Lessons from Leviticus: Part 8, Contagious Holiness

One last post in this series. I hope you've enjoyed it. It could go on and on. If you want to explore more, pick up Jacob Milgrom's commentaries, the one volume abridged version, or the longer, three-volume set.

As I recount in Unclean, one of the fascinating reversals we find the gospels is how Jesus displays a contagious holiness. 

Specifically, contamination generally obeys the law of negativity dominance. That is, when the clean and unclean, or the pure or the polluted, come into contact the negative dominates over the positive. The clean becomes unclean and the pure becomes polluted.

The law of negativity dominance creates a quarantine logic. Given the power of the pollutant, we maintain states of purity by distance and withdrawal. As we are now intimately familiar with, this the logic of social distancing and sheltering in place. 

Of course, social distancing makes sense in the world of a pandemic, but when imported into the moral and social domains--where people are deemed "unclean"--social distancing becomes a huge obstacle to acts of welcome, inclusion, hospitality and love. 

What we see in the gospels is Jesus transgressing against the rules of social distancing. Jesus breaks quarantine to touch and share community with the unclean. And yet, when Jesus does this, something surprising happens. The law of negativity dominance is reversed. In the event of contact Jesus doesn't become unclean. Instead, Jesus purifies the unclean. Rather than a contagious pollution we experience a contagious holiness. 

Again, as noted in this series, we tend to see in Jesus a reversal of the Levitical purity codes. And it is true that the law of negativity dominance dominates the book of Leviticus. And yet, what we find in Jesus isn't new. Contagious holiness goes back to the book of Leviticus. 

What Jacob Milgrom describes as "sanctum contagion" is mentioned four times in the Torah, twice in Exodus (Ex 29.37; 30.26-29) and twice in Leviticus (Lev 6.18, 27). Sanctum contagion has an if/then logic: "If x touches y, x becomes holy." For example:

Whatever touches the altar shall become holy. (Ex 29.37)
There was a bit of a scandal about the universality implied in the word "whatever." Due to perceived abuses and outrages, later rabbinic teaching tried to limit the scope of sanctum contagion. As Milgrom describes:
[The priests and scribes] were probably deeply disturbed by the stream of murderers, thieves, and assorted criminals who flocked to the altar and resided on the sanctuary grounds on the basis of hoary, venerable traditions that the altar "sanctifies": so they declared that those who entered the sacred precincts were not under divine protection. The priests therefore took the radical step of declaring that the altar was no longer contagious to persons; those who touched it were no longer "sanctified," so they might be wrested from the altar by the authorities with impunity. In this cultic reform the priests would have won the support of the king and his bureaucracy, who would have earnestly wished to terminate the sanctuary's veto power over their jurisdiction. 
We actually see evidence of this practice, claiming sanctuary protection by grabbing the horns of the altar, in the Bible (e.g., 1 Kings 1.50).

With this background in mind, we suddenly see Jesus in a new light. Specifically, as N.T. Wright has shown, in the gospels Jesus pitted himself against the temple. Jesus was the temple, the location where heaven and earth intersected, the place where humanity encounered God. Consequently, it's not surprising that Jesus would display sanctum contagion. Contact with Jesus didn't render him unclean. Instead, sinners and the unclean were purified and made holy. 

And just as we observed with the religious and political authorities who worked to limit the scope of sanctum contagion, there was a similar shock and scandal in Jesus' own ministry of purification and forgiveness, how his contagious holiness undermined the religious and political authorities of his time and place. 

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