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Vayikra/Leviticus 15:18 And a woman, that a man lies with her the lying of seed, they shall wash in the water and they shall be ritually impure until the evening.
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Still in the area of ritual purity, this command causes the commentators some puzzlement. It is situated in the middle of a block of verses dealing with body emissions of various types, both male and female, expected and unexpected, that make the person concerned ritually impure. Logically, therefore, it is in the right place and there should surely be no discussion or disagreement about what it means. The previous verses seem quite clear: "When a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and remain unclean until evening. All cloth or leather on which semen falls shall be washed in water and remain unclean until evening" (Vayikra 15:16-17, JPS). The problem is that sexual relations between a man and his wife are explicitly commanded: "Be fertile and increase" (B'resheet 1:28, JPS), or its commonly recognised translation, "Be fruitful and multiply" (ibid., KJV, RSV, ESV, etc.). How can performing a mitzvah and joining withHaShem in His work of creation be impure?
The Hebrew verb , "to lie down, to lie with", is present in the text twice: first as , the Qal 3ms prefix form, "he will lie"; then as , the construct form of the feminine noun , "the act of lying with", here coupled with the noun , "seed". It is important to notice, as Gunther Plaut points out, "The Hebrew conveys no implication that the act is in any way degrading or sinful." Assuming that the man and woman are indeed man and wife, Baruch Levine confirms, "the true function of semen is realised when a man inseminates his wife in fulfillment of the divine command to be fruitful and multiply."
So why the impurity? Working from the idea that a hidden impurity is not an impurity,Rashi comments that "The reason is not because of coming into contact with semen, for that contact is by unseen parts of organs"; the Sforno adds, "the ritual impurity of the woman through semen only results when a man lies with her, even though it is in her concealed chamber" and Torat Kohanim1 tells us that, "It is the act of consummated intercourse itself (rather than contact with semen) that brings about the woman's impurity." But we still haven't got an answer to why intercourse brings about impurity. Rashi simply says that "It is a decree of the King that a woman becomes impure through intercourse." This makes it one of the class of commands for which there is no human reason - it is simply something that HaShem has said. Baruch Levine again: "The woman does not become impure as a result of semen entering her body ... It is merely that the law declared her, like her male partner, to be impure after intercourse. Both must bathe after the sex act."
As usual, though, the absence of easily derived reasons for a non-obvious command doesn't stop the creative juices of the commentators from flowing.Maimonides - in a block of chapters explaining why many of the purity and ritual commands are for man's good even he doesn't understand why - suggests that "all of this was a reason for keeping away from the sanctuary and for not entering it at every moment ... in consequence of such actions, awe will continue and an impression leading to the humility that was aimed at will be produced" (Guide for the Perplexed III.47). If people are in the habit of being in the Sanctuary every day then, Maimonides reasons, they will develop the contempt of the commonplace; they will loose their awe of G-d, the imperative for being ritually pure, the drive and reason for holiness. G-d - and the practice of the cult - will become simply routine and boring and so will be performed in an ever more slapdash way, leading ultimately to the profaning of the Sanctuary and G-d's name. You can see what Maimonides fears happening in the days after the Babylonian exile, when the prophet Malachi writes about the disrespect the priests are showing over the sacrifices.
Taking a different tack, Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner see this as a religious or cultural separation: "these requirements strikingly differentiate the Israelite approach to sex from that of most pagan cultures. Many pagans made sex orgies an integral part of their religious ritual, especially during their holidays, while the Israelites were told to remove sexual practices from their services." Baruch Levine agrees, noting that "in other ANE religions, fertility was celebrated in the cult - on special occasions, sexual intercourse might even be dramatised and myths telling of the gods were recited." Because of the impurity, the Israelites were forbidden even to have sex within sacred precincts, thus once again creating a distance between the process of procreation and the cult. The Israelites were to be different from the nations, different from the people of the Land whom they displaced. The act of intercourse is part of marriage and so an expression of holiness; but it is not to be conducted in public, used as a religious tool or ritual, viewed as an art-form or watched as entertainment, treated casually or engaged in unfaithfully.
The mixture of life and death in this context is sharp. Compared with the waste of seed and a woman's period following the non-fertilisation of her egg in each cycle, sexual intercourse provides an opportunity of life - not only for the relationship of the couple - for the creation with G-d of a new life, the birth of a child. The famous phrase, "Media vita in morte sumus", probably written in the 8th century CE as a reflection on Romans 8:10-11 and translated by Thomas Cranmer, "In the midst of life we are in death", is part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. It highlights the paradox between our physical life and our spiritual life and the way they co-exist in what we call 'life'. Before conception - that ritually pure moment that creates ritual impurity - there is no life; then follows the time of gestation until birth heralds the arrival of a new life for the mythical three-score years and ten when, once more, ritual impurity closes the death of the physical body created initially from two cells.
Rav Sha'ul acutely illustrates this in his description of the life of an itinerant minister of the gospel in almost the earliest days of the church: "[We are] afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Yeshua, that the life of Yeshua also may be manifested in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, NASB). The apostle is that blend of life and death: his new self crying out "Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24, NASB). Everywhere he goes, the new creation life of Yeshua is contrasted with the physical body of Sha'ul. Ben Witherington comments that Sha'ul is, "manifesting the spectacle of the dying or killing of Jesus in his own life and us thus being conformed to Christ's image even in this horrible way. Living believers are always being delivered over to death because of Jesus."2
Comparing life in Messiah with the triumphal procession of a Roman general or emperor, Sha'ul says that "we are a fragrance of Messiah to G-d among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life" (2 Corinthians 2:15-16, NASB). Whether referring on the one hand to the crushed spices strewn in front of such a procession, or by allusion to the aroma exuded by wisdom (Sirach 24:15), or the stench of fear and death among the captives on the other, the images of life and death are again blended by Sha'ul's use of the metaphor. Believers take the smell of salvation, the presence of Yeshua in us, everywhere we go. While to those who reject Him, we are the aroma of death - betokening the death and judgement that is to come, though our conversation may say nothing of it - to those who will accept Him, the aroma is a fragrance of life, a sweet fragrance rising before G-d and pleasing to both men and G-d.
How can you bring the earthiness of your human life and your life in Messiah together in a way that will witness faithfully of the kingdom? It's not about rehearsed speeches, an instant testimony or memorised Bible verses, important as all those may be. It's about a genuine consistency and transparency: being the 'you' you always are, while being the 'you' that you're still becoming - a reflection of Yeshua. After all, Yeshua was earthy enough - He went to weddings, eat with tax-gatherers and prostitutes, mixed with the common people and was hugely popular and loved by the masses - yet always took the presence of His Father with Him wherever He went. A natural natural. So must we be!
1. - The Law of the Priests; the earliest rabbinic commentary to the book of Vayikra, also known as Sifra.
2. - Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth - A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1995, page 387.
Further Study: 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6
Application: How can you be more earthy, consistent and genuine about your life in a way that allows Yeshua to be smelled from a hundred yards away? Why not put in a call to the Head Chef and find out what's cooking today.
Comment - 16:23 12Apr16 Tom: The metaphor of fragrance helps to convey the attraction of a good life. As the power to be so comes from G-d not us we cannot claim credit. Left to ourselves we would be reminded that in the midst of life we are in death. Jesus redeems us from this situation by the power and attraction of his own life which can spill over into our life.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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