Moses, Morality and Mildew
I’ve been reading through the book of Leviticus this month, and it has so much to teach me. Mostly, it teaches me that it’s not about what we all think it’s about. The book gets a bad rap. It’s full of instructions about being clean and unclean. People who treat sin like some kind of mind-game love this book. They take day-trips into it like train-spotters at Clapham Junction. The more precise your knowledge of EXACTLY what it is about us that disgusts God, the more righteous you can pretend to be. If you want to reinforce your righteousness by pointing out the filthiness of others, Leviticus offers you some very convenient bullet-point list. For centuries Leviticus has been used as a kind of sheep-and-goats-separation-machine. Gloriously clean people over here, please; dirty reprobates over here. Never mind that the basis on which God’s actual herd-sort is predicted is entirely different.
Why do we do this? Why do we obsess over clean and unclean and beat one another over the head with these lists?
The reason is simple, and frightening in its implications. It is because we take “clean and unclean” in Leviticus to mean “clean and unclean” before God. We read it as a book about sin. It isn’t. It’s a book about social health care: one of the world’s earliest experiments in a National Health Service.
Consider Chapter 14. Broadly speaking, this chapter covers two areas – skin diseases and mildew. We’ve already been told that someone with a serious skin disease should be placed in quarantine outside the camp. Lots of rules and rituals are put in place to avoid the spread of infection. It’s as if Moses has read Florence Nightingale’s diaries ( or maybe it was the other way round). In Chapter 14 we deal with a vexed social question. What happens if you’ve had an infectious disease and it gets better? Your skin is clean, but your neighbours have been told not to come near you. Their children don’t play with yours anymore, and there’s an exclusion zone around your tent still marked out with crime-scene tape. How do you convince your community that the crisis is over?
The answer is that the priests get a good look at you, allow enough time to be sure, then perform a ritual to declare you ‘ceremonially clean’. This is a public ritual, a social provision to allow you to re-enter your home, reclaim your property and go back to your normal routine. It has nothing to do with your standing before God, except in the sense that your community believes that everything that happens to you – sickness, healing, poverty and prosperity – ultimately comes from God. These rules and rituals – this LAW – is simply not about who is acceptable to God. It is about how you get a bustling, multi-generational slave community through the desert with the fewest deaths possible. “Ceremonially clean” means “fit for work”, not “right with God”.
If we read the Old Testament laws with an overlay of “clean = righteous” and “unclean = sinful”, we will misread God’s intentions. This is what the Pharisees were rebuked for by Jesus in Matthew 15. This is not to suggest that sin doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter – just that sin is not what is being addressed in the laws of Moses.
Just in case you think this is an outrageous assumption, Leviticus 14 helpfully pre-applies the laws of “clean and unclean” to the future social problem of mildew. What do you do, once you’ve swapped your tent for a bungalow, if there’s mould in your cellar? The process is similar to that for skin disease, except for two important distinctions. The first is that this is your house, not your body. Unless bricks and mortar are capable of falling from moral perfection, it is difficult to see this as a sin issue. The second is that God clarifies the situation by taking full responsibility for the mould. Mildew is something HE SENDS. You didn’t sin it – he sent it.
This is, it seems, the very heart of the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. They took laws that were given to keep them healthy and alive and applied them, instead, to their moral standing before God. Just as we do, because we’re still trying to deal, as they were, with the deep question of our human shame. We believe that there must be something God wants us to do to make ourselves more acceptable to him, so every time God asks us to do something, we assume that’s what it’s for. We build whole religions, whole systems of clean and unclean, around this simple idea of trying to please God. We do this because we can’t face the bad news of the gospel – you can’t, and we haven’t heard the good news – you don’t need to.
Until we find a way to divorce our practice of faith from this false understanding of law, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others. The blind leading the blind, as Jesus said.
There is nothing you can do to please God more than you please him already. There is nothing you need to do to make him like you. Let’s put it in the language of Leviticus. YOU ARE NOT UNCLEAN. Ironically, it’s only when you realise this that you can finally let God get at the mildew in your cellar.