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.

God steps in poo.

God steps in poo. This must be avoided.

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)


34 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?

  14. Reblogged this on lit! and commented:
    I’m afraid this presents a serious challenge to Psalm 24:1. (Think it through.)

  15. Read Matthew 15:17-18 Pooping no longer defiles a man, according to the new covenant that Jesus ushered in.

  16. Todd, supersessionism aside, the point of this text is not old law vs. new law, but Deut. 23:14 “For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you.”

    You missed the point.

    It’s not that pooping in camp is now suddenly allowable under Jesus’ ‘new covenant’, it’s that the infallible Word of God said that the reason one was to cover your poo is because God walks around in camp!

  17. Dr Cargill– I’m only some two years late seeing this one; chanced upon it after seeing your post re the Supreme Court decision.

    I’ve a horrible question to ask: what about dog poo ??? I’ll guess dogs weren’t allowed in the ancient camps ?

    I hope you’ll definitively respond asap as I’m holding my breath and fear an early demise if you refuse.


  18. No idea. I’m not sure if the text speaks of dog poo. I just found it fascinating that the REASONING behind burying poo was because God might step in it. But the text says nothing about what God thinks of dog doodoo. ;-)

  19. God became a pooper when he became Jesus. But I bet Jesus didn’t take a dump in the wilderness everyday.

  20. When we have guest or a friend coming over, do we not tidy the house? What if the city officials comes over, the president or the king?

    When you have the all mighty God in you mist, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love; He bought His people out of slavery and Moses begged to have God’s presence among the people and the Lord is about to give the land flowing with milk and honey to the Israelites.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to be clean and holy to receive the Lord’s great blessing.

  21. Good grief.
    First, if the “all mighty God” is in our “mist”, I’d hand him a towel.

    Second, you’re assuming that God literally walks into your house or camp. Do you believe that is what happens? God walks into your house? Like me walks in and smells the flowers?

  22. The Lord our God is omnipresence meaning all-present. This term means that God is capable of being everywhere at the same time. It means his divine presence encompasses the whole of the universe.

    God loves you :)

  23. I just want you to understand the fallacy of this logic: “God is omnipresent meaning all-present”. If this is true, then this means that God is in the bathroom with you when you poo. He’s in the shower with you when you shower. But for some reason, you don’t feel the need to cover up in the shower before God. You don’t feel the need to do cover yourself when you’re sitting on the toilet. So why cover your poo in the camp? Is it because God is omnipresent? Or, is it because the Israelites really believed God walked in their camp. Or, is it because they understood the health benefit of properly disposing of fecal material and attributed some theological reason to it?

    My point is that the passage is highly anthropomorphic, and yet the theological rational given to it becomes comedic. But you can see the problem with attempting to argue an ‘omnipresence’ defense when the action mentioned in the passage is clearly dealing with an anthropomorphic presence, who might literally step in the poo, or smell it, or otherwise come into contact with it.

    Because the last thing you want is an anthropomorphic deity using that particular handful of dust to create another person. Can you imagine the theological backflips that would be required to deal with that?

  24. God you are an idiot.

    God (well, hell, EVERYONE) knew that if you didn’t do this you would be wiped off the Earth. SOIL CONSERVATION or your entire people are utterly screwed. This happened to EVERY ancient culture BUT those with regular flooding and rejuvenation of the soil (Egypt, Fertile Crescent). You didn’t notice the rules on resting the soil? On crop rotation, on putting poo into bread (figuratively)? That about 1/5 of the entire Torah is about soil conservation?!?
    God knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics but few conservationists do. You’d think “the heat equation” would come up in climate circles…. You can’t fix it by turning the air conditioners around to blow out cold because the net effect is to increase work/entropy/heat. Sure, that sounds silly, but building an entire electric car infrastructure, using extra energy to clean up a coal plant, heck building a solar infrastructure …those we don’t question. Sheesh! Instead, use less stuff, and put the poop back into the soil. Heh, I have to say it seems this God fellah is smarter than most ecologists… Got Vais….

  25. Gregory the Great had a revealing comment on this; Moralia in Job, book 31, section 54.

  26. I agree that we anthropomorphize God. These verses would be easier to understand if we didn’t. God is omnipresent, and from the beginning of the world, He walks among us. In the beginning, He created this world to be pure, perfect, without disease, without decay, and without death. He created every job to be fulfilling. He created every relationship to be intimately unbroken. It was a pretty great place to live, this earth. God gave the earth to mankind with a pretty small instruction manual, and we broke it anyway. We broke it on purpose. After we broke it, there’s death now, that’s fun, and sickness, and war, and climate imbalance, and starving kids, tons of divorce and people who hate their jobs, and cancer, and poop.

    In a perfect world, our bodies would use all of what we eat. A perfect world doesn’t need waste product. God is also omniscient, and knowing we would break our own world, He entered into time to walk with us anyway. His plan, hinging on His own patience, is to walk with us, to show us our sin, to show us the cure, to heal and elevate us, and eventually to redeem and restore both the penitent, and the earth itself, to the beauty He always had in mind for it. He endures the presence of our sin, but He doesn’t want us to wallow in it. He endures the presence of our crap, but He doesn’t want us to wallow in it. He is sinless, perfectly pure, and leaving your poop in the street isn’t just dirty, it isn’t just wallowing in the mess you’ve made, but it was also disobeying their Maker. All of these reasons are good ones for God to say if you keep ignoring me, I’ll leave.

    But He remains. The crucial moment in all history is when God became human flesh Himself, when He took on all the weight of sin, when He experienced all the effects of sin, like pooping, and sweating, and crying, and bleeding, and dying, so that, for all time, He could purchase us back. So we could see through and beyond our sin and waste. So we could see Him better. Now we taste love deeper, because He is love. Now we understand truth clearer, because He is truth. Now we see our sin, our world, and our hope in a better light, because He is the light of the world, and we are His beloved.

    God doesn’t make light of us wallowing in our crap, or our sin, because He loves us. He created us for something so much better. All we need are ears that hear, and eyes that see, and a heart that is humble enough to stop scoffing just long enough to see we don’t know everything. There is so much more involved. If we do as you say, and stop anthropomorphizing God, stop trying to pull Him down to our level of shallow thoughts and angry grumbling, we get to see Him for the beauty of who He truly is. It changes everything.

  27. This is a good word of explanation: God is Clean and Holy; so He require US to be Clean and Holy

  28. If God is all knowing, would he not know where the poop is and not step in it…but then again, you are basing this on an actual being just like Santa?

  29. You do realize that God used the threat of leaving reasoning because He knew they would listen vs. a purely sanitary reasoning which they would likely not. Killed 2 birds with 1 stone. Smart God.

  30. Oh, seriously. Talk about twisting words and meanings. The reason was for health concerns for humans. You cannot be that oblivious, to think the primary reason was because God walks through the camp. That is a secondary reason. Obviously, He is Holy and nothing unclean should or can appear in His sight. That’s why flesh cannot enter Heaven. But the strict laws He laid down are to keep us healthy. And btw, if the average person had been still reading the Bible, there would have been no Black Plague.

  31. What are you talking about “twisting words and meanings”? I’m not twisting anything. In fact, I’m quoting EXACTLY what the text says: “Dig a hole and cover up your excrement. For the LORD your God moves about in your camp.” Those are the EXACT words in the Bible!!

    YOU are the one twisting the words and assuming that they “obviously” MUST mean something else because you don’t want them to mean what they “obviously” say. You can argue that they created the law for the plague, or for health concerns, but that’s YOUR interpretation that you are bringing to the text. That’s not what the text says. The text says that they are to cover their poo BECAUSE God “walks around” (hithpa’el ptcp. of hlk) in the camp. Of course it has to do with holiness. Of course it has to do with cleanliness. But they text is making very clear that they are to cover their poo outside of camp because God is passing through the inside of camp. Any other reading is an attempt to remove the otherwise anthropomorphic nature of the text.

  32. Where can I buy a t shirt like that?

  33. The recycling of animal “waste” is gor farming.
    This is Gods plan. It is not negative, but nec to use & recycle properly.

  34. “Your camp must be holy” just like how the temple is holy.

    Even a human king won’t be pleased to find the place he dwells in full of poo right?


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