Going Outside the Camp: The Holiness of Standing With the Losers

In Unclean I discuss how the rituals of the Hebrew Day of Atonement as described in Leviticus 16 precisely following the logic of disgust psychology. This makes sense as the Day of Atonement is a purification ritual and disgust psychology is how we intuitively reason about issues related to cleanliness and uncleanliness.

Specifically, the Day of Atonement ritual revolves around the notions of boundary-monitoring and expulsion, the very psychological dynamics guiding the disgust response. Disgust monitors the boundary of the body--inside versus outside--and pushes away or expels (e.g., vomiting) contaminating substances.

In the Day of Atonement rituals you see something similar. First, there is the boundary-monitoring symbolized by the boundary of the camp. Next are the acts of expulsion symbolized by the sin-laden goats being taken or forced out of the camp.

To review, there were two goats used in the ritual. One goat for a blood offering and the other as the scapegoat offering. In the scapegoat offering the sins of the people were laid upon the goat which was then expelled from the camp into the wilderness:
Leviticus 16.20-22
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
The other goat, the goat for the sin offering, was killed and its blood and fat used in the Tabernacle rituals. Afterwards the remains of the goat (along with the carcass of a bull that the High Priest used to cleanse himself) were taken outside the camp and burned:
Leviticus 16.27-28
The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
With both goats we see boundary-monitoring and expulsion at work. That which is contaminating, unclean, and polluting are taken outside of the camp. This expulsion and purging leaves the inside of the camp clean and pure. That which is unclean is now exterior, on the outside.

As we know the early Christians viewed the crucifixion of Jesus through the lens of the Day of Atonement rituals. This comparison is most clearly seen in the NT book of Hebrews. Just about any Christian can articulate the metaphor: the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is like the Day of Atonement sacrifices cleansing us from sin.

However, what I'd like to point out is how the book of Hebrews ends on a note that radically deconstructs how Christians should view the death of Jesus as a purification ritual. Specifically, the book of Hebrews inverts the directionality of the Day of Atonement ritual. As noted above, the Day of Atonement ritual expels the uncleanliness from the camp leaving the inside pure. That, as I've said, is how the logic of purity works, psychologically speaking. The goal in the Day of Atonement ritual is to be on the inside of the camp where purity resides. Uncleanliness is being found on the outside of the camp.

Hebrews completely undermines all this.
Hebrews 13.11-14
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Noting the fact that Jesus was crucified outside of the gates of Jerusalem the writer of Hebrews suggests that purification is now found--in a reversal of the Day of Atonement--on the outside of the camp. We don't expel the uncleanliness leaving the inside purified. Rather, we are purified by leaving the camp, going out to where, in the imagination of Leviticus 16, where the wickedness resides. And when we do this we bear the disgrace of Jesus who was, in the words of Isaiah, stricken by God and numbered among the transgressors. Such a reading sits very well with the entire ministry of Jesus who, throughout his life, left the camp to embrace the unclean those who had been expelled into the wildness of Jewish social and religious life. Thus, to be clean in this vision we invert the Day of Atonement: We leave the camp to stand with those who have been excluded.

To be sure, I'm not entirely confident that the writer of Hebrews had this exact understanding in mind (though this reading does precisely fit Jesus in the gospels). A less radical reading has "the city" in the final line of the passage above as Babylon. The idea, then, is one similar to what we find in Revelation where the people of God are to "come out" from Babylon. This coming out of Babylon is what sets us apart as holy, purified people. This reading is supported by the final line of the passage above where two cities are contrasted. In Revelation these two cities are Babylon and the New Jerusalem.

But even if we go with this less radical reading we still have something counterintuitive and note-worthy. Specifically, even in the less radical reading purity isn't achieved by an act of expulsion. Well, it sort of is, only we are expelling ourselves by "coming out" of Babylon, leaving the city and joining Jesus outside the camp.

This might, on first blush, sound like a warrant to avoid or withdraw from the sinners of the world. I think that's a misreading. We aren't leaving people behind. We are leaving a city behind--a way of being, a lifestyle, a culture, a value system, a way of doing business. What will be diagnostic here is how when we "come out" we are disgraced, just as Jesus was disgraced. This "coming out" isn't a power play, a refusal to hang out with sinners. To make that move is to throw the entire life of Jesus under the bus. To make that move is to do the exact opposite of what Jesus did. So let's rule that move out right here. No, bearing the disgrace of being "outside the camp" has to be the same sort of disgrace that Jesus bore in his own life and death. It is the disgrace of hanging out with losers. Of being, along with Jesus on the cross, a loser yourself. The disgrace of being outside the camp, to use the words of Robert Capon, is the disgrace of leastness, lastness, littleness and lostness.

This is the disgrace of being outside the camp. The disgrace of being a loser and standing with losers.

But when we go outside the camp to stand with the losers there we find the body and blood of Jesus, the sacrifice that makes us pure, holy and clean.

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9 thoughts on “Going Outside the Camp: The Holiness of Standing With the Losers”

  1. Great post. And yes, given atonement theology, I'm almost sure that "outside the city gate" means (in the Priestly/ Holiness material) "in unclean, ritually impure space." Good work.

  2. "But when we go outside the camp to stand with the losers there we find
    the body and blood of Jesus, the sacrifice that makes us pure, holy and

    This is metaphor, correct?  I thought we are all already "pure, holy, and clean".  Why is any sacrifice necessary to begin with?  Who is demanding blood?  Why would it matter to begin with which side of a wall we are on?  Who is doing this "inside/outside" discrimination and sorting?  It isn't God, so I assume it is we, as a way to address inequality in the world.  What was the difference, then (in the picture), between the thief on the right, and the one on the left?

    One thing is certain -- it was not a good thing to be a goat in ancient Israel.  Whether scape or sacrificial, the outcome for you was the same -- you were toast.  So, from the goat's perspective, it really didn't matter.

  3. Ever since you first started to really go in this direction of standing with the outsiders, I've made it a bit of a spiritual reflection and discipline in my life to do so. It's so easy how I quickly and subtly stratify myself amongst my peers and attempt to gravitate towards the top and disown those that myself and society deems lower and even sub-human. Thank you for your continual reminder to remain a brother in humanity to all my brothers and sisters in a tangible and daily way.

  4. Wonderful post. I love it. Once again Jesus doesn't just refine or clarify OT systems, he subverts them and turns them on their heads.

  5. So what exactly is the "camp" or "Babylon."  I had a great conversation on a Stanton Island ferry who was a maker of pornographic films. I think I was outside the camp and I know I experienced "body broken and blood shed." Just not sure.

  6. The shocking inversion. This could well be the dominant theme of the coming of Messiah. And we the church still struggle with the challenge of moving beyond the sacred walls to the realm "where the dark and scary things reside'" where he prayed not to go...nonetheless willfully acquessed to the Father's purpose and plan, this strange, mysterious blend, this uncomprehendable blend of divinity and humanity struggling with THE question...to serve or to BE served in the crucible of life. He chose......sacrificed outside the gates, and therein lies the choice for each of us who have accepted the gift...and its overwhelming implications for our lives. Richard, you are really on to something that tears at the seamy under Ely of the complacent and incomprehending sanctuary dwellers. The struggle rages on.....

  7. I've been re-reading unclean now that I have my own copy (the previous was from an inter-library loan), and have some questions that I'd like to ask you about it. Other than commenting on a post related to the book, is there a more suitable place for such a conversation? Specifically, I have some questions about heterosexual versus non-heterosexual sexual sins in terms of metaphor and emotion and how we view them differently in our Christian cultures.

  8. Richard,
    Thank you for this post.  I was intrigued by something Marilyn McCord Adams said in Christ and Horrors.  She talked about how being cursed, as a Hebrew, meant being cut-off from the community and put out of the camp.  She went on to say that since "Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree," Christ too was expelled from the camp, bringing God's presence to the cursed--outside the camp!  I loved the image immediately, but your post on Hebrews 13 has really solidified that image.  Thanks again.

  9. I've heard it suggested that Hebrews was written by a woman, maybe Priscilla. That could be one reason why it was anonymous. Jewish women would know firsthand what it was like to be outside the camp and "unclean" and were not expected to be trustworthy messengers. And it is very complex, drawing on a lot of themes and weaving them together masterfully, a skill women have evolved to excel in as they network and multitask to compensate for lesser physical strength.

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