Like a rash
Like a rumour
Like a swarm
Like an army
Like a stench
Like a yawn
Like a snake bite
Like an oil spill
It is coming
Carolyn Whitnall, 2016.
So, I've been reading Leviticus lately, with some help from John Goldingay . In case you're unfamiliar, it's the one with all the obscure and problematic rules and rituals that Christians like to pretend don't exist and that Richard Dawkins et al. like to quote.
The book collects together a set of sometimes seemingly-absurdly specific instructions for the Levitical priests and for Israel as a Yahweh-worshipping community. On closer inspection, it is interesting to notice the effect of the practices it commands in emphasising certain clear distinctions: between life and death; between holiness and sin; between Israel and the rest of the world; between cleanness and uncleanness (or, as Goldingay translates it, 'taboo'). Of particular importance is the tent of meeting – the centre for Israelite worship in the wilderness – and the exacting restrictions about what may or may not be brought into it so that it not be defiled. Infectious skin diseases (Leviticus 13:1-46) and analogous contaminations of cloth (Leviticus 13:47-59), utensils (Leviticus 11:32-35) and building materials (Leviticus 14:33-53) are among things considered 'taboo', to be kept outside; so too is anything connected with, or reminiscent of, death (Leviticus 15:19-33), or which has come into contact with death (Numbers 19:11, Leviticus 11:24). What is more, distressingly, the condition of being taboo is spread through mere touch (Leviticus 22:4-6).
Similarly leaven, whilst not taboo per se, has associations with corruption via the process of fermentation, which spreads through fresh dough on contact. It is not acceptable in the context of most worship: the instructions for burnt grain offerings specify unleavened bread (Leviticus 2:11), and during Passover all leaven was to be removed not just from the food but from the house (Exodus 12:14-15). The idea of leaven as a metaphor for evil and hypocrisy is explicitly unpacked by both Jesus (e.g. Luke 12:1) and Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
I have found myself struck afresh, on this reading, by the overwhelming, dispiriting contagiousness of so much that is unclean, corrupt or destructive. Life, beauty, goodness, holiness, by contrast, are devastatingly fragile – powerless to resist. Haggai the prophet remarks similarly:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. (Haggai 2:11-14)It's one of many dimensions along which the Bible resonates profoundly with my real-world experience. The forces of decay seem to hold all the cards. My sister's studio flat, to take a trivial example, is currently under the grip of a moth infestation – aggressively attacking her eclectic vintage clothing collection and her wool carpets. She's washing, brushing, and freezing all over the show, and contemplating the logistics of floorboards. Meanwhile I'm eyeing everything that moves in my own home with heightened paranoia. But if it's not moths it'll be something else gets my stuff. Flood, fire, disorganisation, inconsiderate workmen, the passage of time. And I can't quite bring myself to start thinking about the people (including myself) that I know and love and am powerless to protect. "We begin to die from the moment we are born," said, apparently, every quotable personality since the dawn of the internet.
But explore further into the Bible and you find Jesus, typically, turning the picture on its head – in this case, with the briefest of parables:
And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)Wh... bu... hang on a sec ... leaven? That's like, totally, like, a bad thing, right? Everywhere else? Even according to Jesus' own metaphors, usually, no? Actually, some Christians draw on the wealth of negative associations to argue that this must surely be a warning about the insidious permeation of evil influences within the kingdom. There's some interesting reasoning in that mix (and it is true that vigilance against distortion in the church is sadly much needed) but I still think that that particular interpretation is quite a stretch given the phrasing and context. I (and plenty of smarter others) reckon that the parable is meant as it more naturally reads – and I'd like to suggest that the image is intentionally shocking, chosen especially to hammer home the unstoppable power of the kingdom. Irresistibility is no longer the preserve of corruption and destruction. Jesus is preparing his listeners for a life more contagious than death – a life which will begin with his own resurrection...
If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:19-26)From what scholars are able to gather, this all came as quite a surprise to Jesus' contemporaries. On the one hand, belief in resurrection was a late development that was not shared by all first-century Jews and which had only sparse explicit Old Testament support (see, e.g., N.T. Wright); on the other, the hoped-for Messiah was to deliver Israel from Rome, not the world from sin and death (see, e.g., more N.T. Wright). But after all, the supremacy of life over death, of good over evil, is implicit in the entire story of God and His relationship with people that the Jewish scriptures keep in memory. Take, for instance (to return to my starting point), Leviticus' meticulous specifications of what is and isn't compatible with the presence of YHWH. If there's one thing that emerges it's the lived-out palpability of the truth that Jesus claims in a debate with some resurrection-skeptics: "He is not God of the dead, but of the living" (see Matthew 22:31-32). And if death has no place (much less authority) under His kingship, then "Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26:8)
[Thumbnail image cc from joshveitchmichaelis on Flickr.]