Earth as Co-conspirator / Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

Even if Israel violates the prohibitions concerning sexual relations and the earth becomes defiled, it will vomit out the Children of Israel only if God chooses to punish the earth for its iniquity.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

After the Torah describes in detail the various categories of sexual relations that are forbidden − incest, relations with animals, giving your seed ‏(that is, handing over your children‏) to idolatry, etc. − it sums up, again in detail, the chain of events that could unfold if Israel does not observe these prohibitions: “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you. And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants” ‏(Leviticus 18:24-25‏).

This fascinating mechanics is totally different from the usual warnings God gives to the Children of Israel to prevent them from disobeying his commandments. First of all, the prohibition against certain sexual relations is not limited only to Israel. Gentiles who have lived in the Land of Canaan up to now also sinned by engaging in these illicit relations and have been punished accordingly. Moreover, the source of the universal prohibition is not God’s original commandment, but is rather his repetition of the first commandment given to the earth itself.

Illicit sexual relations are sins connected with space. The prohibitions relating to them were created out of the earth, and when they are violated, they hurt it. The “iniquity” of illicit sexual relations is described as a tangible product that, from the moment of its creation, is a burden that weighs upon the earth and is borne by it. Although, ostensibly, the earth seems capable of bearing such iniquity, when God remembers the earth, that act of remembering causes it to vomit out those who caused the iniquity. Within such a system, there is no connection between man and God. Man sins against the earth and is vomited out from it, and God punishes the earth for its iniquity.

The words “and the land vomited out her inhabitants” present the image of the earth as a physiological being that has a digestive system and feeds on its inhabitants. The earth’s vomiting out of its inhabitants is the result of an unsuccessful settlement attempt: the result of their failure to behave properly. In contrast, successful settlement of the earth can be described as the earth’s consumption − and digestion − of its inhabitants. This network of images is different, and absolutely distinct, from the images used by 10 of the 12 spies sent by Moses to the Promised Land. They return and describe it as a “land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof” ‏(Numbers 13:32‏).

When the 10 spies speak of Canaan consuming its inhabitants, their intention is that it destroys those inhabitants. However, here in the Book of Leviticus, unsuccessful settlement leads to the earth’s spewing out of its inhabitants; thus, it would appear that the sign of successful settlement is the earth’s consumption of its inhabitants, where eating is an expression of containment, not destruction.

The earth contains man and creates together with him a single holistic system. Man is neither responsible for the earth, nor has he inherited it − quite the opposite: The earth is responsible for him, contains him, issues the sexual decrees that are binding upon him and bears responsibility for his failures.

God, however, is not completely absent from this picture. Even if Israel violates the prohibitions concerning sexual relations and the earth becomes defiled, it will vomit out the Children of Israel only if God chooses to punish the earth for its iniquity.

The meaning of the difficult phrase “therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it” emerges from a number of similar verses in the Bible. When the Israelites leave Egypt in the Exodus, for example, Moses takes along Joseph’s bones, “for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you’” ‏(Exodus 13:19‏). God’s recollection of his children involves both memory and implementation: In this case, he remembers his people and leads them out of Egypt. He visits the “iniquity of the fathers upon the children” ‏(Exodus 20:4‏). The iniquity belongs to the fathers, because they created it through their sinning; however, when God remembers the sin, he punishes the children.

Similarly, in this case, when God remembers the earth’s iniquity, he metes out punishment. The meaning of “therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it” is that, when the “fateful day” comes, the Almighty will remember the earth’s iniquity and will express that remembrance vis-a-vis the earth itself.
Although the iniquity was clearly created by man, God regards it as the earth’s, and the earth’s spewing out of man can be understood as the earth’s punishment.

Ideal sexual behavior is not defined here as a particularly moral situation, as a preference expressing a certain religious value or even as a demand for blind obedience. God does not merely observe from the outside, nor does he merely monitor the relationship that develops between these two organisms − man and the earth. Ideal sexuality is the cord that connects the two. A cord that is not tied as a reward for strict compliance with this prohibition, but rather as a natural matching of proper sexual behavior to the link with space − as a universal, nonreligious code that enables the existence of man and earth as a dyadic system.

"La Promenade," by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1870)