Infectious Diseases, Old Testament Laws, and Body Fluid: the Science behind Taboos and Rituals

By Nestor Ravilas

Among the prohibitions in the Old Testament, those that pertain on body liquid are the most confusing ones. So far, the most explored one is the intake of blood. Make sure the animal is drained and blood is spilled over the soil before you can consume it. A woman with monthly period should stay outside during the span of her menstruation. Accidentally touching the woman’s blood will make one unclean and should have to undergo ritual cleansing.

That indeed is a ridiculous prohibition which escapes rational explanation. Blood is life is the common argument why they had such prohibition in the old dispensation. Another is the abhorrence of Yahweh on spilling the land with blood as product of violence. At any rate, it doesn’t justify still why a woman should be barred from entering her house during her period, and a man declared unclean by touching her discharged.

Do hold your horses first and read more. A man who has emission of semen in Leviticus 15 must take a bath immediately and wash the cloths touched by his semen or he will be unclean the whole night. Why it was so was not explained. You just follow it and seek remission immediately.

The Bible is not strict however on the incident of saliva. Only a man with discharge in Lev. 15 which spit would make unclean those it touches. In Judaism, I heard in many occasions that touching a Gentile’s saliva or urine would make a Jew unclean and must seek ritual cleansing immediately.

This is really fascinating, why the Old Testament was so cautious on body fluid. Why there is so much prevention on touching those liquids?

But that circumspection with body fluid was not constrained within Israel society. In the book of Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, discusses in length such human wariness with body fluid in other tribes. Some stories from aborigine people are even preposterous that one tribe he narrated even tried to prevent from swallowing their own saliva or they will become unclean.

Why then are primitive people wary of body fluids?

It was Rene Girard on his magnum opus, Violence and the Sacred, who provided us a scientific assessment on the ancient attitude on body fluid. While the taboo on body fluid remains mystery for us and considered as part of primitive nonsense and irrational prohibition, Girard sees rather an obvious resemblance with medical prohibition on infectious diseases. Human diseases could be detected by fluid testing such as blood, saliva, urine and others. Meaning, bacteria and germs live on body fluid and can be transmitted from one carrier to another carrier through this liquid. The biblical prohibition on body fluid may sound irrational because it was translated in religious language than in scientific one. But the instigation for those exposed in body fluid by others to take a bath immediately is the same with scientific advice to disinfect at once. And those who fail to go ritual bathing or cleansing will be declared unclean until they go on the process is the same with known process today medical quarantine.

If the comparison made by Girard is correct, we have a case then in the Old Testament of principles how to deal with infectious diseases. Faith is not magical wand to ward off spirits. There are beings, unseen by naked eyes who live in body fluid that have to repel from transmitting to “clean” people. Beings now we called virus, bacteria and germs that are inimical to our well-being and should have stopped from transferring from one carrier to another. The taboos and rituals of the Old Testament therefore are not superstitious practices, rather they are the precursor of medical science that make us understand two things: 1, we are not the only inhabitants of this world, 2, we need to be careful in transmitting this unseen occupants of this world that might be a threat to our life.

After this medical emergency we are experiencing, we need to revisit those precautions on body fluid in the Old Testament. Time to stop believing that the Old was eclipsed by the New Testament. As they say, there is always wisdom from the old.

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