What I Learned from Leviticus: Part 2

The Bible is the compost pile that provides material for new life. I do not use this figure as an irreverent metaphor to suggest that the Bible is “garbage.” Rather, I use it to suggest that the Bible itself is not the actual place of new growth. Our present life, when we undertake new growth, is often inadequate, arid, or even barren. It needs to be enriched, and for that enrichment, we go back to the deposits of old growth that have been discarded, but that continue to ferment and may contain resources for a way to new life.

–Walter Brueggemann (The quote was brought to my attention by this blog, which is full of awesome.  I highly recommend it.)

So…I guess I haven’t really written for a while.  I’ve been too busy failing Greek.  You know, life would be so much easier if God had created me to be a super genius instead of a total spazz who has neither the time nor the inclination to study for things.  In the time I might have drilled Greek grammar rules (who are we kidding?  I don’t know English grammar, and I’m fairly fluent in that) I instead tried to get my more brilliant classmates to pass their knowledge unto me via some sort of mental diffusion, or maybe magically like in the Highlander–the cartoon version where nobody died because I love my classmates, and I love not stabbing them with swords.  So far my attempts have proven unsuccessful.  It’s just as well.  I was never much good at science or swordplay either.

Anyway, I suppose now is as good a time as any to take another look at Leviticus and what it has to say about bodily discharges.  Yes, I know.  It’s a joyous day for one and all.  In case Leviticus 15 and 18 aren’t nightly reading for you, then what I want to know is, WHY the heck NOT?!  Just kidding.  Here’s the skinny: If you’re a woman on your period or a woman who is discharging things after giving birth, you are unclean and shall remain unclean until the leaking stops, at which time you may rejoin the community.  It seems pretty straightforward, but the Bible’s designation of a woman’s natural bodily processes as ritually “unclean” is problematic for egalitarian Christians.  In my paper on Leviticus I wanted to take a look at these passages to try to shed some light on what part they play in the message of the gospel.

It might be a sort of funny idea, but if the entirety of the Bible really is God’s word to us, then the gospel ought to be present in Leviticus just as it is in John, oughtn’t it?  Now as entertaining as it no doubt would be, this post isn’t primarily about my conclusions about bodily discharges.  However, for kicks, I will summarize my thesis thusly: The Bible’s ambivalent treatment of the womb, as both the source of life and the source of defilement, is part of the larger theme of Israel’s national crisis, living as a people accursed and in exile but also as a people looking forward to the promise of Zion. 

Eh.  I probably said it better in my paper, so I will go ahead and plagiarize myself: “In participating in the purity rituals of separating themselves for prescribed periods of time and then rejoining the cult, Israelite women symbolically lived and relived the journey from wilderness to restoration.  In fact, the Israelite people as a whole experienced the fracturing of their community every time a member was pronounced unclean only to find their wholeness renewed as the once unclean members were declared clean and allowed to rejoin the cult.  This, on a smaller scale, is an exemplification of the Israelite’s journey through exile to redemption.  Under the levitical mandate, the menstruants’ and postpartum women’s separation from and reestablishment into the community recall, like menstruation and lochial discharge themselves, the brokenness of the present and the promise of future restoration.”  (Apparently, I like colons today.  Who knew?  I am a constant source of delight and surprise.)  If you’re unimpressed with this summation of my argument, keep in mind that this comes at the end of 14 pages or so of rambling wherein I may have made one or two more salient points, so don’t be too judgy (judgey?  I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE!  Can you see what Greek has done to me?  My linguistic confidence is just shot.)

If that was completely incomprehensible, that’s totally okay.  Because I don’t want to focus so much on what I thought about Leviticus as on how I thought what I thought about Leviticus.  I am not a biblical literalist (a misnomer if there ever was one, but I think it does the job of communicating what I am not) nor am I an inerrantist.  I don’t know that there exists a label for my biblical philosophy.  B has suggested that I’m an “errantist” but that’s just because he’s cheeky and immune to my death glare.  Basically, I believe that the Bible was written by human men (mostly–Hebrews is always a question) who were inspired by God, not so much in that He told them all what to write, but in that they wrote what they did as an act of worship to God as they understood Him.  Some of what they wrote is good, and some of it is basically horrifying, but all of it is important because God, out of all the myths and all the laws and all the histories in all the world, chose these Hebrew stories to communicate something to His people.  I realize that this understanding probably puts me way outside the evangelical norm, but nobody’s ever accused me of being normal, so that’s okay.  Reading the Bible this way might seem scary and/or strange, but I feel like it opens up new and exciting ways to learn from and to be challenged by scripture.  In particular, books like Leviticus that literalism/inerrancy doesn’t really know what to do with can come alive when they aren’t read as a direct revelation from on high but rather as a very human attempt to grasp and concrete-ize (that seriously should be a word) the holiness of God.

Still with me?  Never were?  Great!  As I was researching for my paper I came across a pretty well-known book by an anthropologist named Mary Douglas.  Her seminal work, Purity and Danger, really got my wheels turning when she theorized that the purity regulations were more about Israel keeping classes of things separate than they were about condemning certain foods or bodily functions.  For instance, meat and dairy were to be kept separate because they are different kinds of things.  Fish could be eaten because they swim properly in the water, where as eels do a strange slithery thing and so cannot be classed with the fish. For this reason, eels are unclean and cannot be eaten.  In a similar vein Douglas speculates that vaginal discharge, as well as seminal emissions, were considered unclean because they blur the line between life and death–seed that falls to the ground unused.  Because menstruation represents a state of being that is between life and death, it is dangerous and therefore unclean.

Upon reading this, I started to wonder if maybe I had been asking the wrong questions all along.  I had wanted to know why God would treat women so shabbily and why equality hadn’t been more of a priority for Him in His word.  But after reading Purity and Danger I started to ponder things differently.  The levitical mandates might seem gynophobic, and they might in fact even be gynophobic, but perhaps I had been reading them unfairly–applying a standard to them that was well beside the point they were trying to make.  I wanted them to be egalitarian, but the writers of the law weren’t concerned with the essential equality of men and women.  They were concerned with the holiness of God and how Israel, as a people, could reflect that holiness in their daily lives.  They needed to be perfect and pristine, as God is perfect and pristine, and so perhaps they used their culture’s ideas of pollution to make that point so that they could constantly meditate on the perfection and wholeness of God.

That makes sense to me.  And moreover, it’s a reading of Leviticus that makes the book relevant to my spiritual life instead of an antique manuscript that belongs in a museum.  I’m no longer relegated to saying, “Look what God told those people to do a long, long time ago!  Aren’t you glad that you aren’t them?”  Rather, I can ask myself how I understand God’s holiness and how I can meditate and reflect that in the way I choose to live my life.  I can look from my own perspective, thousands of years after the writing of those laws, and consider the ways that maybe they saw God more clearly than I do and also the ways they might have been culturally blinded.  Mayhap I could even attempt to take the log out of my own eye and try to suss out where I’m getting God all wrong.  I may not be successful–eye surgery is a tricky business, after all–but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Is this the “right” way to read the Bible?  I have no fracking idea.  I really don’t.  This is just the way I’m learning to read it, and so far, it’s been helpful.  When I come across a difficult passage and I’ve tried to contextualize it as much as seems wise, I ask first, “What could the writer possibly want to accomplish here?  What question is he trying to answer?”  That’s been tremendously helpful when I feel the urge to flare up in righteous anger over the temple regulations, for instance, that prohibit the socially disenfranchised, the handicapped, and the disfigured from approaching the innermost sanctums of God’s house.  Instead of putting on my social crusader hat and demanding an account from God as to why He would exclude from His presence the people who needed His love and approval the most, I do my best to see it from the perspective of an ancient Jew.  How would they have seen these restrictions?  Perhaps since God is perfect, they felt that only (physically) perfect people should approach very near to Him.  From my vantage point, I can say with some degree of arrogance and self-deprecation, that while it was good to underscore the perfection of God, the ancient Jews might have been a little myopic as to how they went about it. 

There’s a lesson in that, I think.  I think churches today–or at least churches not run by the neo-reformed–are much more keen on highlighting the compassion and mercy of God, and we don’t spend much time thinking about His holiness.  This is a blindness on our part.  No culture, no church get’s everything 100% right.  So while I wish the Bible recorded a little more compassion for people as people and less concern with people as symbols, in the religious sector of life at least, my own religion could probably use a little more ruminating on the nature of God qua God and not just on the nature of what God has done for us.

So reading the Bible as a human book inspired by God and intended by God for His people has a tremendous upside, at least for me.  It’s nice not to have to make excuses for divine commands to slaughter babies or to puzzle through why God has the Israelites treat women, especially conquered women, as objects and rape-able spoils of war in the Old Testament only to elevate their status in the New Testament.  I don’t have to perform literary limbo or try to beat my conscience into submission to the biblically revealed “will of God.”  I can state without equivocation that baby killing is wrong.  Always.  And that God did not and would not command the murder of innocents.  I believe whoever wrote those stories (many of which were probably hyperbolized or didn’t happen at all) was not much concerned with human rights and loving the enemy, but was probably making some other point about God’s love for and preservation of Israel as a people.  Total annihilation of their enemies and victory in battle were perhaps how they understood and pictured God’s being “for them.”  We all see in a mirror dimly.  Even today many Christians take a similar view when it comes to the war on terror, but again I digress. 

All in all, reading this way has been an enlightening and freeing experience for me.  Sure, it might make things a little more complicated, but it also makes the Bible come more fully alive.  According to me.  Take from that what you will.  Before, I saw the Bible as holy words carved in stone that demanded a plain reading–no nuances, no layers.  It was a flat reading for a flat world.  Now I see it as an interplay between man’s stories and God’s truth, and it’s all woven together and tangled, but it’s multi-dimensional and vibrant.  Science tells me (because we be buds but not really) that only living things can beget life, and now the Bible is well and truly alive for me.  It moves and shifts, feints and dodges, and I may not ever get a real hold on it, but at least I can enjoy the adventure of trying.

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