Leviticus: Resurrection Unto Cleanliness

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.

About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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5 Responses to Leviticus: Resurrection Unto Cleanliness

  1. Diana says:

    Hey Lea,

    I shared this with the mutual Orthodox friend to whom you referred, and he had a bunch of insights to contribute, mostly pointing out that impurity as interpreted in Jewish sources has to do with Kedusha (a stronger word for holiness) leaving the body of those who become impure (like Cohanim who have contact with the dead) than death per se.

    He also pointed out an interesting thing: “Proof of the error in the interpretation that Lea expresses is that, if that were the case, then a man and woman who engaged in sexual congress, an act tending to create life, would not thereby become Tameh, yet they do. Similarly, a woman who gives birth becomes Tameh; if she bears a daughter she becomes Tameh for twice as long as she would if she bore a son. This is readily explained by reference to the concept of Kedushah leaving the body (since she has the potential to bear children one day, a girl has in her body more Kedushah than does a boy, who cannot bear new life).”

    As for Leviticus, you are not the only dork who reads it — traditionally observant Jews pretty much base their entire lives and practice around it, as it describes or provides the basis for interpretation that leads to the majority of all the laws that govern our lives.

    Hope that gives some food for thought.

    • That’s interesting. The claim that Kedusha leaves the body of those who become impure seems like it would need further explanation. Why, exactly, does Kedusha leave their body under such diverse circumstances as menstruation, ejaculation, and contact with the dead?

      Our friend’s point regarding the possibility for those who have sexual congress to become impure is interesting. I didn’t mean to suggest that contact with death is the only way people become impure – Leviticus clearly suggests a variety of other ways, such as any behavior pertaining to the worship of idols, adultery, etc – merely that it seems to be an organizing theme for some of those ways.

  2. Yahnatan says:

    Hi Lea,
    Just discovered your great blog, and apparently you’re local to boot! Have any friends in the Messianic Jewish, or perhaps Hebrew Catholic, movements?

  3. Yahnatan says:

    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.

    I’m not sure if it addresses your closing speculation, but Jacob Milgrom’s two-volume commentary on Leviticus is highly regarded in academic circles as a definitive work. It might be worth checking–especially for fans of Vayikra/Leviticus!

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