I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. But I am familiar with the image created by Wilde in this novel, a gruesome image of the reality of evil. Dorian Gray had a portrait of himself commissioned. He engaged in a life of unrestrained pleasures and his own physical beauty became of utmost importance to his happiness. He made a pact, apparently with the devil, that he would not age, but only his portrait would.
The portrait, hidden away in the Gray estate, grew more hideous with each passing year while Gray himself remained youthful and beautiful.
Jacob Milgrom, the scholar whose theories on Leviticus have influenced the entire field of Hebrew Bible studies, compares the impurity system of Israel to the Dorian Gray arrangement:
Like this Wilde character, the priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and, unless quickly expunged, God’s presence will depart (Leviticus, Fortress Press, 2004, p.32).
Two things defiled the Temple according to Torah: sin and impurity:
Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst –Leviticus 15:31.
You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean –Leviticus 10:10.
But the man who is unclean and does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord –Numbers 19:20.
The causes of impurity, which is distinguished from sin, include:
(1) Contact with the carcass of unclean animals: Leviticus 11.
(2) Childbirth (post-natal bleeding): Leviticus 12.
(3) Scale disease, lingering mold: Leviticus 13.
(4) Genital emissions due to venereal disease: Leviticus 15:1-15.
(5) Emission of semen, with or without intercourse: Leviticus 15:16-18.
(6) Menstruation: Leviticus 15:19-24.
(7) Irregular feminine bleeding: Leviticus 15:25-30.
(8) Exposure to or contact with a human corpse: Numbers 19.
This impurity system raises many questions. Most Bible readers have asked themselves at least a few of these:
How can something which is not wrong (e.g., marital intercourse) be impure/unclean?
How can something which is a good deed (e.g., caring for the body of a deceased person) be impure/unclean?
How can the giving of life (childbirth) be impure/unclean?
How can something distinctly feminine and something a woman cannot control (menstruation) be impure/unclean?
Why are some animals unclean but not others?
How can any of this apply today or does it not apply anymore?
How can impurity or sin defile the Temple?
What does it all mean and why did God ask Israel to live by this system?
We’ll consider these questions and crack the code of Leviticus in a short series of posts. Stay tuned.