Monday, June 27, 2011

Clean or Unclean

The unclean foods and purity laws of Leviticus might seem at first glance seem to contradict the idea that morality is always a matter of someone's intentions (Lev. 11-16).  After all, in Leviticus simply touching something makes you unclean.  There are other instances where a person's intentions seem to be good and their touch gets them in trouble.  In 2 Samuel 6, a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and died immediately.  Similarly, at Mt. Sinai, any animal that might have touched the mountain was to be killed (Exod. 19:13).

But as with all issues, we cannot simply appropriate one passage without consulting the rest of the Bible.  Similarly, the books of the Bible are in everyday language and categories, which means that it does not express things with philosophical precision, just as it does not express things with scientific or what we would consider historical precision.  When we turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul saying that "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14).

Paul's claim--quite surprising in the light of Leviticus--is that food in itself is morally neutral.  It is the way a person thinks about the food--his or her moral intent--that makes the food clean or unclean.  The matter itself is morally neutral.  We can accommodate the Old Testament by saying that, during the period of the Old Testament, God considered certain foods and actions to be "unclean" in his dealings with Israel.  But in the New Testament, God "declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19), now making them clean.

Why did God consider them unclean?  In itself this question potentially tells us a great deal about how God relates to the world.  The instructions on animals with certain hooves or not having fins and scales seem ridiculous to us today.  One explanation that has made sense to our modern mind is that these rules had to do with hygiene, and this explanation does go back at least to the time of Jesus.

However, explanations that make sense to us are as often as not anachronistic.  A much more likely explanation in light of the ancient world is that these laws mirrored the way the ancient Israelites viewed the world in their socio-cultural context. [1]  In other words, rather than God instituting arbitrary rules, these laws reflected God meeting the Israelites within the categories of their own day.

The food laws all imply a certain order to the Israelite world.  Things in the sea should have fins and scales.  Birds should fly.  Blood is a power that should stay inside the body.  Israelites are shepherds; other nations herd pigs.  The holiness codes of Leviticus thus reflect the lines Israel drew around their world, just as all cultures draw lines and boundaries around their worlds. [2]  These laws thus set Israel apart from the nations around them that served other gods.  When the gospel expanded to the whole world, these boundaries became more of a hindrance than a help, and so the New Testament in effect revokes them.

But of course, though Paul takes this position on food, he does not say that everything is either clean or unclean because of how we think about it.  For example, it is doubtful Paul would have talked about sexual immorality in this way.  But again, Paul's writings are letters, not philosophy books.  We can still extend the basic principle and account for what he says about sexual immorality in a more precise way.

The key is to bring God into the picture as we did with Leviticus.  There, it was not the food that was moral in  nature, but the fact that God at that time was declaring those foods unclean for Israel, meeting them within their categories, taking on their flesh, so to speak--incarnating the truth.  It is thus possible that certain sexual actions would remain "unclean" in the New Testament era because God considered them unclean, regardless of the intentions of those involved (e.g., sleeping with your step-mother; 1 Cor. 5).

But we are arguing, once again, that it is not the act itself or things themselves that are unclean or morally wrong.  Rather, it is either what God thinks about those acts and events or what we intend about those acts that makes them either morally good or evil.  And here the principle is once again love.  Can a person ever act in love toward his or her spouse and have an affair?  Highly doubtful.  Therefore, cheating on one's spouse is always a morally evil act--not because of the act itself, but because of the intention involved.

[1] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.

[2] See The Social Construction of Reality


Dick Norton said...

It sounds like you are saying that Israel made God in their image rather than the other way around. The love principle is fine, and very applicable in most cases, but where we find that love could work in two directions we need God's Word about the matter, and love takes a second seat. Only the God who is Love knows what is best, and His Word is top priority. Even in the O.T. times!

Ken Schenck said...

I know it sounds like that but I do not mean it in a minimalist, Feuerbachian way. I'm saying that God has always met us where we were and then moved us from there.

Ever since college, I have been completely amazed that Jesus and especially Paul take the stances they do toward things like food and Sabbath. I think you would agree that the food laws must have been God meeting Israel where they were in some sense, since the NT completely abandons this part of the holiness code.

I also accept that there may be "laws" that strictly involve loving God that do not involve loving neighbor. For example, narcissism does not clearly violate love of neighbor, but it is clearly ungodly.

Jason A. Staples said...

I think it might also be helpful to draw the distinction between ceremonial cleanness and morality, a line that too many Christian interpreters blur. It was not sinful to be unclean, and becoming unclean did not denote one being sinful. Rather, the purity code has to do with being in the presence of God, set apart from what is common or unclean. This helps account for how the purity code could be deemphasized in light of the expansion of God's presence among (and to) the nations, while such movement was not possible for moral categories.

π² said...

Jason, your comment reminded me of the first time I really had to make this distinction between being sinful and being unclean. As a youth pastor, one of the teens (9th grade boy of course)asked me if it was a sin to be a cannibal. We went through the Law and figured that is was a sin to murder to a person, but if one happened upon a dead body, cannibalism would make the person unclean, either by touching the corpse, consuming the blood, or eating meat that didn't have split hooves and chew cud. Another teaching moment from an adolescent. Not all things gross are sin, but also not all things that are not sin are worth doing.

Dick Norton said...

Bringing it down to a present day hot topic, did God meet the folks of Moses' day in their own culture and agree that homosexuality is wrong, and even in Paul's day (Romans 1), but now it's OK to live a homosexual lifestyle as long as the partners love each other?

Ken Schenck said...

Dick, homosexual practice would fit into the same category as sleeping with your step-mother. It does not clearly violate love of neighbor. It's consequences outside of the two individuals themselves are unclear. But if God gives it the assignation of wrong, then it is wrong.

Jason, I do indeed find the distinction between moral and ceremonial law very valuable in hindsight as a way of processing what of OT Law remains in force and what does not. However, in the world of Leviticus the distinction is far from clear. After all, do we not even still use the metaphor of "cleansing" sins?

It seems to me that it is exactly the prophets who begin to make this distinction, pushing against an ethos in Israel that viewed sacrifices as somehow ex opera operata.

My thoughts at least...

Jason A. Staples said...

Ken, it's certainly true that there is some overlap in the terminology, with "clean," "atone," "cleanse," and the like being applied to each one. But I'm not so sure the distinction between the two was a late prophetic distinction. There's a lot of meat on that bone to chew on, however.

As far as homosexuality goes, I'm not sure the Levitical/Torah perspective is that it doesn't violate the love of neighbor (likewise sleeping with one's stepmother). The fact that it is called תועבה ("abomination" or "outrage") suggests otherwise, inasmuch as this is a very serious (and not especially oft-used) word akin to the Greek ὕβρις. Given that, at the very least it falls under a violation of "love of God," and I think it'd be hard to argue that something labeled תועבה is not to be understood as a violation of love of neighbor as well.

Patrick said...

I think the "unclean" aspect of the dietary laws may have been literal.

For example, those kosher foods there are what our doctors urge us to eat today and the unclean he tells us to avoid.

My question used to be then, why was it unclean/wrong to eat pre Christ and not post Christ?

I have come to believe it is an example of the "now and not yet" tension between inaugurated and fulfilled eschatology NT Wright talks about.

It's a firstfruits of the restoration in other words.

Because of Christ, now even before the final act of God for man, He has already given us this "freebie" as 1 example?