Violating the Holiness of God's Camp: The Story of the Blasphemer
Vilifying God’s Name
Reading through Leviticus can be a tedious experience. Details of sacrifice and ritual blur together until suddenly a story unceremoniously disrupts the book’s formulaic language. To make matters worse, the episode is obscure and violent: the account of the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-23). Its most perplexing verse (v. 11) announces that after an altercation with an Israelite man:
וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה דָן.
The son of the Israelite woman invoked the NAME, vilifying it, and he was brought to Moses and the name of his mother was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.
In our story, the name of this son of an Israelite woman is unknown, as are the exact words he uttered in his curse; we are told only that they vilify God. Thus, the man is brought to Moses and, unsurprisingly, put to death at God’s command.
God’s Legislative Response
The story doesn’t merely end with the execution of the blasphemer, but contains an entire mini-set of legislation, which delays the actual implementation of the punishment. The laws begin by forbidding blasphemy, but move on to listing rules of punishment for killing a human being (death) and a beast (restitution), and reciting the lex talionis, perhaps implying that blasphemy is equivalent to murder, a divine version of “an eye for an eye.”
Biblical writers believed that respect for God not only preserves and strengthens a social contract but unifies the people. As Mark Leuchter puts it:
It affirms that insult to the divine name was an egregious transgression, but that the process of law (vv. 15-22) which truly manifested the power of the divine name, could restore communal holiness.
The logic of Lev 24 suggests that the opposite, vilifying God’s name, has lethal consequences.
Themes in Parashat Emor
The account of the blasphemer is the final section of Parashat Emor and the literary unit it comprises (ch. 25 begins a totally new unit). This unit includes, in reverse order, rules about:
- Lighting the lamps in the Tabernacle (24:1-4)
- Setting out the shewbread (24:5-9).
- All the holiday offerings (ch. 23),
- Sacrifices (22:17-33)
- Priestly purity (21-22:16).
Despite the apparent disconnect between the account of the blasphemer and the series of seemingly unrelated laws in which it is embedded, the blasphemer account shares some terms or emphases with the previous laws, especially with their opening chapter.
The Profane (ח.ל.ל) vs. Holy (ק.ד.ש)
The opening chapter of Parashat Emor (ch. 21) uses the root ח.ל.ל meaning “profane” 9x and the root ק.ד.ש, meaning “holy” 15x. In the priestly world of Leviticus profanity and holiness are opposed to one another and priests are expected to maintain holiness and avoid profanation. This is explicit in Lev 21:6:
קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם…
They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God…
The ending of Chapter 22 echoes this concern that God’s name not be profaned, thereby framing the two chapters. Lev 22:32-33 warns:
וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים אֲנִי יְהוָה.
Don’t profane my Holy NAME that I may be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel; I YHWH who consecrates you, the one who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be for you your Elohim, I YHWH.
These verses express deep concern that God’s name could be profaned in the camp, and thereby provoke God to leave the camp and undo the camp’s holiness. Thus, they anticipate our account in which the man curses (ק.ל.ל) and vilifies (נ.ק.ב) God’s name (YHWH).
Moreover, Lev 22:33’s reminder that Israelites have God to thank for liberating them from Egyptian oppression is likely meant to hover in the background of our episode as the culprit who vilifies the name of Israel’s God is, in fact, Egyptian on his father’s side.
The Stranger (גר)
Another key theme in our episode that connects it to the rest of the parasha concerns the ger(גר, “stranger.”) The ger is specifically invoked twice in the episode, once regarding the specific sin of cursing God, and the other about violations of Israelite law in general:
ויקרא כד:טו …אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ-הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת.
Lev 24:15 …Anyone who vilifies his God shall bear his guilt.24:16 And the one who invokes the NAME of YHWH shall surely die, all the assembly shall surely stone him; the gerand the citizen alike, he who invokes the NAME shall die.
ויקרא כד:כב מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּרכָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 24:22 One rule shall be for you; ger and citizen alike; for I am YHWH your God.
Being Part of Israel
In general, the latter half of Leviticus has a lot to say about gerim and the remarkable attempt to integrate them partially into Israelite society by obligating them to observe some commandments and granting them certain benefits. Thus, they are explicitly included in rules of Yom Kippur (16:29) and of sacrifice (17:8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 22:18) and exhorted to keep God’s rules (18:26). They are allowed to gather fruit fallen from a vine (19:10) and to glean the edges of fields (23:22) along with the Israelite poor. Lest readers fail to grasp the implication of these insistent rules, 19:33-34 states:
וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ. כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
And if a ger sojourns with you in your land, do not wrong him; like a citizen among you shall be the ger to you; theger is with you and you shall love him like yourself, because gerim you were in the land of Egypt; I YHWH am your God.
The inclusion of the ger highlights what could be called the negative side of this equation. The ger is to be punished for violating the sanctity of Israel’s God just as an Israelite would be.
The Status of the Blasphemer?
Another reason the concept of ger is so central to our story has to do with the blasphemer himself. The man is the son of an Egyptian father but his mother is an Israelite. Thus, his status is unclear. Is he an Israelite from the tribe of Dan, like his mother, or an outsider living among the Israelites, i.e., a ger?
In fact, it is possible that in a certain sense this man is problematic because he could be considered a “hybrid,” born of parents of mixed ethnicities rather than a ger. Mixing different ethnicities echoes the prohibitions of Leviticus 19:19:
אֶת חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרַע כִּלְאָיִם וּבֶגֶד כִּלְאַיִם שַׁעַטְנֵז לֹא יַעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ.
You shall observe my laws; don’t breed your cattle with a different kind; with two kinds of seed don’t seed your field; and don’t put upon yourself a cloth of mixed materials.
The priestly system repeatedly prefers distinguishing between substances and keeping them pure rather than mixing them.
Ambivalence about Outsiders
A related point is the concern about what could go wrong when “mixing” God’s holy people with outsiders, in this case with the very group that kept Israel in bondage and ignored YHWH’s demand that they be set free. Deborah Hooke describes the connection thus:
Egypt, where God is dishonoured, is the place from which the people have been brought away in order that they and God might live in mutually reinforcing holiness. The narrative of the Egyptian blasphemer therefore demonstrates that no taint of Egyptian ways should be allowed to affect Israelite society.
Fighting an Israelite
That the man is being contrasted with “regular Israelites” is clear from the opening verse:
ויקרא כד:י וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּנָּצוּ בַּמַּחֲנֶה בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית וְאִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי.
Lev 24:10 The son of an Israelite woman and of an Egyptian man went out among the Children of Israel and the son of the Israelite and an Israelite man struggled in the camp.
The contrast is explicit; he fights an Israelite man but he is the son of an Egyptian man. The story has intertextual resonance with the scene in which Moses observes two Hebrews struggling against one (Exodus 2:13), which makes use of this same rare verbal root (נ.צ.ה), which appears only 6 times in the entire Torah:
וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ.
When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?”
In Exodus, both men are the same, Hebrews, and though one is considered the offender, neither curses God and both men survive the encounter. In our case, one of the men is not “fully” an Israelite but half-Egyptian, and the story ends with him cursing the God of Israel (his god? his opponent’s god?) and being executed by the community.
The Only Two Stories in Leviticus: Profanation of God
The story of the blasphemer reflects the Israelite concern lest God be profaned and the holiness of the camp be threatened. The only other narrative in the book of Leviticus, the sin of Nadav and Avihu during the establishment of the Tabernacle, expresses a similar concern that God’s Tabernacle could be profaned. As argued by Mary Douglas:
These two narratives explode violently into the majestic sequence of laws… each is a story of breach of the ordinances, one is about breach of the holiness of the tabernacle and the other about the insult to the holy Name.
God punishes the culprits in the first case. In the second, Israelites implement the punishment after Moses relays God’s instructions. As Richard Elliott Friedman writes:
The two stories thus convey together the idea that the law is both a divine and a human concern.
In Lev 24 a single son, the blasphemer, replaces the two sons of Aaron. Going out into the camp among many sons, the children of Israel, his singular status marks him as a figure who stands alone, neither Israelite nor Egyptian, neither citizen nor ger.
Protecting the Holiness of the Camp: From the Inside Out
Emor begins with an intense determination to prevent the priests from committing sacrilege, including of God’s name. It ends with a non-priestly son of a mixed marriage within the camp who has done just that.
Its focus moves from those who are at the heart of the community to those at its outermost edge, addressing and defining those who belong among and apart from the sons of Israel.
Vilifying YHWH creates a particularly jarring breach among the Israelites in light of the surrounding chapters that reinforce a carefully orchestrated community under priestly rule. A dramatic illustration of the consequences of blasphemy strenuously warns both Israelites and gerim against such lethal speech.
The Place of the Ger in Maintaining the Camp’s Holiness
The need to maintain the holiness of the camp is underscored in the verses. The two men fought in the camp (וַיִּנָּצוּ בַּמַּחֲנֶה) and thus the cursing of God occurs in the camp. When God commands that the blasphemer must die, Moses is told:
ויקרא כד:יד הוֹצֵא אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְסָמְכוּ כָל הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה.
Lev 24:14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.
Verse 16 explicitly says that the punishment must be the same for the citizen and the ger;
ויקרא כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ-הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת.
Lev 24:16 And the one who invokes the NAME of YHWH shall surely die, all the assembly shall surely stone him; the ger and the citizen alike, he who invokes the NAME shall die.
Just like the half-Egyptian, and just like an Israelite, a ger must also be stoned if he curses God. The verse underscores an anxiety felt by the biblical author, namely, integrating the gerwithin the Israelite camp must consider a variety of consequences, including the possibility that a ger might insult Israel’s God and wreak havoc on the holiness of the camp.
Biblical writers desire a particularistic Israelite community but at the same time, they wish to include the ger within that community. The latter half of Leviticus goes out of its way to include gerim in a host of Israelite rituals as well as protect them as a vulnerable group from starvation. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of uncertainty about outsiders remains, not just about a half-Egyptian member of the camp, but also about the ger.
The account of Lev 24 explores this tension between integration and creation of boundaries with its story of the blasphemer who violates the camp’s holiness when, in a fit of anger, he vilifies Israel’s God. As modern readers we too struggle with some of these same issues. I shudder at the blasphemer’s fate and condemn the use of violence to create an “us” versus “them.” Yet by different means I too seek to strike a balance between the particular and the universal.
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May 9, 2017
January 24, 2021
Dr. Adriane Leveen is Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the University of California and her M.S. in Social Work from Columbia University. Leveen is the author of Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers and has contributed essays to the Oxford Handbook to Biblical Narrative and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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