Posts Tagged ‘purity’

I.C.’s Guide to… Leviticus and Holiness

August 7, 2010

In my experience, most Christians shun the Book of Leviticus as diligently as the ancient Israelites recoiled from a ham sandwich washed down by a glass of camel’s milk. Nonetheless, at the considerable risk of no one wanting to read this post, I thought I’d jot down some musings on the notion of ‘holiness’ as reflected in this greatly under-appreciated part of Scripture. (This I.C. Guide to… assumes that the reader will go through Leviticus before tackling this guide)

Israel was to be a ‘holy nation’, set apart and special unto YHWH. As such, the daily lives of her people were to reflect their covenant relationship with a ‘holy’ God – and the regulations set out in Leviticus were designed to help them do so. Additionally, we find the category of ‘holiness’ is reinforced and intimately connected to the related concept of purity and cleanness.

Firstly, we ought to note that holiness is always associated with God, for he is innately holy. In fact, ‘holy’ is often used to describe the moral perfection of God. Moreover, God’s holiness radiates outwards and thus is able to sanctify people, places, or even objects. However, the whole concept is rather complex for we find that Leviticus depicts differing degrees of ‘holiness’.

  • With respect to people, for example, we discover that some among the priesthood were more holy than others: the High Priest was more holy than the ordinary priests, who in turn were more holy than those priests with some sort of physical blemish and who were thus unable to perform sacrifices (holiness was associated with wholeness and perfection, not blemish/deformity).
  • With respect to places, for example, we find that the even the Tabernacle contained concentric circles of holiness: from the less holy outer ‘courtyard’ to within the Tent of Meeting itself, which was segregated into the ‘Holy Place’ and the ‘Holy of Holies’ (which was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where the High Priest alone could venture). Indeed, the ‘Holy of Holies’ was understood to be the most holy place on the planet!
  • With respect to objects, for example, we observe that the utensils used within the Tabernacle were graded in holiness according to the material they were made of, their location, and their religious function (e.g., bronze altar in outer courtyard; gold lampstand within the Tent).

Overall, Leviticus invites us to imagine a universe in which everything has a differing degree of holiness, from people, to places, to objects, and even periods of time (e.g., the Sabbath or Day of Atonement is more ‘holy’ than an ordinary day).

As we’ve already noted, ‘clean and unclean’ is an important related concept to holiness in Leviticus. Simply put, to be ‘unclean’ is to be contaminated by sin – this can be applied to a person or even an object touched by an unclean person; impurity is contagious. Yet, even here, we find that there are different degrees of impurity which depend on the capacity of the person/thing to impute its ‘uncleanness’ to other people/things. For example, a man who had sexual intercourse with a menstruating women would become unclean for seven days. Consequently, any bed he lay on thereafter would be contaminated with his impurity and the bed itself would thus impute an unclean status to anyone else touching it (one day)! Though, the person who was made unclean in this way did not pass on his/her impurity to anyone or anything else. Moreover, there is the further wrinkle that not only are there differing degrees of being unclean, but there are also two distinct kinds: there is one which comes as the natural consequence of being human (e.g., giving birth for women) and another which we have control over (e.g., carrying out acts of sexual immorality or murder). It appears that Leviticus portrays ‘holiness’ and ‘impurity’ as dynamic in nature. Both can be imputed to other people and objects, while being clean appears to be a neutral state. Very roughly, this might be set out as follows:

Holiness (positive) <——- Clean (neutral) ——-> Unclean (negative)

When we bear all of this in mind and understand that holiness and uncleanness are incompatible, it becomes clear why a sacrificial system became necessary to enable any kind of intimate relationship between the Holy God of Israel and his people. To expiate the various facets of Israel’s sin, different types of sacrifices were offered. For example, the most important was the ‘burnt offering’ which was designed ‘to make atonement’ and can mean ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to pay a ransom’ (which seems more likely here). In Ex 21:30 (If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life), a ransom sets someone free from death, and the burnt offering seems to have this idea behind it. The life of the offered animal functions as a substitute, or a kind of payment, in return for the life of the offerer. I.e., the person recognizes that it ought to be his/her life that was under the penalty of death, not the animal.

Nonetheless, it is not simply through the continual use of the sacrificial system that made the Israelites face up to the realities of living as a holy people before YHWH, but also in their everyday lives via their diet. The Book of Leviticus contains a lengthy list of clean and unclean foods (e.g., pig and camel are both unclean). These ‘food laws’ appear to have served two functions. Firstly, by restricting the Israelites’ diet, the people were constantly reminded of their obligation to be a holy, clean people distinct from the nations. Secondly, in practical terms, the simple imposition of food laws made social contact with non-Israelites more difficult. Further, it seems that the very choice of which foods were clean and unclean reinforced the whole complex of thought. For the most part, those animals deemed unclean were carnivores and depended upon the death of other animals for their survival. When we consider that the impurity rendered from touching a corpse is one of the worst forms of uncleanness, the association of death and separation from God are thus greatly underlined even by the unclean foods not to be eaten. Furthermore, the categories of clean and unclean foods symbolically seem to represent the relationship of Israel (clean) to the nations (unclean). Remarkably, profound theological truths were reflected in the daily lives of every single Israelite.

In essence, the great concern of the Book of Leviticus with holiness is very practical: it sets out how the frail, sinful people of God might live in close proximity, and have a fruitful, meaningful relationship with the holy God of Israel. As YHWH’s covenant people, they must reflect his nature: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy (Lev 19:2).

Rich Text File of this Guide

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