Purity and Leviticus

Purity and Leviticus

Leviticus is the shortest of the five books that make up the Torah. It’s right in the middle of the collection. Genesis and the first half of Exodus are mostly narrative. While the stories there may have elements we find alien, disturbing, or challenging, they generally hold one’s attention.

Leviticus is a different matter. It can be interesting to see how the legal system was set up or how the poor were cared for in this agricultural economy, but the focus of the book appears to be on religious rites and ceremonies, which are defined in great detail. Purification is a big deal in all these rituals. Leviticus lays out elaborate procedures for cleansing both people and objects. It may not fascinate every reader.

On previous trips through Leviticus, I thought about how happy I was to not have to offer blood sacrifices – or how happy I would be when I got to the book of Joshua. This time through, I’ve been learning about holiness. I was helped this week by looking again at Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, The Five Books of Moses.

Alter says, “There is a single verb that focuses the major themes of Leviticus – divide (Hebrew, hivdil).” He points out that this verb is prominent in the story of creation, where “God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness… And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse.” 

Alter comments:

“What enables existence and provides a framework for the development of human nature, conceived in God’s image, and of human civilization is a process of division and insulation – light from darkness, day from night, the upper waters from the lower waters, and dry land from the latter. That same process is repeatedly manifested in the ritual, sexual, and dietary laws of Leviticus. Thus, the summarizing statement at the end of the list of living creatures respectively permitted and prohibited for eating: ‘This is the teaching about beast and bird and every living creature that stirs in the water and every swarming thing that swarms on the earth [a whole string of phrases harking back to the story of Creation], to divide between the unclean and the clean and between the animal that is eaten and the animal that shall not be eaten’ (Lev. 11:46-47).”

This language of division is used repeatedly in Leviticus. For example, right after a list of forbidden sexual unions: 

“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” (Lev. 20:24-26).

Note the four uses of the verb of division or separation. And note that separation is essential for purity. And that separation and purity are essential for holiness. And that holiness is required because the Lord God is holy, separate, and pure. 

So Alter says:

“Israel, by accepting these categorical divisions in the realm of appetite, sets itself apart and becomes holy, like God. This last element of imitation Dei suggest that God’s holiness, whatever else it may involve and however ultimately unfathomable the idea may be, implies an ontological division or chasm between the Creator and the created world, a concept that sets off biblical monotheism from the worldview of antecedent polytheisms.” 

This has big implications. If you believe in many gods who are not entirely distinct from the cosmos, you will get a different religion and society than you will if you fear a God who is holy and distinct from all creation. The holiness required for relationship with such a God will do you good, but the fear is both intrinsic and helpful.

Division, setting apart, and the establishment of barriers to access are constant themes in the setting up of the tabernacle. The priests must adhere to special prohibitions and submit to special purifications. Because contamination is everywhere. It is unavoidable for creatures. 

Alter’s introduction to Leviticus includes a fascinating paragraph about the four substances – fire, blood, oil, and water – used to purify and to protect the divisions between the holy and the common. He then writes:

“None of this, I suspect, really mitigates the sense of strangeness that people of our own era are likely to feel in reading Leviticus. The preoccupation with dermatological conditions, genital discharges, mildew, the recipes for fritters and breads use in the cult, and the dissection of animals and the distinctions among their various inner organs does not correspond to modern assumptions about the content of great sacred literature. Nevertheless, all these regulations are reflections of of a pervasive spiritual seriousness grounded in a comprehensive, coherent conception of reality.” 

The detailed instructions of Leviticus have been affecting me. They help connect me to that strange reality. Noting the hard work and expense of purification rituals has made me want to avoid unnecessary contamination. Noting the inevitability of contamination has caused me to give thanks to the one who did the hardest work and paid the greatest cost. Thinking about the great divide has increased my cautious appreciation of the holiness of my God and the wonder of any encouragement to “confidently draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16).

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