A sampling platter of the Old Testament Levitical Laws.
Reader’s Note: For the discerning, Leithart’s post has a familiar spirit.
In his post, Peter Leithart’s Side Effects (2020 October 8), Deep Strength brought to our attention a piece written by Peter Leithart at Theopolis. Of note, our discussion of this article came to the conclusion that Leithart is channeling Boomer Theology, which is essentially Complementarianism.
I also observed that Leithart has a penchant for “sexual mystery” (his words) as something that should not be “dispelled”. Not to rant about Boomers, but they have done a grand job at passing that “sexual mystery” down to succeeding generations. Now, our 21st century ignorance of this knowledge has not made us any more righteous nor happy, but instead, it has made us more impotent and imbecilic when it comes to interactions between the sexes. We now call this pathetic state, being Blue Pilled, among other, less polite monikers.
After looking around in my study notes on the Purity Movement, I found that Leithart wrote three articles about the Purity Movement at Patheos. The fact that he wrote for theologically pathetic Patheos makes me even more uneasy about his doctrinal beliefs.
This post will examine the first one, entitled Myths of Purity (2017 October 12). In this post, Leithart kicks around a few Biblical concepts about uncleanness. His references suggest that he is quite well read, but his hermeneutics of these topics are banal.
Myth #1: Uncleanness is “dirtiness”.
“Though there is some overlap between “dirt” and “impurity,” the latter has a specific significance. If we take Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place,” then the overlap is stronger. But Douglas’s definition assumes that impurity is a systemic issue, not a matter of “ickiness”.”
A couple problems already…
- No citation for Douglas’s work was given. I had not heard of Mary Douglas, so I had to look it up. I presume he is referring to Prof. D. M. Douglas’ 1966 opus magnum in anthropology, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.
- Leithart quoted Douglas’ definition of dirt, but not impurity. Maybe he is assuming that they are the same thing, but they are not.
To add my own comment on this, impurity is a matter of “ickiness”, but it is more than simply physical ickiness. It also includes visceral, social, sexual, and spiritual ickiness. I covered these topics in two previous posts.
- Σ Frame: What does it mean to be Unclean? (2018 December 2)
- Σ Frame: What does it mean to be Defiled? (2018 December 9)
In my studies of these topics, I came to the conclusion that the main difference between being unclean and being defiled, is that being defiled is a rather permanent state of being unclean, meaning that the person or object cannot be made clean again through washing or other rituals.
“Exodus 30:17-21 might be brought in as evidence to the contrary. Priests had to wash their hands and feet in the laver before they went before the altar or entered the tabernacle. That indeed suggests that dirt in and of itself is a defilement, and that the priests would have been unclean if they had failed to do this. Yet there is nothing in the Levitical law that requires lay Israelites to wash before approaching the tabernacle. Perhaps this was taken for granted, but the omission is significant. It indicates that if uncleanness is dirt, it’s a special type of dirt.”
His argument is still not clear, but I can see that Leithart is schmoozing the two concepts of unclean and defiled as meaning the same thing — only the dirt is different! (Maybe he supports the “magic dirt” hypothesis about immigration.) Not surprising, because this is a common assumption. A lot of people argued with me when I argued that there must be a difference between the two.
I’m no expert in Greek or Hebrew, so I can’t get into this much deeper with any certainty. If any knowledgeable reader would care to dig into this any further, here is a list of words on BibleHub to get you started (and there might be more that I missed). All these words are translated into English as unclean, defiled, debased, impure, polluted, unwashed, etc., and I’m sure every one of these words carries a unique nuance or special context that has been lost in the translation. Why else would there be so many different words if it was all the same idea? Are we to believe that these are all synonyms?
|1351. gaal||169. akathartos|
|1352. goel||449. aniptos|
|2490c. chalal||2840. koinoó|
|2610. chaneph||3392. miainó|
|2930. tame||3435. molunó|
|2931. tame||4510. rhupoó|
|2932. tum’ah||4695. spiloó|
|2936. tanaph||5351. phtheiró|
Anyway, the point of Exodus 30:17-21 is that the priests were not to come into the sanctuary dirty. Washing was necessary because in those days, traveling along the road to the temple invariably made people dusty and dirty. According to my understanding of unclean and defiled, not washing would have left the priests unclean, but would not have made them defiled.
“Not every type of gross material that we dirty “dirty” [sic] is unclean in the Levitical sense. Deuteronomy 23:9-14 requires the Israelites to dig a latrine outside the war camp, because Yahweh dwells in the camp and moves through it. Israel is not to leave any “thing of nakedness” exposed in the camp (v. 14). Yet a soldier who uses the toilet outside the camp and covers it up, will immediately return to the camp. He hasn’t been made unclean by feces or urination.”
This is standard protocol for field camps, both military and civilian. Even dogs don’t doo doo in the dog house.
Concerning his last sentence, feces does make one unclean. To make my point, stepping in poop might be funny (unclean), but stepping on a used maxipad is never funny (defiled).
Concerning verse 14, I don’t know what translation he’s using. Only the Young’s Literal Translation uses the word “nakedness”, but it doesn’t say “thing of nakedness”. All other translations use the words filthy, indecent, offensive, shameful, or unclean.
But overall, he’s making a distinction between unclean and defiled, which contradicts his earlier suggestion, and confirms mine. Actually, I think he has not made any distinction between these terms as I have.
“Human beings contract uncleanness by emissions from the body (Leviticus 15), but not every emission from the body defiles.”
I can agree on that. Leviticus 15 states that the emissions that are defiling are semen, menstruation, and purulence.
Myth #2: God gave purity rules for reasons of health and hygiene.
“Nothing in the food laws suggests that foods are prohibited because of the dirty or unhealthy habits of the animal, or the unhealthy character of their meat. The pig is off limits because, though it divides the hoof, it doesn’t chew the cud. Sheep can be gross too, but they are not only clean but sacrificial animals.
Shrimp and shellfish are not prohibited because they are bottom feeders or because they are scavengers. They’re prohibited because they lack scales and fins. After the Maccabean revolt, Jewish tradition, exalted the pig into the model of the unclean animal but that is an historical “accident”.”
I don’t believe this is totally a myth. Health and hygiene may not have been the express purpose of the Levitical regulations, but health and hygiene did come as a benefit.
“Nor are other forms of impurity related to health concerns. Lepers are isolated and quarantined, it is said, to prevent the disease from spreading. There are several problems with this. Biblical leprosy is not the same as modern leprosy. It is more like psoriasis than Hanson’s disease.”
I disagree. In ancient times, it may have been difficult to distinguish between a case of dermal lesions and a terminal case of Hanson’s disease, especially in the early stage of infection, so they had to take precautions with all. So all kinds of gross skin diseases were lumped into a general category of leprosy, or rather, suspected leprosy.
“Further, when a “leper” turns completely white, when he is completely covered with the white swelling of his leprosy, he is declared clean automatically (Leviticus 13:13). If the laws are concerned with contagion, it’s odd that the leper is pronounced healthy when his body is entirely taken over by the disease.”
The text is definitely confusing, and he is not making it any less so. I’m not a medical expert, but I imagine that leprous sores turn white when the infected tissue becomes necrotic and desquamates, indicating a remission of the infection.
Myth #3: Israelites in a state of uncleanness were pariahs and outcasts, excluded from the daily run of social life.
“Uncleanness prevents a person from approaching the sanctuary. It doesn’t prevent anyone from living a normal life.”
No, uncleanness prevents a person from glorifying God in the sanctuary. Going back to Exodus 30:17-21, if a priest delivered a sermon in his gardening clothes, it would be sacrilegious. A high priest doing this should be dismissed. In the Old Testament, God dismissed him personally, and permanently.
BTW, how many preachers have you seen deliver a message while wearing a T shirt and tattered blue jeans or jogging sweats? The Washington D.C. area has had them for the past 25 years.
“A woman wasn’t expelled from her home during her period, nor was she prohibited from contact with others. She and her husband could continue to sleep in the same bed, though they were prohibited from having intercourse.
Her husband would become unclean, as would most of the rest of her family. They would have to go through rites of cleansing, perhaps every night the woman was menstruating. It would be an inconvenience, especially if there were several adult women in the house (think Tevye). But there would be no ostracism, exclusion, or expulsion.”
Maybe it’s not a rejection, but a woman on her period is somewhat of an outcast. Using the analogy, a used maxipad is defiled. A person or thing that touches that maxipad is unclean.
“There seem to be some exceptions. Lepers are sent out of the camp (Numbers 5:1-3), along with all people with discharges and people contaminated by corpses, But the camp has a certain degree of holiness to it. The ark is in the midst, and Israel is organized around it. This isn’t a precedent for exclusion from daily life, but exclusion from the presence of God.”
This passage actually goes against his argument. And I’m not buying that last line. God is present everywhere. A person’s sin, not geographical location, is what excludes one from the presence of God.
“What about lepers after Israel entered the land? 2nd Kings 7 indicates that the lepers were put outside the city. And this is perhaps implied by the law: A leprous house was dismantled and taken out of the city, so perhaps we can infer that a leprous person was also removed from the city. Behind that, perhaps, is the notion of a city as holy space.”
Leithart’s cursory review could be misleading. If we take the time to read Leviticus 13 and 14, which cover the Levitical regulations for leprous people, garments, objects, and homes, we find that razing the building was the very last resort to be rid of a house “plague” (presumably some type of mold or fungus).
“And, finally, we can’t be certain that the treatment of lepers in 2nd Kings 7 is just. After all, they are being excluded from Samaria, not Jerusalem, and Samaria is a city populated by idols. Perhaps the fact that the lepers are put outside the city is a sign of the injustice of the northern kingdom, which would only heighten the irony when the lepers save the city by discovering the abandoned Aramean camp.”
Now he’s passing retroactive judgment on the social justice of Samaria during the Iron Age, and using this as an excuse as to why #3 is a myth. Overall, it’s not convincing. He doesn’t tie this little story back to the main topic of uncleanness. The article ends there without any conclusion, leaving the reader confused and dissatisfied.
In summary of this post, Leithart has made several errors.
- His writing style is that of an authority, but the substance of his writing does not carry the power of that authority.
- He took snippets of ideas from several passages about uncleanness, but failed to explain any of them within context.
- He fails to offer specific definitions to the concepts he builds his arguments on.
- He extrapolated certain passages to mean something beyond what is implied in scripture.
- As a result, he ends up making some pretty extreme statements that have little applicable value.
- His arguments flitter across several ideas, and as a whole, fail to explain why the propositions are myths.
Leithart’s post is like a rough draft that got published before it was finished. It was painful to read, and difficult to concentrate. Maybe he had some idea of what he was writing about, but he failed to make those ideas clear, and show how they could reinforce his arguments. Thus, it creates more confusion than illumination.
If I could believe that Leithart is cunning enough to have adopted an old media strategy of abusing a topic in order to trivialize it, then my best guess is that this post is intended to convince readers that the Old Testament Law is no longer valid, or even ridiculous, or that maintaining purity is a fool’s errand.
<Looks again at Leithart’s photo>
No way. Leithart’s post was only intended as clickbait, reading fodder, or to fulfill a quota.
- Σ Frame: Patheological Weddingsday – What is Purity Actually About? (2020 September 23)