Childbirth, non-kosher food, sex, death, disease—they’re all considered impure in the book of Leviticus. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they discuss the levitical laws of purity and impurity and how they create a way for humanity to share in God’s own life and form a surprisingly beautiful backdrop for Jesus’ miraculous healings.
The wisdom here is that I am constantly living at the border of life and death. I’m a mortal creature. And being impure is not morally wrong, but it reminds me that I’m a mortal creature and that I live outside of Eden. I live in a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be or that it could be … What is morally wrong is entering the holy space in an impure state.
In part one (00:00-10:50), Tim and Jon review the structure of Leviticus. Leviticus anchors the Torah, situated in the very center of the five-book collection. We’re currently studying Leviticus’ central movement, the second of three movements, which means it’s at the center of the center of the Torah.
The second movement begins with the inauguration of the levitical priesthood and the tabernacle, God’s sacred dwelling and the place where Heaven and Earth meet. However, the priesthood has barely been consecrated when Aaron’s sons decide to offer unauthorized fire before Yahweh, defiling the holy space.
Why is this second movement both physically central and so significant to the plot of the Torah? It’s because for the first time since the garden of Eden, Yahweh has made a way to dwell with humanity again.
In part two (10:50-28:04), Tim and Jon discuss how we can respond to this section of Leviticus as readers. The takeaway is not that we should go set up our own tents for God to dwell in. All of the Torah is instruction for how to respond when Yahweh speaks to us, and each story is a case study exploring that theme.
After Aaron’s sons fail to obey Yahweh and instead defile his holy space, Yahweh gives Israel a set of laws to help them judge between what is holy and common, pure and impure. These laws can be some of the strangest for us to read, as they center around food, childbirth, sex, and skin disease. And if we read them only at a surface level, they will remain strange to us. When we reconsider them as part of the key themes of the Torah and imagine how ancient Israelites would have viewed these laws, we will find a beauty and significance to these laws we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Holiness has to do with proximity to Yahweh. The Hebrew word for holy is kadosh, which can describe a person, place, or thing that has been brought into proximity or dedicated to the service of Yahweh. Holiness refers to the unique, one-of-a-kind status of Yahweh, who is the source of all life, goodness, beauty, and light. However, Yahweh is generous, and he wants to share his own life with others, so God creates another being to share his life. Humans are considered “common” (chol) because they are made from the earth, but we have the unique opportunity to transcend our common origins and become holy.
To consecrate something is to take what is common and make it holy. The reverse process, to profane something, is to take what is holy and defile it.
In part three (28:04-44:35), Tim and Jon discuss the difference between purity and impurity. These are categories reserved for common things, not holy things. Someone or something common can be either pure or impure, similar to how a person can be sick or healthy. To be pure is to exist in an ideal state, healthy and whole, but it is not the same as being holy. Impurity is similar to a contagion—something that you can come in contact with that makes you impure.
Every culture has their own set of taboos around purity and impurity and their own ways of dealing with things that are impure. For instance, most contemporary people consider it unacceptable to eat a meal in a bathroom—it’s not clean. These laws of purity and impurity were the ancient Israelite way of regulating what was pure and how to purify something that had become impure.
Within the story of the Bible, humans are capable of becoming one with the life and presence of God and living forever. But that’s not the state we’re in now, and ritual impurity is any sign of death, decay, and life outside of Eden (it’s not about a person’s sin). Israel’s laws regarding purity and impurity kept life and death—their own mortality—ever present before them. Because Yahweh is the creator and sustainer of all life, anything dying or exhibiting signs of decay can’t be in his presence. That’s why reproductive fluids were considered impure in ancient Israel. Those fluids were representative of life. To be “leaking life” in the presence of the creator of life was to bring symbolic death into his presence.
In part four (44:35-01:05:32), the guys further explore the heart behind Israel’s purity laws and the way they enrich our understanding of who Jesus is.
Impurity and holiness are both “contagious.” If you come in contact with someone impure, you become impure too. And when you make contact with God’s holiness, you too become holy. This is why Jesus’ fearlessness with the people he healed is so significant. He touched dead bodies and raised them to life. He touched people with skin diseases and healed them. A woman leaking menstrual blood touched him and was healed, and he entered the homes of non-Israelites who were eating non-kosher food. Any of those things would render a normal Israelite impure, but instead Jesus’ contagious holiness transforms impurity to purity, making people fit for the presence of God.
Christian traditions like Lent or fasting find their roots in Israel’s purity laws. In fasting, we enter a state of symbolic impurity for a time (ancient Israelites would dress in sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes as if they were dead) and abstain from certain pleasures to increase our appreciation for holiness, atonement, and redemption. It allows us to be aware of our mortality and more deeply grateful for being able to share in God’s life.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Tyler Bailey. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman and Ashlyn Heise.
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