During the punishment of their “40-year” desert sojourn, the Israelites received from their surprising God some 613 laws that bound them into a nation. Or, at least that was the story told by Priestly editors more than 600 years later, when the Law was “discovered” in the walls of the Jerusalem Temple. In this episode, Father Jayme examines the ancient Israelite berit (covenant), the categorization of laws, the supposed sexual separation at Sinai, and the sad, ensuing exclusion of “impure” women from priestly duties. He also highlights the abomination of one of the Bible's most famous “clobber passages” in Leviticus 18:22, and he lifts up the “Jewish sense of justice” that underlies contemporary social justice efforts. Father Jayme concludes by comparing Inclusive Catholics today to our ancient ancestors who sojourned in the desert, sometimes looking back to the fleshpots of Egypt, but always trusting that God was leading them to the Promised Land!
[Becky & Terry Ann]
Welcome to “Extraordinary Catholics,” a podcast for—you guessed it—extraordinary Catholics! In a world with over a billion ordinary Catholics, the Good Samaritans of Vatican-free Catholicism are truly extraordinary, seeking to model Jesus’ inclusive spirit and his discipleship of equals. Like Roman Catholicism, Inclusive Catholicism possesses valid lines of apostolic succession and shares valid sacraments. One in every ten adult Americans self-identifies as a former Roman Catholic. If we were to band together, we would form the second-largest religion in America. In Mexico, over 1,000 Roman Catholics leave the church every single day. To learn more about Inclusive Catholicism, please visit www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith, and join our extraordinary Catholics Facebook group. And now, meet the host of Extraordinary Catholics, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the only inclusive Catholic community in Austin, Texas: Father Jayme Mathias!
[Father Jayme Mathias]
Welcome, extraordinary Catholics! I am Father Jayme Mathias, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
We thank the special saints who helped make this episode possible:
* Corey Hurt Montiel and Heather Lucas of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas;
* Very Rev. Ben Janzen of the Progressive Catholic Church International in San Diego, California; and
* Father Scott Carter of the Pilgrim Chapel of Contemplative Conscience in Ashland, Oregon, part of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch;
Looking to earn your wings? Visit dwy.io/podcast to join the list of saints who are stepping up to sponsor future episodes.
Can I ask you a favor? Will you prayerfully consider sharing a quick rating and or review of this podcast? You are a saint!
And now, let’s continue our exploration of the theological foundations of Inclusive Catholicism!
According to the stories that have been handed down to us, after the Exodus event, Mosheh, Aharon, Miryam and the Israelites—the people previously known as the “dusty” Apiru, the Hebrews, before the Exodus event—wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. In the Hebrew scriptures, the number 40, of course, is a symbolic number to mark important time periods. In Genesis, God sent rain on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:12), and Noach waited 40 days after seeing the tops of the mountains through the water before sending out a raven (Gen. 8:6). Yitzhak and his son, Esav, were 40 years old when they married their wives (Gen. 25:20 & 26:34). Mosheh spent three consecutive periods of 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:18 & 34:28; Dt. 9:11, 9:25 & 10:10). And now, if the Hebrew scriptures were to be understood literally, a journey that should have taken some 11 days took—wait for it—40 years (Ex. 16:35, Num. 14:33-34 & 32:13, Dt. 2:7, 8:2, 8:4, 29:5, Jos. 5:6)!
These 40 years in the desert were necessary for later editors who believed in a punishing God. We hear this contradiction on the Third Sunday of Lent during the Year of Luke, when God the great “gardener” (Lk. 13:8-9) who is “kind and merciful” (Ps. 103:8a) appears to Mosheh expressing compassion for the plight of the Hebrews (Ex. 3:7-8)—but then we hear Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that God might strike us down, just as God struck down our ancestors in the desert (1Cor. 10:5). Wait, what?
The Torah is filled will stories of infidelity to God. As Mosheh is receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai—a wonderful symbol of the connection between heaven and earth!—the Hebrews below convince his brother, Aharon, to fashion for them an idol of gold. In the last episode, we spoke of this story of the golden calf (Ex. 32:1-6). God’s wrath burned hot (Ex. 32:10-12), and it’s fair to say that Mosheh’s wrath burned as well, since he ground the golden calf to powder, mixed it with water, and made the Hebrews drink it (Ex. 32:20)! And then, as if that were not enough punishment from a punishing God and his punishing servant, “Mosheh said to the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’ The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day” (Ex. 32:27-28). Sheesh.
Cahill wonders, “Is there a way to understand this passage about a God who has hardly finished issuing an absolute command against murder when [God] delivers the command for a general slaughter? …God decides to make them wander the Sinai for a full forty years before settlement in Canaan” (pp. 158-159).
But let’s be careful about taking the story too literally—as if any people spent 40 years wandering through a wilderness that only took days to cross. Remember: The bible is an historic work of theology.
Prehistoric Lore of a God of Surprises
In his work, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill writes, “The story of Exodus…does not belong to history proper, but to the prehistoric lore of a minor Semitic tribe that had not yet learned to read and write, a tribe so unimportant that it makes virtually no appearance in the contemporary history of its powerful—and literate—neighbors” (p. 125).
Noting that no Egyptian text speaks of the departure of some two million Hebrews, that the story was likely inflated by Hebrew oral tradition, and that Pharaoh Rameses II died in bed, not in the Sea of Reeds, Cahill writes, “The Exodus may never have taken place, but may be just a story concocted, like Gilgamesh” (p. 125)—except that the writers of these stories likely believed that these events did take place at some point in the distant past.
In an ancient world where everything was cyclical, like the course of the stars, there literally was “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). There was nothing new, there was no element of surprise—until the ancient Israelites had the insight that theirs was a god of surprises, a god who bestowed human freedom rather than consign humans to some predetermined fate, a god, Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of hosts, who marched alongside their army, leading them toward an unknown future
As part of this epic journey, the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, less than 200 miles from the city of Rameses in Egypt. Moses went up Mount Sinai, and, according to the scrolls that were found inside the walls of the Jerusalem Temple when it was renovated some 600 to 700 years after the purported exodus event, Moses came down with a set of rules.
Sexual Separation at Sinai
In her work, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, Judith Antonelli writes of the “sexual separation at Sinai”—how it was that Mosheh misinterpreted God’s command and told the male Hebrews, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman” (Ex. 19:10-11 & 14-15). Antonelli speculates: “As Moses instructed the men not to go near a woman, Miriam instructed the women not to go near a man (or, perhaps not to allow a man to come near them)” (p. 177).
Antonelli also notes the tradition shared in the Exodus Rabbah that women received the Law before men did, since the women were more eager to receive it and to introduce their children to it, but also for God’s thinking on the matter, as expressed by Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea: “When I created the world, I only commanded Adam first, and then Chavah, too, was commanded, with the result that she transgressed and upset the world. If I do not now call to the women first, they will nullify the Torah” (Antonelli, p. 178).
The Ten Words
So, the God of Mosheh and Miryam gave the Hebrews a law, which we “discovered” during the 7th-century B.C. reforms of King Josiah. Perhaps you’ve memorized the first ten laws: We know them as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17 & Dt. 5:6-21). Many of us learned them as kids—and many of us subsequently forgot them. Jews refer to them as the Aseret HaDibrot, a Hebrew phrase meaning “ten sayings,” and Christians often refer to them as the Decalogue, a Greek word meaning “ten words.”
Cahill writes of the likely simplistic beauty of these Ten Words: “Most scholars have come to the conclusion that the original sentences were all bluntly brief in the matter of ‘You are not to murder’—so brief in fact that each one may have been but one word, that is, a verb in the imperative form preceded by a negative prefix of one syllable. In this way, the originals may actually have been Ten Words—utterly primitive, basic injunctions on the order of ‘No-kill,’ ‘No-steal,’ ‘No-lie.’ These Ten Words (which is the term the Bible uses, not ‘Commandments’) would have been memorizable by even the simplest nomad, his [or her or their] ten fingers a constant reminder of their centrality in his [or her or their] life” (p. 139).
Cahill notes the unique nature and “the famous absoluteness” of these Ten Words, these Ten Commandments: “There is no document in all the literature of the world that is like the Ten Commandments….Here for the first—and, I think, the last—time, human beings are offered a code without justification….Who but God can speak ten words— ‘Thou-shalt’ and ‘Thou-shalt-not’—with such authority that no further words are needed?” (p. 141).
I’m fond of Antonelli’s telling of how the Catholic Church modified the Ten Commandments. She writes: “Christianity took on the Ten Commandments, but with a different numbering. The gentile pagans converting to Christianity had not come out of Egypt, and the Catholic Church wanted to retain the pagan practice of using images and statues. Consequently, the first and second commandments were reduced and combined, and each successive commandment was moved up by one. Thus, honoring one’s parents is the fifth commandment in Judaism but the fourth commandment in Christianity. The Church split the tenth commandment in two; coveting a wife became their ninth commandment, while coveting property remained the tenth” (p. 180).
A Nation Birthed by an Interminable Series of Laws
But the Ten Commandments are not the only commandments. Cahill explains: “Following hard on the revelation of the Ten come interminable series of prescriptions which fill most of the rest of the Torah…They did not issue from Sinai, though the final compilers (in the fifth century B.C., six centuries after the desert theophany) would have us believe so. They have been shoehorned in, gracelessly interrupting the narrative with insertions meant to govern the activities of a people long settled on their land, not the wanderers of Sinai. And their language is the language of lawyers and priests, not storytellers” (p. 153).
Every society needs rules, so we find all sorts of rules spread over the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which collectively are known in Judaism as the Torah, a Hebrew word meaning “law,” or in Christianity as the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning “five books.” For those of us who weekly celebrate our “new and everlasting covenant” with God (Mt. 26:28, 1Cor. 11:25), these laws constituted the “old” berit, the “old” covenant, the covenant that God made with Mosheh and the ancient Israelites. In his work, Reading the Old Testament, Father Lawrence Boadt summarizes: “Berit is a term so rich that it captures the heart of Israel’s religious beliefs: (1) the people are bound to an unbreakable covenant-union with their God; (2) [God] has made known [God’s] love and [God’s] mercy to them; (3) [God] has given them commandments to guide their daily life; (4) they owe [God] worship, fidelity, and obedience; and (5) they are marked by the sign of that covenant-bond. The covenant created the unity of the nation Israel” (p. 146). That’s right: With that berit, that binding covenant, we see the transformation of the dusty Apiru, the Hebrews, into a nation: the Israelites!
Categorizing Some 613 Laws
This nation needed laws, and, according to the 3rd-century rabbinic tradition of Rabbi Simeon Kayyara, the “law” in these “five books” contained 613 mitzvot, 613 rules or precepts. Think about that for a moment: 613 religious rules or commandments that the Israelites were expected to follow! Of course, many people have their own count of the rules in these five books, and various rabbis consider the number 613 to be one person’s opinion.
For simplicity, we try to divide those 613 rules into various “buckets” or categories. There are 248 positive commandments—“thou shalt…”—and 365 negative commandments—“thou shalt not…” 197 of the commandments could only be observed at the Temple or within Israel.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas divided these precepts into three categories: moral, ceremonial and judicial.
The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith divided them into moral, civil and ceremonial. The civil laws deal with relationships with others. They include justice for the poor (Lev. 19:15), misbehaving children (Dt. 21:18-21), debt (Lev. 23:34-43 & Dt. 31:10) tithes (Num. 18:26), inheritances (Num 26:53-56 & 36:8-12), prohibitions against kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), murder (Dt. 21:1-4), robbery, extortion and false witness (Lev. 6:1-7), theft (Dt. 5:19 & Lev. 19:11), warfare (Dt. 20:1-20), and many other subjects. The ceremonial laws governed food (Lev. 11:1-47), leprosy (Lev. 14:33-57 & Num. 5:2), festivals (Lev. 23:1-25 & Num. 29:39), and priestly duties (Lev. 7:1-37), among others. The moral laws help us be holy, as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), and include laws on idolatry (Lev. 26:1-13), stealing and lying (Lev. 19:11), and the prohibition of child sacrifice (Lev. 20:1-5). Some of these “moral laws” are admittedly more controversial, particularly those involving sexual “sins,” which are interpreted by some in puritanical ways, while others simply view them as purity laws within the context of the ancient and far-from-scientific world in which they were written.
Father Lawrence Boadt notes how contemporary scholars tend to divide all these laws into six groups:
* The priestly legislation of the Covenant Code in Exodus 21-22, which betrays the interest of a later agricultural society, rather than a wilderness environment;
* The Ten Commandments, which are found in two versions (Ex. 20 & Dt. 5);
* The cult commandments of Exodus 34, which show a reaction against the pagan customs of the Canaanites (like “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” [Ex. 34:26]);
* Laws on sacrifice and feast days, solidified just before the exile, in Leviticus 1-16, a book that Jack Miles describes “as a kind of ‘breather’ in God’s story…the least dramatic, the least engaging book in the Bible” (p. 130);
* The moralistic and preachy "Holiness Code” in Leviticus 17-26, which was written some 600 years after the conquest of Canaan; and
* The Deuteronomic Code, written in a sermon style for the monarchy of the 7th century B.C.
It’s interesting to note the similarities of the Covenant Code, the Holiness Code and the Deuteronomic Code with the 18th-century B.C. Code of Hammurabi, which contained 282 case laws written in “if…then” form, reflecting the contact between the cultures of Babylon and Israel. Reflections of the 1800 B.C. Sumerian Code, the 15th- to 13th-century B.C. Hittite Code, and the 12th- to 11th-century Middle Assyrian Code can also be found in the Torah. For a study of these, check out Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin’s Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (pp. 62-73)
Indeed, as Bernhard Anderson concludes, “By a process of reduction, not much is left that may have come from the time of Moses” (p. 96)!
“Discovered” Laws Attributed to God
Of course, every group of persons operates by certain rules. Our closest relationships operate by rules, even if only implicit. Our families have rules. Our schools and workplaces have rules. The beauty of the Hebrew scriptures is that the Israelites credited a whole host of rules—of the commandments with which they lived—to God and to Mosheh, the two protagonists who led the Hebrews to freedom. And the religious leaders who formulated them, then “discovered” them in the walls of the Temple, expected everyone to follow their rules!
Following these rules would make us kodesh, a word we translate as “holy” but that literally means “set apart” (Lev. 20:24 & 20:26). We would be kodesh in the same way that your toothbrush is kodesh: It is set apart for your use only. We would be kodesh in the same way that a person’s undergarments are kodesh: They are worn only by that person. There’s nothing divine about these ordinary items, but they’re set apart for a unique purpose. Similarly, we, too, would be set apart as God’s holy people!
When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we sing that God is “holy, holy, holy,” that God is so set apart from anything and everything we could ever imagine, so set apart from any created thing of this world. By our following of these rules, we would be different from other people! This is intriguing for us as Inclusive Catholics, since we generally don’t seek to distinguish ourselves to such a great extent from others, to see ourselves as “holy-holies.” We see ourselves as people bringing together others.
The Post-exilic Priestly Voice
The origin of these passages in the Torah are fascinating. After the sixth-century B.C. Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the subsequent deportation or exile of Jews, the priests and Levites who became known for their Priestly voice in the Torah had the insight that they couldn’t count on Israel being its own nation with its own monarchy. And they also couldn’t continue to repeat the stories of God blessing them with a land that was no longer theirs.
As Father Lawrence Boadt says: “A new vision was called for that would allow Israel to practice its religion no matter what happened to the land and its leaders” (p. 348). In essence, the Israelites had to decide whether to abandon the God who now seemed to abandon them and no longer shower them with blessings, or they had to reinterpret the covenant in ways that didn’t emphasize the possession of land, political independence, monarchy or temple.
As part of their reworking of scriptures, they added the creation story of Genesis 1, the priestly editors reworked the Yahwist and Elohist stories of the patriarchs and the exodus, they added censuses and genealogies, they shared hymns and poems and inventories of temple items, and they shared—you guessed it—more rules. Many of these rules focused on how we needed to be a religious community, how we needed to be holy, how we couldn’t give in to pagan practices. Boadt continues: “The new Israel that would come out of exile must be a ‘holy’ community whose life would be regulated by Torah, the ‘teaching’ or ‘way of living’ proposed by Moses and expressed in the laws of both ethical types and ritual types (sacrifices, purification, vows, feast days, circumcision, Sabbath, and so on)” (p. 351). Being without a temple themselves, they identified with the stories of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and with the stories of a God who moved with them, wherever they might be!
The Priestly writers were especially big on order. Boadt writes: “Genealogy lists, census reports, stages of human history, marching order of the tribes, places to stop at in the desert, and boundary lists for the promised land all play a part in creating confidence that God has everything under control—[God] always has, and [God] always will” (p. 352). In terms of rules, their most significant additions were the laws on sacrifice and cult (Lev. 1-16), the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26, the directives for Aaron, priests and Levites (Num. 17-19), and their laws on priests and feasts (Num. 25-31)
The Exclusion of “Impure” Women
The unfortunate dark side of this history? Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker write: “The Priestly schools (as well as Ezekiel) construct a wholly new view of the world that builds on the understandings of pure and impure, sacred and profane….The domain of the sacred, and most of all the temple, is absolutely pure and, for that reason, set apart from the profane world. Thus the exclusion of everything impure from cultic spaces takes on special significance. At this point the Priestly view of the world becomes utterly hostile to women, since their monthly impurity, and giving birth (Lev. 12 & 15:19-33) renders them unable to attend worship for weeks and months. The new temple Ezekiel conceives of, and with which he offers consolation to his compatriots, is under the care of the high priestly king and the Zadokite priests; as a result of the rules concerning purity, they may not even marry a widow or divorced woman but only a virgin or a priests’ widow (Ez. 44:22). In the Priestly system of God’s presence, in which the distinction between Israelites and strangers is all but abrogated, women have no place” (p. 135).
Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker note how a now-male priesthood progressively excluded women from their previous roles of religious leadership by enforcing the misperception that menstruating and childbearing women were ritually unclean for days. They write: “When the priests in exile created a new order of worship on the basis of the purity-impurity system, it must have created radical changes for women. Especially in their child-bearing years, women are from now on severely limited in their conduct of worship. Every menstruation and every birth made them impure for days or months, thus excluding them from visiting a sanctuary. In the areas of divination, oracles, and soothsaying not associated with the temple or other specific sanctuaries, the religious practice of women appears to have been increasingly suppressed. This may also have to do with notions of purity. In the eyes of those who think in terms of pure and impure, someone who takes up contacts with the realm of the dead or other spheres of reality becomes an ambiguous person. Such a person has power and also is dangerous. The prohibition of soothsaying and magic was not for women only (see Lev. 20:6 & 20:27) but it did affect them in particular (Ez. 22:18).” (Schottroff et al., 162).
The Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26 also reinforces patriarchy. It sets up male priests as arbitrators of women’s fidelity, exposing women to public humiliation if they are only suspected of infidelity (Num. 5:11-31). And, in what Susanne Scholz refers to as “one of the most blatantly androcentric and offensive passages” in scripture, the Law devalues the lives of women, with fewer shekels attached to the lives of women than men at all age levels (Lev. 27:3-7).
The good news? Scholz shares the research of Silvia Schroer, who suggests that the only reason the priestly writers insisted on trying to cement a secondary role for women in the post-exilic period was that “women and men did not necessarily conform to these androcentric views about women, sexuality and religious practice” (pp. 74-75).
Flexibility & Liberation for Women
For those who desire more liberating good news for women, we note how women were bound by all the negative commandments of the Law, but not by all the positive commandments. Antonelli points out that women are given more flexibility than men, particularly for actions that need to be one at certain times. Women, for instance, aren’t bound to say the morning or evening Shma at fixed times. Citing the Exodus Rabbah, Antonelli explains: “This gives a woman greater flexibility because her day is not regimented like a man’s. She does not need to be told when or how to pray. She can pray alone, and her own words are perfectly acceptable. A man does not have this option. Neither mode is ‘better’ than the other: ‘All are equal before God—women, slaves, poor and rich….Before God all are equal in prayer’” (ER 21:4, Antonelli, p. 181)
Antonelli focuses on how the Law affected six classes of women in a male-dominated society. The Torah, for instance, improved the situation of women slaves. No adult Jewish woman (over 12 years old) could be sold into slavery, and her work and her body were not her master’s absolute right. Nor did Jewish men have sexual rights to their Canaanite slaves. Jewish maidservants were released from servitude at puberty. Wives were guaranteed sustenance, shelter and conjugal rights, as well as seven other rights appended by later rabbis. Pregnant women enjoyed what later rabbis interpreted as the right to birth control and abortion. Perpetrators were made to pay for the seduction or rape of unmarried girls—that is, girls who hadn’t reached the marriable age of 12.
The Abomination of a “Clobber Passage”
We can’t leave the Torah without at least mentioning the most famous “clobber passage” used to beat down others. It’s found in Leviticus 18:22: the command to men that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
In his book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, Father Daniel Helminiak notes that this offense involved the same punishment—death!—as cursing one’s parents or committing adultery. Helminiak writes: “Cursing one’s parents and committing adultery meant very different things in ancient Israel than they do in our culture. Similarly, engaging in homogenital acts had a very different meaning….That two men shared a sexual experience was really not a problem. The only problem was when one man penetrated another. Among the early Israelites, as Leviticus sees it, to engage specifically in male-male intercourse was to mix the roles of man and woman. Such ‘mixing of kinds’ was an abomination; it was impure—like sowing two different kinds of seeds in a field [Dt. 22:9] or making cloth from both cotton and linen [Dt. 22:11]. In a primitive and superstitious way of thinking, the impurity of this sexual offense was serious enough to possibly defile the whole land….Such thinking had nothing to do with male-male sex today” (p. 53).
Noting that “the intent [of this precept] is to keep Jewish identity strong,” Father Helminiak compares abstaining from male-male sex to the lingering Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays: “There used to be a church law that forbade Roman Catholics from eating meat on Fridays, and in some places the same requirement, now less strictly interpreted, still applies during Lent. That church law was considered so serious that violation was a mortal sin, supposedly punishable by hell. Yet no one believed that eating meat was something wrong in itself. The offense was against a religious responsibility….Not sex, but violation of Judaism, is what was prohibited” (p. 55). And, of course, humans misinterpret the scriptures to fit their prejudices: “Abomination” doesn’t mean “something that makes God want to vomit….‘Abomination’ is just another word for ‘unclean.’ An ‘abomination’ is a violation of the purity rules that governed Israelite society and kept the Israelites different from the other people” (p. 56). Like other precepts of the Jewish purity law, like those concerning menstruation (Lev. 15:19), wet dreams (Lev. 15:16, Dt. 23:10-11), giving birth (Lev. 12:2-5) and burying the dead (Num. 19:11), male-male homogenitality made a man unclean for a certain length of time. Helminiak is quite clear: “Early Jewish thinking had rather liberal ideas about sex, certainly when compared to our own. Perhaps most peculiar of all, categorizing acts as same-sex versus opposite-sex just did not enter the picture. The notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality are foreign to the biblical mind….Concern was not at all about homosexuality; such thinking was simply absent. Concern was about purity rules. These served to maintain an ideal order of things according to the ancient Jewish conception of the world” (p. 61).
Because the Holiness Code was so central to the thought of the ancient Israelites, I dare to share the following extended treatise by Father Helminiak: “What a culture considers dirty is usually something that makes its members uncomfortable….[so] we learn to feel uncomfortable about things that the people around us don’t like—like throwing food or soiling our pants or playing in the potty. Being ‘dirty’ does involve uncomfortable feelings—and those feelings are learned. Perhaps most people would agree that picking your nose and eating snot is gross and disgusting. Some might even say it’s dirty, especially when talking to a child. But just because it’s dirty, just because people find it disgusting, does not mean it is wrong. In fact, eating snot is not even unhealthy. Mucus that is not removed from the nose just passes down the back of the throat and into the stomach anyway. Dirty and wrong do not necessarily go together—neither in our culture nor in ancient Israel. In some societies, people eat dogs, cats, snails, raw fish, ants or grasshoppers. To us that may be disgusting. It may seem gross or dirty. But it certainly is not wrong. It is just something with which we are uncomfortable….Many people are uncomfortable with sex, so children ‘pick up’ from them that sex is ‘dirty.’ Many people never get beyond the influence of those powerful feelings, learned early in life. They never appreciate the difference between what is supposed to be dirty and what is wrong. Especially where sex is concerned, for them ‘wrong’ means that they feel funny about it” (pp. 62-63). I especially enjoy Father Helminiak’s subsequent exposition of social conventions and taboos.
Nakedness is one of those taboos that the scriptures cover (no pun intended) in great detail. Nearly a third of Leviticus 18 is dedicated to the topic (Lev. 18:6-19), as well as five verses in Leviticus 20:17-21. In other places, we hear how the nudity of Genesis 2:25, shamed in Genesis 3:7, became the reason for the mandate for priests to wear undergarments while climbing the altar steps (Ex. 20:26 & 28:42)—lest any priest should repeat the mistake that King David once made when he danced without his underwear (2Sam. 6:16 & 6:20)!
Yeshua’s Liberation from the Old Law
Some 650 years after the “discovery” of these 613 or so precepts that now form the Torah, Yeshua bar Yosef—Jesus of Nazareth—appeared as a rebellious spirit, siding with the marginalized and all who, for whatever reasons, were not always able to keep the Law. In fact, with dramatic effect, his birth was announced to shepherds (Lk. 2:8-20), those who, because of their wandering 24/7 duties, were not able to fulfill all the precepts of the Law.
Thank God for those stories in which people ask Jesus which of the 613 rules were most important. The conclusion: Love God and love others (Mk. 12:30-31, Mt. 22:36-40, Lk. 10:27). As I’m fond of saying at Holy Family: Go ahead and eat that pork (Lev. 11:7-8, Dt. 14:8) or shrimp (Lev. 11:10) or pepperoni pizza (a rabbinic interpretation of Ex. 23:19)—but, for God’s sake—love God and others! Go ahead and wear that cotton-poly blend, you sinner (Lev. 19:19) but, for God’s sake—love God and others! Go ahead and play football (Dt. 14:8) but, for God’s sake—love God and others! Yes, Jesus has taken us from a world of "rules, rules, rules," to a more mature understanding of a healthy, mature relationship with God and others.
“A Jewish Sense of Justice”
To a large extent, we have the Law of the ancient Israelites to thank for our contemporary sense of social justice. The God of the Israelites, as manifested in the Law, possessed a predilection for the poor—a factor that centuries later would contribute to the “preferential option for the poor” of Latin American liberation theology. And this occurred within the context of an ancient world where most ancient legislators created rules that favored the powerful.
The 18th-century B.C. Hammurabi’s Code, for instance, speaks of “an eye for an eye”—that an upper-class person who causes another upper-class person to lose an eye would lose an eye as well. But what if the upper-class person poked out the eye of a commoner? That person would merely be made to pay one mina of silver
The Hebrew scriptures, in contrast, protected the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. In fact, we couldn’t even strip our vineyards bare or gather fallen grapes, so that the poor and the immigrant would have something to eat (Lev. 19:10)!
Cahill summarizes: “In the prescriptions of the Jewish law, we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty, and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy: ‘A sojourner you are not to oppress: You yourselves know (well) the feelings of the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt’ (Ex. 23:9)” (p. 154). Indeed, Cahill notes that all who feel a sense of social justice really feel “a Jewish sense of justice” (p. 155)
Inclusive Catholics: Sojourners in the Desert
We conclude. What might Inclusive Catholics today learn from the Israelites, these sojourners in the wilderness, where they purportedly received God’s Law? Similar to Inclusive Catholics today, Bernhard Anderson suggests that the ancient Israelites “lacked the consciousness of identity, the commitment to a common way of life, and the shared history which constitute a people—that is a historical community. In the wilderness of the Sinaitic Peninsula, however, this motley band began to be ‘the people of Yahweh,’ to use the expression which frequently recurs in the Old Testament (Jdg. 5:11 & 5:13) and which influenced the later conception of church and synagogue” (p. 84). The Law that their priests now captured in writing gave expression to their identity. They turned their backs on Egypt and set out on a difficult journey. Many perished along the way and are lost to history. Anderson writes: “It was a difficult journey, fraught with many hardships and uncertainties. Freedom in the desert, in the judgment of many of the pilgrims, was a poor substitute for slavery in Egypt, and on many an occasion they longed for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt.’ …It was also a time of grumbling, revolutionary discontent, internal strife, rebellion against Moses, and above all, lack of faith” (p. 85).
As Inclusive Catholics, we identify with that difficult journey. Many of us have turned our backs on the lives we left behind. We set off on a journey of freedom, sometimes—perhaps even often times—looking back with yearning. Yet here we are, in the wilderness, sometimes with a bit of grumbling and murmuring, sometimes with a spirit of revolutionary discontent, sometimes experiencing internal strife and rebellion, but still believing that we are participating in something much larger than ourselves and much more historic than we can presently imagine.
Let us pray for sustenance. Let us pray for God’s guidance and gracious aid. Let us pray that we might grow in our covenant relationship with God and with one another. Like all those extraordinary ancient ancestors of our faith who set out on a difficult journey, trusting that God would lead and guide them along the way, let’s be Extraordinary Catholics!