The human diversity we have as gendered creatures, often reflected in the string of letters LGBTQIA+, points to the diverse forms Love takes. It seems appropriate then, that this month we learn a bit more about the goodness of something that has been considered “unclean” or “an abomination” by many—even many today in the United States.
How many of you have heard the words CLEAN and UNCLEAN in the Bible somewhere? Mm-hhhhmm. And, as you probably know, those words don’t have anything to do with germs. People in Jesus’ time had no idea that germs even existed, so the ritual hand-washing we read about in Mark 7 was about something altogether different.
To help us out today, I’m going to interview a Jewish man who lived 2000 years ago in Jesus’ time. His name is Malachi.
LEANN: Hi, Malachi. Thanks for being here with us today. I’m going to ask you a few questions to help us all better understand why LGBTQIA people have been called terrible names, much worse than UNCLEAN or ABOMINATION.
First off, what does CLEAN mean in the Bible? And what is UNCLEAN?
MALACHI: Well, I don’t know who LGBTQIA people are, so I’m a bit confused, but I’ll do my best to explain as clearly as I can. CLEAN in the ancient world means “orderly, predictable, safe.” A person or animal or behavior is considered CLEAN when it honors our God, who brings a sense of order, predictability and security to our lives.
So, for example, I’m thinking of the many, many animals in our beautiful creation. I’m a fisherman, so my favorite are fish. True fish have fins and scales. But every once in a while I will actually get an eel in my nets, and that is awful. We Jews value orderliness as God’s chosen people, on behalf of the order-making God we love, who created this beautiful world out of chaos. Therefore, we will only touch and eat fish with fins and scales. These are fish we call CLEAN. Shrimp, lobster, eel—those oddballs that we don’t have a clear-cut way to categorize, these things we call an “abomination,” which means we have a strong aversion to them. They complicate our lives unnecessarily. They are not acceptable to us, because they don’t seem like they would be acceptable to a God that is so orderly about things—you know? And so, this means that anyone who touches or eats shrimp, lobster, or eel will need to be stopped and even punished. Because being CLEAN brings blessing, but being UNCLEAN brings curse—not just to the individual person, but to our whole community.
LEANN: Hmmm…okay. Thanks. Where in the Hebrew Bible does it say that shrimp and lobster and eel are abominations?
MALACHI: Leviticus. There are many other things that are abominations, too. Because they simply don’t make sense to us. Our wise elders wrote our scriptures to capture the way we sense God’s direction for our lives, and we must stay away from things that are chaos. They are dangerous to us.
LEANN: Okay. Thanks. Do you have any questions for me?
MALACHI: Yes, actually I do. I’m kind of curious about what your Jesus-religion teaches people about Jehovah-God. And if what Jews in my ancient world think today has had anything to do with your world in the future.
LEANN: Well, as I understand it, Jews in your time found at the core of their Being a God who was One. This meant there was an overwhelming sense of wholeness, perfection, beauty, calm, peace, joy, strength, and integrity found in their experience of being close to God—-and it’s what they defined as HOLY. And the Jews felt called by God to be holy, as well. As individuals and as a people. This is all true for our experience as Christians and Muslims in the world today. It’s why we bother with religion at all. The purpose of religion is to help all of us become Holy like God.
MALACHI: Okay, but here’s something I really want to stress: The Jews in my ancient world believe that if everything and everyone would just pay attention to being “in their proper place” that this CLEANNESS would make our whole community holy like God. So I don’t know if LGBTQIA people are ones who eat shrimp and lobster, but I would have great concern if they are not following dietary rules. AND LET ME REMIND YOU, BEING CLEAN HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PHYSICAL CLEANLINESS. IT IS ALL ABOUT TRYING OUR BEST TO HONOR A GOD who is the one given credit for the ORDERING, STABILITY, AND PREDICTABILITY IN THE WORLD. Remember the first words of Genesis? “God created order out of chaos.” And when the Jews were a frontier people led by Joshua, settling in Caanan long before the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the Jewish people needed to be mindful of what would create order and stability in a world filled with people that lived in chaos by eating animals that had eaten other dead animals or making child sacrifice for silly gods made out of stone or wood! These rules of CLEANNESS for the Jews helped them build a strong nation. This is who we have been since the time King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.
LEANN: Okay, thanks Malachi, for coming to visit us today. Blessings to you as you return to your world. Thanks for all the good things your scriptures have brought to us, but we’re going to unpack some of the confusing stuff in scripture now so that we can think more about how to honor the LOVE that is God, as well. Love is the stuff of God that is strong enough to actually create order and stability through faithfulness and care.
Okay, so one aspect of being UNCLEAN referred to the things that the Jews couldn’t place easily into one category or another, like Malachi mentioned a moment ago. Some more examples of this would be birds that didn’t fly (like ostriches), animals that don’t have both a cloven foot AND chew the cud (like rabbits or pigs), people impacted by physical or cognitive disabilities, or gay people—because they weren’t interested in procreating to increase the size of the tribe—and making more people was an important value to ANY tribe in the ancient world that needed as many productive workers as possible to survive). These animals and people were condemned or considered abominations because they weakened the cultural identity of Israel, not because they were inherently evil, though that distortion has been used—and is still used— against people in our very own community here.
Perhaps with all this history, you can see why our work today to define ALL people as CLEAN is so hard, and why the Jews of Jesus’ day thought they were doing God a favor to have him killed. Jesus was constantly causing things to be made UNCLEAN for the Jews of his day—healing people on the Sabbath, touching lepers, letting hemorrhaging women touch him. But the gospel of Mark shows us 2 things about Jesus and the cleanliness codes of ancient Israel: First, when he violates the codes, he doesn’t lose his own cleanness or wholeness, but instead imparts cleanness and wholeness to those he touches. This is why people began to see him as divine in a special way. And secondly, Mark shows us that Jesus challenged the Jewish cleanliness codes, reforming them in favor of OTHER core values that more closely reflect the Oneness of God as Jesus experienced it—values like forgiveness, faithfulness, humility, and respect. Values that many Jews today embrace as deeply as we do.
In fact, Jesus actually created his own new list of what is truly UNCLEAN in God’s eyes: Later in Mark chapter 7, Jesus says that the only stuff that is truly unclean in this world today is the stuff that comes out of your heart THAT YOU DO NOT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR. Stuff like hate, jealousy, arrogance, foolishness, greed. These distractions from our wholeness are the source of our pollution. These distractions are what we need to care for so that we can more clearly discern how to treat all people and animals as “clean” and how to live well and renounce those things that are truly unclean in this time and place today.
So back to Pride month. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see two men holding hands strolling down the sidewalk in front of you and your companion turns to you and says, “That is so disgusting. The Bible says that’s an abomination you know.” Give yourself a second to take a deep breath and focus on the beautiful soul of the person beside you who is simply with you as a skill-builder for your own soul in this moment. You have no battle to win, no ego to score points for. What would you say to this person as you speak the truth in Love, knowing what you know now about the book of Leviticus in the Bible and what it says about all sorts of things being abominations out of a sense of disorder, but not out of the fullest sense of the respect we’re asked to hold toward the diversity in creation?
I hope the interview with Malachi was helpful in being even a little bit more prepared for making room for ALL people to be considered CLEAN in the world today.
(And before we close, I just want to make sure I explain that while the ANCIENT Jews would have maybe expressed themselves something like Malachi, most Jews in the world today, except for the most fundamentalist (just like fundamentalist Christians), would be as open and accepting of human diversity as anyone else). Thanks be to God.