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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When the Holy Meets the Unholy: Ezra and the New Testament

Sorry for the long gap between blog posts!  No, I haven't forgotten about 1st Corynthians.  I've just had to generate so much output for other, non-bloggy things that I haven't had the time left for here.  But I'm bursting with things I want to blog about, so hopefully April will be more content-rich than March.

Now on to the topic for today.  When Ezra the scribe led a second group of Jewish exiles back to Judea, he was immediately confronted with a problem.  "The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands who practice detestable things . . . ," said the Jewish leaders.  "Indeed, they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has become intermingled with the peoples of the lands.  Worse still, the leaders and the officials are at the forefront of all this!" (Ezra 9:1-2).  In order to understand the significance of the problem we need a general understanding of the concept of purity expressed in Scripture as "holiness" and "cleanness."  (The following is heavily influenced by David A. deSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, which I blogged about in a previous post.)

It's most helpful to think about purity by thinking about dirt.  Dirt is "matter out of place."  For example, if I am gardening and spreading peat moss-enriched topsoil on my flower bed, it is "earth" or "soil."  But if I accidentally track some of it into my house, it becomes "dirt."  What changed?  Not the substance but its location.  Human beings organize our worlds with invisible but extremely powerful definitions of where stuff should be.  Not all human beings or human cultures draw the lines in the same places, but all of us do it somehow.  If something crosses one of those lines, it becomes dirt, and we abhor it.

All religions contain "purity maps" that proceed from the same impulse.  These maps put divine beings at the center and mark everything else, especially us humans, exactly where we can be positioned and not be considered by those divinities as "dirt."  One's holiness is one's position on the map.  A person is born with a particular degree of holiness based on his or her household/clan/caste/tribe/nation, sex, and/or order of birth among his or her siblings.  For Israel, this came to be depicted architecturally by the layout of the temple, particularly according to the reconstruction by Herod the Great.

In the center was the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) where only God could dwell, with the exception of the yearly visit of the high priest on the Day of Atonement.  The next level outward was the Holy Place, where other priests occasionally served to burn incense, change the showbread, etc.  The next level outward was the Court of the Priests, where they made sacrifices, and next to that was the Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men who were offering sacrifices entered with their gifts.  The level after that was the Court of Women and the wider court outside it, where all Jewish laity could gather.  Beyond that, separated by a low barrier, was the Court of the Gentiles, where non-Jews who desired to worship the God of Israel could stand and pray.  And we might even extend the topography to the Antonia Fortress just outside the temple complex where the idol-worshiping Roman garrison was stationed.  You notice that each ring of the temple complex corresponded to a type of person.  The further in you could go, the holier you were from the perspective of the God of Israel.  If you look at it from the opposite direction, everybody outside the level of holiness where you stood was considered "common" or ordinary—holiness is specialness, because you can enter where most can't.

A related concept is cleanness.  If holiness defines how close you could be to the Holy One and not be considered "dirt," cleanness describes whether you were allowed at the present moment to function at your level of holiness.  Your holiness was connected to unchangeable characteristics of your identity (such as Levite, Israelite, male, firstborn).  Your cleanness on the other hand came and went.  Everyone was unclean sometimes.  For example, if you touched a dead body (say you were a pallbearer for a relative) then you would be unclean for a week (provided you followed the appropriate purification ritual in Num. 19:11-13).  There was nothing sinful about this (though sinning was also considered to be contracting uncleanness within), but it meant that while you were unclean you couldn't be present in worship at your typical level of holiness.  You temporarily became "dirty."  In fact, you were excluded from the whole worship system until you became clean again, and if you made contact with anyone else you would make that person unclean too (think cooties).

Now one reason it is so useful to conceive of holiness and cleanness—or rather their opposites, commonness and uncleanness—in terms of dirt is what we do with dirt when we find it.  We eradicate it, at the very least pushing it into its proper realm but often trying to annihilate it altogether (think squashing a bug in your house that you would ignore outdoors).  The mental maps humans impose on reality are so powerful that arguably the most dangerous place for any substance on earth is anywhere that a human believes it to be dirt.  God reveals himself as dealing with dirt the same way.  This is why appearing in his presence is so terribly dangerous—one is positioned for imminent obliteration.  (See for example Isaiah's response to his vision that he, a common Israelite, was standing in the Most Holy Place, with "unclean lips" no less.)

It is also useful to think of commonness (vs. holiness) and uncleanness (vs. cleanness) as dirt because the presence of dirt makes things dirty.  It is not that the presence of non-dirt makes things clean.  If a sock comes in contact with soil, the sock becomes dirty; the sock doesn't extend its cleanness to the earth that makes contact with it.  The same is true with holiness and ritual cleanness.  If the holy mixes with the common, it becomes unholy; the holy doesn't elevate the common to holiness.  And as has been said before, if the clean contacts the unclean, the clean becomes unclean, not the other way around.

This leads us back to the problem Ezra faced.  "The people of Israel . . . have not separated themselves from the peoples of the nations who practice detestable things," and as a result the dirty deeds of the nations were by contact defiling God's people and making them unclean.  Furthermore, "they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has become intermingled with the peoples of the lands," and the result of these marriages between the holy and the common were common, unholy children.

This wasn't mere accidental behavior.  Moses' Law made room for marriage between Israelite and Gentile in a particular circumstance: if in war Israel annihilated all men from a community by sword or enslavement and took wives by force.  This is a jarring and rather horrific thing for us to contemplate (which is probably the topic for another post), but the point is that that kind of marriage was compelled from the Israelite direction only.  Any other marriage, particularly in that place and time, was a bilateral negotiation not between two individuals but between two entire families.  These families were wedding themselves to each other through the union of the couple, which is why royal marriages were often used to cement peace treaties between nations.  This is the kind of intermarriage that the returned exiles were engaging in.  The intermarriages were a sign of a close fraternization to the point of union between the people of the Holy One of Israel and the worshipers of pagan deities without number.  To push the point one step further, it was an intermarriage between Yahweh and empty idols and the demonic shadows behind them.

Therefore, when Ezra heard this news, he ripped his tunic, tore out some of the hair on his head and beard, and sat down, dumbstruck and devastated, all day long.  Then at the time of the evening offering he cried out to God for mercy (vv. 3-15).  The Jews had brazenly violated God's explicit commands exactly as they had the first time he had given them, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt toward Canaan.  The persistent willingness of the God's holy people to make themselves unholy, of the people he had cleansed to make themselves filthy, was what led God to treat them like the dirt they insisted on making themselves.  It was for this reason that God had ejected them out of the land he promised them like someone sweeping dust off his or her porch.  And yet, despite all that Israel had done, God still had enough mercy to take a remnant of these defiled people and bring them back for another go.  And yet they went ahead and soiled themselves again—even the holiest among them, the priests!  Ezra was terrified that this time God would not only remove them from the land but wipe them out so that they would cease to be a people at all (v. 14).

As Ezra wept and prayed, a crowd gathered around and joined him.  And in their contrition and desire to repent, they settled on a drastic solution that Ezra administered: they divorced their non-Jewish wives and disowned the children of those unions (10:1-8).  Perhaps if they removed their defilement as much as they could and sincerely pled for forgiveness, God would be willing to spare them and not scour them away again.  It was a shocking move, but if the holy became common and the clean became unclean when the two mixed together as the Law indicated, then it was a perfectly logical course of action.

It was for this very reason that the appearance of Jesus over 400 years later seemed so illogical.  With Jesus, when the holy intermingled with the common, the holy wasn't corrupted; instead, the common was sanctified.  When the clean contacted the unclean, the clean wasn't defiled; rather, the unclean was cleansed.  Simply put, Jesus could not become impure; to the contrary, he purified what he touched.

This contrary pattern began in the incarnation itself when Holy God became united with human nature—sin-affected human nature cursed with mortality no less.  That abhorrent mixture should have polluted God, but instead it redeemed human nature in the very person of the Son of God.  As a matter of fact, Matthew goes out of his way to note four unholy (by ethnicity) or unclean (by behavior) women in Jesus' ancestry, women who were partners in exactly the sort of marriages that made Ezra tear his clothes (Matt. 1:1-17; esp. vv. 3-6).  But their ultimate offspring wasn't unholy—he was the Holy One himself!  Indeed, one might suggest that the Son sanctified his mothers.

The pattern continued in the actions that Jesus took.  In encounter after encounter that in our day we don't immediately see the drama in, Jesus violates norms of purity by physically touching and being touched by people who ought to defile him, with the result that the impure are purified.  Jesus doesn't merely speak the word, "Be healed," to the leper (as he does, for example, for the centurion's slave).  Instead he touches the leper, whose disease causes uncleanness, and says, "Be cleansed."  Then he commands the leper to undergo the appropriate ritual with the priest at the temple according to the Law "for a testimony to them" that a new and superior purification is taking place (Luke 5:12-14).  This entire episode is backwards.  Jesus should have fled from the man whose skin disease was obvious, but the physical contact, rather than infecting Jesus both physically and ritually, results in the purification of the one afflicted.  The offering at the temple is perfunctory—it is simply a sign to those under an old regime of holiness and cleanness, because the actual cleansing has already happened by Jesus' authoritative declaration.  We can multiply examples of this from the Gospels.  Two that particularly jump to mind are the menstruating woman who touched Jesus' garment to be healed (and was mortified when she was discovered, because she had covertly made the entire jostling crowd unclean by contact) and the forgiven, once-immoral woman known to engage in unclean sexual behavior who kissed, anointed, wept on, and wiped Jesus' feet.  You can understand why the Pharisees, the theological descendants of Ezra in 1st-century Judaism, were as vexed about Jesus as Ezra had been about the returned exiles centuries before.

Jesus' example signaled a profound departure from Old Covenant assumptions about purity.  No longer is it a given that the pure are always polluted by the presence of the common and unclean.  God, who in his perfection is under no threat of defilement, has chosen to transgress those boundaries for the purpose of sanctifying and cleansing the human race.  Obviously this stretches in the most profound way to include Christ's saving work on the cross.  The blood of the Perfect One radically and irrevocably makes common people into the holy people of God and cleanses all their moral and ritual filth.  The Old Covenant purification system could not do this.  As the author of Hebrews points out (emphasis mine):
[The Law is] completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, to perfect those who come to worship.  For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? . . . By [God's] will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all. . . . For by one offering he perfected for all time those who are made holy (Heb. 10:1-2, 10, 14).
The pattern of purity in Jesus extends still further to his ascension.  Not only did his offering of himself give believers access to the holiest of holy places in heaven where God dwells, but then in his name God gave believers the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the most shocking leap over purity boundaries yet, the Holy One himself now lives inside human beings with mortal flesh and a vicious sinful nature.  But rather than the Holy Spirit's presence vaporizing every body he enters, he actually converts our bodies—and our collective body, the Church—into his holy temples!

The amazing work of God to make the holy/clean transform the unholy/unclean rather than the other way around leads us to a very unusual New Testament parallel with Ezra's situation.  Like Ezra, Paul had to deal with the situation of a holy person married to an unholy spouse.  But Paul's viewpoint was, at least on the surface, completely the opposite of Ezra's:
To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is happy to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband.  Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.  But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place.  In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound.  God has called you in peace.  For how do you know, wife, whether you will bring your husband to salvation?  Or how do you know, husband, whether you will bring your wife to salvation? (1 Cor. 7:12-16).
For Ezra, when the holy Jew married the unholy Gentile, the Jew's cleanness was compromised and the children of that union were unholy.  But for Paul, when a holy Christian is married to an unholy unbeliever, the unbelieving spouse is actually sanctified through that union, as are the children that come from it.  Now, there is some question as to what this sanctification is.  We know from what Paul says at the end of the quoted passage that this sanctification is not tantamount to salvation as it is in the Hebrews passage quoted previously.  But perhaps this leads us back to the idea of the Christian's body (and the church generally) as the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul says, "If someone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.  For God's temple is holy, which is what you are" (3:17).  Because God lives in the believer, God jealously guards that believer.  That includes the believer's body, which of course is still imperfect and shouldn't be fit for a holy God, but he guards it anyway.  In fact, if an unholy person attempts to harm the holy temple of God, imperfect though it is, God will sweep him away as fiercely as he did when the unholy came into his presence in the Old Testament.  (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 6:6-11 for an example of God's anger against someone who breaches the boundary of holiness and yet also blessing for those who abide near it at the proper distance.)  The same appears to be true for the Christian's household.  God is living in that household in the Christian who lives there, and so he considers the household his sacred dwelling, worthy of protection (particularly because the unbelieving spouse has allowed God into it by remaining married to the believer in whom God dwells).

And yet, despite the difference between Paul and Ezra on the subject of holiness in a mixed marriage, there is similarity too.  Ezra's situation involved holy people who chose to become united with the unholy.  Paul's situation involved an unholy person who became holy through the work of Christ after being married.  When Paul turns to the subject of a holy Christian considering marriage, however, he draws the same line that Ezra does: "A wife is bound as long as her husband is living.  But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes (only someone in the Lord)" (1 Cor. 7:39).  A holy person mustn't willingly choose to be united with the unholy.  Paul states this strongly and unequivocally in a profound passage that doesn't just relate to marriage but to any wide-ranging, settled alignment of purpose between believers and unbelievers:
Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness?  And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar?  Or what does a believer share in common with an unbeliever?  And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, "I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."  Therefore, "come out from their midst and be separate," says the Lord, "and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters," says the All-Powerful Lord.  Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
Here we see the paradox of holiness in the New Testament.  In the Old Testament it was simple: when the holy/clean touches the common/unclean, the holy/clean is defiled.  The New Testament is more complex.  On the one hand we have the example of God himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who flagrantly transgress all normal purity boundaries and rather than be defiled, they transform what they touch.  In at least some circumstances (such as a converted spouse), the same thing operates through believers too.  On the other hand, we see here in 2 Corinthians that it is still possible for a holy person to be defiled by contact with the unholy.  How do we sort this out?

Well, despite that this is a cliché answer, it seems to be that we must be "in the world but not of it," which is a paraphrase of what Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples:
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one.  They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world.  Set them apart [sanctify them] in your truth; your word is truth.  Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.  And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart (John 17:11, 14-19).
Jesus makes clear that he has sent his disciples to be in the world and transform it with the truth exactly as Jesus did.  Their presence in the world wouldn't automatically defile them; instead, they would effect change in the world.  However, they were not to be like the world they were in, and for this reason they would be resisted and hated by the world under Satan.  Notice how Jesus employs the language of holiness here: "Set them apart/sanctify them," just as Jesus himself is sanctified and set apart even though he is "God with us."

This goes right along with guidance that Paul gives the church at Corinth (notice how often they pop up in this investigation of holiness?).  A member of that church was sleeping with his father's wife, and Paul insists that they must discipline him by excluding him if he refused to repent.  He concludes,
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.  In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world.  But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler.  Do not even eat with such a person.  For what do I have to do with judging those who are outside?  Are you not to judge those inside?  But God will judge those outside.  Remove the evil person from among you (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
Notice how Paul makes clear that he has no intention of gathering the church into a "holy huddle" that has no contact with the outside world.  The church is not defiled by contact with the world but rather is the means by which the world becomes sanctified.  However, if the church tolerates worldly, unclean behavior within itself, then it does become defiled and risks the judgment of the Holy One (cf. Rev. 2:12-29).  The defiling element must be purged.

This is the very same way that Jesus and the apostles describe individual holiness and cleanness.  Jesus said,
"Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile him?  For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer."  (This means all foods are clean.)  He said, "What comes out of a person defiles him.  For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly.  All these evils come from within and defile a person" (Mark 7:18-23).
A clean person, like a clean church, doesn't become unclean by contact with the unclean on the outside.  He or she becomes unclean by the unclean things that are already inside and leak out.  (For comparison, note my earlier post on keeping the Law within.)  Likewise, interacting with an immoral person doesn't defile the Christian, just like it didn't defile Jesus.  But when a Christian develops intimate ties with an immoral person, the immoral person's influence reveals the unholy motives, values, and agenda that were already lurking inside the professed believer.  This is the resolution of the New Testament paradox of purity.  The world itself cannot defile us, nor can the people in the world.  But the lusts in our sinful nature that are titillated by the world and its people can make us impure, and when indulged, they do.

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