Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ritual Purity and the Miracles of Jesus

Within the Torah-observant Jewish community, various sorts of conditions caused ritual impurity, including touching the dead (Lv. 11:29-40; Nu. 5:1-3; 19:11ff.), skin abnormalities (Lv. 13; Nu. 5:1) and contact with blood or bodily discharge (Lv. 12; 15). Further, such ritual impurity was transferable by secondary contact (cf. Hg. 2:10-13). In a practical sense, ritual impurity called for quarantine. Indeed, the so-called “four room house”, an Israelite arrangement of rooms around a central court which began to appear as early as the 10th century BC, may well have been designed especially with ritual impurity in mind, since it was an architectural form that permitted quarantine without rendering the whole house inaccessible. This form was unique to Israel, and some archaeologists simply call it the “Israelite house”. Another practical outcome of ritual impurity was isolation from the temple (or tabernacle), and later, the synagogue. Even appearing in a public place was problematic, since the condition of impurity could be passed on to anyone who touched the impure person, whether intentionally or by accident (cf. Lv. 5:3). Typically, Jews in the time of Jesus avoided all such contact.

Imagine, then, the unrelenting anguish of the woman in Matthew’s Gospel who had a chronic hemorrhage. She could never enter the women’s court of the temple during the annual haggim. She could never attend the synagogue in her local village. Her access to community spiritual life was completely barred. Her association with close family members—even sons or daughters—would be significantly curtailed. She was isolated and ostracized. The same could be said of lepers (and here, one must not limit the condition to Hansen’s Disease) as well as a variety of other people with chronic conditions.

Again and again in the gospels, Jesus crossed this barrier of ritual impurity in order to minister to those caught in conditions where there seemed no way out. The point, of course—the really important point—is that instead of ritual impurity transferring over to Jesus, his perfect sanctity was transferred over to them. In healing the man with leprosy, instead of the ritual uncleanness being transferred to Jesus (cf. Lv. 5:3), the sanctity of Jesus was transferred to the leper (Mt. 8:1-4). In his robe being touched by the woman with the hemorrhage, the ritual uncleanness of contact with blood was reversed by Jesus’ miracle of healing (Mt. 9:20-22). I can only imagine the desperation of this poor woman as she edged her way into the crowd surrounding Jesus, taking huge personal risks of rejection and even physical reprisals, to reach out so that she might only touch the edge of his cloak from behind him. In the same narrative, when Jesus touched the dead girl, he reversed the ritual uncleanness of contact with a corpse by raising her to life (Mt. 9:25).

Awareness of these very Jewish issues in the 1st century sheds new light on the ministry of our Lord. Indeed, it would not be farfetched to suggest that these very incidents would later become even more meaningful when the early Christians began reaching beyond their traditional boundaries with the gospel. Peter, for instance, traveled up the coast and stayed at the home of a tanner (Ac. 9:43). This was no small thing! Tanners, by virtue of their occupation, had continual contact with blood. In lists of despised occupations for Jews (given several times in the Talmud), tanners were near the bottom along with dung-collectors and others whose livelihood rendered them unclean! Yet Peter had come far enough to actual stay with a tanner, and it was while staying there that he had the vision of unclean animals and the voice from heaven telling him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean!” In no category is this issue more telling than in the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles, who once were alienated from the citizenship of Israel, foreigners to the covenants, without hope and without God—but those once far away have been brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ!


  1. The willingness of Jesus to cross boundaries of ritual purity to heal, exorcise, and raise the dead is a great example of the practical attitude that Jesus took to the sometimes conflicting requirements of the Torah. Jesus did not "violate" the rules of ritual purity because he did not believe or practice them. Rather he "touched the unclean" in spite of his observance of ritual purity laws.

    Jesus pronounced woe upon the scribes and Pharisees who tithed in the smallest matters, but often forgot the "weightier matters of the law" (Matthew 23:23). This criticism did not mean that Jesus rejected tithing - "these things you ought to do" - but that he recognized that some parts of the law carried a higher level of obligation. To love God and one's neighbor often demands more than just observing religious rules. It often means active engagement, even sacrificial commitment, to the lives of others. It involves a readiness to serve, a willingness to give, and an undying capacity to forgive.

    In Mark 7 - a lengthy discussion about the obligations of ritual purity - Jesus prioritizes among Torah obligations. The scribes and the Pharisees - in this very non-favorable depiction - argued that a "gift to God" (Corban) - a vow of promise to devote monies and resources to God - outweighs the obligation to care for elderly parents - that is, a vow to God takes the highest priority of Torah obligations even over "honoring father and mother." In no uncertain terms, Jesus condemned this view as "a rejection of the commandment of God." Torah obligations do sometimes conflict, he argued, but it is self-evident which obligation takes priority. Anything else is self-deception and self-justification.

    It is exactly this kind of prioritizing among conflicting Torah obligations that led Jesus to "step beyond" the rules of ritual purity to touch and heal the "unclean." His actions did not reject ritual purity. Rather his actions affirmed that love of one's neighbor - a Torah obligation from Leviticus 19:19 - "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." - outweighs the valid, but less important, rules of ritual purity.

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