This post continues a series on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at another popular principle: purity.
Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Temple of the Holy Spirit
Some Christians turn to I Peter 1:13-16 for their key ethical principle. Both love and obedience may be viewed as a setting apart of Christians to be a holy and pure people, in the midst of a corrupt and corrupting world. “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Consider also Ephesians 1:3-4 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
I Corinthians 6:19 provides greater detail: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Here, personal purity is not an end in itself, but a show of love for the Spirit that dwells in us and a commitment to making God at home in our bodies, our selves, and our communities.
The history and import of purity in Christianity means we need to be particularly careful around this idea. Purity and holiness can mean different things to different people and it will be important to pay close attention to the way the concept is used historically. We will find that purity ethics play a large role in many people’s conception of Christian sexual morality, but not always in the ways we assume.
When we encounter rules for purity in the first five books of the Old Testament, we find a concept of holiness that I like to compare to radiation safety training. The Israelites had been called to live in close proximity to the Most High and that carried serious risks. For them, the rules of purity were all about minimizing risk – how to avoid coming to harm when dealing with the Ark of the Covenant and other hazardous materials. Note the fate of Uzzah (II Samuel 6). Uzzah and his brother Ahio were Israelites chosen to handle the cart that carried the Ark back from the defeat of the Philistines at Baal-Perazim. The oxen jostled the cart and Uzzah reached out to prevent it from falling to the ground. I have heard debate over whether the cart and carters represent proper Ark protocol, but the take home message is this: Uzzah’s intent did not matter. Purity in the early books of the Bible has everything to do with the dangerous nature of God’s power and the need for humans to use caution in God’s presence.
Moses, considered chief among the Hebrew prophets, was afraid to look upon God (Exodus 3:6). Later in Exodus (33, 34), God says that no one can look upon the face of God and live. He grants Moses the chance to see his back as he passes by, just a glimpse, and even then Moses starts glowing from the exposure. He has to cover his face when he goes back among the people. Moses’ brother Aaron, as the first high priest, is the only one who is allowed into the presence of the Ark once it is placed in the tent and even he has to wear special gear to avoid dying (Exodus 28).
Leviticus must be viewed in this light. The Israelites had made an agreement to carry around the spiritual equivalent of a nuclear reactor with them and they needed to be careful.
The Hebrew word rendered “abomination” in modern English refers to something being out of place. If you have taken classes in chemistry, you know that you don’t mix acids and bases because they will explode. You also don’t mix the pure water with the tap water because it will contaminate your experiments. Thus, for the Israelites, anything that confused Israelite (safety certified) with non-Israelite was dangerous, an abomination. Worse yet, anything that mixed up levels of purity was dangerous. Men were purer than women; Levites were purer than other men; Zadokites were purer than other Levites; priests were purer than non-priests; and the high priest was the purest of all. Anything that messed with those distinctions was an abomination.
“Abomination” is a technical term that Christians should only use in the technical sense. In the scriptures, it does not mean unnatural (a Greek or Medieval gloss) or disgusting (an Enlightenment gloss). It means kinds have been mixed in an improper way. It should only be used regarding sexual acts if you are also willing to use it in regard to eating ostrich (Leviticus 11:16), remarriage (Deuteronomy 24:4), and accrued interest (Ezekiel 18:13). It’s a useful concept, but I recommend speaking of “inappropriate mixing of kinds” if you don’t want to confuse non-specialists.
In summary, early Hebrew purity laws should be viewed as safety protocols rather than questions about character. Actions count. Desires don’t. Intentions don’t. In fact, Hebrew sin in general should be viewed as trespassing or debt, both of which can be taken on involuntarily. The idea that thoughts matter more than actions will not arise until much later.
In the next post, I will talk about how the concept of purity has evolved.