These are a set of laws exclusively for priests, and they focus a lot on the idea of Virginity.
I put it into capital letters to emphasize how Virginity as a concept is rather different from virginity in the plain sense of “whether or not you’ve ever had sex.” In particular, Virginity tends to be something we care way more about with women than with men. Virginity is a marker of identity, something to be treasured and guarded and only “given” to your husband – as though a status or an experience can somehow be a concrete thing separate from you. When Virginity gets brought up with men at all, it tends to be a mark of shame, of immaturity.
I think that outside of the Purity circuit, that mark of shame idea is starting to spread over into women. Waiting too long to have sex, or not having the opportunity for too long, or any of the other reasons people don’t have sex, is this indication that there’s something wrong with you. Which is why I love the movie 40 Year Old Virgin so much, since underneath its vulgar humor is a very smart deconstruction of the way we think about sex and Virginity.
But back to Iron Age priests. They’re only allowed to marry virgins (v 14). It doesn’t matter if the woman was divorced (a perfectly legal thing for husbands to do), and it doesn’t matter if she’s widowed (utterly out of her hands). He has to marry a woman who hasn’t “been defiled,” and oh, there’s that tie of Virginity to Purity and Holiness and Goodness.
I suppose it could be argued that the idea is to keep anyone from suggesting that a priest’s son isn’t his. But if a woman has been widowed or divorced for years, there would be no more question of the child being his than if he’d married a virgin. Just because a woman hasn’t had sex when you marry her doesn’t meant she’s somehow magically bound to never cheat on you.
So it falls back on the idea that priests can’t associate with anything “dirty.” This chapter also includes prohibitions against approaching dead bodies or mutilating themselves. It bans priests who have any kind of deformity. That’s what female sexuality is being equated to here: death and deformity. Even, I might add, sex that she had within a legal marital context, as in the case of a woman divorced or widowed.
Not that the prohibitions against deformity are all that fair either. If you’re born blind or with physical abnormalities, or if you become that way via injury and accident, congratulations, you can’t be a priest. They’re still allowed to eat the sacred food with their relatives, but they can’t perform any rituals. Because they’re not good enough.
That’s what this all comes down to. Being “defective” means you aren’t good enough. Whether that’s an actual disability or the perceived deficiency of a sexually experience woman, it lowers your status permanently.
When this gets me so ragingly ticked off (and in case you can’t read between the lines, I am), I have to step back and remind myself that, well, Jesus was a against this. This is the baseline, what everything else in the Bible is interpreting and responding to. It’s my scripture not because I agree with it or accept it, but because it was his scripture. I read it through that lens. I’m not saying other lenses are all wrong, but as a Christian that’s mine.
The Japanese: kinshin “close relative” (v 2), doukyo suru “to live together,” mikon “unmarried” (v 3), rien “divorce” (v 7), shougai “obstacle, difficulty” (v 17), kekkan “defect, flaw,” futsuriai “disproportionate” (v 18), kobu “hump,” dekimono “blotch, boil,” kaisen “scab, mange,” kougan “testicle,” tsubureru “to crush” (v 20).”