An act that places your own self-interest above the interest and well-being of another and above showing your love of God.
As I start this series, I want to make sure that my definition of sin is adequate. Part of what makes my definition difficult is the implied moral relativism that it brings. Conservative Christians tend to not like – myself included – saying that things are or are not sinful based upon their context. There is a fear that, by letting our definition of sins be altered by context, we are opening up a situation where anything can be considered moral and lead to moral decay and what not.
That strikes me as a “Slippery Slope” fallacy because the intent of my definition of sin is not to excuse something away. My goal is to not make something moral that shouldn’t be moral. In reality, I think my definition is more damning; if we act selfishly, even if it isn’t specifically defined by the written law, it is still sinful. At the same time, though, the “relativism” accusation is probably true but not necessarily a sign of something bad. As the world changes, what actions (and lack of actions) risked the life and prosperity of a people change. This doesn’t point to a change in morality and a decay of humanity, just a change in needs and a change in situation.
One of the major accusation against Christian morality being defined by scripture is how do we deal with some of the laws in Leviticus. Later in the series I will talk about homosexuality and some other hot-button issues but in this part I want to address some that are pretty universally not following in modern times. One of those issues that gets thrown around is the prohibition against women who are menstruating entering the temple because they are unclean. The specific passage we will be dealing with is Leviticus 15:19-33.
(“Too long; didn’t read!” Version: Context and situation do have an effect on what is sinful and not sinful. Our understanding of what menstrual blood is, our understand of blood and medicine in general, and the availability of products for hygiene have advanced to a point where it is not longer a risk, real or imagined, to the whole for women on their period to interact with us in public. Also, it’s ritual cleanliness, not “moral” uncleanliness, which is concerned with the health of the people and keeping the “temple” a clean place, literally. To enforce Leviticus 15:19-33 in 2014 would either be irrationally ignorant or a selfish act of misogyny, illustrating how many Levitical laws don’t apply to modern times simply because we know more about how things work and the risk we perceived to the whole isn’t actually a risk (especially ritual cleanliness laws). And I’m use “menstruation” and “period” a lot more than any man ever should, but this is the perfect passage to illustrate using context in the conversation about sin despite the discomfort.)
I’m going to break up the passage into three parts, and then ignore the middle one (15:25-27 aren’t all that important to this discussion; it’s like an “Authoritative Interpretation” on a situation that isn’t specifically mentioned in the law but is the logical application of the law that doesn’t really apply to this conversation). The first part I’m working with Leviticus 15:19-24. If you read this passage in the context of a modern developed world, you are going to be horrified. There is no reason for this. There are benefits to living in a modern, developed nation with access to hygienic products and education about periods. We know what is happening biologically, we know that it doesn’t present a risk to those around them (without a blood-born condition being present) because we understand how blood and diseases work, and we have developed products that allow cleanliness during the period. That is a reality of our world, and to exclude women during this time because Leviticus told us to is selfishly ignoring that the world has changed.
What I think we need to focus on here is that the standard of morality has not changed when we don’t follow these parts of the law. The act of declaring a woman in 2014 unclean because she is experiencing her period is not the same thing as it would have been in the time of Leviticus. In my flawed and non-expert opinion, if we are to give an credence to the application of laws in an ancient Jewish civilization, it would have happened multiple generations (possibly hundreds of years) before King David. Using Carr and Conway’s research into the timeline of the Jewish people, King David ruled 1010-970 BCE (book here), a hundred years before the Roman empire began; a time for the institution of Leviticus in its initial form would have been centuries before that.
I want us to think about that for a moment. This website cited Judy Grahn’s Blood, Bread, and Roses saying that women, in the past, often times just went without any sort of hygienic products during their periods. Other ancient civilizations used makeshift tampons but I would assume (but I’ve been wrong before) that those would not have been overly comfortable, super-effective, or even a good idea. It terms of practice, it is a much different world.
In terms of knowledge, it is an even more different world. I can ask any man who paid attention during a scientifically- and medically-correct sexual education course and they can tell you, after they stop feeling horribly uncomfortable and disgusted, what menstrual blood actually is. We have an understanding of how blood works, how blood-born illnesses work, and how to deal with blood. Blood isn’t mystically confusing to us anymore, and we don’t see it as magically causing illnesses. We know how it works.
3000-4000 years ago, they didn’t. 200 years ago they didn’t know how blood worked. I think we forget just how much knowledge we have gained in how blood and illnesses work, and how lucky we are to live in the time that we do. I think about just how much has changed in how we view and treat HIV/AIDS in my lifetime, making a death sentence into a manageable disease. We view blood differently, and we know how infections work. Ignaz Semmelweis basically told surgeons to wash their hands and was harshly criticized in 1848; now we have an addiction to hand sanitizer in our daily lives. Look at how much has changed in the last 200 years in terms of medicine and science and then think about how much has to have changed the last 3000-4000 years.
This is not the same world Leviticus was written in, and to apply a lot of Levitical laws to it is irrational. This isn’t relativism; this is evolution. Our situation changes, our life changes, our world changes; in no way should our religion stay stagnant in spite of the changing world. We have basic, timeless tenets of our faith, we have theological standings that are evolved over time but not dependent on our context, and then we have practices that have to be dependent on our context because practices developed for a different and specific context don’t work. It’s almost like trying to toss a carburetor on a Prius engine; yes, the carburetor was perfect fine for the engines it was designed for, but modern engines are designed for a different fuel delivery system and it is impossible (more or less) to go backwards and use something that far from the past. It just doesn’t work.
If you read Leviticus 15:28-31 (and other references to ritual cleanliness that I am not going to list because Google can do a better job than I can), you can kind of see where I’m pulling these ideas of blood and health from. Think about what blood (and semen if you read 15:32-33) mean to these people. The blood is life, semen is life-creating. To lose either one of these without reason (i.e. injury or “stimulation”) is a possible sign of dying. It is only a logical step that touching the person who is losing this life-giving substance could cause you to also start dying, and then touching the actual blood is asking to start dying.
Is it rational when applied to menstruation of a healthy person in 2014? No, we know that it isn’t the same thing as losing blood because something is wrong. At the same time, when applied to blood in general, especially when you don’t know if they have a blood-born illness, they aren’t completely wrong. Paramedics and doctors wear rubber gloves for their own protection as much as the protection of those who are being treated. Anyone who works with blood wears gloves. It risks transferring infection if you don’t.
Also think about how they restored cleanliness. Anyone who was made unclean by touching the woman or her furniture was made to bathe want wait until the next day to reenter the temple. Want to make sure that the uncleanliness, as a practical matter, isn’t transferred to the entire community. It sounds horrible – and given what we know how, it is if applied today – but it’s not a whole lot different than telling people who are sick to stay away from a hospital, and telling people who visit a hospital to use hand sanitizer before, during, and after their visit. Our knowledge of how things work is far advanced, and we can cast a much smaller and more effective net to stop the transmission of illness than the ancient Israelites did, but their concepts are really just primitive versions of what we do today.
Okay, we have why the law was made for the Israelites and why that doesn’t work for today. Now how do we apply that within my definition of sin? The important part for this is to put your own desires above the well-being of others. If you life in a time that “knows” losing any sort of blood is a risk to life, and losing blood is contagious, and you “know” that, then it would be horribly selfish for you to enter the “temple” (not the Temple that Solomon built; I know my stuff) where everyone came to worship. It would be like walking into a buffet line with a nasty cold and sneezing on all of the food because you want to pick out your food instead of letting someone take care of it for you; it complete disregards the well-being of other just for your own pleasure and gain. Combine that with the hygiene issues of menstruation without hygiene products and it makes sense that you should not enter the public space for worship.
Advance science, medicine, and technology for 3000-4000 years and those concerns are no longer relevant. This isn’t making something immoral right or ignoring something that truly makes a person unclean (a better word being contagious at the point in history); it’s learning what actually is contagious and making the lives of women better so the concerns of hygiene aren’t life-stopping anymore. If the concerns that caused the law of Leviticus 15:19-33 to be written are no longer concerns, and because we have found ways to make them no longer an issue that affects anyone surrounding the woman, continuing to apply the law is either irrational (acceptable I supposed; we can’t condemn ignorance as much as we may want to) or intentional and a selfish act to suppress women in the life of the church. According to my definition of sin, following this law post-Christ and in a developed, modern world, is actually the sinful act.
I will talk more about the idea of following a Levitical law without acknowledgement of Christ and without acknowledgement that the world is not stagnant being sinful in a future part, but I want to just put this out there. I’m not claiming that the entire law of Leviticus is sinful to follow – I like the 10 Commandments a lot – but there are parts that were written for a different time with a different knowledge set and a different goal. We are not Gentile Jews, and this world is not the world of 1500 BCE. To ignore that is irrational.
That’s context and sin. For an issue like this one, it’s pretty easy to dissect it into what it means for us today. This isn’t even approaching the conversation of gender roles in the church; this is just that women don’t have to spend 12 days a month avoiding the church. For a couple of other issues, the conversation will be end up being divisive not matter how much I want it to create unity, but this one is actually pretty cut and dry.
To using the brain God gave us in our faith,
(Author’s Note/Apology: I might have come off as a misogynist because I’m writing about stuff I don’t have any experience with personally and really have no idea how to talk about it without being offensive. I’m okay with the point I’m trying to make – applying context to a conversation about what is sinful being not just good but necessary – being offensive because I’m being intentional and being offended by this means you radically disagree with me; the vehicle I use to make that point, though, shouldn’t be offensive because it being offensive means I’m insensitive, stupid, or both. If I offended you with the conversation about women’s bodies, please tell me how so I can fix it. I promise, I’m trying to be sensitive, but I just don’t really know what’s offensive and what’s just uncomfortable because I’m a boy.)