Sunday, September 25, 2005

Enough already . . .

. . . on Leviticus 10:10?

Not quite yet. I need to explain myself, why this verse interests me enough to warrant its designation as a "most fascinating text."

I became interested in this verse back in 1998, when I moved to Jerusalem for a year to do postdoctoral work as a Golda Meir Fellow at Hebrew University and began to focus on purity, impurity, and holiness in the Bible. I had previously gotten into issues raised by purity-impurity systems when asked to write a review article on the 1996 edition of Mary Douglas's book Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology.

Despite the title, Mary Douglas's book has nothing to do with physics and everything to do with the ways that religions classify reality.

When I was doing my doctoral work at Berkeley, I had followed the advice of my advisor Robert Bellah and my friend Mario Biagioli and done some reading on Mary Douglas, so I already had some familiarity with her ideas and found them fascinating.

This led to an encounter with the work of Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus, for Milgrom applies the ideas of Douglas to his analysis of the purity laws in Leviticus.

Working with the insights of Douglas and Milgrom, I began to analyze Mark 5:24b-34 in an attempt to understand the purity issue presupposed in the passage presenting Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24) coming into contact with the impurity carried by the woman suffering from a nonmenstrual, genital flow of blood.

This led to a paper on Jesus as the Holy One of God, which I finally presented at an SBL conference this past summer in Singapore. In that paper, I discuss Leviticus 10:10 (note that the word translated as "common" can also be translated as "profane"):

[O]ne should recall the discussion of the sacred and the profane in comparative religion, especially in terms of their connection to two interrelated paired binarisms in the Hebrew scriptures: holy–common and impure–pure. Although useful, the binarism of "sacred" and "profane" does not easily map onto these scriptural binarisms (though at a deeper level, the mapping works). Leviticus 10:10, a paradigmatic verse, demonstrates this difficulty. It states that one should "distinguish between the holy and the common and between the impure and the pure." This verse opposes the holy to the common and the impure to the pure in a parallelism that suggests some equivalence of holy with impure and common with pure. Yet, the Hebrew scriptures draw an unequivocal contrast between holiness and impurity. So, if there is a contrast between holiness and impurity, between holiness and the common, and between the impure and the pure, then is Leviticus 10:10 a parallelism or a chiasm? Neither structure is completely satisfactory because the common can actually exist in a state of purity or of impurity—or even in a state of holiness!

Jacob Milgrom opens a way toward resolving this mapping problematic by providing an illuminating discussion, in his commentary on Leviticus, of the ancient Israelite understanding of these two binarisms of holy–common and impure–pure. According to Milgrom's analysis, the ancient Israelites understood the holy and the impure as dynamic forces in antagonistic opposition to each other and the common and the pure as static states (although using the term "state" to characterize the common does not precisely convey its nature, as will soon become clear):

"[T]he holy may never become impure. These two categories are antagonistic, totally opposite. They are antonyms. Moreover, they are dynamic: they seek to extend their influence and control over the other two categories, the common and the pure. In contrast to the former, the latter two categories are static. They cannot transfer their state; there is no contagious purity or contagious commonness." (Milgrom, Leviticus, 732)

Milgrom emphasizes the antagonism inherent between the holy and the impure, but his emphasis upon their dynamism indicates their similarity—and in fact, one could perhaps too conveniently label them as the positive and negative poles of the spiritual realm. As for the common and the pure, rather than conceiving of both of these as states, one would do better to conceive of the common as an inert 'substance' that, as noted above, can exist in a 'spiritually contaminated' state of holiness or impurity or in an 'uncontaminated' state of purity (the deeper level at which the binarism of sacred and profane, respectively, maps onto the scriptural binarisms). Indeed, the common naturally exists in a pure state—but a pure state constantly under threat of contamination by the impure. Consequently, for the holy to embue the common, the natural purity of the common space requires protection. Failure to ensure the purity of common space occupied by the holy leads inexorably to punishment and withdrawal of the holy from that common space.

Due to the difficulty of maintaining the purity of common space, religious injunctions require the physical separation of the holy from everything else. Indeed, the radicals in the Hebrew term for "holy" possibly have the basic meaning of "separation, withdrawal." Certainly, the Hebrew word for "the holy" means both "apartness" and "sacredness." Separation fits with the understanding of the holy and the impure as antithetical dynamic forces. Because of this dynamic opposition, the holy both endangers and is endangered. Consequently, physical separation not only protects persons carrying impurity from the holy, it also protects the holy from contamination by the impure.

Perhaps this excerpt helps to clarify why Leviticus 10:10 fascinates me. Perhaps the excerpt also hints at the problematic issue raised by Jesus as the Holy One of God coming into contact with the dynamic impurity of the woman with a nonmenstrual, genital flow of blood.

The remainder of my paper dealt with precisely this issue and its implications for understanding the Gospel of Mark. But that will have to wait until another time . . .


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