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Esther Brownsmith





Burning Desire Punished by Fire





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Esther Brownsmith





Burning Desire Punished by Fire








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Burning Desire Punished by Fire

Why the promiscuous daughter of a priest and Tamar, the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, are sentenced to die by fire. The “poetic justice” of immolation.


Burning Desire Punished by Fire

Tamar is Led to the Pyre (detail), Jacopo Bassano, c. 1566. Wikimedia

A priest’s daughter who has sex outside of marriage has defiled her father and must be executed by burning:

ויקרא כא:ט וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת אֶת אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף.
Lev 21:9 As for the daughter of a priest who profanes herself with promiscuity (liznot): it is her father whom she defiles. She shall be burned with fire.[1]

The verb describing her misdeed לִזְנוֹת (liznot), from the root ז.נ.ה, means “to have sex outside marriage.”[2] The term is often used metaphorically of Israelites straying from their relationship with YHWH, but when used literally in the Bible, ז.נ.ה only refers to female misconduct.[3] In other words, while men can promiscuously betray God, only women can promiscuously betray their human spouse or, in this case, parent.

The Mishnah’s Execution Procedure

The description of the woman being burned by fire suggests that the punishment was immolation. The Mishnah records such a case, but claims that this method of execution is incorrect:

משנה סנהדרין ז:ב אָמַר רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן צָדוֹק, מַעֲשֶׂה בְּבַת כֹּהֵן אַחַת שֶׁזִּנְּתָה, וְהִקִּיפוּהָ חֲבִילֵי זְמוֹרוֹת וּשְׂרָפוּהָ. אָמְרוּ לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה בֵית דִּין שֶׁל אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה בָּקִי.
m. Sanh. 7:2 R. Eleazar b. Zadok said: “There was an incident with one daughter of a priest who prostituted herself, they surrounded her with bundles of vines and burned her.” They said to him: “Because the court at that time was not expert.”[4]

Instead, the Mishnah presents a more complex procedure, in which the condemned person is forced to consume a “wick” that would burn the person from the inside:

משנה סנהדרין ז:ב מִצְוַת הַנִּשְׂרָפִין, הָיוּ מְשַׁקְּעִין אוֹתוֹ בַזֶּבֶל עַד אַרְכֻּבּוֹתָיו וְנוֹתְנִין סוּדָר קָשָׁה לְתוֹךְ הָרַכָּה וְכוֹרֵךְ עַל צַוָּארוֹ. זֶה מוֹשֵׁךְ אֶצְלוֹ וְזֶה מוֹשֵׁךְ אֶצְלוֹ עַד שֶׁפּוֹתֵחַ אֶת פִּיו, וּמַדְלִיק אֶת הַפְּתִילָה וְזוֹרְקָהּ לְתוֹךְ פִּיו וְיוֹרֶדֶת לְתוֹךְ מֵעָיו וְחוֹמֶרֶת אֶת בְּנֵי מֵעָיו.
m. Sanh. 7:2 The commandment of those who are burned: they would sink him into manure up to his knees, and they put a rough handkerchief within a soft one, and he surrounds his neck. This one pulls [the handkerchief] in his direction, and that one pulls in his direction, until he [the condemned person] opens his mouth, and he lights the wick and throws it into his mouth, and it descends into his belly and burns his bowels.

Beth A. Berkowitz (Columbia University) explains the Rabbis understood immolation in this way based on their interpretation of the claim (in Gen 1:26) that humans are made in God’s image:

Since man’s form replicates God’s, it must not be damaged. The Rabbis thus take the external bodily punishments of the Bible and impose them instead inside the body.[5]

Moreover, out of concern that the condemned might die of strangulation before ingesting the wick, and thus not die by fire as required by law, the Rabbis offer an alternate procedure for opening the mouth of the condemned:

משנה סנהדרין ז:ב רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, אַף הוּא אִם מֵת בְּיָדָם לֹא הָיוּ מְקַיְּמִין בּוֹ מִצְוַת שְׂרֵפָה, אֶלָּא פוֹתְחִין אֶת פִּיו בִּצְבָת שֶׁלֹּא בְטוֹבָתוֹ וּמַדְלִיק אֶת הַפְּתִילָה וְזוֹרְקָהּ לְתוֹךְ פִּיו וְיוֹרֶדֶת לְתוֹךְ מֵעָיו וְחוֹמֶרֶת אֶת בְּנֵי מֵעָיו.
m. Sanh. 7:2 R. Judah says: “Even he, if he died by their hand, they have not upheld the commandment of burning with respect to him. Rather, they should open his mouth with a pair of tongs against his will, and he lights the wick and throws it into his mouth, and it descends into his belly and burns his bowels.”

The Talmud subsequently specifies that the “wick” in these procedures is made of lead (b. Pesach. 75a; b. Sanh 52a), such that the burning is accomplished by hot metal.

Death by Fire for Sex with a Woman and Her Mother

Punishment by fire is rare in the Bible.[6] The only other law that requires this method of execution is the case of a man who marries both a woman and her mother:

ויקרא כ:יד וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִקַּח אֶת אִשָּׁה וְאֶת אִמָּהּ זִמָּה הִוא בָּאֵשׁ יִשְׂרְפוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶתְהֶן וְלֹא תִהְיֶה זִמָּה בְּתוֹכְכֶם.
Lev 20:14 If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is lewdness; both he and they shall be burned with fire, that there be no lewdness among you.

The union in this law is described as זִמָּה (zimmah), derived from the root ז.מ.ם, which refers to planning, or, more typically in negative contexts, “scheming.”

The term זִמָּה appears in only two other Priestly laws: a man having sex with a woman and her daughter or granddaughter (Lev 18:17) and a person prostituting their daughter (Lev 19:29).

Although זִמָּה has non-gendered connotations of wickedness elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Ps 26:10), within Ezekiel and the Priestly material, it generally refers to “lewdness,” carrying connotations of female, lascivious intent: זִמָּה is something bad women do. For example, Ezekiel uses the term fourteen times, predominantly in chapters 16 and 23, as a gendered accusation against the personified woman Jerusalem, as in this complaint against past alliances with Egypt:

יחזקאל כג:כז וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי זִמָּתֵךְ מִמֵּךְ וְאֶת זְנוּתֵךְ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְלֹא תִשְׂאִי עֵינַיִךְ אֲלֵיהֶם וּמִצְרַיִם לֹא תִזְכְּרִי עוֹד.
Ezek 23:27 I will put an end to your lewdness (zimmatekh, from זִמָּה) and to your whoring (zenutekh, from the root ז.נ.ה) in the land of Egypt, and you shall not long for them or remember Egypt any more.[7]

Yet the law in Leviticus 20:19 focuses on a male action: וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִקַּח, “if a man marries....” Why would a man’s polygamy imply female licentiousness? Jacob Milgrom speculates that the explanation lies in זִמָּה’s association with scheming: “Presupposed is that they conspired with the man that he take them both in marriage.”[8] Though Milgrom’s interpretation of a male action, enacted within a patriarchal society, as a condemnation of female misbehavior may seem to perpetrate the sexist implications of the text, it may instead simply reflect the fact that where זִמָּה was concerned, blaming the women was a matter of course.

Judah’s Judgment: Tamar Should Be Burned

In biblical narrative, we see only one case in which a woman was sentenced to be burned: Tamar, the widow of Judah’s two eldest sons. Tamar disguises herself as a sex worker in order to become pregnant by her father-in-law. Judah, not knowing that he is the father of the fetus that Tamar is carrying, declares that she should be burned:

בראשׁית לח:כד וַיְהִי כְּמִשְׁלֹשׁ חֳדָשִׁים וַיֻּגַּד לִיהוּדָה לֵאמֹר זָנְתָה תָּמָר כַּלָּתֶךָ וְגַם הִנֵּה הָרָה לִזְנוּנִים וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה הוֹצִיאוּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵף.
Gen 38:24 About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot (ז.נ.ה); in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.”

Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaqi, 1040–1105) quotes an explanation from Genesis Rabbah that Tamar was descended from Shem, a priest, and therefore fell under Leviticus’s law:

הוֹצִיאוּהָ וְתִשָֹּרֵף, אֶפְרַיִם מַקְשָׁאָה תַּלְמִידוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי מֵאִיר אָמַר מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי מֵאִיר, תָּמָר בִּתּוֹ שֶׁל שֵׁם הָיְתָה, דִּכְתִיב (ויקרא כא, ט): וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן, לְפִיכָךְ הוֹצִיאוּהָ וְתִשָֹּרֵף.
Gen. Rab. 85:10 “Bring her out and let her be burned”: Ephraim the Disputant, a student of Rabbi Meir, said in the name of Rabbi Meir, “Tamar was the daughter of Shem,” and he wrote (Lev 21:9): “and the daughter of a priest,” on this account, bring her out and let her be burned.

Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman, 1194–1270), unsatisfied with this answer, argues instead that Judah said Tamar should be burned because of Judah’s high rank:

ונראה לי שהיה יהודה קצין שוטר ומושל בארץ והכלה אשר תזנה עליו איננה נדונת כמשפט שאר האנשים אך כמבזה את המלכות.
It appears to me that since Judah was a chief, an officer, and a ruler of the land, his daughter-in-law who committed harlotry against him was not judged by the same law as other people, but as one who degraded royalty.

Degrading the status of a patriarch is not cause for immolation elsewhere in the Bible, however. Thus, we should also consider the issues of gender and sexual impropriety that Tamar’s story shares with the Levitical laws. It is not simply the high status of her new family, but the degraded high status of that family’s patriarch arising from public knowledge of Tamar’s promiscuity when her pregnancy is made known, that determines the brutal punishment.

Immolation as Punishment in ANE Law

Rare examples of execution by burning for sexual improprieties that involve women also occur in ancient Near Eastern laws. For instance, though the Laws of Hammurabi (18th c. B.C.E.) seldom specify the means of death in cases of capital punishment, the text does call for burning a priestess who enters a tavern, a place associated with prostitution:

LH 110 If a naditu who is an ugbabtu (i.e., a priestess) who does not reside within the cloister should open (the door to) a tavern or enter a tavern for some beer, they shall burn that woman.[9]

In addition, burning is also required in the case of a son who has sex with his mother:

LH 157 If a man, after his father’s death, should lie with his mother, they shall burn them both.

How do we explain such a gruesome choice of execution?[10]

Love, Lust, and Fire

“Love,” Johnny Cash famously sang, “is a burning thing.” Modern romance novels speak of “simmering desire” and “heated gazes.” But metaphors comparing lust to fire are no recent invention; the Hindu text Yajnavalkya Upanishad (ca. mid-2nd millennium C.E.) warns that “women, difficult to touch but pleasing to the eyes are (verily) the flames of the fire of sin and they burn men as though they were straw.”[11]

Biblical Images of Lust as Fire

The comparison appears in biblical poetry as well. Proverbs compares adulterous lust to a fire in the chest:

משׁלי ו:כז הֲיַחְתֶּה אִישׁ אֵשׁ בְּחֵיקוֹ וּבְגָדָיו לֹא תִשָּׂרַפְנָה.
Prov 6:27 Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes?

The Song of Songs depicts the intensity of love as a fire:

שׁיר השׁירים ח:ו ...כִּי עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה רְשָׁפֶיהָ רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה.
Song 8:6 …For love is fierce as death, passion is mighty as as Sheol; its blazes are blazes of fire, a flame of YH(WH).[12]

Samson Burns with Lust

After Samson seeks sex with his Philistine wife, and discovers that she has been given to another man, he finds an outlet for his frustrated lust and rage by burning the Philistines’ grain fields with torch-laden foxes (Judg 15:1–5). Fiery emotions turn into literal fire.

Then, enraged by the loss of their crops, the Philistines investigate what kindled Samson’s fury. They turn on the woman and her father, burning them both alive (Judg 15:6). Thus, simmering lust leads to flaming anger, which leads to incinerated crops, which leads to burning humans.

Lust as Fire in the Body

The physical experiences of lust—flushed cheeks and the swelling warmth of sexual arousal—may lend themselves to metaphorical descriptions of lust as burning. George Lakoff, a pioneer in modern metaphor studies, argues that such metaphors are far more than rhetorical devices:

The metaphorical expressions that we use to describe lust are not mere words. They are expressions of metaphorical concepts that we use to understand lust and to reason about it.[13]

Metaphors mirror and shape our very understanding of the world. Therefore, we see them permeating the stories and laws that we create, not merely ornamenting our prose. This conceptual association between heat and lust may have inspired the use of immolation as a punishment for certain sexual offenses.[14]

Immolation as Poetic Justice

Yet if death by burning is a punishment for wayward women, why do we see it only in two laws in Leviticus, and not more broadly? After all, both adultery (Lev 20:10) and bestiality (20:16) are capital offenses, yet in neither case does the law specify burning as the method of execution.

While “poetic justice” does not determine every punishment in the Torah, it may explain the cases of the promiscuous priest’s daugher and the woman and her mother who marry the same man, both of which involve public acts of feminine, sexual transgression that have repercussions for social order.[15] The condemned endure a literal version of their metaphorical misdeed. Having burned with the fires of lust, they are to be publicly incinerated as a warning to their communities against sexual misbehavior.[16]


May 5, 2023


Last Updated

March 26, 2024


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Prof. Esther Brownsmith is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, following time as a Postdoctoral Researcher at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society. She holds a master's degree from Yale Divinity School, summa cum laude, and a doctorate from Brandeis University. She is author of Three Biblical Metaphors of Women as Food: The Cutlet, the Dumpling, and the Vine, forthcoming in Routledge's series "The Ancient Word," and is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming edited volume, Unruly Books: Rethinking Ancient and Academic Imaginations of Religious Texts.