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B'Midbar/Numbers 19:13 Anyone who touches a dead body, a soul of man who has died, and will not purify himself [and] defiles the Tabernacle of the L-rd, he shall be cut off from Isra'el
Ah, yackety-yak, into the middle of arcane ancient Israelite priestly purity regulations, you might think. But you'd be wrong! For a start, the stipulations in this chapter about how to process contact with death and dead bodies is very much part of an observant Jewish lifestyle today.1 More than that, however, it teaches us a key principle for our lives and relationships withHaShem as followers of Yeshua.
Let's start by looking at some terms: what is a dead body?Rashi asks exactly that question - "Which dead body?" - and then answers, "That of a human soul. To the exclusion of the soul of an animal, whose impurity does not require sprinkling." There are two things to counter here. Firstly, the verse could mean "a dead body or a soul of man who has died", so that contact with any deceased remains, human or otherwise is being addressed. Secondly, the word "a soul of man" might seem superfluous; what other sort of body would the Torah be so concerned about? No, Rashi, says, there is a difference: touching an animal carcass does transmit impurity, but the purification for that only requires washing oneself and one's clothes and waiting until evening; it is exclusively contact with the body of a dead person that requires the seven day time period with sprinkling with the water of cleansing on the third and seventh days. Drazin and Wagner confirm that in Scripture means 'person' not soul.
Another question the commentators ask is what the Tabernacle or Sanctuary has to do with it? If somewhere away up in the Galil a chap's relative dies, so that burial of the body is required and he becomes ritually impure in the process, how could that possibly defile the Tabernacle down in Shiloh or the Temple Sanctuary even further south in Jerusalem? The literal translation of the text doesn't have the word 'and' shown in square brackets above. That would suggest that simply the decision not to purify oneself defiles the Sanctuary, no matter where you are. But tradition interprets that in a more common-sense way, inserting the 'and' to means that defilement only occurs if someone who is impure from a dead body and has refused to be cleansed, then attempts to enter the Sanctuary or perform religious ritual there. Rashi tells us that this applies even if the person does go through the normal immersion or washing process before entering the Sanctuary - that is not enough: he must go the seven day purification period and be sprinkled with the water of purification on the third and seventh day.
The verb - the Nif'al 3fs affix form of the root , to cut off or cut down (Davidson), with a vav-reversive to render a future tense, so literally "and she will be cut off" or perhaps "and let her be cut off" referring to the person (which is a feminine noun) as its subject (in the following word, ) also needs some explanation. The penalty of karet is usually taken to mean "the excision of his line" (Jacob Milgrom), following "may his posterity be cut off; may their names be blotted out in the next generation" (Psalm 109:13, NJPS) or "May the L-RD leave to him who does this no descendants dwelling in the tents of Jacob and presenting offerings to the L-RD of Hosts" (Malachi 2:12, NJPS). Milgrom qualifies this by adding that the neglect must be deliberate: "But the person, be he citizen or stranger, who acts defiantly reviles the L-RD; that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has spurned the word of the L-RD and violated His commandment, that person shall be cut off -- he bears his guilt" (B'Midbar 15:30-31, NJPS). If it is accidental or inadvertent, then a purification offering brings forgiveness: "In case it is an individual who has sinned unwittingly, he shall offer a she-goat in its first year as a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation before the L-RD on behalf of the person who erred, for he sinned unwittingly, making such expiation for him that he may be forgiven" (15:27-28, Bibie(NJPS)).
Lastly, we also wonder why contact with a dead body is such a big thing. One could perhaps think that if contact with a dead animal only requires washing body and clothing and waiting until evening, that this is really a hygiene issue - making sure that disease doesn't spread through the camp - so why is contact with human death so much bigger and longer? RabbiHirsch helps us here; he explains, "Every dead human body represents the mortality of human beings; there is a great danger of thinking that mankind cannot escape the fate of death that hangs over him, a force to which he has to submit. Every dead body makes the living man realise that he is subject to death, hence coming into contact with death requires sprinkling for purification." Animals die; kosher animals are killed for their meat. No-one gets upset about that, or feels unduly threatened by that death, but coming face to face with a dead human body reminds people that they too are human and that, just as this body died, so too will theirs. The ritual of purification, therefore serves as a reminder that there is something bigger than death - life! - and that although we cannot overcome physical death, our lives as part of G-d's people is entwined with His life.
Our text, however, isn't primarily about the victory of G-d over death. It is about what happens when a person who has been contaminated by contact with a dead human body refuses to go through the purification process and then, possibly depending on exactly how we read the text, attempts to enter the Sanctuary in that impure contaminated state - bringing death into G-d's presence, into His place of life. As we have seen, this doesn't apply to people who act in ignorance or by mistake: a person might be totally unaware that they had had physical contact with a dead body or some artifact from a location where someone had died; a husband or wife might be so distraught at the death of their life-partner that they act irrationally and without thinking. Neither of these is a deliberate refusal to engage with the purification process. Our text talks about someone who is fully aware of their need for purification and of what that purification involves, and yet chooses not to participate in or submit to that rite. That choice is itself an affront to G-d who has provided a path of purification and a further attempt, so to speak, to force one's way into G-d's presence or appear as if one has been purified (so also contaminating everyone else with whom one comes into contact), warrants the punishment of excision from G-d's people.
One application of that in today's world is that of a person who is refusing to enter into relationship with G-d and submit to His lordship in their lives. They know the gospel and how it works; they are aware that they have committed sin and so are estranged from G-d; someone has explained the consequences of not accepting G-d's offer of purification and forgiveness in Messiah Yeshua - and yet they refuse to accept the offer. Presumably, they know perfectly well that if they become a follower of Yeshua, then changes will have to be made in their life and they don't want to make those changes, give up those habits, stop certain behaviours and instead do other things that they don't want to do. So they say 'no', they prevaricate, they put it off until another time. This is an affront to G-d and they remain cut off from G-d and His people.
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of a second application: people who have made a confession of faith but have then lapsed or changed their mind: "in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of G-d and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of G-d, and put Him to open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6, NASB). As long as they persist in their denial, they refuse G-d's offer of reconciliation and remain cut off from G-d and His people; they are, as the text says, essentially spurning Yeshua's crucifixion for themselves and mocking it by their refusal to participate in the process they once embraced.
That brings us to Yeshua's enigmatic statement about the unforgivable sin: "he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him" (Luke 12:10, NASB). Present in both Matthew and Luke, there is much debate about exactly these words might mean, even to some who suggest that the statement is a later product of the church. Darrell Bock offers this explanation: "blasphemy of the Spirit is not so much an act of rejection as it is a persistent and decisive rejection of the Spirit's message and work concerning Jesus. When a person obstinately rejects and fixedly refuses that message or evidence, that person is not forgiven."2 They are to all intents and purposes cut off from G-d and people for ever. Although G-d has provided a path of purification and reconciliation, it has been refused. Bock again: "Once the Spirit's testimony about G-d's work through Jesus is permanently refused, then nothing can be forgiven, since G-d's plan has been rejected." Make sure you are not in that place!
1. - Although the degree and interpretation vary across the spectrum of Jewish observance, from Orthodox to Reform and beyond, tradition and ritual concerning death and burial are a critical part of every Jewish community.
2. - Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 ECNT, Baker Academic, 1996, pages 1141 and 1143.
Further Study: Matthew 12:31-32; Hebrews 10:26-27; 2 Peter 2:20-22
Application: How can you be sure that you are not in a position of rejection concerning all that G-d has for you in Messiah Yeshua? Make sure you have a conversation with the the Master today; insist that He tell you slowly and carefully exactly what you need to do be in perfect submission to Him and then be sure to do it and seek His confirmation and assurance.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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