Monday, January 22, 2007

Puritanical Environmentalism (Leviticus 18-22)

Here we come to an extended section of Leviticus on holiness, including what is perhaps its most contentious passage in contemporary culture:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
This is just one in a huge list of sexual offenses, nearly all punishable by death. Most involve intercourse with a close relative, with a few other things like sex with animals and child sacrifice to Moloch thrown in for comprehensiveness. I had to smile at the prohibition of taking both a woman and her sister as your wife – no more Rachel and Leah combos for Israel. And what’s this about sex with a menstruating woman warranting death or exile? I thought back in chapter 15 it just made you unclean for a week.

If the laws so far seemed severe, they get even more intense for the priests. The most shocking thing for me was the proscription of death by fire for any priest’s daughter who became a prostitute.

Because of our current debates over sexuality, we can easily miss the forest for the trees. What is the bigger picture here? Why did God forbid the Israelites to do things as consenting adults which seemed perfectly natural to many of the surrounding nations? Leviticus gives a direct, if puzzling, answer:
By all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
This connection makes less than no sense to the individualistic assumptions of our culture, and even I have trouble wrapping my head around it. The most private sins are forbidden because they apparently pollute the land itself. Echoes of Genesis are booming. First we have God cursing the ground because of man’s disobedience. Then the ground is stained with the blood of Abel, crying out to God. The Lord goes to investigate the evil of Sodom, tipped off by an outcry presumably from the land. And sure enough, against the backdrop of vomiting sulfur are scenes of homosexual gang rape and incest.

The Lord goes on to outline how to live in the land he is preparing for them. Harvest your crops with a thought for the poor; be truthful; pay fair wages; be considerate to those with handicaps; judge justly; love your neighbor as yourself. All this is side by side with instructions about planting seed, breeding cattle, and picking fruit. They are indeed called to live in harmony with nature – and this is inseparable from harmony with their fellow man.

The Lord sums things up like this:
You shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
Herein lies the point to all this severity. The people of Israel are called to be God’s own platform for engaging the world. The nation is to the world what the priests are to the nation. A priest cannot stand before God while his daughter is engaging in cult prostitution for demons. The Israelites cannot be God’s holy nation if they make themselves so loathsome that the land spits them out like the former tenants. They are the light of the world, and need to shine spotless. The redemption of everything else - man and animal, rock and tree - depends on it.


How does this then apply to us as Christians? We may not have the same harsh penalties as Leviticus, but we're still called to be holy.

One passage that comes to mind, peripherally related to this at best, is in John 17:

"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me."

Of course to answer that question we'd need to jump ahead to Pentecost and ask a few other questions:

- who are the people of God - the heirs of his promise to bless the nations?
- how are his people made clean?
- what is God's holy land he has promised to his expanded people for their inheritance?
- after what pattern is the rule of God and his people exercised in the world?

WFO, your questions are intriguing ones, to which I'm going to give half-serious answers:

- who are the people of God - the heirs of his promise to bless the nations?

Easy. The Church. Now who is in the Church and who isn't?

- how are his people made clean?

"by the blood of the Lamb"--but is that literal or figurative or both?

- what is God's holy land he has promised to his expanded people for their inheritance?

I want to say "the Earth" but, perhaps, "the New Jerusalem"?

- after what pattern is the rule of God and his people exercised in the world?

Now that's the clincher. I, of course, say the pattern of bishop-->priest-->laity, with the Bishop of Rome as a primus inter pares. What say you?

Hehe - well, you got all right but the last one. My answers would be:

- the church
- the blood of the lamb
- the entire world
- the cross

Anyway, I agree that the call to holiness is just as relevant to the church today as it was to the people of Israel after the Exodus. But a lot has changed as well.

We are made holy by one whose blood cleanses all sins once and for all, not just the more minor ones. When he touched the unclean, they became clean (not the other way around) and the same is true with those who follow in his footsteps. The law of God is now written on the hearts of those who have his Holy Spirit. And his people seek to follow in the pattern of Christ - being for the world what he was to Israel. We are given God's authority, but are to exercise it by self-sacrifice. We are called to bear their sin, to be willing to die for them, to cleanse them and call them into God's family.

What this means is that it just won't do for the church to be separate and holy from the world, as Israel was. We have an utterly transformed vocation. We are still to be holy, but it is a holiness that seeks now to touch the unclean and sanctify it.

Heh. I don't think our answers to the last question are mutually exclusive. After all, one of the Pope's titles is Servus Servorum Dei, "Servant of the Servants of God." That says a lot about the ideal of cruciform, servant leadership, although admittedly it's hard in practice.

I guess my biggest concern with the rest of your comment is the vagueness of "we": it does not distinguish between the priesthood of all believers, which despite what Baptists might think, is also a Catholic doctrine, and the ministerial priesthood, meant to serve the people of God. Hierarchy is inevitable in human society, because we all have different gifts and talents.

Of course I'm not trying to say that a cruciform pattern and hierarchical church government are mutually exclusive. It's just that the specific structures of church government weren't what I was getting at with the question. My point is that any church (high or low) that makes any claim to legitimacy must, in its worship, praxis, mission, etc, seek to emulate Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The "we" above is simply the church as a whole - though of course individually we have different roles and responsibilities. Is there any statement I made that applies only to the clergy?


I'm not sure you addressed this in another post or not (you got so many), but why do you call it "Puritanical ENVIRONMENTALISM"? I get that it's "Puritanical", but I don't see how it's "Environmental"


The environmental part comes from the fact that holiness is mandated for the sake of the land. Do not tolerate prostitution, because the land itself will wretch by being filled with prostitution, and vomit you out.

It's easy for us to see the constant destruction and paving of native flora and the pollution of the air as being a scourge on the land. It wouldn't be a stretch for those of us who are more spiritually aware to feel the land we live in as retching and groaning from our abuse. My observation is that Leviticus, while most certainly affirming our modern environmental concerns (though with different motivations - more on this later), also sees a connection between our sexual cleanliness and justice and the overall pollution of the land we are privileged to inhabit.

Hmmm, that's interesting. The immediate parallels I see are the island communities where they must sacrifice (animals, people) to keep the volcano, or the Meso-Indian rain dances.

But as well, I think there is a connection between that and the ancient Near Eastern idea that land was connected to a particular god. That, of course, led to polytheism being that there was a lot of land, therefore there must be a lot of gods.

To my knowledge, the Bible conforms to this idea until the writings of the Diaspora and the Bablyonian captivity.

The Exodus doesn't because in it, God wants to get God's people back to God's land.

To my knowledge, the Bible conforms to this idea until the writings of the Diaspora and the Bablyonian captivity.

Well, so far I haven't gotten to those. I will say that Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (by all accounts the earliest of the bunch) seem quite clear that God is the single creator of the world, that he is sovereign over all lands, that he has chosen the people of Israel with the purpose of bringing blessing to all the nations. You can, I suppose, argue that this was all later bits added on, but this is circular argumentation to the extreme. The narrative as a whole has a cohesive unity that just doesn't fit otherwise. Good stories are written as such.

Also, gods were not, strictly speaking, tied only to land. They were tied into something specific, but it could be anything. Neptune was the god of the Sea - Zeus of the storm-cloud. Aphrodite of love, Athena and Ares of war, and Apollo the archer of the sun.

Of course there was always the temptation to see the god of Israel in the same sense, but this is a temptation that the leaders insist on resisting on every turn.

To my knowledge, even those who had creation myths (Greeks, Babylonians, Egyptians), if you look to the participation of the gods in those myths, typically one god has more of a role in the creation than the others.

But still, the worship and power of the god was tied to a particular land AFTERWARDS. I think there were a lot temples to Zeus, Apollo, Osiris, but only in a perspective area. It was very uncommon to worship that particular god outside of the geographic range of the god, even if they believe that the same god created the outside ranges.

It seems odd to me, but I imagine that has a lot to do with my 21st century perspective.

Another parallel that came to mind:

The emphasis that the LAND will reject them suggests that the ancient Israelite religion was focused on blessings in this life, and not the Afterlife. Rather, I've seen a lot of commentators quite convincingly suggest that the ancient Israelites did not believe in an Afterlife.

The puritanical rules based on land acceptance seems to corroborate that.

Thought I'd come on over for a bit ...
Our pietistic (not siimply Puritanical) attitudes toward sex and the rest of life show us to be much, much different than so many other societies through history.
And we do tend to see these things through Liberal glasses instead of through the standards that are part of Revelation -- which we're supposed to accept as trasncending us. But we don't. Why we must make everything about sexuality is a disturbing part of our Liberal age.
On that sex during the period issue ... let's not forget that the science we have today about blood-borne pathogens is a new science. But the practical practices to prevent disease are ages old.


You'll have to forgive me if I don't quite understand your first two paragraphs. What are you responding to?

During the Reformation period many wealthy men had 1 wife but multiple "girl friends". Of course with children who required support. One leadership position was even chosen based on who had the fewest illegitimate children.
That was certainly wrong, contrary to Biblical standards. But our preoccupation with the attachment of guilt ("do not") to marriage and relationships has taken its own toll. Many abortions are by young Christians who are acting out of shame to protect the appearance of holiness.
My point is that the net result has been an externalization of holiness, an emphasis on doing rather than being. It is a difficult thing to exit our learned mindset and become Biblical.
(I used the term "Revelation" in the sense of Truth, not the book.)

Royale--I just wanted to interject the factoid that the Old Testament DOES make mention of gods tied to particular pieces of land. They're referred to as "principalities" (or "princes"). For example, see Daniel 10, which mentions princes of Persia and Greece as enemies of of God's angel, and Michael as the only "prince" who stood with the angel against them. The archangel Michael is the only *good* principality named in the Bible, and he's said to preside over Israel. These principalities--these gods associated with different lands--are never denied in the Bible, they're merely included among God's created beings. Remember that 1/3 of all the angels fell along with Satan. There are plenty of very real land-associated (or perhaps nation-associated) gods in this world, they're just opposed and inferior to THE God.

C.S. Lewis handled this concept wonderfully in both his Narnia Chronicles and in the Cosmic Trilogy (from which WFO gets the name). Both series are intriguing, mind-stimulating reads that combine Biblical thought with wild, fierce, and fey fantasy, and give marvelous new perspective to both.

Also, going back to the idea of whether the oldest books of the Bible refer to one single God over all the universe...actually, Job is considered to be the oldest book of the bunch (fragments of it have been dated way back, and I wish I had my reference on-hand for exact time), and it's quite clear about one God over all.

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