Living in God’s Holy Presence: by ritual purity (Lev. 11-15)

Publié le 14 mars 2021 dans Traductions

Sermon by Pastor Samuel Niblack

God’s plan is to have us dwell in his presence, in his house forever. But like any house, he wants to keep it clean. When you go to someone’s house, you wipe your feet on the mat at the entrance, you take off your shoes. In this time of covid, you get used to practicing a protocol of purity when entering a store or a building: gel, mask, negative Covid test – all so as not to bring dirt or infection into the house.

This morning, Leviticus chapters 11-15, deals with ritualistic purity and impurity laws. These laws would instill this reflex among God’s people, that nothing defiled, dirty or evil can enter his presence.

Let’s read the first verses of each chapter to give you an idea of this type of law: 

11:1-8: The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. “‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

12.1-2:  The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 

13.1-3 : The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons  who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean. 

15.1-3 : The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When any man has an unusual bodily discharge, such a discharge is unclean. Whether it continues flowing from his body or is blocked, it will make him unclean. 

15.31 :“‘You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.’” 

These passages are amongst the most bizarre in the Bible. Some reasons for this:

  • In the pure and impure distinction, there is not always a moral, ethical logic. Can we eat salmon but not scallops ?
  • We talk about subjects that normally should not be discussed outside a doctor’s office and which are medical confidentiality. Some laws seem to humiliate or dismiss a sick person.
  • These laws can be seen as a reason not to take the rest of the Bible seriously. The Bible says adultery or homosexuality is prohibited, but it also says that eating Toulouse sausage is prohibited. So obviously the Bible is no longer relevant.

But we will see this morning that these laws which deal with ritual purity had a richness, a meaning in Levitical worship. They are not part of the moral, universal will of God, they no longer govern the people of God, but they can still teach us things. I propose that these laws were used to 

1. Value life, 2. Preserve the people, 3. Symbolize salvation

    1. Value Life

What helps most to understand these laws is to see that it is a matter of life and death. God gives his laws right after the death of Nadab and Abihu in the tabernacle. It is their death in the tabernacle, in the holy place that introduces the subject. God is life, God is holiness, and the thing most opposed to the life and holiness of God is death. It’s unthinkable to make God and death coexist!

When you look at all of these laws on purity and impurity, almost all of them relate to degrees of life and death:

11: clean and unclean food – animals, birds, fish, others (reptiles, rodents)

12: childbirth – (that of a boy, that of a girl)

13-14: leprosy – leprosy of the body; house leprosy (mold)

15: a loss, a flow of body fluids – abnormal / unhealthy and normal

The most impure things are corpses. (An animal that has been run over, you wouldn’t want that in your living room.) Snakes and spiders are often associated with dark corners, or deadly bites.  Also, almost all unclean birds are scavengers – they touch death.

Diseases, here we call leprosy all kinds of skin diseases. Leprosy, with this whitening and rotting of the skin, even looks like death. Lev 13.45: “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean! It is the same behavior as mourning.

The loss of body fluids, such as blood or semen, or during childbirth; are going to be related to impurity. Not that these functions of the bodies are evil, but in Levitical worship blood symbolizes life, so loss of blood symbolizes loss of life.

The effect of these laws is to value, celebrate life and banish, ward off death. God is the source of life and in his presence; all is life, pure; everything is whole; everything is perfect. There is no question of bringing death into his presence, his paradise. The closer you got to him, the more you had to be pure, full of life, whole, healed. And conversely, the most severe impurities were banished from the camp into the desert, a lifeless place.

Our era has made a lot of progress in hygiene and life expectancy, but our conception of death is sometimes distorted. We sanitize it, sterilize it; it’s just unplugging a machine, or at all costs, you have to keep the machine running regardless of the quality of life because you don’t want to admit the reality of death. We forget that death is the horrible consequence of drawing away from God. We do not measure the beauty of the Gospel which offers deliverance from death.

All these laws prepared the people to respond to the great call of Moses, his last word from Deuteronomy 30:19 ‘I have set before you life and death… Choose life, so that you and your children may live’.

2. Preserve the people

These laws were very useful in saving people from evil, separating them from evil in several ways.

Primarily, the laws separated Israel from the pagan peoples, including the pagan practices around them. They had just spent 400 years in Egypt, they are going to Canaan and they are going to need to protect their identity as people of God. Food laws in particular will prevent them from mixing. After language, it’s often food that is the biggest cultural barrier. Until the arrival of the Messiah, God preserved his people.

I am also thinking of the impurities mentioned in chapter 15, body fluids. The worship of idols and pagan gods, Baal, was practiced through sexual acts, prostitution rituals in the temple. But the fact that you had to be in a pure state to come to the tabernacle, to worship, preserved the people from wanting to imitate debauched pagan practices.

These laws also serve to protect the people from disease. In a time when medicine was less advanced, there is a lot of common sense and hygiene. Nothing better has been invented, even in recent months to manage covid: wash and put barriers, even quarantines, in place. For example, in 1386, in Ferrera, an Italian town, the plague was wreaking havoc, but the Jewish population was hardly affected by this disease, because they practiced hand washing and quarantining the sick. 

Having said that, sometimes we fail to discern a logical, ethical, hygienic reason. In chapter 12 why is a woman unclean 30 days after the birth of a boy and 60 days after the birth of a girl? I do not know.

In these cases, it helps to trust God and accept the distinctions He makes in His creation. He makes a distinction between the sun and the moon, between land and sea, between man and woman, between a day of work and a day of rest. Because this is his world. It is he and he alone who has the right to define and distinguish between good and evil, between truth and error, between pure and impure. So the Levitical setting called for faith.

    3. Symbolize salvation

There is a symbolic element in these laws. We have already seen that impurity was a ritual state, not a state of sin. Becoming unclean was not the equivalent of doing evil (contracting an illness, touching a dead animal, childbirth …). 

Look at this verse which is very useful to help us understand this, Lev. 10:10. We can distinguish 4 states: holy/profane and pure/impure. 

    • A holy thing was something that belonged to God, that could be in contact with God, (the holy space of the tabernacle, holy people like priests, holy objects, like temple furniture.) 

Everything else was profane (profane means common).

    • A profane thing could be pure or unclean

    • A profane and pure thing could be sanctified, consecrated to God.

    • A holy thing becomes profane if it comes into contact with an unclean thing.

    • A pure thing would become defiled if it came into contact with an unclean thing.

    • An unclean thing could be purified (by water or blood)

Like a fork. It can be clean or dirty, and it can be in your mouth or on the table.

All of this helps us to understand salvation. We have already seen how sin creates guilt that we must get rid of, be forgiven, but these Levitical laws give another picture of sin: a filth that must be washed away, an illness that must be healed so that we can live in the house of God; belong to him.

For example, leprosy is not a sin. But it becomes a strong image of sin in the rest of the Bible, the way it can infect an entire community, and rot our well-being, our relationships, it becomes contagious. David for example, after his sin said (Psalm 51): ‘Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Do not reject me far from your face’. Here he uses the language of Leviticus to speak of the state of his heart.

And now read the New Testament again. The number of verses and stories inspired by the texts we studied this morning are too long to quote. Think of the children’s video: Jesus touches the woman with a loss of blood, he takes the dead girl by the hand. And best of all, he does not become impure himself (neither when he touched lepers). The others become whole, pure, full of life. Jesus is not a man like any other. He is what water and blood symbolize: by his word, by his life, by the blood of the cross, it is a fountain of life that washes us, purifies us, heals us and we can be saints!

And another dimension of salvation is that now that we are saints; we have the motivation not to touch whatever is sinful. These laws affect a large part of everyday life: food, body and health, sexuality, clothing, housing. These laws no longer govern Christians, they were symbolic, provisional, but one thing is certain: God invites us to purity and holiness in all these areas.

A final dimension of salvation is that we live in the hope of a world without death, without evil, without disease and without sin!