Reading long passages of laws about ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, things, people etc. doesn’t feel like the most fruitful part of the Bible. Part of the problem is that we just don’t have the categories of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ any more. We tend to blur them with ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘innocent’ and ‘sinful’, but it’s not that straightforward.
Cleanness and uncleanness in the Old Testament aren’t about innocence and guilt, or anything like that. After all, the last few days’ chapters have had a lot to say about sacrifices for guilt and sin. This is something different. Uncleanness is something which doesn’t necessarily have a moral character, but which prevents someone from coming into God’s presence in prayer and worship. When we realise that, then perhaps we’re freed from the fruitless effort to find logic in the things which are ‘unclean’. Admittedly, with some of them (some of the dietary laws, and the rules on contagious skin diseases) we can see links to reasons of health, but others are, as far as I can see, completely arbitrary.
Like the whole system of offerings and sacrifices, they serve only to extend the reach of ‘religion’ into ordinary life, where it belongs one way or another. Obedience to God isn’t just for some special spiritual realm. It’s part of the whole of life. And if we know what God has commanded, even if it doesn’t make sense, we should obey.
Thankfully, the laws of cleanness and uncleanness have long since ceased to hold any authority for Christians – ever since Jesus’ death and resurrection. They still, though, have a hold in parts of our culture – as evidenced by the persistence of the idea among a few people that women need to be ‘churched’ after childbirth before they can take a full part in the life of the community. It’s an idea which is on the way out, but it’s not long since someone (in another parish!) suggested to me that we revive the practice as part of our mission and outreach to the community…
Our inner ‘unclean’ censor…
It occurs to me, though, that we still tend to carry ideas akin to those of ‘unclean’ in our subconscious. There are things we expect of other people – especially Christians – for which we’d find it hard to explain a real reason. We just know that some kinds of behaviour/language/friendship/dress/music are ‘unclean’ – we’re not sure that they’re morally wrong, but they just feel wrong. Surely, if we’re not still working with the laws on clean and unclean which God gave to Moses, we should be celebrating our freedom, not inventing new ‘in’ and ‘out’ lines of our own.
Where are my unconscious ideas of ‘unclean’? Where in my life can I learn to value exactly the fact that today’s reading is mostly not relevant to me?