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The Real Housewives of the Bible

Numbers 4:21-7:89

Liel Leibovitz
June 08, 2009

Earlier this week, a few friends stopped by for a quick nightcap. Wine was poured, cigarettes lit up, and the conversation, naturally, turned to sodomy.

What, asked one of the group, was up with biblical Sodom? What had it done to earn its reputation?

I happily obliged, telling the tale of God’s wickedest town. You know: the angels visiting Lot, the townies knocking on the door looking for some good ol’ fashioned anal raping, Lot offering his virgin daughters instead, those same daughters getting their father drunk and having sex with him all night long.

“Come on,” said one friend, smiling. “Stop pulling our leg. Tell us the real story.”

It took a reading from the King James Bible to convince the assembled that my sordid little story was, indeed, the one recounted in the Good Book. And they were shocked. A fierce band of disbelievers who had long ago abandoned the faiths of their youth, my friends are often quick to view the Bible with a mixture of horror and bemusement, and regard those of us who embrace it warmly, if not always literally, with pity and ire. With their imaginations firmly planted in the landscape of Genesis, my friends inquired what my upcoming column was about.

I took a long sip of wine, and mumbled something soft and inaudible. I couldn’t bear to tell them that this week, I was writing about the parasha that specifies, in great and gruesome detail, the humiliating ceremony forced upon women suspected by their husbands of having been unfaithful.

Dragged before the priest on no other evidence other than her husband’s suspicions, an Israelite woman accused of cheating was then made to swear that she’d carnally known no other man. The priest would write an oath on a scroll, and place it in a vat of water, along with a handful of dust from the Tabernacle. The water would wash off the words of the oath, and the woman would then be made to drink the ghastly cocktail. If she had been unfaithful, the Bible tells us, horrible afflictions would come her way (consisting of infertility, if you read the text metaphorically, or of severe bodily disfigurement if you don’t). If, however, the woman had been true, the mixture would bless her with fertility and happiness.

Throughout the ages, many thinkers, on either end of modernity’s divide, rushed to interpret this harsh tradition. Some claimed that while the proceedings sound punishing, they’re still a step up from public lynching, the practice common with Israel’s neighbors in biblical times. Lacking the depth of knowledge or agility of mind to join in on this debate, I’d rather return to that far more mundane scene around my dinner table, a few nights ago.

Within a short while, my guests’ infatuation with Lot and his offspring dissipated, and the conversation hopped on to different subjects. Did you see, someone asked, the season premiere of Jon & Kate Plus 8, the TLC reality show whose stars, parents of eight young children, are on the brink of divorce? And what about The Real Housewives of New Jersey, another reality show featuring giddy and gaudy dames spending their time and their husband’s fortunes acquiring marble mansions and Botox injections?

I chatted happily. After all, I watch both the aforementioned shows with glee, and am not above, when the spirit stirs me, picking up a tabloid here or there to read about Danielle’s shady past or Kate’s affair with her bodyguard. But as the conversation progressed, an epiphany elbowed its way to the fore of my mind: its primitive and punitive aura aside, the biblical ceremony may treat women far better than most television shows do nowadays.

For one thing, the ancient and humiliating ceremony, for all of its vagaries, was approached with the utmost of gravity. So much so, that the oath, written and dissolved in water, contained the explicit name of God. The tried woman was believed to be literally consuming the spirit of the Lord, and that spirit alone—not an unruly mob or a stern priest or an angry family—would determine her fate.

The women paraded on our television screens aren’t taken quite as seriously. They’re left in our hands, and we want no inhibitions and no boundaries. Jon and Kate as a normal couple struggling to raise their brood? That’s nice. Jon and Kate as adulterous and greedy ghouls eager to whore themselves and neglect their children for fame and fortune? That’s ratings.

There are, of course, many reservations to be made here. Unlike the women wandering in the desert, the housewives of New Jersey willfully chose to partake in their own humiliation, from which they benefit handsomely. And a society that spends too much of its energies on the dolor of identity politics is one, I believe, at grave risk of intellectual ossification.

And still, as I put down the goblet and extinguished the smoking stub, I looked at my friends with calm.

“The portion this week,” I told them, unprovoked, “is about strange rituals and adulterous women. You should read it. You may find it enlightening.”

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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