Purity, Lobsters, and Poly-Cotton Blends
by John Partridge
One our recent class reading assignments has covered a range of issues surrounding the idea of purity and holiness in the nation of Israel (and the diaspora) as described in the Old Testament. As you likely know, many of the rules and regulations surrounding these two ideas of purity and holiness are found in the book of Leviticus where we also find God describing to Moses the fundamentals of worship, the design of God’s worship space, the sacrificial system and, perhaps most importantly, who and what God desires for his followers to be.
As Protestant Christians in the twenty-first century, many, if not most of us, just kind of skip over Leviticus (and most everywhere else that rules about purity and holiness crop up) for several reasons. Let’s face it, it’s a little boring because it’s full of lists and genealogies, we’ve been convinced that all those purity codes don’t apply to us, and… if we’re honest, some of them are just downright weird. So weird in fact, that non-Christians point them out in an effort to describe our faith as something illogical or nonsensical.
But after diving a little deeper and learning more about it, some of those purity rules aren’t as strange as they might at first appear. But before I get to that, I want to back up to my first paragraph and look at the last sentence. It’s that last part that I think is most important. God lays out his system of worship, the sacrificial system, the rules about purity and holiness because all of those things point to who and what God desires for his followers to be. And so, even though our Christianity (thankfully) doesn’t sacrifice animals, or follow ancient Jewish rules about purity and holiness, those parts we skip over can still tell us something about who God want us to be as his people.
It’s worth noting that Israel wasn’t the only nation with holiness or purity codes. Other nations, and other gods, had rules that had to be followed, and purifying rituals that had to be performed, before coming into the presence of their god or entering their temples. So, holiness or purification wasn’t unusual in and of itself. What made Israel’s God different was that he didn’t just call his people to follow these rules to enter the Tabernacle or to worship him, although there was a set of rules for that. What stands out was that Israel’s God intended for his people to follow these rules all the time so that they could be purer and holier than the people and the cultures that surrounded them. God’s intention was for them to be different and to stand out because of it. Three times in Leviticus (in chapters 19, 21, and 22) God instructs his people saying, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” (NIV) or some similar variation.
So how do rules about food, clothing, work, and a pile of other things accomplish that? Honestly, there are things that we find in those lists that never made any sense to me. Sure, taking a ritual bath before entering the Temple made some sense. Much like our concept of baptism, it isn’t hard to envision a ritual bath as both a physical and ritual cleansing and leaving our impurities behind us before coming into God’s presence. But there are a bunch of other things on those lists that just seem weird. I mean, what’s wrong with lobsters? I like lobster and crab, but they were both absolutely forbidden to a Jew. And what about pork, or clothing made of two kinds of fabric? And what was the deal about skin diseases, sex, menstrual cycles, nocturnal emissions, anything to do with blood, or dead animals?
Admittedly, that’s a lot of stuff. But it all goes back to, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
The logic behind it all began simply with the belief that God was perfect and holy. We still believe that. And so, if God has called his people to be holy, then they must, as much as possible, do things that make them fit to be in God’s presence and to physically be the kind of holy people God called them to be. We still believe that too. But all those rules about purity and holiness flowed out of this belief. We can understand the logic as if these ancient people imagined what a perfect world would be like so that they could be perfect enough, and holy enough, for a perfect and holy God. Genesis is clear that the world we live in is broken, so what would the earth have looked like before it was broken? The Israelites’ answer that to that question was that in a perfect world, everything would fit into sensible categories and classifications. That isn’t an outrageous assumption. Modern science is based on entire systems of classifications to make sense of our world. We have the periodic table to classify elements and the taxonomic system that categorizes every plant and animal on earth into seven classifications of kingdom, phylum class, order, family, genus, and species.
Obviously, five thousand years ago (give or take a couple thousand), the categories weren’t so complex. But for them, “clean” things were those things that seemed to fit into a sensible order and didn’t cross boundaries. First, blood was life-giving. And so, any animal that took life, or ate blood, like predators or scavengers, was not clean. Fish were clean, but fish with skin or legs like a land animal, were not clean. People could be clean, but bodily fluids, which were supposed to be on the inside, made people unclean if they were on the outside. That’s how lepers with skin diseases, menstruating women, men who had a nocturnal emission, or anyone with an open wound were defined as unclean. And in that system of classification and boundaries, while linen (which is made from stems of the flax plant) and wool (which comes from sheep or goats) were each fine for use as clothing, mixing them (possibly because one was from a plant and the other from an animal) was seen as crossing boundaries, and was therefore prohibited.
When we understand this system of classification, the Old Testament rules of purity and holiness make a lot more sense. But why does it matter? We aren’t Jewish and the rules about food and purity don’t apply to us. Right?
Well, no. And yes.
We aren’t bound by Jewish dietary rules or many of the others. But, as the followers of God, we are still connected to their intent. We still believe that God speaks to us when he says, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We are still called to be different from our culture, and to be a holy people who are set apart by God. That’s why we still talk about sin and living a life that looks like the one Jesus modeled for us. We may not follow the Old Testament codes of purity and holiness, but our calling is the same. In our own, Protestant Christian, twenty-first century way, we are still called to live lives that are pure, holy, and different from the people around us.
God still calls us to stand out from the crowd… and be a little weird.
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