One of my favorite obscure biblical commands is from Deut. 23:12-14 (v. 13-15 in the Hebrew). Right after God gives rules concerning how to deal with wet dreams (i.e., nocturnal seminal emissions – the answer, btw, is to leave the camp, wash with water, and not return until sunset), God issues commands dealing with human waste disposal.
Now, disposal of human waste is a necessary, albeit unsavory, part of urban life (or in this case, desert nomadic life in a camp). We must have rules that govern how to dispose of human excrement in order to help combat diseases that may arise from contact with human waste. Everyone acknowledges this.
Thus, the Israelites are commanded to cover their poo when they, well…poo. This makes obvious sense. It helps cover the smell, which while odious to humans, is also detected by unwanted animals and insects. Covering your poo also assists in avoiding everyone’s pedestrian nightmare: stepping in poo.
Interestingly, of the above reasons given in support of the command to the Israelites to cover their poo, it is the latter (not wanting to step in it) and not the former (hygiene) that is given as the theological reason for burying one’s foul:
Deut. 23:12 You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go.
Deut. 23:13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.
Deut. 23:14 For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.
You read that correctly. God WALKS IN THE MIDST OF YOUR CAMP (Hebrew: מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶךָ = “paces/walks in the midst of your camp”), and you don’t want God to step in it! In fact, God doesn’t even want to see (Hebrew: ראה) anything indecent (Hebrew: עֶרְוַת דָּבָר = “any naked thing”).
This is the reason given for why Israelites must go outside of the camp to go, and then cover their poo: because God walks around the camp and they don’t want God to step in their poo, and if he even sees it, he’ll “turn away” from the camp (as it stinks and is no longer “holy”), and will stop protecting/delivering them and will stop handing their enemies over to them in battle.
Apparently, if you want God in the midst of your camp, he can’t be in the midst of your crap.
So in the end, the rationale for covering one’s poo is not hygienic, nor is it public health, but rather the Israelites are to cover their poo so that God doesn’t step in it or see it, because if he does, he’ll leave them and they’ll start losing battles.
There’s another poo-related pun I could make here, but I don’t want to bring bulls into it.
(HT for image: Tom Verenna)