My readers are a patient lot. You never complain. Occasionally I promise to deliver something interesting and put it of for weeks and you don’t give me a hard time. I promised several weeks ago to show a connection between the Purity Laws of the Torah (Lev 11-15, Num 19) and the Resurrection. By Resurrection, I mean the bodily return to life of all people after death that comes at the end of the age as well as the Resurrection of Messiah from death on the third day.
In “Purity Laws and Resurrection, Part 1,” I explained Yeshua’s defense of the doctrine of resurrection in a verbal contest with the Sadducees. In “Purity Laws and Resurrection, Part 2,” I presented the twelve causes of impurity and the theories of Jacob Milgrom, premier commentator on Leviticus. Now, in the final part, I intend to show that the Purity Laws point to resurrection and that Paul even makes such a case in 1 Corinthians 15! (How’s that for excitement?).
As Jacob Milgrom has so persuasively argued, the Purity Laws of the Torah are about life versus death. All twelve causes of impurity involve death, loss of life, or some restriction on death. Loss of blood at childbirth and menstruation is loss of life. Biblical skin disease (erroneously called leprosy in the translations) makes one look like a corpse. Even the dietary law is about limiting death to a restricted number of species. See “Purity Laws and Resurrection, Part 2,” for more.
As I was preparing some notes on Numbers 19 for my congregation’s Torah study, I came across a note by Daniel Lancaster in a First Fruits of Zion Torah Club (I think it was Vol. 2). He was commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:29:
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
Maybe it is well known that Paul’s comment about baptism for the dead should be read in a Jewish context. Maybe I had nothing to be so elated about, but Daniel Lancaster’s comment was my first exposure to the idea.
I had always relegated the “baptism for the dead” passage to the great unknown. I had heard from commentators and teachers that, “It does not mean the Mormon practice of baptizing people in order to bring salvation to the lost who are already dead.” I did not need someone to tell me that Paul was not speaking in the first century about a practice from a religion started in the nineteenth century. But what did he mean?
Well, in Israel, people were baptized for the dead, twice in fact. As Numbers 19 explains, anyone who has touched a corpse must be sprinkled with water mixed with ashes of a red heifer on the third day and the seventh day.
The people in Corinth were mostly non-Jews. Yet they read Torah. They also were familiar with the Jewish customs of those Jews who lived in Corinth. Could Paul have been referring to a Jewish custom when he spoke of being baptized for the dead? If so, how does the practice of water purification after touching a corpse argue for resurrection?
The answer is simple: all the Purity Laws and especially the laws regarding corpse uncleanness point to resurrection because they declare that God is the God of life, not the God of death. This is the underlying message of the Purity Laws. Death was not God’s idea, as Torah says in the story of the Garden. It was man’s. God remains separate from death and will not have it brought into his holy place. His people must continually cleanse the presence of any death in the land.
Being purified after touching the dead body of a loved one is symbolic of a great hope. God does not take joy in the death of our loved ones. Their death is unclean. The God of Life does not choose death. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that he will reverse it.
The ultimate meaning of Israel’s Purity Laws is life in the presence of God in his eternal sanctuary.