Defilement and Moral Discourse in the Hebrew Bible

An Evolutionary Framework


  • Yitzhaq Feder University of Haifa



pollution, purity, disgust, morality


Modern psychological research has devoted considerable attention to physiological disgust and “moral” disgust, finding both similarities and significant differences between them. Of particular interest is the plausible evolutionary hypothesis that physiological disgust provides the phylogenetic basis for social or moral disgust. To a considerable extent, these distinctions are comparable to the different categories of pollution which have been identified in the Hebrew Bible, specifically the distinction between so-called “ritual” and “moral” impurities. It will be argued that the evolutionary framework employed for the study of disgust can shed light on the role of pollution beliefs in shaping moral discourse in ancient Israel. This evolutionary perspective will serve as the basis for a renewed examination of the social implications of purity, duly stressed in Mary Douglas’ influential treatise Purity and Danger (1966). However, in contrast with Douglas’ symbolic approach to pollution, which presupposed a top-down process rooted in disembodied rationality, this paper outlines a bottom-up account grounded in physiological concerns related to disgust and infectious disease. This embodied framework enables the identification of two distinct mechanisms by which pollution can take on broader socio-moral implications, specifically those embedded in purity practices themselves and those emerging from the rhetorical extensions of purity language. The article concludes with discussion of how this historical evidence can encourage a reconsideration of some prevalent assumptions in modern experimental research of moral disgust.

Author Biography

  • Yitzhaq Feder, University of Haifa

    Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His research attempts to create a synthesis between traditional philological study of ancient texts and naturalistic lines of inquiry pursued by the cognitive science of religions. He has published numerous articles on purity and pollution in the ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Alon, Gedalyahu. 1977. “The Levitical Uncleanness of Gentiles”. In Jews, Judaism and the Classical World: Studies in Jewish History in the Times of the Second Temple and Talmud, translated by Israel Abrahams, 146–89. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Ambasciano, Leonardo. 2016. “Mind the (Unbridgeable) Gaps: A Cautionary Tale about Pseudoscientific Distortions and Scientific Misconceptions in the Study of Religion”. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 28(2): 141–225.

Amit, Yaira. 2000. Hidden Polemics in the Hebrew Bible, translated by Jonathan Chipman. Leiden, Boston and Köln: Brill.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “Is Homo Hierarchicus?” American Ethnologist 13: 745–61.

Apicella, Coren L., and H. Clark Barrett. 2016. “Cross-cultural Evolutionary Psychology”. Current Opinion in Psychology 7: 92–97.

Bloom, Paul. 2004. Descartes’ Baby. New York: Basic Books.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Büchler, Adolph. 1967. Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century. New York: Ktav.

Burkert, Walter. 1996. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Cameron, C. Daryl, Kristin A. Lindquist, and Kurt Gray. 2015. “A Constructivist Review of Morality and the Emotions: No Evidence for Specific Links between Morality and Discrete Emotions”. Personality and Social Psychology Review 19: 371–94.

Chapman, Hanah A., and Adam K. Anderson. 2013. “Things Rank and Gross in Nature. A Review and Synthesis of Moral Disgust”. Psychological Bulletin 139: 300–27.

Chapman, Hanah A., and Adam K. Anderson. 2014. “Trait Physical Disgust is Related to Moral Judgments Outside of the Purity Domain”. Emotion 14: 341–48. doi:

Cohen, Shai J.D. 1999. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Cohn, Robert. 1994. “Before Israel: The Canaanite as Other in Biblical Tradition”. In The Other in Jewish Thought and History, ed. Lawrence J. Silberstein and Robert Cohn, 74–90. New York: New York University.

Curry, Oliver S. 2006. “Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?” Evolutionary Psychology 4: 234–47.

Curtis, Valerie. 2007. “A Natural History of Hygiene”. Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases & Medical Microbiology 18: 11–14.

—2013. Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat: The Science Behind Repulsion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curtis, Valerie, and Adam Biran. 2001. “Dirt, Disgust and Disease: Is Hygiene in Our Genes?” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44: 17–31.

Curtis, Valerie, Míchéal de Barra and Robert Aunger. 2011. “Disgust as an Adaptive System for Disease Avoidance Behavior”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366: 389-401.

Darwin, Charles. 1965 (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

de Block, Andreas, and Stefaan E. Cuypers. 2012. “Why Darwinians Should Not Be Afraid of Mary Douglas – and Vice Versa: The Case of Disgust”. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 42: 459–88.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Dumont, Louis. 1970. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications, translated by Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont and Basia Gulati. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Elias, Norbert. 2000 (1939). The Civilizing Process, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Elliger, Karl. 1966. Leviticus. HAT. Tübingen: Mohr.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Feinstein, Eve Levavi. 2014. Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2013. “Contagion and Cognition: Bodily Experience and the Conceptualization of Pollution (?um’ah) in the Hebrew Bible”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 72: 151–67.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2014. “The Semantics of Purity in the Ancient Near East: Lexical Meaning as a Projection of Embodied Experience”. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 14: 87–113.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2015. “Behind the Scenes of a Priestly Polemic: Leviticus 14 and its Extra-Biblical Parallels”. Journal of Hebrew Scripture 15.4: 1–26.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2016a. “Contamination Appraisals, Pollution Beliefs and the Role of Cultural Inheritance in Shaping Disease Avoidance Behavior”. Cognitive Science 40: 1561–85.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2016b. “The Defilement of Dina: Uncontrolled Passions, Textual Violence and the Search for Moral Foundations”. Biblical Interpretation 24: 281–309.

Feder, Yitzhaq. 2016c. “Disgust, Disease and Defilement: The Experiential Basis for Akkadian and Hittite Terms for Pollution”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 136: 99–116.

Frevel, Christian. 2011. “‘Separate Yourself from the Gentiles’ (Jubilees 22:16); Intermarriage in the Book of Jubilees”. In Mixed Marriages: Intermarriage and Group Identity in the Second Temple Period, ed. Christian Frevel, 220–50. New York: T. & T. Clark.

Fridlund, Alan J. 1994. Human Facial Expression: An Evolutionary View. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gane, Roy. 2005. Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Geertz, Armin W. 2010. “Brain, Body and Culture: A Bio-cultural Theory of Religion”. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22: 304–21.

—2013. “The Meaningful Brain: Clifford Geertz and the Cognitive Science of Culture”. In Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion, eds Dimitris Xygalatas, and William W. McCorkle, 176–96. Durham: Acumen Publishing.

Gelman, Susan. 2003. The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gertz, Jan, Bernard M. Levinson, Dalit Rom-Shiloni and Konrad Schmid. 2016. The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel and North America. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Gibbs, Raymond W., ed. 2008. The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giner-Sorolla, Roger. 2012. Judging Passions: Moral Emotions in Persons and Groups. London: Psychology Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1971. In the Shadow of Man. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Goodall, Jane. 1986. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gould, Stephen, Jay. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Grady, Joseph. 2005. “Primary Metaphors as Inputs to Conceptual Integration”. Journal of Pragmatics 37: 1595–614.

Grady, Joseph, and Christopher Johnson. 2003. “Converging Evidence for the Notions of Subscene and Primary Scene”. In Metaphor and Metonymy in Comparison and Contrast, eds René Dirven and Ralf Pörings, 533–55. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Graham, Jesse, Brian A. Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer et al. 2011. “Mapping the Moral Domain”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101: 366–85.

Green, Edward C. 1999. Indigenous Theories of Contagious Disease. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Griffiths, Paul E. 1997. What Emotions Really Are. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment”. Psychological Review 108: 814–34.

—2012. The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. 2007. “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize”. Social Justice Research 20: 98–116.

Halina, Marta, Federico Rossano and Michael Tomasello. 2013. “The Ontogenetic Ritualization of Bonobo Gestures”. Animal Cognition 16: 653–66.

Harrington, Hannah K. 2004. The Purity Texts. London: T. & T. Clark International.

Hayes, Christine E. 2002. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hirschfeld, Lawrence A. 1996. Race in the Making. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Horberg, E. J., Christopher Oveis, Dacher Keltner and Adam B. Cohen. 2009. “Disgust and the Moralization of Purity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97: 963–76.

Hume, David. 1978 (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Peter H. Niditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1998 (1751). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Tom. L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inbar, Yoel, David A. Pizarro and Paul Bloom. 2009. “Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted Than Liberals”. Cognition & Emotion 23: 714–25.

Jarcho, Saul. 2000. The Concept of Contagion in Medicine, Literature and Religion. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Kazen, Thomas. 2010. “Impurity, Ritual, and Emotion: A Psycho-biological Approach”. In Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism, 13–40. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Kazen, Thomas. 2014. “The Role of Disgust in Priestly Purity Law: Insights from Conceptual Metaphor and Blending Theories”. Journal of Law, Religion and State 3: 62–92.

Kelly, Daniel R. 2011. Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Keltner, Dacher, Jonathan Haidt and Michelle N. Shiota. 2006. “Social Functionalism and the Evolution of Emotions”. In Evolution and Social Psychology, eds Mark Schaller, Jeffry A., Simpson and Douglas T. Kenrick, 115–42. New York: Psychology Press.

Klawans, Jonathan. 2000. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Knohl, Israel 1995. The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Kimmel, Michael. 2005. “Culture Regained: Situated and Compound Image Schemas”. In From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics, ed. Beate Hampe, 285–312. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Kimmel, Michael. 2008. “Properties of Cultural Embodiment: Lessons from the Anthropology of the Body”. In Body, Language and Mind. Volume 2: Sociocultural Situatedness, eds Rosyln M. Frank, René Dirven, Tom Ziemke and Enrique Bernárdez, 77–108. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Laland, Kevin N., and Gillian R. Brown. 2011. Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Landy, Justin F., and Geoffrey P. Goodwin. 2015. “Does Incidental Disgust Amplify Moral Disgust? A Meta-analytic Review of Experimental Evidence”. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10: 518–36.

Larson, Greger, Philip A. Stephens, Jamshid J. Tehrani and Robert H. Layton. 2013. “Exapting Exaptation”. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28: 497–98.

Lemos, Tracy C. 2013. “Where There is Dirt, Is There System? Revisiting Biblical Purity Constructions”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 37: 265–94.

Lewontin, Richard. 2002. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Martin, Luther H. 2014. Deep History, Secular Theory: Historical and Scientific Studies of Religion. Boston and Berlin: de Gruyter.

McCauley, Robert N. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCorkle, William W. Jr. 2010. Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased: From Corpse to Concept. New York: Peter Lang.

—2013. “From Corpse to Concept: a Cognitive Theory on the Ritualized Treatment of Dead Bodies”. In Origins of Religion, Cognition and Culture, ed. Armin W. Geertz, 374–95. Durham and Bristol, CT: Acumen.

Milgrom, Jacob. 1991–2001. Leviticus. Anchor Bible. 3 vols. New York: Doubleday.

Millikan, Ruth. 1984. Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/ MIT Press.

Millikan, Ruth. 1989. “In Defense of Proper Functions”. Philosophy of Science 56: 288–302.

Nabi, Robin L. 2002. “The Theoretical Versus the Lay Meaning of Disgust: Implications for Emotion Research”. Cognition and Emotion 16: 695–703.

Nemeroff, Carol, and Paul Rozin. 1994. “The Contagion Concept in Adult Thinking in the United States: Transmission of Germs and Interpersonal Influence”. Ethos 22: 158–86.

Nemeroff, Carol, and Paul Rozin. 2000. “The Makings of the Magical Mind: The Nature and Function of Sympathetic Magical Thinking”. In Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific and Religious Thinking in Children, eds Karl S. Rosengren, Carl N. Johnson, and Paul L. Harris, 1–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neuberg, Steven, Douglas T. Kenrick and Mark Schaller. 2011. “Human Threat Management Systems: Self-protection and Disease Avoidance”. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35: 1042–51.

Nichols, Shaun. 2002. “On the Genealogy of Norms: A Case for the Role of Emotion in Cultural Evolution”. Philosophy of Science 69: 234–55.

Nihan, Christoph. 2007. From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch. FAT2/25; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Nihan, Christoph 2013. “The Priestly Laws of Numbers, the Holiness Legislation, and the Pentateuch”. In Torah and the Book of Numbers, eds Christian Frevel, Thomas Pola and Aaron Schart, 109–37. FAT 2/ 62. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Oaten, Megan, Richard J. Stevenson and Trevor I. Case. 2009. “Disgust as a Disease Avoidance Mechanism: A Review and Model”. Psychological Bulletin 135: 303–32.

Oatley, Keith, and Philip Johnson-Laird. 1987. “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Emotions”. Cognition and Emotion 1: 29–50.

Olatunji, Bunmi O., Chad Ebesutani, Jonathan Haidt and Craig N. Sawchuk. 2014. “Specificity of Disgust Domains in the Prediction of Contamination Anxiety and Avoidance: A Multimodal Examination”. Behavior Therapy 45: 469–81.

Olyan, Saul M. 2000. Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paden, William. E. 2016. New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking: New York.

Prinz, Jesse. 2007. The Emotional Construction of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritter, Ryan S., and Jesse Lee Preston. 2011. “Gross Gods and Icky Atheism: Disgust Responses to Rejected Religious Beliefs”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47: 1225–1300.

Rofé, Alexander (2005). “Defilement of Virgins in Biblical Law and the Case of Dinah (Genesis 34)”. Biblica 86: 369–75.

Rottman, Joshua, Deborah Keleman and Liane Young. 2014. “Tainting the Soul: Purity Concerns Predict Moral Judgments of Suicide”. Cognition 130: 217–26.

Royzman, Edward, Pavel Atanasov, Justin F. Landy, Amanda Parks and Andrew Gepty. 2014. “CAD or MAD? Anger (Not Disgust) as the Predominant Response to Pathogen-free Violations of the Divinity Code”. Emotion 14: 892–907.

Royzman, Edward B., and John Sabini. 2001. “Something It Takes To Be an Emotion: The Interesting Case of Disgust”. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 31: 29–59.

Rozin, Paul. 2010. “Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology: Complementing Each Other in the Study of Culture and Cultural Evolution”. In Evolution, Culture, and the Human Mind, eds Mark Schaller, Ara Norenzayan, Steven J. Heine et al., 9–22. New York: Psychology Press.

Rozin, Paul, Laura Lowery, Sumio Imada and Jonathan Haidt. 1999. “The Moral/Emotion (CAD) Triad Hypothesis: A Mapping Between the Other-directed Moral Emotions, Disgust, Contempt, and Anger, and Shweder’s Three Universal Moral Codes”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76: 574–86.

Russell, Pascale S., and Roger Giner-Sorolla. 2013. “Bodily Moral Disgust: What It Is, How It Is Different from Anger, and Why It Is an Unreasoned Emotion”. Psychological Bulletin 139: 328–51.

Sage, Evan T., trans. 1936. Titus Livius, The History of Rome, Books XXXVIII–XXXIX with an English Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Samuelson, Sue. 1980. “The Cooties Complex”. Western Folklore 39: 198–210.

Schaller, Mark, and Justin H. Park. 2011. “The Behavioral Immune System (and Why It Matters)”. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20: 99–103.

Schnall, Simone, Jonathan Haidt, Gerald L. Clore and Alexander H. Jordan. 2008. “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34: 1096–109.

Schwartz, Baruch J. 2004. “Reexamining the Fate of the ‘Canaanites’ in the Torah Traditions”. In Sefer Moshe. The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume, eds Chaim Cohen et al., 151–70. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Shemesh, Aharon. 1998. “4Q271.3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law”. Journal of Jewish Studies 49: 244–63.

Segerstråle, Ullica. 2001. Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slingerland, Edward, and Mark Collard, eds 2012. Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Southwood, Katherine E. 2012. Ethnicity and the Intermarriage Crisis in Ezra 9–10. Oxford: Oxford University.

Stearns, Justin K. 2011. Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Premodern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tavory, Iddo, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka. 2012. “Culture and Epigenesis: A Waddingtonian View”. In The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology, ed. Jaan Valsiner, 662–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2000. “Two Hypotheses about Primate Cognition”. In The Evolution of Cognition, eds Cecelia Heyes and Ludwig Huber. 165–83. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

—2014. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

van Wolde, Ellen. 2009. Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition and Context. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Wright, David P. 1991. “The Spectrum of Priestly Impurity”. In Priesthood and Cult in Ancient Israel, eds. Gary A. Anderson and Saul M. Olyan, 150–81. JSOTSup, 125; Sheffield: JSOT Press.

—2009. Creating God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



How to Cite

Feder, Y. (2018). Defilement and Moral Discourse in the Hebrew Bible: An Evolutionary Framework. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 3(1-2), 157-189.