Still one of the oddest biblical commands: COVER YOUR POO! (Because God might step in it!)

Deuteronomy 23:12-14

Deuteronomy 23:12-14

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)

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13 Responses

  1. But using it to prepare food is ok (Ezekiel 4:12). I wonder if anyone is ‘living Biblically’ with these verses in mind.

  2. Covering it up is not the answer health wise, as by covering it up, under the right conditions, the parasites in the fecal remains can remain for up to one year whereas if left in the sun, they get ‘nuked’ by the UV rays and thats it. This is one reason, why I believe that the health conditons at Qumran, population wise may have been one of the reasons for the high mortality found there in the cemetery. At Jericho a few kms to the north the chances of making it to 40 were 7 times greater. So the 11th commandment is ‘Thy shall not cover it up, if ye wish to make it to 40′.

  3. @Tom – I dunno, covering my poo is a biblical commandment I find pretty easy to follow, most of the time. And I’m pretty sure the Ezekiel commandment would only apply to me if I decided to lay seige to Jerusalem, so I’ll file that under “someday”.

  4. Would the ancient Israelites even known of the hygiene issues? To me this is a case where someone realized that it should be done and to make sure it was they used God as the reason. People were more scared of offending God then some sort of hygeine problem they probably didn’t believe in anyway

  5. There is a product called Ezekiel Bread, based on Ezek 4:9, but I’m pretty sure they don’t including the particulars in how it is cooked. Otherwise I need to clear out my freezer.

  6. Heh. I also have a poo-related biblical blog entry in the works…

    However, in this case, I would argue that the “walk” here is metaphorical, and the point is to maintain a degree of cultic purity in the divine presence. God doesn’t want your…seedy bedsheets around either.

  7. and speaking of poop . . .

    Three Engineering students are having a discussion about God. As they are all Engineering students, they agree that God MUST be an engineer, but . . . what KIND of engineer ?

    They agree to answer the question with reference to . . . the structure of the human body.

    The first student is a student of chemical engineering: “Think of all the chemical processes that must go on, in order for the human body to function ! Surely . . . God must be a CHEMICAL engineer.”

    The second student is a student of electrical engineering: “Think of all the electrical interactions that must take take place, all the synapses firing in precisely the right way, in order for the human body to function ! Surely . . . God must be an ELECTRICAL engineer.”

    The third student is a student of civil engineering: “Nope,” he says, “you’re both wrong. God is obviously a civil engineer who works for the County Department of Public Works.”

    The other two students say, “HUH ???”

    The third student explains: “God MUST be a civil engineer who works for the Department of Public Works, because only a civil engineer who works for the Department of Public Works would put a waste disposal site right next to a recreation area.”

  8. It would be rotten if you were just returning from burying the eject from your explosive diarrhoea event, near sunset, and you got mistaken for a sheet shooter. Hilarity would ensue, as you tried to prove you’d just buried a lake or two of your own making, and weren’t returning from a non-nocturnal mission…

    There must be a word (possibly in German?) for using faecal matter as an argument against something worse…

  9. First thing that entered my mind was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog saying “For me to poop on”

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. Sir,

    I found this blog post interesting. It seems to me (based on my military service and continued civilian service in some far off places) that this makes perfect sense. Any order to go away from the camp and dig a cat hole and bury your leavings would, likely, be ignored in the cold and darkness of night (hey, who’s gonna know?). I know that even in today’s modern military with our knowledge of hygiene and sanitation people dumb bottles of urine right outside their quarters or brush their teeth and spit the toothpaste right next to where they sleep. However, if you add the condition “god is watching you” it is more likely to be followed. Their society, unlike ours, practiced a belief in a real and present God. Additionally as a nomadic society, burying this matter would suffice for the short time the Israelite tribes would be in the area before moving on.

    The use of animal dung in fires in fairly common. Human dung is less common and, as the following verse, Ezekiel 4:13, makes it clear that such food is unclean and being directed as a punishment. So it is not a regular method of cooking food.

    Many of the Israelite practices made sense given their circumstances. Consider the use of matriarchal decent in patriarchal society–very practical.

    It is interesting how the reading of something is so influenced by our experiences and backgrounds.

  12. Tom Verenna, on May 2, 2013 at 8:23 am said:
    But using it to prepare food is ok (Ezekiel 4:12). I wonder if anyone is ‘living Biblically’ with these verses in mind.

    Tom, this reading is a strong misrepresentation of the passage. The chapter puts this in context. Ezekiel was clear that this was defilement.

  13. Well, do you like stepping in poop?

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