Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness (Leviticus 11-17)

King David, in one of his less militant psalms, asks the question:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
The people of Israel have a precarious vocation. These crude grimy former-slaves are to live their day to day lives – of work, food, sex, childbirth, family and death – all within a stones throw of the burning presence of God himself. His creative vision has formed the cosmos; his power has crushed the mightiest of empires; his fury against imperfection has annihilated entire cities; his brightness and splendor alone has struck men dead. This is a disaster waiting to happen. No wonder the exasperated Lord wanted to scrap the whole idea!

Back when they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites could be content to live casual lives, but no longer. The Lord is clear that, though they may be used to rolling in the mud, he is not about to have them tracking their filth in his house. Leviticus is almost wholly concerned with regulating, in meticulous minutia, what having clean hands and pure hearts is to looks like for the people of Israel (on pain of death, of course).

And boy does it change everything. When you’re living next door to the Lord, you can’t eat the sort of thing the other nations eat – only clean animals. People need to take care not to touch dead carcasses, and if they have to, to stay away from public places afterwards. Disease is taken seriously – if you have an infectious skin disease, you need to be quarantined. Clothes need to be clean, houses with some sort of infestation must be cleansed or demolished. Childbirth and anything else which might contaminate someone with bodily fluids require strict cleansing rituals and precautions before a person can go near the sanctuary. Even contaminated pots and pans are taken very seriously.

The point of all this couldn’t be clearer:
For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.
It amazes me the assumed connection between what we might call biological or physical infection and spiritual uncleanness. In the Mosaic law, they are one and the same. Both make you unfit for the presence of God. Both can lead to your ruin and death. And both require purification and atonement before you can expect to be clean again.

What can wash away all this filth? In minor cases, simple water will do, but, if Leviticus is to be believed, it is the blood – aka, the life or spirit – of a clean animal that really does the trick. I confess this is not the first thing I would have thought of, and the mechanics of it still mystify me. Just how is this supposed to work?

I suppose it must be kind of like water. If you are dirty, and you shower off with clean water, the water will carry the dirt down the drain (leaving your body clean). Dirty water can’t do this, because anything it would take away would just be replaced with more grime. The water must be clean to start out with, and you only end up clean by the clean water itself getting dirty.

So with deeper muck and sin. It doesn’t just go away by itself. Something clean needs to be willing to get dirty to clean something else.

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