I’ll shift gears away from marriage momentarily (pardon the short attention span) to focus on one that is even more fundamental: the nexus of the Jewish and Christian understandings of death and resurrection.
As noted in the previous post, in the Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel Jon Levenson seeks to show the early Biblical roots of the rabbinical belief in bodily resurrection. A key element of this belief is the conviction that death is deeply problematic, a distortion of God’s creation rather than a natural part of it. Interestingly, I have been having just this conversation with an Orthodox Jewish friend lately – trying to explain the Christian understanding of the resurrection in light of the notion of death as an oppressive force foreign to humanity and to creation and one with which sin is fundamentally allied, while my friend was arguing that Death, like all other forces in the universe, is deployed by God to His purposes and is under His full control.
Whether or not these views can be ultimately squared together, Jon Levenson offers an interesting contribution. He points out a recurring vision in the Psalms and Prophets of the Temple – the House of God – as a place free from plant and animal death, as well as the prohibition on priests and those descended from them to come in contact with dead bodies. What is holy is totally incompatible with what is dead.
As I was reading Leviticus 15 (I hope I’m not the only geek out there who thinks Leviticus is actually interesting), it occurred to me that the strict purity laws that deem unclean a man or a woman who has, respectively, a discharge of semen or blood, may be understood similarly in light of a need to separate the holy from the dead. A menstruating woman is in the process of losing her ability to bear new life for that month; spilling blood and semen are a spilling of life, and therefore not only symbolize but in a limited sense constitute dying. It is because a man or woman in that position has come in contact with, and in fact unwillingly perpetrated, a form of death, that he or she is unclean.
If I may speculate further, then perhaps part of the point of these purity laws – which are handed down directly by God through Moses – is indeed to draw a sharp distinction between life and death, celebrating the one and as much as possible separating the people of Israel from the other. Without this distinction it may have been impossible for the Jews to fully understand what Jesus was saying when He sought to reform their understanding of purity (Matthew 23:25-26 and elsewhere): that physical death will be conquered by Himself and no longer must be warded off through physical cleansing, and that the only way Israel can become contaminated by death in this new world is through sin.
Please note: I haven’t read this interpretation elsewhere, and it may be either completely wrong or self-evident and redundant. If you are aware of authoritative commentary to either effect, please pardon my ignorance and let me know where I can find it.