Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cleanness and Uncleanness

Leviticus 11-17


When I was in college, I remember a professor telling us one day in class that he had learned that not all cultures around the world have a distinction between good and evil, but all cultures do have a distinction between clean and unclean. This professor then speculated that maybe the clean/unclean distinction was more basic than a good/evil distinction. It is only sometimes that a culture will develop out of the pragmatic clean/unclean distinction the moral good/evil distinction.


When we read moral connotations onto the clean/unclean distinction, that is because we come from a culture that does have a strong good/evil distinction as well. Having this latter distinction, we sometimes use clean/unclean as a metaphor for the basic moral distinction.


But we wouldn’t have to regard cleanness/uncleanness as any more than a pragmatic issue impacting on health and aesthetics. In fact, in many contexts, we do not regard it as more than this. When a child comes into the house with dirty hands and feet from playing in the mud, we normally don’t regard him or her as having done moral wrong. Kids play in the mud. We still ask them to wipe their feet and wash their hands, but that’s just so they won’t muddy the carpets or contaminate their food.


So, as I read the chapters in Leviticus (11-15) on cleanness and rituals of purification, this part does not seem very different from our current views. Some of the details may vary, but, in spirit, we continue to follow rituals of purification in an attempt to prevent contagion and contamination.


It is interesting that the rules in Leviticus also address clothing and houses! While the passage about houses may seem strange (Lev 14:34-53), I cannot help but think of the “rituals” we follow for asbestos removal, or the “rituals” we are to follow if the carbon monoxide detector should go off, or if a gas leak is detected.


Leviticus 16 begins with a reference back to the death of Aaron’s two sons: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died” (Lev 16:1). I quote this passage because it offers a somewhat different interpretation of why they died: they drew too near the Lord.


The rest of this chapter is about the rituals for the Day of Atonement, and shows the origins of the notion of “scapegoat.” The “scapegoat” is not sacrificed, but is presented alive before the Lord. The priest confesses over it all of the sins of the people, and then the goat is sent out into the wilderness, carrying those sins away (Lev 16:7-10, 20-22).

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