Body and Soul, Purity and Impurity: Bodily Imperfection in Ritual and Law

War Scroll

War Scroll

Closely connected with the negative view that the Qumran sect held regarding the human body and the physical aspects of life is a set of legal rulings pertaining to exclusion of those with physical deformities from the assembly of the sect at the end of days.  These laws are primarily based upon laws of exclusion of such people from priestly service in the Temple (the tabernacle in biblical descriptions of the desert wandering period). The ultimate basis for these rulings is the assumption that physical form as indicator of imperfection or transgression. In this case, however, no approach of ritual purification can restore the status of the afflicted individual, except in the case of the skin diseases which course ritual impurity. Rather, these exclusions are permanent. For our purposes, they tell us how the sectarians store bodily imperfections and how the body was seen as a symbol of righteousness and purity or the reverse.

Since according to Leviticus 21:16-24, a priest may not serve in the sanctuary if he exhibits any deformity or blemish, the sectarians concluded that the same wholeness of body must be exhibited by those who are privileged to sit in a sectarian assembly at the end of days. Thus, a man would be disqualified if he were crippled, deprived of the use of one of his legs or had a fracture of the leg or hand (even if it were not visible when he walked or used his hand), was lame or limped.  Likewise, the sect disqualified those who were blind, deaf, or dumb (unable to speak). While Leviticus mentions the blind, the Rule of the Congregation included the deaf and dumb on the basis of Exodus 4:11 which links all three. It cannot be determined what were the exact definitions of these terms: whether blind refers to one eye or both; whether the term includes other afflictions of the eye; whether a deaf person must be deaf in both ears; whether there is a distinction between a man who cannot speak because he was deaf from childhood or whether he cannot speak because of some other physical problem or whether he is mentally incompetent. However, one can presume that the sect would have widened the definition of these various ailments in order to ensure ultimate perfection and purity in the Council at the end of days.

The Rule of the Congregation uses the term “afflicted” which sometimes means ritual impurity but most often signifies some sort of blemish (mum in the Bible). These blemishes could be either temporary or permanent. The Rule of the Congregation excludes one afflicted with a blemish in his flesh visible to the eyes. In an effort to exclude those with blemishes from the eschatological battle, the War Scroll (1QM 7:4) cites “every lame man or blind man, or cripple or a man who has a permanent blemish in his flesh.” It is interesting to note that the War Scroll is tolerant of temporary blemishes, but the eschatological Council requires the utmost purity and does not even countenance a temporary blemish. ([See discussion of CD15:15-17 and 4QDb which has probably now been deciphered better than Milik’s restoration] p. 47.)

Since the sect lived in the present age as if they were experiencing the end of days, their prohibitions on entering the sectarian assembly are the very same as those for entering the eschatological assembly. Three other disqualifications appear: minors, women and the elderly. In 1QSa 1:19-20 the sectarian over the age of 60 was required to retire from his role as an official, judge, or military leader. The Rule of the Congregation refers to an elderly man as a “tottering old man.” All of these deformities, the aged, women and minors and those suffering from temporary impurity such as a seminal emission, must be excluded from the eschatological battle because “holy angels are together with their armies” (1QM 7:6), fighting alongside the Sons of Light to their ultimate victory over the forces of evil. Those who are disqualified, however, are not excluded from the sect. They are simply not allowed to participate in the Council of the community or the military camp during the eschatological war.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *