WORSHIP AS SEPARATION
Leviticus 11–15 “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 11:47).A number of Old Testament laws seem to have as their main purpose establishing a unique lifestyle for God’s people. The Israelites were reminded constantly of their relationship with the Lord and their difference from all other peoples on earth.
Definition of Key Terms
Clean and unclean. The Hebrew word taher means “to be or become clean, pure.” Tame’ means “to be or become unclean, defiled.” In Leviticus, as in Numbers and Ezekiel, these words have a ritual or ceremonial association. “Clean” persons were permitted to participate fully in Israel’s rites of worship. Persons who were temporarily “unclean” were not allowed to join the community in worship or to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the Lord. In some cases a person was physically isolated from others while he or she was unclean. Only later, in the Prophets, does the Bible employ “clean” and “unclean” to describe a person’s moral condition. In these chapters, clean and unclean are not “good” or “bad” in any moral sense, nor are they intrinsically “right” or “wrong,” even though ignoring any of God’s laws would be sin for Israel. In Leviticus, cleanness regulations showed God’s people that the Lord was intimately involved in their everyday lives-He was concerned with what they ate, with their sicknesses, with birth and death, and with practices that promoted public health. In a very real way these regulations did set Israel apart, and demonstrated that the nation was to be separated unto the Lord. Separation. The basic idea is to remove something from something else, and thus make a distinction between them. The relationship of separation to the many laws found in this section is defined in Leviticus 20:24–25, where God explained, “I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations. You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds.” The sometimes peculiar practices described in these chapters of Leviticus were intended to constantly remind God’s people that they were different from all other nations because of their personal relationship with the Lord.
Laws were intended to set the Israelites apart from other peoples, regulate their diet (11:1–47), and cleanse them from ritual impurity (12:1–8). To guard Israel’s health, those with infectious skin diseases were isolated (13:1–46), and mildewed clothing was burned (vv. 47–59). A ritual of cleansing was provided for those who recovered from a skin disease (14:1–32), while recurrent mildew in a house required that it be abandoned (vv. 33–57). Various bodily discharges that made persons ritually unclean called for cleansing (15:1–33).
Understanding the Text
“These are the ones you may eat” Lev. 11:1–47 . Three theories have been advanced to explain these dietary regulations. (1) They were intended to help Israel avoid pagan sacrificial rites. (2) They were intended to guide Israel to comparatively healthy sources of food, and to help Israel avoid animals more likely to transmit disease. (3) They were intended to help Israel maintain its separation from other nations by keeping the Jews constantly aware of their obligation to follow every command of God. Christians are not required to follow Old Testament dietary laws (cf. Acts 10:9–22; Gal. 2:11–16). Our separation is to be internal, and cannot be defined by what we eat or by any other morally neutral practices. Yet we are to be aware at all times, as was Israel, that we are a people set apart to God. He is intimately concerned with everything that happens in our daily lives. “The woman who gives birth” Lev. 12:1–8. The uncleanness is not caused by the child, but by the discharge of blood and fluids associated with childbirth (see 15:1–33). Here the purification rites call for an animal sacrifice as well as washing with water. Note that the poor (12:8) are not required to bring a lamb, but only two doves or young pigeons. This was Mary’s offering when she fulfilled these rites after Jesus’ birth. Christ was not only born a true human being, He was born into a family living on the verge of poverty. “An infectious skin disease” Lev. 13:1–46. Older versions translate sara’at as “leprosy.” The word actually means any disease of the skin, and was extended to indicate mildew or rot which appeared on clothing or the walls of a building. When any rash or swelling appeared on a person’s skin, he or she was responsible to show it to the priest, in case it might become an infectious skin disease. If it were, the infected individual remained unclean and “must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” This regulation reminds us that even an animal sacrificed to God must be without blemish. Symbolically it speaks of the purity of life that Christ died to provide for us. Ephesians 5:25–27 tells us that Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” While laws concerning infectious skin disease had a similar symbolic message for Israel, these laws also served a practical public health purpose. Isolation protected God’s own from many plagues that devastated other ancient peoples. CLEAN AND UNCLEAN FOODS
“The time of his ceremonial cleansing” Lev. 14:1–57. Cleansing regulations also contributed to Israel’s public health. Before a person who had recovered from an infectious skin disease could return to the community, he was to shave off his hair and thoroughly wash his clothes and his body. In addition the person was to bring sin, burnt, and guilt offerings. Note that the officiating priest was to smear sacrificial blood on the right ear, thumb, and big toe of the worshiper, just as was done in ordaining priests. The layman as well as the minister is to hear and respond to God’s voice, to commit himself to active service, and to walk in God’s ways. “It must be torn down” Lev. 14:33–57. A house in which mildew keeps on recurring must be abandoned. There is no similar regulation for a human being. For you and me, God always holds out welcoming arms. All we need do is turn from our sin, confess it, and God will “forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “When any man has a bodily discharge” Lev. 15:1–33. Any sort of bodily discharge made an Israelite ritually unclean. Anything an unclean person touched, as well as his clothing, also became unclean. Persons and clothing had to be washed in water, and were unclean “till evening.” Evening is specified, as the Hebrews considered evening the end of one day and the beginning of the next. Again these regulations had public health value. But they had at least one other implication. Pagan religions typically coupled worship of deities with sexual intercourse, and often involved male and female cult prostitutes. But in Israel, a discharge of male semen made both the man and woman ritually unclean (cf. vv. 2, 16, 32). And no ritually unclean person was permitted to take part in the worship of the Lord! In this way God made it clear He is concerned with moral purity. Worship of the Lord was to be uncorrupted by perverted pagan practices.
Separation Today (Lev. 11)
When I was a new Christian I became involved in a little Baptist church that took an approach to Christian faith that was similar to Israel’s separation laws. We had lists of things that a Christian did and did not do; things that set us apart from others. Teens carried red-covered Bibles to high school. None of us went to movies, smoked, danced, drank alcohol, or uttered a cuss word. We all came to church two times on Sunday and on Wednesday nights as well. Despite what some may think, it wasn’t a burden for me to live by those rules. I followed them joyfully, for in that same church I found warmth, acceptance, nurture, enthusiasm, commitment, fervent prayer, and an honest caring for one another as well as for the eternal destiny of our neighbors. It was only later that I came to realize the truth. Our very real “separation” wasn’t defined by the do’s and don’ts at all. What really made us different and set us apart as a true community of God’s people on earth was the warmth, the caring, and the commitment that we shared as we met to love Jesus and each other. The death of Jesus canceled the regulations that governed Israel, and made them irrelevant for us today. But God’s people are still supposed to be different, set apart from all others. And the difference God truly cares about is a difference marked by the love, the caring, and the commitment that I experienced in that first church I joined, so long ago.
Separation to God is a matter of the heart. Let what makes you different from others be something truly important.