- Defilement and sin are discrete, albeit overlapping, constructs.
- Christians ought to learn what the references to defilement mean, because such references permeate the Bible (including the New Testament).
- We took the following quote from Paul Ricoeur as a summary statement: "The repertory of defilement appears to us sometimes too broad, sometimes too narrow, or unbalanced."1
- It is too broad (from our perspective) insofar as it contains some matters that seem perfectly innocent.
- Second, it is too narrow insofar as it gives short shrift to misdeeds that we regard as serious offences.
- Third, it is unbalanced —
The purity / defilement system is "unbalanced", Ricoeur tells us. By this he means that relatively inconsequential matters (from our perspective) are regarded as grave.
We have already seen this in the saying attributed to Jesus in Mt. 23 (quoted in part one). Jesus mocked the Pharisees for scrupulously observing the tithe (tithing even their herbs and spices) while neglecting the "weightier" matters of the law.
But Ricoeur doesn't discuss tithing. He focuses on a different characteristic of the "repertory" of defilement: one that has long puzzled me.
One is struck by the importance and the gravity attached to the violation of interdictions of a sexual character in the economy of defilement. The prohibitions against incest, sodomy, abortion, relations at forbidden times — and sometimes places — are so fundamental that the inflation of the sexual is characteristic of the whole system of defilement, so that an indissoluble complicity between sexuality and defilement seems to have been formed from time immemorial. (p. 28)To illustrate Ricoeur's observation, I would call attention to 1Co. 6:9-10 —
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.2It seems to me that the Church devotes a disproportionate amount of attention — and emotional voltage — to the sexual sins on Paul's list. For example, I have never heard of a believer being confronted with this text because s/he is greedy. In an acquisitive, capitalist society, am I to suppose there are no greedy people in our churches?
I submit that we do not really believe what Paul says here: that the greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God. On the other hand, we are prepared to believe it with respect to fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals. Those people are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of God's judgement — we know it in our very bones.
Why are we preoccupied by sexual sins? Because the fear of defilement still determines our responses at a deep, unconscious level. We acknowledge that greed is a sin; but homosexual activity elicits a greater emotional response from us because unconsciously we regard it as a defiling sin.3
Conservative Christians may dispute what I have just said. It is clear in their minds — indeed, it is a core part of their identity — that society is wrong when it winks at fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. But even conservatives must recognize the validity of Ricoeur's point when we shift our attention to other biblical texts:
When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.Like the law concerning menstrual uncleanness, this law refers to a matter that is entirely involuntary (since the man is asleep at the time). Moreover, we must surely be struck by the fact that an innocuous sexual matter is regarded as a gravely serious source of defilement.
If any man among you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp. He shall not come inside the camp, but when evening comes, he shall bathe himself in water, and as the sun sets, he may come inside the camp. (Deut. 23:9-11)
Behind the text is an unstated fear that Israel will lose a battle because of one soldier's defilement. Better to have a mighty man of valour sit out the battle than have him fight in a state of uncleanness due to a nocturnal emission!
- Broader, narrower, unbalanced
The purpose of this post was to demonstrate that defilement and sin are discrete constructs. By comparison to the offences that we usually mean when we speak of "sin", the repertory of defilement is broader at some points, narrower at other points, and unbalanced. In particular, it gives disproportionate significance to sexual matters.
Ricoeur suggests that sexual matters receive disproportionate emphasis because of their physicality — the bodily fluids associated with sex. Sexual impurity
is connected with the presence of a material "something" that transmits itself by contact and contagion. … By many of its traits sexuality supports the ambiguity of a quasi-materiality of defilement. (p. 28)Thus the puzzling preoccupation with sexual matters gives us an insight into the nature of defilement: it is "quasi-material".
Defilement blurs the distinction between physical contamination and ethical contamination. It is this ambiguity that enables defilement to function as a symbol. Biblical texts can use the language of (physical) defilement to symbolize the stain (on one's soul) which results from sin.
Likewise, we can take biblical references to defilement and "translate" them, treating them as if they were references to sin. But we should always be conscious of this process when we engage in it. We may be reading something into the text that is actually one step removed from its original scope.
- Utility as a symbol for sin
Finally, I return to Isaiah 6, the text quoted at the beginning of part one. Isaiah cries out (1) "I am a man of unclean lips," and (2) "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." Note the second statement. Here we are unmistakably in the realm of defilement (as opposed to sin). Isaiah implies that uncleanness is a kind of contagion, communicated from one contaminated person to the next via physical contact.
Isaiah is seized with dread, for a defiled person must die when he enters the presence of a God who is rightly described as "Holy, Holy, Holy". But perhaps the text ought to say, "Pure, Pure, Pure"? Here the language is already subtly shifting away from defilement/purity toward sin/holiness.
One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah. He touches Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal, taken from the altar. And he says, "Behold, … your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." Here we see the same juxtaposition yet again. The altar exists for the express purpose of removing defilement (through rites carried out by priests). Thus, when the seraph touches a coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips, he is performing a rite of purification.
But the seraph then speaks of guilt and sin, effectively changing the topic from the physical (defilement) to the ethical (sin).
But it is only an introduction to a topic that warrants a series of posts. More to come in due course!
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1The Symbolism of Evil, transl. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 26.
2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
3Cf. Walter Brueggemann's remarks on this topic. It is Brueggemann's impression "that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons … does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity — cleanness and uncleanness. This more elemental concern is evidenced in the widespread notion that homosexuals must be disqualified from access to wherever society has its important stakes and that physical contact with them is contaminating."Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, 1997, p. 194.