Thursday, September 17, 2009

John P. Meier on the Holiness of God in the OT

In explaining the purity laws of the OT, and why things like touching a corpse or menstruating made one ritually unclean, John P. Meier writes:
To breach this God-ordained separation between flesh in an unclean state and the holiness of God would be as dangerous to the ancient mind as mixing unstable, explosive chemicals or removing shields from around a nuclear reactor would be to a modern mind. The chemicals and the nuclear reactor are in themselves good, even useful, when properly handled--just like the processes of birth, sex, and death. But a lack of proper separation, a failure to cordon off things meant to be kept separate, could have disastrous results. It was precisely to protect his people and prevent such disasters, and not because natural biological processes are evil, that the God of Israel commanded that his realm of the holy, especially the temple, be kept separate from the realm of human birth, sexual activity, and death. (A Marginal Jew, 4:345.)
In other words, God isn't born, He doesn't reproduce, and He doesn't die. Those are fleshly things. He is a holy thing. The two need to be kept separate.

In addition to ritual impurity, Meier also sees categories for moral impurity, genealogical impurity, and impurity as a result of eating the wrong food.


Rob Dilfer said...
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Matt said...

One of the points that Meier makes is that "ritual impurity" is not the same as "sinfulness." Every day activities make you ritually unclean, but that does not make them sinful. Mary would have been ritually unclean for seven days after the birth of Jesus (Leviticus 12). As a Roman Catholic, I think Meier would say that she remained sinless (but that's another debate).

Sinfulness is more like "moral impurity." Moral impurity corrupted not only the individual, but it defiled the whole land. The morally impure person was to be "cut off" from the people.

Ritual impurity was highly "contageous." A ritually impure person who touched another person would make them ritually unclean. But moral impurity was not as easily "spread by contact." You can see the difference in the way that childbirth is treated compared to sexual sins in Leviticus 18.

Death is a little bit harder. Certainly Paul considered death an enemy (1 Cor 15:26). But the Old Testament attitude toward death isn't as straightforward. Death was permanent, and living people were better off than dead poeople, but in some places death is portrayed as going to sleep and resting with your fathers. Also, the kind of death you died was significant. It was shameful to be killed at a young age and then be left out in a field for birds to eat, but it was honorable to die at a ripe old age with lots of kids and grandkids, and then be buried with your family.

I think what Meier is getting at was that in the OT, death was seen more as "part of life" than as an evil. There was probably more to it than that, though. N.T. Wright has a great section on ancient Jewish and pagan attitudes toward death in his The Resurrection of the Son of the God.

Rob Dilfer said...
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