Spiritual Pollution: Danger Zone
Updated: Mar 10
This discussion guide interacts with the corresponding devotional video, Death and All of His Friends Session 7 - Environmental Hazard. Use this post to facilitate discussion and interaction with the Scriptures as you seek God together through his Word.
We have been looking at the unfolding narrative of sin in Genesis 3-4 and we now take a penultimate detour through the book of…
Now, I’m not going to make you read the whole book of Leviticus for this discussion (though it wouldn’t hurt to read it at some point!), but I need to give some examples of the kind of things you will find. We are going to go there to interact with the culture of ancient Israel and see how they saw sin (and a related concept called “uncleanness”) manifest itself in their environment. We are reading Leviticus at the service of 1) a comprehensive view of brokenness and its logical corollary, 2) the incomprehensible holiness of God.
Sin and uncleanness are not the same thing, but they are related. As I will show in two separate excerpts, both sin and uncleanness had the power to defile.
Sin is a defiler. (Here's my Tolkien connection if you are looking for it, haha - Azog the Defiler)
We’ve done a good deal of work so far on developing our understanding of sin in dialogue with the Bible’s unfolding narrative of it, but uncleanness is not something culturally obvious to those of us in the West. When a dish is unclean we mean that it has been used, even if only a moment ago it was suitable for the meal it held. That transition from a full, clean plate, to an empty, unclean plate is the separation of eating, a designation based on the boundary of usage. We’ve used it, so know it is “dirty” even though it has not ontologically changed from that last bit of casserole it held moments before. The boundary between clean and dirty is simply a way to speak of our use of the plate. Does that make sense?
So what did the Israelites mean by “uncleanness”? What boundary had been crossed? Let me recommend watching this video from the Bible Project on sacrifice and atonement. And then, let's consult the helpful voice of Mary Douglas to help us reframe and interact with the strange culture of Israelite taboo.
“Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas. Hence any piecemeal interpretation of the pollution rules of another culture is bound to fail. For the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose key-stone, boundaries, margins, and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.”
- Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger
That “key-stone” for the Israelites is the holiness of God. Thus our doctrine of sin and our understanding of purity actually helps us see the utter distinctiveness, the holiness of God. The boundary was the holy presence of God and only purified things could enter without harm to itself. The list of things that make one unclean seem weird and arbitrary to us (perhaps all linked symbolically to the orderliness of creation, as Douglas postulates), but ultimately point to the “oneness, purity, and completeness of God,” Mary says. Acknowledging and honoring his utter holiness with every aspect of our lives matters, not because God has separated himself, but precisely because he has drawn near (i.e. Tabernacle in the days of Leviticus, how much more so in the era of the New Testament Church when God dwells within!). So if we can suspend a further delineation of sin and uncleanness for a moment, let’s just see the effects of either on their environment.
After a list of procedures for becoming ritually clean again, this warning comes to the Israelites:
Leviticus 15:31 “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so that they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.”
God’s dwelling place would be defiled as a result of uncleanness, signifying his utter holiness, and the need to be aware of it. If you’ve ever read the strange lists of clean and unclean things and the processes by which Israelites could become ritually clean once again, you begin to grasp both the pervasive possibility contamination and the sense of God’s otherness. I don’t want to unnecessarily conflate uncleanness (which could happen inadvertently by, for example, touching mildew) with sinfulness (which was willful wrongdoing, for example, murder). But these dual concerns begin to mix into the metaphor of environmental realities of sin because they produce the same result - defilement.
After a list of sexual sins (from incest to bestiality!), this warning is given:
Leviticus 18:24 “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.”
(DISCLAIMER: The theology of conquest has been misappropriated by Western colonialists again and again, culminating in the terrible missiology of Manifest Destiny. Spend some time with the late Richard Twiss on this and email me if you'd like to talk about a healthier hermeneutic than the tragic theologies of the colonial era.)
We’ve already explored the scale of sin, how it affects the whole cosmos in Session 4, Relational Vandalism. This time we get another picture for nuance and visualization of this biblical concept. Did you notice the way sin is referred to, as defilement of the land? The land is polluted by sin. The sacrificial system (which atoned for sins) and the ceremonial system (which cleansed uncleanness) created the comprehensive, tangible, experiential culture - a ritual understanding of God’s holiness. And at the same time, it gave us a vivid way to realize the pervasive brokennesses of sin, littering the landscape within and without like spiritual pollution. So how do these Levitical rituals shed light on our unfolding understanding of sin?
David Schrock summarizes Gordon Wenham’s excellent work on these revelations from Leviticus. Let’s take a look at his key findings:
Sin is a deadly contagion and when individuals or the congregation of Israel sinned it had the effect of polluting God’s holy dwelling.
Sin is attached to a place and not just to a person.
Sin must be covered by blood and that blood must cover almost everything in the house of God.
There is delight and danger to have God dwell with you.
This idea that sin is a pollutant begins to color our view of spaces and places. The Bible calls this notion “land defilement” and while Western cultures have a harder time tracking with the concept, it resonates closely with Indigenous cosmologies. Native American theologian and church leader, Dr. Suuqiina, writes of this in his fascinating handbook, Can You Feel The Mountains Tremble?
“Sin, trespass, disobedience, and iniquity defile the land. It is clear in the Bible that the land suffers because of our sins.”
- Dr. Suuqiina, Can You Feel The Mountains Tremble?
Suuqiina points to verses like Ezekiel 15:8 where God declares that he will “make the land desolate” because of the unfaithfulness of his covenant people. You see, the trauma of sin draws up the whole creation community, everything in the cosmos, and just like literal environmental pollution that distorts the biosphere, sin discolors the relational environment like a sickness. But this sickness, this relational-environmental crisis will not last forever. The land, the whole cosmos will be made well, whole, pure again. We await the renewed Heavens and Earth that God promises, his endgame. It spills in from the prophetic imagery of Isaiah (Is. 60-66), the gospel proclamation of Paul (Rom. 8), the apocalyptic vision of John (Rev. 21-22).
Here’s the key point, when this is sincerely considered - the comprehensive pollution of sin, the deep poison of sin upon the creation community, that reality that we participate in the degradation of God’s good creation - we gain an awe-inspiring view of both the holiness of God and the comprehensiveness of redemption. This is what Schrock is referring to by the “delight and danger” of God’s nearness. Our sin does not threaten God. It threatens us. And yet, God draws near to cleanse, to purify, to make his home among us, and thus, to make us holy. The toxins, the pollutants, the defilements that course through our spiritual veins into the world around us - they will be totally expunged. That is the eschaton of sanctification, the totality of renewal, the finality of salvation history.
The chief rituals for cleansing involved the sprinkling of blood, for, as Schrock notes well:
“When sin polluted God’s holy things, lifeblood was the necessary means of sanctifying them once again.”
- David Schrock, "Seeing Leviticus with New Eyes: Understanding the Pollution of Sin and the Need for Sacrifice"
God the Son spilt his own blood for our sanctification, for our purification, for our redemption. May the imagery of Leviticus’ strange ritual world wash over you afresh. Jesus became the sacrifice that completely cleanses sin. As a spiritual practice, I simply suggest ruminating over and then praying a prayer from Suuqiina and then, whether you find yourself in a group or alone, partake in communion to ritually celebrate the Host who became the feast of your unification, your restoration, your purification.
“Father, Creator of the land where I live, I honor the Holy Spirit and His power to make things past and present known. I pray for His presence upon my heart and mind to know where I can humble myself and repent. I know my sins defile the land and I repent for them. I ask forgiveness, cleansing, healing, and restoring power to rest upon me and the land where I live. Wash me in the blood of Your Holy Son, Jesus. I receive Your grace in my life and upon my land. Amen.”
- Dr. Suuqiina, Can You Feel The Mountains Tremble?