MORE THOUGHTS ON THE HOLINESS CODE
Grace and Law: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1: 17). “The law brings wrath…..but the promise comes through Jesus Christ” (Romans 4: 14-16). That’s as Dispensational as I get. But there are significant connections between the law of Moses and the grace of Jesus that are vital to the understanding of each one. Each dispensation is necessary to our understanding of the other. The law served, among other purposes, to protect the identity of the Covenant People for the coming of the Messiah. That meant that holiness had to protected from moral, physical and spiritual defilement in the world lest sin, shame, uncleanness and defilement take on contagious lives of their own. Jesus, by contrast, operated on the faith that God’s holiness would overcome sin, shame and uncleanness through the contagious life of the Holy Spirit. This we see in many of his healings and interactions with others. The woman with the issue of blood for 18 years (Luke 8:43-46) was legally unclean when she touched Jesus, and so would Jesus have been considered unclean for her having touched him. Yet he commended her for her faith, instead of reprimanding her for “defiling” him. Grace means that the health, healing and holiness (all cognates of the same word) in Jesus overcame the world’s sin and defilement, instead of vice versa.
So it was with the quadriplegic man on his mat (Mark 2:1-12), whom Jesus healed. He and others who cleaned up the bodily issues over which he had no control would have been considered unclean according to the Levitical laws. That would have included the four men who carried him on a cot to Jesus. Again, Jesus commended their faith, rather than chewing them out for ritual impurity. “Your sins are forgiven” could also be taken to mean, “You just got from me the release from defilement that you would previously have had to get through sacrifice at the Temple.”
The purity laws consigned the Gentiles to a state of perpetual ritual uncleanness, and yet Jesus related to them graciously, affirming and encouraging whatever steps of faith they took toward him. This led to Peter’s visit under the roof of a Roman officer, Cornelius, and to Cornelius’ faith in Christ (Acts 10).
Its not that the holiness code was bad or unnecessary. We must come to terms with the contagious power of sin, shame and moral, spiritual defilement. We cannot appreciate nor understand salvation from something we don’t take seriously. But Christian faith also means that our faith is in God and in his power to forgive, cleanse and accept us, and not in our own power to keep ourselves pure by our own observance. Christian faith means that our trust in God’s power to overcome our sin, separation and uncleanness is greater than our fear of sin, separation and uncleanness.
Old Testament Law VS. Canaanite Sacralized Sex Some of the Levitical laws might strike the modern reader as unnecessarily prudish and puritanical, such as one prohibiting stairs leading up to the altar, so that “no one may see the nakedness” of the high priest under his robe. There were also prescriptions for uncleanness and purification after menstruation, night time ejaculations of semen, childbirth and sexual activity. If this were because of some sort of pre-Victorian prudishness about bodies and sexuality, then that doesn’t jive with the rest of the Bible. Either Leviticus would have to go, or The Song of Solomon. More likely, these laws served to radically distinguish the worship of Israel’s God from the pagan worship of fertility deities, which may have been marked by sacralized sexual rituals that are probably not worth mentioning here. According to Romans 1: 18ff, that is where the worship of the Creation, rather than the Creator, always eventually leads.
SABBATH AND JUBILEE LAWS
The Bible does not make the distinctions between personal piety and purity, and social justice that modern Western Christians often do. Greed is another form of idolatry, according to Colossians 3:5. To curtail greed and avoid the otherwise inevitable accumulation of wealth, to the increasing oppression and disadvantaging of the poor and vulnerable, God instituted laws of Sabbath, Sabbath years, and Jubilee. Every seven years, the land was to have a year of rest, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves released. At least as they applied to fellow Israelites. Applying these laws to all non-Israelites around them and among them would have bankrupted the nation. In the seventh year, any foods and fruits that grew of themselves were for the poor and the wild animals to glean. There is some biblical and historic evidence that some Israelites, in some places, did keep these sabbath years, but observance was spotty at best. Every fiftieth year, the land was to be returned to its originally allotted owners, with the exception of homes in walled cities. That, too, was to prevent the accumulation of land in fewer and more powerful hands.
Behind these redistributive social justice laws, and their implications, lay the understanding that God is the landlord, and the source and owner of all wealth derived from the land. “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” All real estate transactions were understood only to buy time for use and stewardship of the land, and not the land itself. If God’s people did not keep these laws, the land itself would vomit them out into exile (Lev. 20:22), which happened in 586 BC. “Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it (Lev. 26:34-35).”
When Jesus began his ministry, he declared himself and God’s kingdom to be the fulfillment of the Jubilee principle. In his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth, he quoted the Jubilee language of Isaiah 61, saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Don’t forget that the Jubilee year began, not with the sounding of the ram’s horn (that came second), but first, with the sacrifice on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is God’s announcement of creation’s Jubilee.
The Law and The Death Penalty
Breaking many of the O.T. Laws and much of the Holiness Code could get one killed. Murder, adultery, witchcraft, cursing one’s parents, offering foreign fire on the altar, among others…..all self-destructive acts. This is also foreign to modern sensibilities, although our military adventures and expenditures are the highest ever, and our entertainment media celebrate death for all sorts of minor reasons.
The death sentences of the Law underscore the essential unity between death and sin. Sin involves a dying of the human soul with every expression. God warned that the first sin would lead to death (Gen.2:17). Through the prophet Ezekiel, God again affirmed, “the soul that sins shall die.” The Old Testament has no problems with the right of the Giver of Life to reclaim his gift when its being abused.
When presented with an open-and-shut capital offense, in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 1-12). Jesus did not argue with either the crime nor the punishment. He raised a question about who should enforce it. Because all those gathered with stones for the execution were themselves sinners, not a one was qualified to carry it out, lest no one but Jesus leave the place alive.
The Law convicts us all of sin and its intrinsic, organic death sentence. It was logical and necessary that a society under Law exercise God’s judgment. But once started, where would it stop? Grace offers us release and remediation of our lives (Titus 2:11). Under grace there is neither necessity nor reward for exercising the judgment that belongs only to God. So Jesus himself, the Judge and sinless Lamb of God, refused to carry out the death sentence on the woman in question, and instead offered her a second chance. Or third, fourth, however many were needed. Too bad her partner in crime didn’t show up to seek grace, too. Maybe he was there among the men holding stones. All the citizens of God’s kingdom are “the chief of sinners (I Timothy 2:15)” and the repentant and redeemed. I personally think this invalidates even the death penalty in the wider society.