Monday, March 6, 2017

Clean and Unclean

There is a lot of talk in the Old Testament about clean and unclean - foods, relationships, materials, experiences, sacrifices, worship, etc. were all categorized as either "clean" or "unclean."

There were several categories of uncleanliness, even though they are all lumped together into the idea of ritual purity/impurity. The first category of uncleanliness included things that were clearly a threat to the entire community - things like diseases. If you had a disease, you were unclean and must be cut off from the camp until you were better. This had practical implications, particularly for a community in transition. When you've got hundreds of thousands of people marching through the desert, you can't have an outbreak of illness. It will spread like wildfire, many will die, and the whole journey will be jeopardized in many different ways.

Other ideas of uncleanness came through relationship. There were certain persons you couldn't have contact with and certainly a bunch of categories of persons you couldn't have sex with. There were things you couldn't do to your neighbor, things you had to do to your own house/life for the protection of your neighbor. These, too, make a lot of sense and have practical applications.

Some uncleanliness came from just the natural sorts of things that happen to all of us - certain bodily fluids were considered unclean. It was unclean to be around a dead animal or human, certainly unclean to touch the body of one. It was unclean to have mildew or mold in your house; it made not only your house, but you yourself, unclean. These things are largely inescapable; we just have to deal with them.

And then, of course, there are whole categories of unclean that don't make a whole lot of sense to us. This includes things like which kind of animals you can eat or not eat. (Bacon is unclean. Seriously.) It includes who can offer a sacrifice and when and why. And who can eat the sacrifice. And how to mix the special sacrificial perfumes, which you can't mix anywhere else. And a bunch of stuff like that.

The entire Old Testament law seems to be given in the context of this discussion. Israel was responsible, above most all other things, for keeping herself clean. Not only was it dangerous to be unclean (as in the case of illness, perhaps), but it was also shameful. Not only was it shameful, but it was kind of a hassle. A very large burden.

When you were unclean, you have to leave the camp. You had to go live outside the camp in a special place for unclean persons. You couldn't live with your family; they were clean, and you weren't. You couldn't go to work; there might be clean persons there. You couldn't do all of the things that you were accustomed to doing and neither could anyone who was depending upon you to do the things they were accustomed to doing.

In order to be free from your uncleanness, you had to wash. And be inspected. And often, shave. Bring a sacrifice to the Tent. There were twenty-three steps (not really, but it seems like it) that you had to go through to move from being unclean to being clean, which seems like a lot, especially considering that in an instant, you could become unclean again, even through no fault of your own. (Say a dead bird fell out of the sky next to you. Unclean. Bye.)

Clearly, the covenant of clean and unclean was a difficult way to live. And most of us read the Old Testament and come away understanding very well how adamant God was about all of this. All things considered, you want to be clean.

Or do you?

There's this interesting little verse tucked away in this discussion of clean and unclean that starts to change our perspective on the whole thing, and it starts to introduce an idea that will come to be prominent in the new covenant - the idea of Christian love.

It starts all the way back in the Pentateuch (that's the first five books of the Bible).

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