No Stepping Stool for Yahweh
Imagine this conversation between two people at a campsite, "Hey! Go poop way over there where I can't see it, and then cover it up." "Why do I need to do that?" says the other person. "Because I'm walking here!" Wouldn't it be obvious that the person was worried about stepping in the poop? What other reason would there be?
Like all ancient Near Eastern peoples, the Israelites believed Yahweh possessed a physical (though sometimes invisible) body and that he physically walked in the midst of the Israelite community. Hence, the Bible supplies readers with detailed physical descriptions of Yahweh's feet, legs, genitals(!), back and torso, arms, hands, eyes, ears, hair, and head. Yahweh also performs physical functions, such as breathing, smelling, tasting, sitting, talking, weeping, laughing, sleeping, wearing clothes, and even throwing feces at people. (Yep! That's a real thing in the Bible.)
As a result, Yahweh risked stepping in human excrement when walking next to people, something he definitely didn't want to do, which is why he required the Israelites to bury their sh*t outside of the camp. Deuteronomy 23:12–14 literally states:
12) And a station you shall have at the outside of the camp, and you shall go out there [to drop a deuce].
13) And a tent peg [i.e. shovel] you shall have with your equipment, and it shall be, when you are sitting [outside the camp to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and turn back, and cover up your excrement.
14) Because Yahweh, your God, walks in the middle of your camp to deliver you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp will be consecrated, and he [Yahweh] does not want to see anything filthy and disgusting (i.e., your naked ass and genitals) and have to turn around [to walk a different direction].
In other words, defecation must take place outside the camp because it is objectionable for Yahweh to see it and potentially step in it! Indeed, according to the Qumran War Scroll, the latrine was to be 2,000 cubits (approx. 3,000 feet) away from the camp.
It is simply a fact of history that the ancient Israelites first conceived of Yahweh the same way that all Canaanites viewed their gods: as embodied, human-like physical beings. Indeed, Yahweh was believed to be physically present in the Israelite military camp above the Ark as Yahweh himself took the form of Israel’s “myriads of thousands” of foot soldiers (Num. 10:36). Hence, just a few verses before God tells the Israelites to bury their poop, the Hebrew Bible says that Yahweh "marches with you to do battle for you" (Deut. 20:4). Then, of course, there's the famous passage from Genesis 3:8: "And they heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden in the cool of the day." If Yahweh were not a physical being literally walking in the garden, then Adam and Eve would not have been able to hear him stomping around ... and Yahweh wouldn't have needed to ask where the two humans were hiding (v.9). These types of verses are simply the remnant of a time when Israel thought Yahweh was both limited and localized to just certain regional territories.
This is also why the Israelites routinely made graven images of Yahweh and other deities.
It wasn't until the influence of Hellenistic, Greco-Roman philosophy that Yahweh became a disembodied, super-transcendent being with no physical or human-like features. After the influence of Greek allegorical hermeneutics, the Bible's physical descriptions of Yahweh were reinterpreted as metaphor and symbolism to fit the emerging Second Temple theology.
There are some who still object that Deuteronomy 23 indicates Yahweh was worried about stepping in poop ... despite the fact that the verse literally says, "cover up your excrement because Yahweh, your god, walks in the middle of your camp." Why mention Yahweh walking at all if he wasn't concerned about stepping in feces? For many believers, it is hard for them to conceive of God as anything but a transcendent spirit entity. But if that were the case, then why would Yahweh tell them to bury their poop outside of the camp where he wouldn't have to look at it? Think about it...
As a spirit, Yahweh would be present throughout the land (and is supposedly omnipresent, according to later theology), so what difference would it make to defecate outside the camp? He would still have seen it! The answer is obvious: Yahweh literally "walks" (Heb. מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ׀; Gr. ἐνπεριπατεῖ) in their physical presence (קֶ֣רֶב). It literally says he walks! The text suggests that Yahweh is a localized deity traveling alongside the Israelites, and he can only see and experience what's happening within the camp. Hence, the humans needed to go where Yahweh couldn't see them and then bury their excrement so Yahweh wouldn't step in it.
Moreover, if Yahweh was not concerned with physically stepping in poop, then why would he require such an absurd law in the first place? Why not allow them to cover up the excrement within the camp boundaries? The Torah nowhere describes human excrement as impure or sinful, so it shouldn't be banished from the campsite. Or why couldn't the Israelites take a dump outside the encampment without covering it up ... if it posed no physical threat to Yahweh's feet?
Some will try to argue that God (or the Israelites) was worried about germs and the spread of disease. But does that really make any sense considering germs hadn't been discovered yet (and diseases were thought to be spread by Yahweh himself as punishment for sin)? Indeed, if you’re going to bury your poop, it’s important that you’re in an environment where it will decompose so as not to contaminate the water and vegetation (something a deity like Yahweh should know). In the desert, there’s very little water, so buried excrement tends to break down really slowly, if at all (also something Yahweh should have known).
Note that if Yahweh were really concerned about germs and contamination, he would have also instructed the Israelites to poop about 200 feet away from any water source, on an elevated spot where water doesn’t normally travel during a rainstorm, and on a place that gets maximum sunlight to aid in its decomposition. But Yahweh doesn't do that. He simply wants it away from him! Why would that be unless he was worried about stepping in it? In the desert, Yahweh should have told the Israelites to look for an area devoid of visible previous water flow (like dry sandy washes that flood during rainstorms) with lots of sun exposure (like south-facing slopes and ridge tops). Yahweh should have also told them to bury the excrement only a few inches deep so the sun's heat would eventually kill the poop's pathogens. But neither Yahweh nor the Israelites knew anything about this. All Yahweh says to do is get it away from the area where he walks. There's no mention of any other reason except that Yahweh is walking around and doesn't want to see something gross. The reason for such a lax (and odd) commandment wasn't because they were worried about contamination or disease. Yahweh just didn't want to step in someone else's sh*t!
To learn more about Yahweh's corporeal, masculine, human-shaped body, we highly recommend the following book: