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Taboos and Transgressions

Thomas Römer
p. 35

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Source: La lettre, no. 34, July 2012

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1This year, the Chair of the Hebrew Bible and its Contexts brought together scholars of the Bible, Assyriologists and specialists of the Ancient Middle East for an interdisciplinary symposium.

Caption: Lot and his daughters (1616) by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) © DR

2The speakers were invited to examine the question of taboos and transgressions, from the point of view of their own disciplines and through their corpus of references:

3Bible: M. Bürki (Collège de France), D. Erbele-Kuester (Faculty of Theology, Brussels), D. Garrone (Vaudoise Faculty, Rome), J. Hutzli (University of Lausanne), L. Lanoir (Protestant Institute of Theology, Paris), A. Lemaire (EPHE), J.-D. Macchi (University of Geneva), A. Marx (University of Strasbourg), C. Nihan (University of Lausanne), S. Olyan (Brown University, Providence, USA), M. Saur (University of Kiel), O. Sergi (University of Tel-Aviv), T. Römer (Collège de France).

4Qumran: D. Hamidovic (University of Lausanne)

5Mesopotamia: D. Charpin (EPHE), S. Démare-Lafont (EPHE), J.-M. Durand (Collège de France), L. Marti (CNRS), R. Pientka (University of Marburg).

6Ancient Greece: D. Jaillard (University of Lausanne).

7Ancient Egypt: Y. Volokhine (University of Geneva).

8Mamelouk Period: B. Martel-Thoumian (Université de Grenoble).

9In addition to the particular interest of each paper, the compa­rative approach of this symposium facilitated transdisciplinary interaction and guided joint reflection.

10Various contributions highlighted the absence of a term equivalent to the word “taboo” which anthropologists initially borro­wed from the Polynesian languages in the last century. It seems however that several characteristics of this concept are recurrent in the different societies considered.

11Several papers highlighted the importance of food-related prohi­bitions as identity markers. These “table manners”, such as the prohibition of blood in ancient Israel, enabled the group to set its own limits “from the inside” and to define its modes of belonging and recognition. Some food regimes served to describe the group from the outside. This could prove to be unjustified and caricatural, such as the pork regime attributed to the Egyptians by Herodotus or, on the contrary, the reflection of a socio-historical reality such as that of the Amorites, a nomadic people that ate desert truffles and raw meat. The identity function of food regimes is also highlighted in inter-ethnic encounters where minority groups such as Jews in the Hellenistic period were forced to adapt their practices in order to avoid exclusion from the influential circles of society.

12Sexual relations are a domain where laws have little impact and where taboos serve to define the limits. Prostitution in ancient Israel was thus discussed, as well as the use of this metaphor in prophetic discourse, the problem of inter-ethnic marriages that blur the boundaries of the community, and the possibility in exceptional situations of defying basic prohibitions such as incest in order to preserve other values of the group.

13“Contact taboos” were also discussed. These taboos characterize exclusive places such as sanctuaries or the house of a high priestess, to which only the initiated have access. A sacred character is attributed to certain objects such as war booty or even certain people such as first-borns, to signify their exclusion from the group. Their contact with the group is thus subject to their observance of a ritual or of positions that ensure the protection of the rest of the group.

14The understanding of prohibitions and of different forms of regu­lation require that the economic and social context in which they developed be taken into account, along with the collective imaginary to which they relate. The Assyrians, like the authors of Leviticus, make a fundamental distinction between the deliberate act and the unintended act. By taking­ into account acts carried out unwittingly, it is possible to explain any form of misfortune whose origins date back to the behaviour of the person affected by it. This sense of responsibility spawns new prohibitions set by hemerological science, which determines high days and low or bad days, knowledge of which makes it possible to limit inadvertent misdeeds. The texts of Judaism in the Persian era express an ideal where the law is under the authority of the temple. Lex talionis and the punishment by mutilation that it implies are consequently more of an ideological construction than a historical reality.

• Symposium to be published in the collection “Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis”, Academic Press Fribourg (Switzerland)

• Programme and videos online at

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Légende Caption: Lot and his daughters (1616) by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) © DR
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Thomas Römer, « Taboos and Transgressions », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 24 août 2019. URL :

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Thomas Römer

The Hebrew Bible and its Contexts

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