Ebola and the Day of Atonement
I can’t help but think about Ebola when I read Leviticus 16. Aaron, after the death of his sons, must follow exacting steps with respect to his clothing and procedures so as to not be killed by God. This after the report that a second nurse who cared for a man who brought Ebola to Texas from Liberia. From the CDC to news “experts” the liturgy is “there must have been a procedural lapse.” Both Aaron, and the Ebola nurses MUST perform everything exactly right or else they, like Aaron’s sons, like health care workers, are subject to death.
For many of us this raises so many questions. Is God dangerous like Ebola?
Many of us may be skeptical that all of the care Aaron needed to take was just superstitious or stories told to make people afraid. It is almost worse to imagine, however, that they might be true. What if God IS that dangerous, as dangerous as Ebola, and what if God would “break out” against a procedural problem as he did in the case of Aaron’s sons?
As we’ve been working through the book of Leviticus we’ve seen again and again this system of clean, unclean, holy and common, priests and tabernacle are all designed to facilitate the possibility of a holy God living in the midst of an unrighteous people. How can the two live together in covenant stability?
We’ve seen that the main vehicles for the transformation of death to live have been water, blood and fire. Water is used to wash and purify. Blood both defiles and cleanses in the form of sacrifice, and fire, being the physical, temporal manifestation of God at the altar consumes the sin embodied in the sacrifice where God turns death into life. Sacrifices run throughout the year as the people process their sin and the relationship is maintained.
If we think about the tabernacle as a death-to-life factory once a year the machinery itself needs to be maintained. The thinking is that over the course of a year contamination continues to collect on the tabernacle, the altar, even the ark in the Holy of Holies and the High Priest must cleanse it all and atone for the accumulated sin that has not been taken care of along the way. This was the Day of Atonement in Leviticus. It was prompted in the first instance by the contamination effected by Aaron’s sons and their introduction of the strange fire.
Modern Skepticism about Sin
The thinking of Leviticus on this score simply seems alien to most modern people and we are deeply skeptical about it. We tend to dismiss it as superstition, something like walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror or stepping on a crack.
What’s more we find this offensive. Are we so “dirty” and “contaminated” before this God that we spoil his temple just be proximity? (Before we answer that we might consider how we feel if we moved into an exclusive neighborhood only to discover a welfare motel behind the fence.)
We might explain it away as a “primitive”, meaning pre-scientific, attempt to try to gain control of their universe by establishing ritual to preserve life and manage the gods.
We have a great deal of faith in the scientific method in these things and in an implicit way create all sorts of tests to see “what works”. Does my life go better if I go to church than if I sleep in? If I give money to the church does God give me more in return? Do people who are prayed for get better more often than people who don’t? Surely all of this can be tested and we can find answers to it!
We also have a sense for what we can understand and believe that with our scientific tools we can control the things that threaten us.
Some of this sense of superiority and control is being shaken recently with Ebola and even the lowly bed bug that is making a return. In the last 50 years it seems we have a sense of superiority and security that ancient threats have been corralled by our modern scientific means. When these things slip, seriously with Ebola or in more of a nuisance way with bed bugs we start to open our minds to practical solutions or even fears. Is the government telling us the truth? Can you catch Ebola on an airplane? What don’t they want us to know?
Threats that we recognize in our scientific culture, like a virus we can’t see without an electron microscope, or the tiny eggs of bugs that feed on us in the middle of the night, seem real and sober us up. We don’t feel that “sin” is a threat to us in any way similar to these threats partly because we don’t conceive of “sin” as an agent like a bed bug or a virus. Does “sin” exist? Can a modern person think this way?
Sin and the Ick Factor
Time and again in the culture war I hear religious people exclaim “what every happened to SIN!”
It’s a valid question.
It may not be as effective as an exclamation.
The point of the refrain is usually to shame and mobilize those who already or still have an emotional reaction to “sin” in their lives as understood by religious communities. It isn’t hard for us to realize that our emotional sensitivities with respect to “sins” have been shaped by lots of factors like upbringing, culture, tradition, religion, etc..
In 1997 Leon Kass wrote an article in the New Republic asserting that mechanism of disgust should be recognized and respected as an expression of evolutionary wisdom (applied to human cloning) to inform us of what generations have discovered is not good for us. This has become known as the wisdom of repugnance. The idea has been criticized as an appeal to emotionalism and some assert should be repudiated because it has been used at various times to support racism, sexism, antisemitism and homophobia. In the summer of 2013 this became an Internet controversy when Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article entitled “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage'”
Loss of “the ick factor” raises in some the fear of unleashing an “anything goes” ethic on the world. This fear has been fueled by recent articles about criticizing taboos on marriage between brother and sister and son and step-mother or a lesbian throuple.
The Ick-Factor and Rejecting the Bible
While many reject “the ick-factor” as a valid rationale for supporting traditional taboos many others who find the Bible regressive and offensive basically employ something similar to the ick-factor in their justification. Who would advocate a widow marrying her brother-in-law in order to keep her dead husband’s family line in tact? Why would God order the execution of people for crimes we consider incidental or irrational? To read the protests of some of the new atheists “ick” seems tame. Many of the objections to the Bible are expressed as emotional repulsion to strange and seemingly “irrational” Levitical laws against all sorts of things.
The argument is that Leviticus is essentially arbitrary as this post noting former Presidential Candidate-Former Governer- Former Baptist Minister- Current TV News personality Mike Huckabee’s take on homosexuality.
But the ick factor is gone—maybe not for ordinary people, but for their leaders. Even in front of an audience of evangelicals, a Republican politician can’t cast aspersions on gay people, at least not directly (after all, everything’s being recorded). But if you’re going to cite the Old Testament as the basis for your beliefs, that’s exactly what you’re doing, since those passages call same-sex relations an “abomination.” On the other hand, there will come a day when most Christians put as much stock in the verse saying that homosexuality is an “abomination” as they do in the nearby passage saying that eating shellfish is also an “abomination.”
Morality is about Bringing Life and Resisting Death
While once side finds breaking taboos “icky”, the other finds this ancient text morally reprehensible. The left scorns the right for being selective in their application: yes to shell fish, not to sexual minorities. The right scorns the left for letting “anything go”. Both charge the other with “moral relativism” but both would be wrong. Neither are relativists. (here Damon Linker basically reiterates the points made by Jonathan Haidt that I’ve referred to several times in this series.)
Neither side, however has given up on the idea of the “moral”. Moral is NOT a cultural convention. To assert that something is MORAL is to assert that it is an ontological violation of the fabric of reality and human existence. SOMETHING has been broken or violated by this act or behavior and there will be inevitable consequences in life for it. While many may see the word “sin” as antiquated if you employ the concept of “moral”, as both sides strongly wish to do you are asserting that there is a right and a wrong and these things matter.
Both sides assert that their path of morality brings life, and the resistance or refusal of their path brings death. In that way both sides in fact echo this assumptions of the Levitical system. As we’ve seen week after week the laws and rituals of the Levitical system are not some primitive health code, in the way that we scientifically define “health” but in fact is an entire system designed to understand “sin” in relationship with death and God’s mission to overcome death and bring life to his people. The Apostle Paul understood the Old Testament mission and concept perfectly when he said “the wages of sin is death”. By “wages” he meant what sin pays out. Even my atheist friends imagine that immorality brings “death” to culture, civilization and human flourishing while “morality” brings life, fulfillment and flourishing.
Sin as Weight
Gary Anderson in his book Sin, A History noted that throughout the history that the Bible covers the metaphors that illuminate the concept of sin changed.
- sin as weight or burden
- sin as stain or mark
- sin as debt
On the day of Atonement two goats are selected, one will become a sacrifice and the other will “bear” the sin of the people out of the camp. The goat becomes a Levitical waste-management system.
Leviticus 16:6–10 (NRSV)
6 Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
Some contemporary translations will avoid “Azazel” basically because scholars don’t quite know what to do with it. Does it mean a demon or the devil? Is it another word for wilderness?
Whether it is evil or chaos personified or not the meaning of it seems to be in line with the rest of the Old Testament imagery which is that sin and chaos are connected. In a sense the goat takes the sin/chaos out of the camp and returns it to the wilderness, the metaphorical sea of chaos where life is uncertain and difficult to return to from where it came and to where it belongs. God consumes the one goat on the altar, the other is sent out so the tabernacle can be purified and set right for another year of evil, sin, chaos disposal, elimination and transformation by the sacrificial system.
Sin as Weight and Liberation
If the ancients conceived of sin as weight (see Cain’s complaint against the judgment of God on him for killing his brother), contemporaries too I think would consider sin, whether or not they want to use that word as a burden and “salvation” as liberation.
If you look at how moderns view traditional expressions of religious obligations on their sex lives, on their financial lives, on the use of their time “burden” is a word that won’t be far off. Modern people want to be free from these kinds of oppressive, traditional restraints in order to pursue their own lives.
The same word “to bear” ironically in Hebrew also works the other way. If sin is a burden, lifting of sin also requires work. To bear under. Again, we see this on both sides of the culture war.
Traditionalists would “bear” life in a bad marriage, “bear” the self-denial of celibacy if they have a same sex orientation for religious reasons. They would “bear” avoiding work or shopping on certain days of the weak. They would “bear” sacrificing money or job opportunities in order to stay faithful to their religious tradition or religious community.
Similarly the cultural left admonishes its faithful to “bear” sacrifices for the systems that they see as being essential for life.
We find, however, other constraints and burdens being placed by modern moral systems.
- Don’t eat meat because modern animal farming is cruel and destructive to the world
- Don’t buy gadgets that come from Chinese manufacturers where workers live in near slave situations
- Don’t buy coffee or other tropical goods that have not been certified to be rain forest friendly (follow the frog).
- Keep your carbon footprint small by avoiding cars and especially jets (unless you have an “enlightened” “self-actualized” reason for doing it)
- Don’t have judgmental thoughts or biases against anyone (unless they deserve it and holding them moves forward the global abolition of their biases)
The reasons people are “spiritual but not religious” is that the regressive systems of religion and encrusted with patriarchy, sexism, homophobia and all sorts of other biases that destroy “life” as we have come to value it, yet we find ourselves assuming new systems with burdens to bear for the good of the planet and humanity.
Summing Up A Few Things
- We begin by seeing the Levitical system as strange, inaccessible, bizarre for modern people to grasp. We have our own “ick factor” when it comes to the Leviticus law even though we reject “ick factor” arguments for things in our context.
- We discover, however, that we share a deep assumption with Leviticus, that moral living brings life and violating morality or a moral code brings death. Sin is a burden and we wish people to be free of this burden, to be liberated so that that they may experience “life”, not just in terms of longevity but in terms of quality or essence of life in the various ways it gets defined.
- We are not even in disagreement that there should be moral norms and burdens that guide society and that these moral norms should be enforced by sanctions. There is great disagreement of course on what those moral norms should be and what the sanctions should be.
- The way that modern people, on both sides of the culture war are most alienated from the Leviticus text would be the means by which “sin” is disposed of and death is turned to life. While we want nurses to be far more cautious in suiting up to treat Ebola victims, while we want hazmat teams to be more scrupulous in devoting the furnishings of the apartments of Ebola victims to the flames, while we want to keep Ebola victims as far outside the “camp” as possible to protect ourselves, the entire Levitical system sounds like some strange, superstitious theater that accomplishes nothing.
- The last agreement is less obvious. In our rejection of the Levitical death-to-life factory system we also affirm the prevailing notion on both sides of the culture war debate that ultimately rescuing the world is up to people. Conservatives may willingly bear the “burden” of denying themselves by embracing traditional forms of self-denial. Progressives may willingly bear the “burden” of their forms of self-denial for the good of the planet. While the two sides disagree on their lists of “burdens” both sides agree that sacrifices must be made.
While the two sides in the culture war may differ on much, they both agree that fundamentally the salvation of the world is up to people, whether that be by conforming to traditional norms or to new modern, secular ones. In the end, it’s up to us!
Jesus as Tabernacle/Temple Replacement
In the past two weeks we saw how Jesus makes the woman, unclean by her flow, clean. We saw how Jesus touched the leper, not making Jesus unclean but making the leper whole. If Leviticus created a system by which death was turned to life by means of the tabernacle/temple factory system, Jesus embodies the purpose of that system and becomes its replacement. This is why New Testament authors see Leviticus as a pre-echo of Jesus. It is the shadow of what is to come. I prefer to think of it as the reflected light of the brilliance that is moving towards it in history.
Jesus’ relationship to the temple becomes a primary point of many of the stories of Jesus when he comes into Jerusalem
- Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is a performance parable of the destruction of the temple
- Jesus’ clearing out the money changes is a performance parable of the destruction of the temple
- The accusation against Jesus was that he himself said he would destroy the temple and raise it in three days, thus again embodying the temple personally.
Throughout the New Testament the theme of Jesus and the church as temple replacement gets echoed over and over again, whether or not the writing of the books predated the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD or not.
When the temple was destroyed in 70AD you can see in Judaism as mentioned initially that the Day of Atonement required a transformation. It would not longer be the day in which the temple itself would be cleaned of the accumulated detritus sin, like dead skin cells that flake off of us only to be noticed as the dust accumulates, but would become a day for closing the books on our statue of limitations of repentance.
What happens with Jesus, and then the church, differs markedly. Jesus in his life possessed a power to cleanse that the temple could not offer. Jesus in his death becomes a sacrifice for sin so permanent and ultimate that Christians believed made the temple sacrifices obsolete. Jesus in his resurrection becomes the ultimate embodiment of the power of the world to wield death being overturned into a life that cannot decay or be corrupted.
This is why Jesus’ coming is considered “good news”. Israel failed in its ability to operate the law/temple death-to-life machinery. Israel could not save herself by using the tools God gave her. We might ask whether secular humanity can save itself using the tools it has developed?
How Do You Live In This New Freedom?
The Apostles break into the long conversation of Israel with “good news”. The old “death-to-life” factory has been eclipsed by one far more powerful than that tent or temple ever were. The woman with the issue of blood, the “lepers”, the religiously and politically wobbly of occupied Israel have seen a great light. This Jesus comes with the power to make clean the frightened woman who dared to try to touch him. This Jesus makes whole the man with the defiling skin disease by touching him. This Jesus dies publicly in shame and humiliation and breaks the power of death itself. The tabernacle and the temple are replaced by the risen Christ.
Like children who are told “you no longer have to go to school each day”, or workers who are told “you are retired from your labor”, believers in Jesus are freed from the burden of the “death-to-life” factory. This is why Paul in the book of Galatians scolds the Gentile Christians for imagining they need to go back to work that machine. If you work that machine you deny the revelation of the power of the one who made that machine obsolete.
The children finished with school and the workers finished with the factory then ask “how then shall we live?!” Freedom itself seems a burden if the tasks are complete!
The answer the Bible gives is that you go back to the original plan, the one that was laid down at the beginning of the world. Your time in the factory was a temporary phase compared to the longer path of joy that you were made for. It is like the fight against Ebola that we all hope and anticipate will not be forever. Jesus’ power banishes Ebola.
We look back to the job we were given in the Garden of Eden, that of culture makers. We look to the task we were given in Isaiah 5, workers of the vineyard sent to develop the grapes and to develop the wine. If our free rebellion brought the catastrophe of death, our free embrace of the desire of the owner of the vineyard brings joy and flourishing. Sin brought death. Life has been given so how we live in alignment with that life.
The structure of the Heidelberg Catechism not only highlights the temporal flow of history:
- Lost joy in rebellion created the misery we were bound to
- Deliverance in the brilliance of Jesus frees us from bondage to the law and the factory
- Gratitude expressed in free embrace of our original design and mission leads us further up and further in.