Thursday, October 18, 2007

Defilement: an alien concept that permeates the Bible

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

       "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
          the whole earth is full of his glory!"

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."

       Isaiah 6:1-81
In this text, Isaiah employs the language of defilement (crying out that he is an unclean representative of an unclean people); whereas the seraphim employs the language of sin ("your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for").

With that observation, we are plunged into the topic that I want to explore in a series of posts.


Defilement and sin are discrete, if overlapping, constructs. Contemporary Christians living in the West rarely give careful thought to defilement. And yet it appears again and again throughout every part of the Bible — including the New Testament!
If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. … [For] the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1Co. 7:12-14)
What?! But … but … but … I thought that was old covenant talk!

And indeed, I confess that I don't understand the text I've just quoted. Sin and atonement, I understand. But defilement as a contagion that is passed on from parent to child? What are the implications of 1Co. 7 for a child who dies? Did Christ's atonement address the problem of uncleanness as well as the problem of sin?

I am embarking on this series of posts because I have only a partial understanding of the sociological construct, defilement, and yet it permeates the Bible. I don't know yet what conclusions will emerge from the study. I don't have settled convictions at this point; I only have questions.

We don't attend to defilement for two reasons. First, it is utterly alien to us, as will become clear in the next section.

Second, references to defilement are easily "translated" and regarded as references to sin. This is precisely what we see in the Isaiah 6 text, when the language shifts from Isaiah's uncleanness to his guilt and sin. We engage in this sort of "translation" all the time without ever pausing to consider what we're doing.

But there's an interpretive problem lurking in the shadows here. We need to shed some light on it.

Too broad, too narrow, and unbalanced:

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur will be our guide as we consider the topic:  primarily The Symbolism of Evil, a book-length examination of defilement, sin, and guilt.

In the book's first chapter, Ricoeur explains why we are so befuddled by defilement. He writes, "The repertory of defilement appears to us sometimes too broad, sometimes too narrow, or unbalanced."2

1. Too broad:

By "too broad", Ricoeur means that the category, sources of defilement, contains some things that seem perfectly innocent to us. And so they are:  for "innocent" is the language of sin, but defilement is oriented to a different set of concerns.

Ricoeur offers two non-biblical examples of sources of defilement:  "the frog that leaps into the fire [and] the hyena that leaves its excrements in the neighborhood of a tent." Biblical parallels are easily supplied. For example, "You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness" (Lev. 18:19).

Note that the text does not merely forbid sexual relations during a woman's period; it says that the woman is unclean during her period. Rabbis later forebade any physical contact with women. You never know whether a woman is menstruating; thus she must always be regarded as a source of defilement. You can't even shake hands with her.

Once again, we find ourselves stammering incoherently, but … but … but. Avoiding physical contact with a woman because it might lead to lust and sexual immorality — that we understand. But this? This is alien to our way of thinking.

We're shocked to see that intent isn't taken into consideration. For example, in English law there is no culpability unless the guilty act (actus reus) is accompanied by the guilty mind (mens rea). That makes sense to us. But defilement is often involuntary, as with menstruation. According to Lev. 18:19, a woman becomes unclean by virtue of her period even though she has no choice in the matter.

We're also shocked because menstruation is a natural biological function, essential to reproduction — part of God's design! Why should a menstruating woman be regarded as unclean and therefore to be spurned? In this instance, the category is too broad for our liking.

2. Too narrow:

In other instances, the category is too narrow. The impurity / defilement system gives short shrift to misdeeds that we regard as serious offences. According to Ricoeur, theft, lying, and sometimes even homicide are not regarded as sources of defilement.

But you can't say that about the Bible, can you? The sorts of ethical concerns mentioned by Ricoeur are ubiquitous in scripture, appearing alongside the parallel interest in defilement. Indeed, the legal texts surprise us by not making a distinction between deeds that we would separate into different categories. Leviticus 19, for example, says (1) Don't hate your brother; (2) Don't wear a garment made of two different kinds of cloth; (3) When you plant a tree, don't eat its fruit prior to the fifth year; and (4) Don't interpret omens or tell fortunes.

From our perspective, this is a grab-bag of disparate concerns. But at least some of the items on the list (love for one's kinfolk; abstaining from occult practices) strike us as matters of "real" moral consequence. No part of the Bible is concerned exclusively with defilement; sin is an ever-present preoccupation of the biblical texts.

And yet — if you stop to think about this, you realize that Ricoeur's observation is relevant to some very serious theological problems. How could Abraham have lied (twice!), saying that Sarah wasn't his wife? Why does polygamy appear to be an accepted practice in many parts of the Old Testament? How is it possible that a Psalm (used in worship!) should conclude with the benediction, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little [children] / and dashes them against the rock"?!

And how did the Pharisees get things so ass-backwards (from our perspective)?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Mt. 23:23)
Here Ricoeur's observation begins to shed light on the biblical texts. The purity / defilement system can absorb major ethical lapses without blinking. The category, sources of defilement, seems to us to be too narrow. Some very significant offences are left off the list.

On the one hand, the "repertory" of defilement is too broad:  it includes things that ought not to be there, in our view. On the other hand, the category is too narrow:  some very significant things are left out.

[More to come! Because of the length of this post, I've decided to divide it into two parts. Part two is already basically written. I will probably publish it on Sunday evening.]

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, transl. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 26. The material following the quote is a summary of pp. 26-29.

1 comment:

John said...

This is a very helpful post, Stephen. I look forward to Part Two.