The High Cost of “Holiness”
by James Tabor
This is a follow up to my post yesterday on our possible identification of the latrines or toilets at Qumran, the ancient site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those who have read that post, and our published article in Revue de Qumran which is linked therein, already know that our investigation not only identified the latrines northwest of the “camp” or settlement, just as Josephus and the Scrolls indicate, but a sad and shocking result of this practice that resulted in disease and early death among the pious and zealous “Doers of the Torah” who lived at Qumran.
The irony of this discovery is all the more poignant when one considers the obvious fact that separating ones living area from the latrine areas on the face of it sounds like a good move to us on sanitation grounds alone. Some who have served in the military are quite familiar with these rules and regulations for setting up field camps–which are quite similar to the simple prescription in the Torah, namely: You shall have a place outside the camp for eliminating human waste, covering it with soil in a pit (Deuteronomy 23:12). In this instance the practice had undesired and I am sure unrecognized consequenses, what I have called in lectures on “the sacred and the profance,” the “high cost of holiness.” For the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran their concerns were threefold, none of which had to do with sanitation per se. First, there was the matter of modesty; namely a concern that ones “nakedness” not be exposed to others when one went to the toilet. We find other similar prohibitions in the Scrolls such as penalties for one who carelessly allowed his garment to come open and inadvertently exposed his genitals–he was to do penance for 30 days (1QS 7:15). Second, and most important, there was a strict effort to separate the “common” or “unclean” from the holy. Third, the practical location of the latrines to the northwest of Qumran had to do with the prevailing winds, and thus quite frankly the smell.
The requirement to separate the “sacred and the profane,” as anthropologist Mary Douglas put it in her most famous book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Purity and Taboo, which has become required reading for all Religious Studies students, is found not only in the Bible but throughout the religions of antiquity, east and west. Along with the categories of “sacrifice” and “ritual,” it is one of the central concepts for understanding ancient religion. Many familiar with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament know of the frequent references to the “clean” and the “unclean,” and often mistakenly think these concepts have to do with our Western ideas of cleanliness or even sanitation. In fact, this obsession with separation is all about recognizing the difference between humans who are mortal and earthly from the gods/God who are immortal and divine. In other words, these practices represent a kind of temporal, earthly “dualism.”
This separation is most often played out in regulations involving visiting a “Temple,” which is considered to be the “divine space” of the God, see my article here. Humans obviously must be allowed to “go up” to a Temple to worship, bring offerings, and inquire of the God or gods, but if they do so they must be diligent to separate the human activities that are their obvious signs of mortality–namely “blood, sex, and death.” One of my favorite texts from antiquity is one that elaborates the laws for visiting the Temple of Athena in Pergamon:
Whoever wishes to visit the temple of the goddess [Athene Nikephorus], whether a resident of the city or anyone else, must refrain from intercourse with his wife (or husband) that day, from intercourse with another than his wife (or husband) for the preceding two days, and must complete the required lustrations. The same prohibition applies to contact with the dead and with the delivery of a woman in childbirth. But if he has come from the funeral rites or from the burial, he shall purify [sprinkle] himself and enter by the door where the holy water stoups are, and he shall be clean that same day.
In the Torah of course there are similar prohibitions requiring those who visit the Temple of Yahweh to be “clean” from any kind of human discharge, whether it be a woman menstruating, a man who has had an emission of semen, or one who has been in contact with a corpse. Usually the remedy for these bodily states of ritual “defilement” is separation “from the camp,” and the sacred precincts of the Temple for a prescribed number of days, usually seven, plus ritual immersion in a pool of running water. Again, this has nothing to do with sanitation and cleanliness, but with what might be called “ritual disqualification.” It should be seen as a kind of “quarantine” for spiritual purposes. The most masterful exposition of this concept I could recommend is Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Leviticus 1-16, volume 1 in what is now the Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries Series.
What we discovered at Qumran is that the desire of the community to live in a state of “holiness,” thus separating their latrines from the “camp,” where they believed the sacred presence of the angels dwelt among them, and the requirement that one bathe after going to the toilet, ended up contaminating the entire community with intestinal parasites, contributing to early death rates far beyond what one finds just to the north at cemeteries at Jericho.
Finally, I wanted to point out that our research and conclusions have also stirred a bit of controversy, which is to be expected for any findings that have to do with Qumran or the Dead Sea Scrolls–subjects of great rancor and disagreement in the academy. Some even accused us of sensationalizing the find in the press, see our Eureke press release here. I will write more about the results of our research in a subsequent post and try to access where things now stand.