Why Does the Bible Have No Recipe for Soap?

Why does the Bible not have a recipe for soap?The Bible has a detailed description of the priestly costume in Exodus 28. Aaron and his priestly descendants certainly looked fabulous, but if the Bible can spend an entire chapter on this, why not a method for making something useful, like soap?

It’s not hard to make. Imagine if the following recipe were a quote from the Bible (give it a King James tone if that makes it sound more authentic):

Pack a wooden bucket with ashes. Pour in boiling water. Make a small hole near the bottom so the water can be collected in a pot as it drips out. The liquid is caustic, so don’t let it touch skin or metal. Pour the liquid back into the ashes until it is strong enough to dissolve a chicken feather.

Boil this liquid until most of the water is gone. Add rendered fat from cattle or other animals and stir while cooking until it thickens. Pour into molds and let it harden.

There are lots of tricks to making soap properly, but a priesthood could’ve easily perfected the technique.

With this, the Bible could then add the basics of health care—when and how to use this soap, how water is purified by boiling (really purified, not just ritually), how latrines should be built and sited, how to avoid polluting the water supply, how to avoid spreading disease, and so on. Other ideas to improve society come to mind—low-tech ways to pump water, spin fiber, make metal alloys, and so on—but health seems to be a fundamental one to start with.

Several passages have been advanced to argue that the Bible did refer to soap. The word is used in Mal. 3:2 and Jer. 2:22, but that word means ashes or soapy plant. In Job 9:30, the word isn’t soap but “snow water” (that is, pure water). Num. 19:1–12 is argued to be a recipe for soap here, though it’s clearly just a ritual. None of these are soap as we would understand it, as defined by the recipe above.

Another attempt to salvage the Bible argues that its odd dietary rules (no pork or shellfish, no mixing of meat and dairy, etc.) are healthy, but these rules are arbitrary when seen from a modern standpoint. Sure, avoiding pork means that you can’t get sick from eating poorly cooked pork, but can’t you still get sick from eating tainted meat from other animals? An analysis by Mary Douglas (discussed here) makes much more sense out of the ritual prohibitions.

Let’s consider the Bible’s health advice and consider two possibilities.

  • An infinitely loving God created us but just didn’t give a hoot about the health of his creation. He could’ve made healthy practices mandatory rituals, but he didn’t. However, he did care enough about making his priests look sharp to devote an entire chapter to their costumes.
  • The Old Testament was just written by ordinary men and reflects their ordinary knowledge and interests.

Which seems likelier?

Man once surrendering his reason,
has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous,
and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind.
— Thomas Jefferson

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell

    You’d think that a truly loving god would behave kindlier toward his loved ones, but no soap. 8^(

  • Reginald Selkirk

    how latrines should be built and sited, how to avoid polluting the water supply, how to avoid spreading disease, and so on.

    Well there is that bit in Deuteronomy 23:13-14

    • Bob Seidensticker


      I think the lesson there isn’t health but that God is grossed out by poop.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    Sorry, but this is sort of obtuse. You appear to be confused about just what are the functions of a religion. (I have none myself; I’m an atheist, so it’s not like I believe those functions are necessarily crucial to society or that they can only be carried out by religion. I’m talking about what they are and were for the societies in question, ancient Levantines.)
    Take this: “He could’ve made healthy practices mandatory rituals…”
    Healthy practices have their own justification. Rituals have none other than religious justifications. So you’re saying, why doesn’t this religion eschew rituals, why isn’t it something other than a religion? Well… if you’re honestly confused about that, Idunno, read some Anthropology? If you’re not (and I understand you’re not, really), then this just looks like a particularly oblique rhetorical stunt.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      If I said: The Bible has no useful health information; therefore, it couldn’t have been divinely inspired, that wouldn’t follow. I’m simply pointing out what it does have time for (fashion) and what it doesn’t (the health and well-being of the people for whom this entire experiment was conducted). I don’t intend to conclude anything conclusively, just say that this makes the whole thing look fabricated.

  • http://busterggi@aol.com Bob Jase

    The first rule of Tahweh Club is you don’t talk about Yahweh Club.

    • Ryan

      Really? I thought the first rule was to talk *incessantly* about Yahweh Club…

      • Bob Jase

        Only with other members. Outsiders are to be exterminated.

  • Kodie

    Cleanliness is next to godliness. If it were in the bible, it would mean the same thing. Being bathed would compete with morality for how we know there’s a god and that people without god would go on a filth binge. Consider how the unwashed are regarded as not taking care of themselves vs. not having the holy spirit moving through them to hop in the shower more often.

  • ctcss

    Bob, it’s entries like this that make me think you aren’t at all interested in taking this subject seriously. All you seem to be doing here is pretending to be obtuse as to what a religion might be used for, as CJ was pointing out, and I don’t think you really are that lame a person. So why bother wasting time with an entry like this? The Bible isn’t an all-purpose book meant to capture every bit of everyday knowledge of the people it served. And the NT quite obviously knew about laundering (referring to it in Mark 9:3, without going into the details of the process), and since fuller’s earth was in use for nearly 7000 years to clean wool, I would guess that people already knew about everyday stuff like this. What they might not know about was how to “approach” God, or worship God “properly”, thus the need for religious texts as opposed to domestic task texts.

    And although I can’t say anything conclusively either, personally I think this blog entry looks rather fabricated.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      The Bible isn’t an all-purpose book meant to capture every bit of everyday knowledge of the people it served.

      Right. And, as I made clear to CJ, my point isn’t to say: There are no health guidelines; therefore the Bible isn’t divinely inspired. If God exists, he might have his own good reasons for not including it. But, since we’re not taking that as an assumption, I’m simply starting from the facts we have and seeing where they point.

      If having a chapter for costumes and nothing (beyond what was generally known at the time) for health takes you to a god, show me the reasoning, because I think it points in the other direction.

  • ctcss

    “If having a chapter for costumes and nothing for health takes you to a god, show me the reasoning, because I think it points in the other direction.”
    I don’t think that having such a chapter does take you to a god. Rather, I think the books are already presuming that God exists, and thus they included practices in the book that they considered to be important to their worship of God. (Are you really assuming the Jews did not think God existed?)
    I must be missing something here. You seem to be thinking that the Bible is some sort of ancient artifact with no known purpose and because you think it has no known purpose, you are trying to puzzle out the most logical purpose for it by examining the text and coming up with this lame excuse of a post. And if all you are really saying is that you think that God did not dictate the the book verbatim because it seems to have some human “fingerprints” on it, yawn. And if I may, I’d like to offer this correction to your response to CJ. “I’m simply pointing out what it does have time for ([religious ritual adornment meant for preparation to approach God]) and what it doesn’t ([everyday stuff that wasn't involved in worship rituals]).” Stated like that, I’d say that what was included in the book makes perfect sense for the people who recorded it’s text.
    Who, exactly, are you aiming this post at anyway?

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Are you really assuming the Jews did not think God existed?

      No, I’m saying that the evidence argues that God doesn’t exist.

      You seem to be thinking that the Bible is some sort of ancient artifact with no known purpose and because you think it has no known purpose, you are trying to puzzle out the most logical purpose for it by examining the text and coming up with this lame excuse of a post.

      Uh huh. It’s a shame you don’t care for the post. But I don’t see what infuriates you.

      We have the Bible as an artifact. We follow the evidence and decide whether it actually was inspired by the supernatural creator of the universe or if it’s just another human book written by people who thought that it was.

      Stated like that, I’d say that what was included in the book makes perfect sense for the people who recorded it’s text.

      Then I guess we’ve come to different conclusions. The perfect creator of the universe who made everything because of humans (that is, humans weren’t just an accident or byproduct) would’ve, it seems to me, taken pains to take care of his creation. Things that he knew we’d figure out anyway 2000 years later, he’d just tell us right off the bat. And, to you, the idea that God would take a chapter in his holy book to document matters that would make the lives of many of God’s creation happier is a crazy notion.

      OK, that clarifies our differences. I guess we just disagree.

    • Nox

      “And if all you are really saying is that you think that God did not dictate the the book verbatim because it seems to have some human “fingerprints” on it, yawn.”

      Why is that such a boring assertion? A lot of christians would find the concept of human interference in the bible to be inconceivable. Less than a month ago you were insisting the words in the bible were a separate category from the words of men.

  • avalon

    It’s true that God wasn’t obligated to hand out practical information in the bible. However, since it’s considered to be his message to us, you’d think he’d be interested in correcting any erroneous information. For example, “Hey guys, epilepsy isn’t caused by demons, Jesus got that wrong. Leave that story out. And that thing about changing lambs colors by putting sticks in the water, that’s just crazy. Skip that, too. Oh, and the plague that happened after David counted the people; that wasn’t my doing. And Satan didn’t do it either. And while we’re at it, the whole genealogy is wrong. Somebody might read that and think the earth is just a few thousand years old. So skip that too. Oh, yeah; the book of Revelation? That guy was tripping, so leave it out too. Let’s see, there’s also that story of Moses’s bronze serpent curing snakebite. Skip that one too. Tell you what, let’s just scrap the whole thing and start over ’cause you guys really screwed it up.”


  • moshe bar-joseph

    My understanding is that the fellow that wrote this commentary is not-familiar both with basic sanitation principles and for sure not with biblical texts. The Old Testament mentions disinfection of persons that came in contact with the dead by their washing in fresh water and a spray with a solution made of ashes of a red heifer. Ashes (alkali) are disinfectants because of their high pH.
    There are numerous other examples of health and ecology consciousness’ immersed in the bible. It takes a biologist to follow although from religious standpoint most of the earthy subjects had been elevated to spiritual concepts and beliefs. And that’s the beauty of this text that remains exciting for three millennia for milions of people with different historical background and education. A text describing a method of preparing a soap would had been outdatet in less than a decade and there would had been probably less than a dozen individuals that might had been interested in such an outdated formula, while the Bible continues to attract attention of millions.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Ritual disinfection? Or actual disinfection?

      My point stands: any health principles or superstitions in the Bible were known to the people of that place and time. There is nothing new here, like a simple recipe for soap or guidelines based on germ theory.

      I agree that the Bible is attractive. That it had the wisdom you would’ve expected from a God that cared about the happiness of his people is not one of the reasons why.

      • MB-J

        disinfection works against germs by incorporating the practice into ritual, including the red heifer it became even attractive!
        The bible can be read at various depths and interpreed in different ways, interestigly the generations of people that were exposed to biblical texts must had been rather advanced both healthwise and socially. There are socialistic , capitalistic concepts and a highly civilized sociological order embedded in the Bible at a rather harmonic way and most important it was tested in practice in one of the most difficult geographical areas of the world. Just like a biological entity it did not stay static but changed and adapted to many needs and needy,

        • Bob Seidensticker

          MBJ: Yes, the Old Testament culture was as advanced as its peers. But, since they had a magical book from the Creator of the Universe, wouldn’t we expect much more?

    • Kodie

      In order to be prophetic, the bible should read like the society had been visited by a time-traveler from the future, but not, like, Ken Ham or Ray Comfort. We should see this magical book have an immediate effect on a group of people who first had B.C. technology and shortly thereafter had iPhones or whatever. Let’s try a fun experiment. Take someone from the year 3000 travel back to year 1, introduce the folks to technology available at some year during the 1800s like a camera or a horseless carriage. I just think it would be funny now for it would seem that someone had invented time travel over 100 years ago, or the bible would seem to have made a very long jump, but still not even to the present, although having cars might have advanced technology even further than it is now, but photographic evidence of the resurrection would obviously be ‘shopped, since people started altering photos almost as soon as the technology was available to them.

      The little bits of trash they got in there about how it was at the time is really weak. How could it take so long for mankind to figure out how to make pants. I know germs and diseases and things would be important to stop from happening, but I’m not that impressed if they were all hyped on some new invention “soap” they just figured out. I would just think there is nothing too hot about it. Let’s say in an alternate universe, they invented soap a lot earlier. It’s conspicuous in its absence in a way that wouldn’t make the opposite point if it were included. We can look at the bible and say it’s not there, how could something so useful and ordinary be excluded from the whispers of god himself? They were still using ashes like they never heard of soap. If it were in there, you could not, by contrast, point to it and say that proves god inspired the book. I am not blown away by an account that would include the recipe for something where you could just assume that’s after soap had been invented by a regular human being, like it was. Bacon, on the other hand, has never been as popular as it is right now (maybe I’m wrong and it was equally popular in the 1950s), and the bible prohibits it, and it wasn’t too long ago they were feeding lobsters to inmates, now they are a rather costly delicacy. The bible does make specific mentions of things that one shouldn’t eat, that is largely disregarded, not so likely that the rule “doesn’t apply” to Christ-followers as just Jews, but that it’s delicious and there’s nothing wrong with eating it. So where is the soap, pants, ketchup, cameras, indoor plumbing, preservative technology like ice and the safe temperature to cook pork – clues pointing to a more knowledgeable influence. How does this book persist in the delusion that it’s relevant to modern life and not just a view of ancient living and the obstacles facing people with no cures for what’s really wrong with them?

      This bothers me because missionaries travel to places where everyone is starving and thirsty and bring them bibles to teach them what’s important. It seems to me that is the true feature of the bible – how much life really sucked and instead of passing on the knowledge to fix it, god had himself killed instead.

  • http://courses.temple.edu/dhe M.M. eisman

    No soap because it is not needed. OIL is the preferred cleansing agent of the Ancient Mediterranean and Ancient Near East. Plenty of references to oil in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Soap is primarily a northern European object.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Oil was used, but that custom doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to health.

  • John Kesler

    If Numbers 19 is anything but a purification ritual, then why is the “cleansing” after touching a dead body only to be done on the third and seventh days? Why wait for two days for possible infection to occur before “cleaning”? The red-heifer recipe of Numbers 19 is no more a cure for germs than the bronze-serpent-on-a-pole of Numbers 21 is a cure for snakebite.

  • MNb

    Oh, but the OT has something to say about hygiene. I am thinking of Leviticus 15.


    If you do a bit of googling you will learn that there are actually christians who obey those directions. Of course the women are even worse off than men. What else should they do, given that Jesus did not came to change one tittel or jota, but to fulfill those laws?
    What’s more, in the friendly and tolerant but quite christian village where I live, Moengo Suriname, at the edge of the jungle (my son insists that it’s in the middle), there are christians who obey those rules as well. They probably have learned them from Dutch and/or American missionaries. At least the latter, who are still around, don’t do anything against this habit.
    So my question to all enlightened, modern, liberal, progressive and loving christians who so eagerly defend their faith on these pages: when do you come overhere to tell the women that they don’t have to sleep on the floor during menstruation? If I tell them they won’t accept it – they know I am an atheist.
    Or do you suddenly not feel responsible for what your cobelievers believe or how they get indoctrinated by your fanatical compatriots? Doesn’t look too well on your own faith – perhaps you don’t take it too seriously after all. American fundies do and as a result women continue to sleep on the floor one week a month.

  • duane

    I find it amusing that atheists make the argument that God must not exist because He didn’t do things the way they would have. I say atheists don’t exist because they don’t do things the way I would. Makes as much sense.

    • Greg G

      I find it amusing when theists miss the point of an argument. When you use an argument like The Problem of Evil to show that their particular version of an omnipotent, benevolent God cannot exist, they will point out that it doesn’t prove that no god exists and go back to believing in the god just disproved, or redefine “omnipotent” to mean “not omnipotent” as Plantinga does.

      Bob’s argument here is not that God doesn’t exist, it is merely arguing that the Bible was written by fashion-conscious priests who cared more about looking impressive when the people brought them sacrifices than in relaying God-given information that might benefit the people in tangible ways.

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