?
(Uproar in court.)
MRS. TROLLOP: I-
CLEVER LAWYER: Of course, I cannot force you. But if you are as innocent as you say-
MRS. TROLLOP (defiantly snatching the glass): I am not afraid.
CLEVER LAWYER: Be very careful, Mrs. Trollop. The Bible clearly states that if any
unfaithful woman drinks of the Adultery Detecting Potion, her belly will
swell and her thighs will rot. This court has heard that you are very proud
of your thighs, Mrs Trollop. Imagine them all putrefying and stinky. Your
thighs would become a byword for loathsomeness. But, of course, you have
nothing to fear...
MRS. TROLLOP: All right, damn you! I admit it! It's true! Just don't make me drink the potion.
CLEVER LAWYER (silkily, taking it): This, Mrs. Trollop? (Drinks it.) Merely
an alka-seltzer. You turn my stomach. (Belches triumphantly.)
MRS. TROLLOP: Curses! Drat you, Rumpole, I'll get even with you for this!
CLEVER LAWYER: Oh, what a body-swerve. Oh, I'm the man.
Looking on the nakedness of not only your father but every other close relative and in-law is forbidden - knowing what the Israelites are like, God takes great care to name every possible relation specifically. 'Aw, not even your aunty?' 'No, not even your aunty.'
However, in certain circumstances sleeping with an in-law can become a positive duty. The following is my favourite biblical law, for the unexpected crapness of the punishment:
'If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her...
And if the man like not to take his brother's wife...
Then the elders of the city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her;
Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face...
And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.'
So if ever you see an Orthodox Jew slap-footing around with no laces in his shoes, his brother's widow was probably descended from Aaron.