And God Thundered from Sinai “Wash thine hands!”
While Senator Lindsey Graham is afraid ISIS will kill us all at home, I think many Americans are more concerned about the infectious threats of Ebola and Enterovirus D68.
In a conversation with some atheist friends who were expressing their disbelief in kinds of things they find in the Old Testament one person suggested that God could have given us a better book if he had told them “no slaves, and wash your hands 5 or 6 times a day.”
It is natural to read the Bible and imagine that an omniscient God could have done better for us. Jesus healed a lot of people, but couldn’t he have had a greater impact by teaching his disciples how to produce penicillin? Surely if God wanted to help people he might have commanded them to build latrines rather than going in the fields.
Our Religious Belief in Technology
As a culture we have a firm belief in technology. Many of us implicitly understand the world through a narrative of scientific and technological progress. No chapter could be as clear as that of the Black Death that spread from the East at the height of the Mongol empires to the West via infected fleas on rats. None of the monks, priests, shaman or holy men could stop the plague through all their spiritual efforts while today we know that it could have been controlled if they had controlled and exterminated the rat population that was using the trade routes during the Pax Mongolica.
Today we have an understanding of germs and viruses that equip us to battle contagion. The kind of God that appears useful to us is one that would facilitate our advancement in science and technology so that we could rid the world of diseases. While for centuries people sought spiritual means to achieve immortality today our hope is that somehow discover why we age and decay and maybe find a way to turn back the clock. You’ll find regular reports of scientists find this giving us hope that we can somehow live forever.
Technology Has Not Made Us Better People
Technology by its nature, however, is impersonal. The gun and the bullet care not about the morality with which they are employed, neither does the atom. Impersonal nature is blind and is employed by persons who have will, desire and intent.
While the Black Death was making its way along the trade routes of the great Mongol empires in 1345 Yanibeg the Kipchak khan of the Golden Horde at Sarai was besieging the Italian trading station at Kaffa on the Crimean Peninsula. During the siege the plague first ravaged the Mongol army with whom the rats had hitched a ride with their stores. As their army was being decimated by the plague they chose to employ an early form of biological warfare by using their trebuchets to throw the bodies of their dead slaves over the walls in an effort to infect the Kaffa’s garrison as well. The plague so ravaged the Mongol army that they were forced to withdraw, saving Italian ownership of the city yet the city too would fall victim to the plague.
As we gain in technology it doesn’t make our wars to cease, we instead try to either monopolize it for our own advantage against our adversary or it makes both sides more efficient at killing the other. Gaining in power is not like gaining in wisdom. It is in fact quite the opposite often. We use power to avoid growing in wisdom because power helps us avoid the hard choices, usually the self denial that wisdom will require.
Reading Leviticus as Technology
When we read Leviticus we seem to have an overwhelming bias to read it as modern people. Our assumption is that if God was going to give out information it should be “useful” information and the kinds of information we tend to find useful is the kind that gives us power.
Let’s imagine God had decided to instruct the Hebrews in sanitation by commanding them to wash their hands and build latrines. We might imagine that empowered with these new commands the would live longer, healthier lives and by virtue of their reduced rates of infant morality their population would increase at a faster rate than their neighbors and then they could dominate the region culturally and militarily. This, ironically was also the dream of the Hebrews. Win-win right?
We imagine Leviticus is a guide to outdated technology but I think we couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a natural reflect, one that is both the ancient and the modern world. In the book of Acts when Simon the Sorcerer encountered Peter he understood Peter as having better spiritual technology and he wanted in on the deal. He interprets Peter as franchising his spiritual power and so offers him money to get in on the ground floor. Peter rebukes him and calls him “a captive to sin”. Simon Peter is saying to Simon Magus despite the wealth, fame and power that he displayed is a captive to something that is condemning him. I think in many ways Simon Magus is a thoroughly modern man in terms of his approach to God.
“Clean and Unclean”
Leviticus 12 and 15 focus on genital discharges for men and women which are considered ceremonially unclean and the rituals performed for ceremonial purification. There are three elements used to purify: water, fire and blood. Blood is of course the ironic one because in some cases it is blood that makes the person unclean and it is a sacrifice of blood that purifies the person again.
Modern, Western people reading this find this all to be strange and even offensive. Most of the rest of history and many in the world would find little offensive or strange about it. It is for them simply how the world works.
Jonathan Haidt a social psychologist has noted that across cultures there are 5 moral tastebuds:
- Fairness/ Reciprocity
- Ingroup / Loyalty: only among humans can large groups join together.
We find the discussion in Leviticus about purity or sanctity to be strange, but it shouldn’t. Our purity/sanctity awareness continues to be embedded in our disgust reflex. Because of our faith in technology we have associated disgust with hygiene but Haidt regularly performs experiments on people that demonstrate this to be thin cover.
I have here in this container a sterilized cockroach. We bought some cockroaches from a laboratory supply company. The roaches were raised in a clean environment. But just to be certain, we sterilized the roaches again in an autoclave, which heats everything so hot that no germs can survive. I’m going to dip this cockroach into the juice, like this [using a tea strainer]. Now, would you take a sip?
Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (pp. 43-44). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Remember the elephant and the rider? The rider might say “I can’t find any biological hazard in the clean roach” but the elephant won’t budge.
Blood and Semen, not Feces and Urine
To demonstrate that this really isn’t about hygiene we should note that while “flows” of blood and semen cause one to become contagiously unclean, urine and feces do not. Again, if we imagined God’s goal was to improve the hygiene of Israel we’d see him mandating hand washing and building latrines.
All other bodily issues and excrescences were not tabooed, despite their impure status among Israel’s contemporaries, such as cut hair or nails in Persia and India and the newborn child as well as the mother in Greece and Egypt. Human feces were also not declared impure (despite Deut 23:10–12* [Eng. 9–11*]; Ezek 4:12*). The elimination of waste has nothing to do with death; on the contrary, it is essential to life. That is why it was decreed from early on that the act of excretion should be accompanied by this blessing: “Blessed is he who has formed a human in his wisdom and created in them many orifices and many cavities. It is fully known before your throne of glory that if one of them should be ruptured or one of them be blocked it would be impossible to survive and stand before you. [Blessed are you] who heals all flesh and performs wondrously.”3
Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (p. 123). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
What then is going on here?
Menstrual Blood in the Ancient World
All around the world sanctity and purity taboos and rules governed menstruation. Sometimes the rules gave women relief from labor that might have been welcome, at other times they were oppressive. This quote will give you a taste of how the Greek/Roman world felt.
“Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstruous blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning”
from Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 28, ch. 23, 78-80; book 7, ch. 65.
The meaning of verses in question is clear, but the language is inviting.
1 Then Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 “Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them, ‘Any man when a flow occurs from his body, his flow is unclean. 3 And this becomes his uncleanness in his flow: whether his body secretes his flow or his body blocks his flow, it is his uncleanness. 4 Any bed upon which the person who flows lies down becomes unclean, and any object upon which he sits becomes unclean. 5 And anyone who touches his bed must wash his garments and shall wash himself with water, and he shall be unclean until evening.
Leviticus 15:19–23 (NIV)
19 “ ‘When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. 20 “ ‘Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. 21 Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 22 Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, they will be unclean till evening.
What in English is usually translated “fluid discharge” is the Hebrew word for “flow” which is often used in the description of Canaan as a land “flowing” with milk and honey. This is obviously and opposite flow.
In Orthodox Jewish communities the purification water has to be “natural” and “flowing”.
To reenter a state of ritual purity, a person must bathe in natural, flowing water as a symbolic act of purification. This is why Orthodox Jewish communities today always include a mikveh—a specially designed bathing pool for ritual immersion that looks a bit like a whirlpool but is connected to some kind of reservoir of natural water.
Evans, Rachel Held (2012-10-30). A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (p. 151). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
We begin to get a sense of our water, blood and fire work in the symbolic world of Leviticus.
When a “flow” goes out of blood or semen life is flowing out, or death is a threat. The “flow” is countered by flowing water, that reverses death into life. The cessation of flow is a cause of celebration and re-connection with God.
Blood Belongs to God
We also see in these purification laws strict regulations with regard to food especially as pertains to blood. The law given to Israel is particularly strict with respect to blood. You may not consume blood. Why?
Why did Israel choose to stand alone in its absolute prohibition of blood? The reason for this opposition becomes clear when we recall that the blood prohibition is unveiled when the concession to eat meat is given for the first time (Gen 9:3–4*, quoted above). Humans have no right to put an animal to death except by God’s sanction. Blood is the essence of life and belongs not to humans but to God. Hence they must eschew the blood, drain it, and return it, as it were, to the Creator. Blood taboos may have existed elsewhere. But for the first time they are ethicized and extended to all animal life. The pagan fear of expropriating the food that is divine now becomes transmuted into Israel’s innovation—the fear of expropriating life that is divine. The abstention from blood is a constant reminder to humans that, though they may satisfy their appetite for food, they must curb their hunger for power. Because life is inviolable it may not be tampered with indiscriminately.
Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (p. 105). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Whether it is human blood or animal blood, the blood belongs to God and by virtue of the sacrifice with fire, the presence of God at the altar that we saw last week, the blood is returned to God who owns it.
Suddenly ironic irregularities begin to make sense. The blood of circumcision does not make the boy impure but make the pure because circumcision is a ritualized sacrifice of blood, of consecration to God.
God is the Owner of Life
What all of this arrives at is a conflict. We wish to have power so we can have power over life. We wish to live by the sword.
These issues are at play in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When Gandalf is telling Frodo the story of Gollum, Frodo expresses his dissatisfaction that Gandalf and the Elves didn’t kill Gollum.
‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
J.R.R. Tolkien (2009-04-17). The Lord of the Rings (p. 59). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
At the center of the conflict is our heart. We wish to be the owners of life and we wish for the power to make it subject to our will. What God deals with with Israel is exactly this. Do they wish to be the wielders of death or will they live beneath the giver of life?
Why don’t We Follow These Laws Still?
We take our cues from the Apostle Paul who used two standards. For the Jews he encouraged them to continue with the law of Moses for their culture. He himself saw to the circumcision of Timothy who was the son of a Jewish mother. To the Gentiles, however, he told them to not pursue the Levitical law. Why not? Because it wasn’t for them, they had access to purification apart from the water, blood and fire of the law. They had purification from Jesus.
Mark 5:24–34 (NIV)
24 So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. 30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Ancient peoples from many cultures would have gotten the point of this story. This woman’s “flow” never stopped and it kept her isolated from her community. She was perpetually unclean. According to Leviticus her unclean status was contagious. Not only was she unclean, but she made her furniture unclean, her dishes unclean, etc.
Jesus now is greater than the flowing water, greater than the blood, greater than the fire of the sacrifice. Even a touch, not even intended by Jesus, was sufficient to reverse the contagion and make her clean not just ceremonially, but with respect to her life.
Faith in the Giver of Life
What was her contribution to this? Her faith. In her desperation she sought him, even to simply touch his garment. So powerful did she hope he would be that just this touch would not contaminate him, but make her whole.
Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy tries to give us a sense of who Jesus is.
At the literally mundane level, Jesus knew how to transform the molecular structure of water to make it wine. That knowledge also allowed him to take a few pieces of bread and some little fish and feed thousands of people. He could create matter from the energy he knew how to access from “the heavens,” right where he was.
It cannot be surprising that the feeding of the thousands led the crowds to try to force him to be their king. Surely one who could play on the energy/ matter equation like that could do anything. Turn gravel into gold and pay off the national debt! Do you think he could get elected president or prime minister today?
He knew how to transform the tissues of the human body from sickness to health and from death to life. He knew how to suspend gravity, interrupt weather patterns, and eliminate unfruitful trees without saw or ax. He only needed a word. Surely he must be amused at what Nobel prizes are awarded for today.
Death was not something others imposed on him. He explained to his followers in the moment of crisis that he could at any time call for 72,000 angels to do whatever he wanted. A mid-sized angel or two would surely have been enough to take care of those who thought they were capturing and killing him. He plainly said, “Nobody takes my life! I give it up by choice. I am in position to lay it down, and I am in position to resume it. My father and I have worked all this out” (John 10: 18).
Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (pp. 94-96). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If Leviticus intends not to give us power but to teach us that God is the owner of life, then Jesus is point at which we come into contact with the source of life.
If we had our druthers we would de-personalize Jesus and turn him into technology, so that we could employ him in our agendas which usually boil down to our conflicts and wars against each other. Jesus will not, cannot be so reduced. He stands as Lord of life. He makes the unclean clean. He makes the dead alive. He remakes the universe in the renewed flesh of his resurrected body.
We long for tips like hand washing and a better toilet. He invites us into life itself.