Over the years I have had a number of conversations at this time of the year with people who have said something like this to me: 'I decided that this was going to be the year that I read the entire Bible, and I got a good start; I read Genesis and Exodus and I enjoyed them, well, maybe not all that stuff in Exodus about building the tabernacle, but otherwise it was all good until I got to Leviticus and then things really bogged down when I hit all of those rules for things like taking care of sores on your head and getting rid of mildew in your house, truth is, I lost steam and I haven't gotten back to my Bible for a couple of weeks.' And I get that. Almost nothing in the details of the rules and regulations related to what is called 'clean' and 'unclean' that we find in this part of the Bible seem relevant to our 21st Century, middle American lives. I, too, have wondered why it was important that God told the Jews not to eat certain insects or shrimp. Well, today the goal is to make some sense of these ancient rules, AND not only to make some sense of them, but to see how these rules were intended to fit into God's desire to do all he could to have an intimate relationship with his people. My hope is that we will all see how these rules were a part of making it possible for us to return to what God initially intended for us, or as we have been saying each week in this series, making it possible for us to return to the goodness of Eden. So, that is where we are going, but before we start, I think it would be a good idea for us to pray.
The cleanliness laws are found Leviticus chapters 11-16, but before we start looking at some specific regulations the first thing we need to do is to put these cleanliness laws into their big historical context. The clean and unclean regulations that we find in Leviticus were given to the Jewish people soon after they had made their escape from slavery in Egypt. Many scholars believe that this could have been as many as a million people. And this vast assembly was on its way through 'the wilderness' and headed for the Promise Land. But, and this is really an important detail, the Jews weren't simply traveling through the wilderness and on to their 'Promised Land' by their own instincts; no, they were literally being led by God, and I do mean this literally. Listen to how the book of Exodus ends. 'The cloud, (which was the physical presence of the Lord), covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle, Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. The cloud of the LORD hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys.' You can see from these verses that God was both leading the Israelites and he was also 'living' right in the middle of what these verses call 'the whole family of Israel.' In fact, the reason that almost a third of the Book of Exodus tells us about the design instructions for building the tabernacle is related directly to God wanting to live right in the middle of 'the whole family of Israel.' The word 'tabernacle,' even though it sounds so religious, simply means 'a tent.' And all of the instructions for building the tabernacle were simply instructions for building a tent, for God! The Jewish people were all living in tents and God wanted his own tent right in the middle of everyone! And God's instructions for his 'tent' also included making furniture and washing bowls and candlesticks to put in his tent, because these were same kinds of items that all Jews had in their tents. Now, to be sure, what God had the Jews make for him was a bigger tent with fancier fixtures then what the regular Jewish folk had, but the tabernacle was still just a tent where God, in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night, was physically present with his people. And that was a wonderful thing! It's what God wanted and what the Israelites wanted. And the cleanliness laws were the means to make it possible for God, who is holy and perfect, to literally live alongside people who are not holy and perfect. These laws created a way of living that made the Jewish people a distinctive nation; these laws made the Jews stand out from all the other people in the world because these laws continually reminded the Jews that God wanted an intimate relationship with them and He wanted his people to live in peace and joy and harmony with one another, these rules were simply more evidence that God's greatest desire was for His people to return to the wonders of Eden.
So, are you ready to start looking at some of these cleanliness laws? The cleanliness laws that we find in Leviticus 11-16 can be divided into two sections: The first grouping is: animals you can eat. This section takes up all of chapter 11. Then the second grouping, which we find in chapters 12-16, I would have titled: things that might happen to you that will make you feel unsure or uneasy or embarrassed, and this second group covers specific circumstances like purification after childbirth, skin diseases, contaminated clothing, moldy houses and dealing with bodily discharges.
So, let's look at Leviticus 11. This is the section about clean and unclean animals. Oh, before I talk about these regulations, I need to tell you that there is absolutely no connection between modern zoology and ancient zoology. We think about animals in scientific terms like genus and species... and we talk about animals having instincts and genetic imperatives. Ancient people didn't think this way at all. They divided the animal kingdom into groupings based mostly on how they moved around, and they also thought that animals knew what they were doing, they just assumed that animals were thinking about their actions and making choices just like people. So, here is how they divided up the entire animal kingdom: 1) there are herding animals, often referred to as the livestock and these are the animals that walked around on hooves. 2) Then there are the wild animals: lions, bears, elephants; these are the bigger animals that move around on paws. 3) Animals that scurry along the ground; there are all sorts of these creatures: moles, rats, lizards, snakes; these are the animals that dart or slither close to the ground. 4) Then there are birds or literally 'the flying animals.' 5) Next, insects of all sorts, winged and non-winged; hoppers and crawlers. And finally, 6) the creatures that live in water. And the ancients were able to fit all animals into one of these divisions; dividing animals this way was Science!
Now, back to the beginning of Leviticus 11:1. Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ""Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. ""Of all the land animals, these are the ones you may use for food. You may eat any animal that has completely split hooves and chews the cud. You may not, however, eat the following animals that have split hooves or that chew the cud, but not both. Everyone in the ancient world would have known that these verses were talking about the herding animals because the herding animals were the only animals to have completely split hooves and chew the cud, animals like oxen, sheep, goats, deer, gazelles, and antelope. Again, these animals all have split hooves and chew the cud, in other words, these animals have the two primary characteristics that all herding animals are supposed to have. And since these animals are 'complete,' if you will, they are clean, and you can eat them. But animals that only have one of the characteristics of herding animals, animals that have split hooves but don't chew a cud, like pigs, or chew a cud but don't have split hooves, like rabbits and camels, these animals aren't fully complete as 'herding animals,' so they are 'unclean.' In fact, the primary issue in declaring ANY animal 'clean or unclean' is this: do they conform to the distinctive characteristics of the vast majority of the other animals in their category. Let me repeat that: the primary issue in declaring any animal 'clean or unclean' is this: do they conform to the distinctive characteristics that the vast majority of the other animals in their category have. This is why verse 9 says, ""Of all the marine animals, these are ones you may use for food. You may eat anything from the water if it has both fins and scales, whether taken from salt-water or from streams. But you must never eat animals from the sea or from rivers that do not have both fins and scales. They are detestable to you. Ancient people believed that the vast majority of creatures that live in the water have fins and scales, But animals that don't have fins and scales like sharks, eels and octopus and creatures that walk around on the bottom of lakes and the ocean like lobsters, and crawdads and shrimp, these animals are unclean because they don't conform to the two primary characteristics of the vast majority of animals that live in the water: fins and scales. And when it comes to birds, the vast majority of animals that fly have 2 wings and 2 feet. And ancient people also believed that the vast majority of flying animals were vegetarians that ate grains and berries and such. So, two-legged, two-winged, flying, grain-eating animals were clean. You could eat them, and you could touch them. Bats are flying animals as well, and the ancients classified them with the other flying animals, but bats they have four legs, so they are unclean. Then there are the flying, two legged-two-winged creatures like eagles and owls, birds that choose to eat other animals, (you can read the entire list of these animals in verses 13-19). But since these birds only conform to 2 of the 3 characteristics of the vast majority of birds, they are unclean. In fact, ANY animal that chooses to eat other animals, and that would be pretty much all of the wild animals as well as any animal that chooses to eat dead animals like rats, and large lizards, jackals and hyenas, were all considered unclean. The Jews were commanded to not have anything to do with these animals,. they weren't supposed to touch the carcass of such an animal, they weren't even supposed to touch a pot or a bowl that had touched one of these animals. Here is the bottom line with clean and unclean animals: The Jews were called to live with God and with one another in a way that showed the rest of the world how God wanted ALL people to live. And so, Jews weren't to have anything to do with any animal that didn't live according to the way that God made the vast majority of the other animals in their animal grouping to live. I know this sounds a bit strange, but in their world, it made sense. I suppose we could sum up the reason for these clean and unclean animal laws this way: there is a way that God wants all of his creation to live, especially his people: a way of life that leads to peace and harmony with God and others, and the Jews, by only eating clean animals mirrored the truth that there is a very specific, distinctive way of living, a good way that looks like the perfection of Eden, that God wants for all his people.
The next batch of cleanliness laws all relate to circumstances in life, and I want to begin by stating that none of these circumstances like having a baby or getting a skin rash or finding mildew in your home have anything to do with morality, sin was not the issue with these regulations. Truth is, all the cleanliness rules from here on out relate to things that just happened to ancient people. Turn to Leviticus 13:1 for example. The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ""If anyone has a swelling or a rash or discolored skin that might develop into a serious skin disease, that person must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons. The priest will examine the affected area of the skin. If the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, it is a serious skin disease, and the priest who examines it must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean. Okay, skin rashes happen, and sin is not the cause of a skin rash. In fact, all the circumstances that are listed in the next 5 chapters of Leviticus, the fluids that comes with childbirth, serious skin diseases, contaminated clothing, moldy houses and various bodily discharges, these are simply things that happen to people, some happen out of the blue and some happen with great regularity, but they all have this in common: they are all things that we don't necessarily want to talk to about; they can be embarrassing; they are private; and they can make us feel unsure about ourselves, confused about what is happening to us, and they can even make us feel ashamed. And you can be certain that when the ancient Jewish people had these sorts of things happening to them, they certainly didn't feel worthy of being in God's presence, I'm certain that any man with a seeping boil didn't feel like going to the tabernacle and being in the literal presence of God with who-knows how many other people. I'm going to state something that is rarely said about these cleanliness laws: these laws weren't given primarily to let people know when they were 'unclean.' Most people could tell right away that there was something 'unclean' about these kinds of conditions. The primary reason for having these laws was to let people know that when they found themselves in an unclean circumstance, there was a way back to cleanliness. When we are reading through these regulations, we shouldn't put our primary focus on the 'situations' people might find themselves in, these situations can happen to anyone. We should focus on the reality of the remedies, the ways to find cleansing, because the cleansing rituals were God's way of saying, 'This embarrassing thing may have happened to you, and you may have to deal with something that is embarrassing, unwelcomed and even isolating for a while, but I've made a way for you to cleanse yourself of this issue and I am waiting to welcome you back into MY tent. I've made a way for you to leave your confusions and your shame behind and return to me.' Now, granted, some of these cleansing rituals are really complicated and confusing, if you want to really be overwhelmed by ritual complications read the long and arduous process of what a man had to go through once he has been healed from a serious skin disease in the first 14 verses of Chapter 14: it involves 2 birds, 2 lambs, 6 quarts of flour, a cup of olive oil, a cedar stick, some scarlet yarn, a hyssop branch, a pot of water, washing all your clothes, and shaving off all the hair on your head including your beard and your eyebrows, but the end result is that the person is clean, he can live with God and with others without any shame, embarrassment or fear. He is clean.
I think it's important to stop right here for just a second, now that we are talking about someone being declared clean, and tell you that I feel that the traditional translation of the Hebrew word 'Tahore' as 'clean' and the Hebrew word 'Ta-me' as 'unclean' is somewhat unfortunate. The concept of 'tahore' is that something is ready to be used for sacred purposes, another way to say this is, to be 'clean' is to be ready to be with God and used by God. And the concept of 'Ta-me' is that something is simply not ready to be used for sacred purposes; it is ordinary, not ready to be with God. I know that when I hear the word 'Clean' my first inclination is to think 'righteous' and when I hear the word and 'unclean' my first thought is 'sinful,' but this isn't the case. The bottom line is that when a man who has had a serious skin disease is declared by a priest to be clean the priest is really saying that this man is ready to be with God and ready to be used by God, and that is saying something far more consequential than simply saying he is clean. That is saying something that is really special!
Of course, the Jewish people being the sorts of people we all are, didn't chose to focus on the liberating aspects of God's cleanliness laws, but instead they eventually focused on doing everything they could to avoid being unclean. The laws did say that if you touch something or someone that was unclean that uncleanliness extended to you. This is true. But what began happening was that Jews, especially very religious Jews, began avoiding others out of religious self-preservation. In fact, by Jesus' day things related to cleanliness were really out of hand. No one was focusing on the fact that the processes of cleansing were purposed to lead people back to God. The primary focus of anyone that was a seriously religious Jew became how to avoid any possibility of having anyone else's uncleanliness ruin your 'holiness.' For instance, we know that by Jesus' day most rabbis did everything in their power to never come into contact with any women, because you never knew if a woman might be having her period and if you happened to brush against her, and it was her time of the month, or she brushed against you, or you touched a jar she'd touched or you sat on something she'd sat on, you'd have to wash all of your clothes, and you'd have to avoid contaminating other people and you couldn't go to the temple and you were unclean until you'd done all of the cleansing rituals related to menstrual uncleanliness and no self-respecting, religious man wanted to take those kinds of chances. So, women were simply something to avoid like the plague!
But Rabbi Jesus would have nothing to do with this sort of thing. Jesus, rather than doing his best to avoid touching others out of fear that he would take on their uncleanliness, he reached out his hands and touched lepers; he allowed himself to be touched by a woman who had struggled with a bleeding issue for twelve years. He even took the hands of dead people, the most unclean thing a rabbi could have touched, and he gave them life. I said earlier that being unclean wasn't a moral issue; it was a physical issue. But by Jesus' day the Jewish religious leaders had turned all physical maladies into moral issues; they'd gone so far as to create an intricate system that linked specific sins to all circumstances that led to uncleanliness. But Jesus rejected all of this, as well. When he reached out and healed people, he also made certain that everyone knew that their sins had been forgiven. He made those who were left out of the sacred life of the nation clean in body and soul, he made them ready to be with God and ready to be used by God. And his death and resurrection also made it possible for us to live our entire lives ready to be used by God and ready to be with God, Jesus made it possible for us to become God's tent where His Spirit can live right in the middle of our lives. And so here is my advice: if you find yourself struggling with reading through this part of the Bible, if these long passages about scabby sores and mildewed clothing cause you to lose steam, just keep in mind that it would have been good news to the Jews to know that God had made a way for them to return to him. And then remind yourself that ultimately, the Bible is telling you the good news that Jesus made it possible for everyone, Jews and Gentiles, men and women and slave or free, all of us, Jesus made it possible for everyone to return to God and be clean for eternity, The entire arc of the scripture is this: Jesus, by taking on our unholiness made it possible for us to live the life we were created to live; Jesus, by taking on our uncleanliness made it possible for us to live today in the literal presence of God. Jesus made it possible for us to live in the distinctive ways that reflect all that God intended for us when he first made mankind, Jesus has made it possible for us, as much as we can this side of eternity, to return to Eden!