A cripple with damaged testicles – I dare not desecrate the sanctuary!

I came across a truly horrible Scripture passage today, Leviticus 21:16 – 23

  • The LORD said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.’”
As Christians we often feel the need to talk around passages like these–to defend them. Sometimes, however, we simply need to face up to the fact that some texts cannot be defended.    obviously, in making this statement, I’m saying something of my understanding of the  nature of biblical inspiration ( Yes, I do affirm biblical inspiration, yet this does not mean I cannot question or  critique the biblical text)–but that discussion can wait for another time.
For now, it is enough to ask ourselves the question, do our attitudes to people with disabilities of all sorts  (especially mental disabilities) reflect religious texts (or common attitudes) such as these or  have our values been shaped by the gracious inclusivity of Jesus?  I suspect we hope the latter but in reality the former will too often be true of us.

29 thoughts on “A cripple with damaged testicles – I dare not desecrate the sanctuary!

  1. If we take it seriously that no one with s defect can come close to the Table or Altar of the Lord, then not one person in human kind can come near. We all have defects of one kind of another..just some more obvious than others. How many people in this modern world do not have a defect, when we consider the large number of people with depression and other unseen conditions. Does it make us “purer” than the crippled, the blind and deformed? I think not. All conditions have happened as a result of sin in the world that started with Adam and Eve.
    I believe that with the coming of Jesus and the New Covenant that it wipes that verse out of the equation, or is it that I don’t want to know the existence of it . Jesus is the one who makes us presentable to appear before the altar of God, without His sacrifice no one is without blemish to appear before the Throne.

  2. I’ve often pondered texts like this, Shane. I think what we need to remember is that God demands a perfect standard when entering his presence. The fact that disabled people are prevented in the OT from serving in the tabernacle/temple does not, I don’t think, lead to an ethic of discriminating against disabled people. That’s not the point. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that a disability is not right. Bodily dysfunction is bad. We should not be satisfied with disability, but rather it should be something that we yearn to fix. It’s one of the reasons why Jesus healed people. All this should produce an ethic that seeks to do all we can for disabled people in the here and now, while holding firmly to the hope that lies ahead of us in the age to come. It should drive us to prayer for healing, to action in medicine, and yearning for the coming age. When the the Lord is finally fully present with us in the age to come, there will be no disability, no suffering, no tears. They will all be a thing of the past. The tabernacle regulations are merely pointing us in that direction. They seem cruel at first glance, but within them we see a divine dissatisfaction with physical ills that God will one day overcome. It’s one of the things about the OT: it has some stuff that really rubs us the wrong way, but we need to take a pedagogical approach to it, as Paul does in Galatians. Anyway, that’s my 5 cents worth.

    1. Dear George, thank you for your input, very much appreciated. I have a different take on this, which is actually grounded in a different approach to hermeneutics. I would love to discuss this with you by way of a few short online comments–but my disability has me put to bed by carers at eight o’clock every night (I have interrupted them to quickly post this comment now). So I might give some reply tomorrow to your important comments. Best wishes, Shane

    2. Well, I think Matt the mad activist (my good friend Matthew DelNevo) has pretty well said things for me. I guess what intrigues me about your post, George, is how amazingly post-modern it is. You take a text that says one thing (i.e. that cripples cannot be ordained or represent God In the priestly functions of Jewish religion) and make it say exactly the opposite (that God loves us cripples so much that his desire for our healing ensures we don’t enter the temple in our broken state). You are doing this I presume because you feel the need to protect canonicity and yet the result is that you read the text so against the grain that you arrive at an interpretation that effectively undermines its canonicity anyway. Certainly, your interpretation cannot be read in any historical critical sense from the passage in Leviticus. from a Christian perspective, however, the canonicity of the old Testament is not an affirmation of verbal plenary inspiration but, rather, that its overriding prophetic and messianic message both point to Jesus and is the context in which Jesus ministers. We are thus able to recognise that the Canon is able to reveal God to us notwithstanding the fact that it is a thoroughly cultural document, reflecting the attitudes and values of an ancient people. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious in this text from Leviticus. We simply have to face up to the fact that it reflects attitudes toward disabilities that are, quite frankly, abhorrent. they don’t only seem cruel at first glance, they are cruel and discriminatory no matter which way we look at them. We would be better served to say as much rather than attempt to defend the indefensible.
      PS I hope the tone of this comment is not overly aggressive. I certainly do not intend any animosity toward you, George, notwithstanding the fact that I have strong opinions about the way we interpret texts in general, and about this text in particular!

      1. I believe that one of the over riding questions that arise out of disability is the questioning of what it means to be human. Are disabled people in any of its manifestation’s somehow less than fully human. In using your heading as an example – what place does sexual function / ability have within our concept of humanity and is that ability or lack of, indicative of the level of our humanity?

        I regards to leadership within the modern era of church and the seemingly representative lack of disabled persons – I believe raises questions about our state of salvation and standing with God. If we are somehow less than human, does this throw a question on the level of our salvation – and therefore we somehow link faith for being healed or lack off in questioning the level of our salvation. Which in turn somehow hinders the ability, calling and even questions the moral / spiritual character of such a person to lead.

      2. Well, I may not have made myself clear. My fault. I’m not suggesting that the Levitical text is not a hard pill to swallow. Yes, in ancient Israel, it was a discriminatory regulation that in our modern-day perception is completely abhorrent. I’m not denying that. But what I’m suggesting is that this regulation still has a prophetic edge. It sets a trajectory which, when you take it through the NT, actually is motivated by something positive. I don’t think anyone in ancient Israel would have perceived this, because their understanding of God was limited. Indeed, he had not revealed himself to them fully, so we can hardly blame them for that. But this does not circumvent the fact that the OT points to the NT—to Christ. The hermeneutic I’m trying to apply is to ask “If the OT is prophetic, then how can that be seen here?”

        No, I’m not inclined to get rid of this text simply because it grates against my current-day sensibilities. Yes, canonicity is important, unless we wish to take a Marcionite approach and simply ditch what we don’t like and keep what we do. I’m not prepared to do that.

        Matt the mad activist has also, I believe, misread Paul. The points that Paul makes about the Law are primarily addressed to Gentiles (esp. Galatians and Romans). His point is not that the Law is no good unless it points to Christ. This is so un-Pauline it’s not funny. Paul argues in Galatians that the Law and its regulations were necessary for Israel and their identity as the covenant people of God, but that the whole point of this was to lead up to Christ. I’m not advocating that the Law is somehow still binding on Christians today. It isn’t. None of it is. We are not ancient Israelites living in the Promised Land, and so it has no hold over us whatsoever. However, this does not mean that the Law is somehow not good, holy, or righteous (cf. Rom 7.12). As Paul tells Timothy, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful (2 Tim 3.16). All. Not some.

        So if I want to take Paul seriously, I have to ask what use the Levitical text has. And I firmly believe that it has a prophetic edge that points to the standard of physical wholeness that we will see in the age to come. This is not twisting the meaning to say the opposite of what the text says. The text says, ‘In the tabernacle, discriminate against the disabled.’ There’s no denying that. What I’m trying to do is see what motivates this regulation, and where it takes us in light of the fuller revelation of God. The problem I have with the hermeneutical approach you outline, Shane, is that it seems to make God two-faced: plain nasty in the Old Testament, but more politically correct in the New. I see where this hermeneutic is coming from, but I don’t think it appreciates the concept of progressive revelation that we see through the Scriptures. And prophetic fulfilment of the OT depends on this progressive revelation. If we don’t acknowledge that, then I believe we run into insurmountable problems and our theology will be impoverished as a result.

      3. I’m not sure that we’re going to really be able to understand one another, because I’m struggling to find your argument coherent as I’m sure you are mine. Nevertheless, let me note the following:
        a) I certainly am not arguing for a two-faced god–a nasty old Testament God and a nice new Testament one. Indeed, I’m commenting on a single text here and although what I have to say obviously has application to other texts, I’m absolutely committed to the idea that the God of the old and new Testament is a good, gracious, redemptive (and whatever other adjectives we would choose) God. this does not of course mean that Israel always gets its understanding of God correct.
        b) I completely agree with you that revelation is progressive–an idea that I would be prepared to extend beyond the new Testament even! that is in fact the point that I’m making. The revelation of God to the nation of Israel occurs relative to its context–which changes and fills out over time. What this means is that the biblical text reflects both God’s self revelation and the very human cultural constructs into which the revelation is received. The texts are inspired because they point us to Jesus, not because they are written by God (which your argument seems to be presuming). Indeed, it seems to me that it is your argument that fails to take into account the Progressive revelation of God in the scriptures.
        c) You are concerned about the motivation of this particular regulation in Leviticus. I also am concerned with its motivation, which is self evidently (and at one point you admit this) discriminatory attitudes toward the disabled. What other motivation could there be? God, of course, is not motivated by discrimination but by inclusion, and this is precisely the way Jesus reveals God.
        d) you describe your own hermeneutic as a prophetic reading of the old Testament that refuses to ditch what you don’t like and keep what you do. And yet precisely because you reread texts in the light of the values you have learnt through Christ, you are ditching what you don’t like and keeping what you do. That is to say, you don’t like the self evidently discriminatory nature of this text, so you ditched that and read the text as being a eschatologically liberating. in the process you do exactly what you accuse me of doing.
        e) precisely because you seem unable to recognise that inspiration occurs in and through the ambiguous and muddy interplay of divine self revelation in the midst of broken human culture your approach to the biblical text creates insurmountable theological problems.

        Having said all of this, perhaps, after all, we are saying almost the same thing. we would both agree that the trajectory of biblical theology shatters the boundary markers of abled/disabled, rich/poor, jew/Gentile, male/female. we both use this text to make the point – me negatively, you positively. I simply not convinced by the way you arrive at this conclusion, through an attempt to defend the indefensible.

    3. Shane, I’m replying up here because there was no ‘reply’ feature to your latest reply.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I think we’re actually much closer than we initially anticipated. I’m with you on the progressive revelation, and the cultural boundedness of the revelation. The main issue I have as I now see it is that you are identifying inspiration wholly in terms of the way the OT points to Christ. I certainly agree that this occurs, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I’m not advocating an Apollinarian-like or Docetic-like view of inspiration that says the OT is essentially 100% divine and only apparently human in appearance, such that the OT writers are little more than ventriloquist dummies. No. Unfortunately, many take this approach and it has unwanted consequences. I think we agree on that level. But given 2 Tim 3.16, I think Paul would want to extend inspiration to more than simply how the OT points to Jesus. It’s useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And Paul connects this to the God-breathedness of the Scriptures. We could probably add 2 Pet 1.21 into the mix as well. I guess what I want to argue for is God accommodating himself to the culture of the time (as you say, divine revelation meeting broken human culture). But the OT, as incomplete as it is as divine revelation, nonetheless gives us the mind of God as he revealed it in ancient times. We need to understand its timeliness (not its timelessness), but the NT seems to be saying that despite these limitations, it’s all useful. Where we will certainly differ, however, is in the notion that progressive revelation continues beyond the NT. You say yes. I say no. We’ll agree to disagree on that one.

      Finally, Shane, you still seem to be thinking I’m trying to get the text say something that it isn’t. No, I’m acknowledging the discriminatory nature of the Leviticus text you originally mentioned. There is no getting around it. However, what I’m trying to say is that it can be understood within the greater scheme of revelation to be on a particular theological trajectory. I think we agree on that point, but the particulars seem to come out slightly differently.

      Thanks for the exchange, Shane. Cheers!

      1. Although the conversation is probably already over, I’d like to jump in here for just a moment.

        Shane and George, I think that, as you have both already noted, there are elements of your positions that are closer than may initially be noted. Having said that, I think that there are elements of your positions that are poles apart, and I’d like to try to bring some threads of your arguments together here, if I may.

        Firstly, George, I think you’re certainly right in noting the eschatological perspective of Christian hope. Indeed, I think that the idea of the ‘not yet’ breaking into the ‘now’ through the person and work of Jesus and subsequently the Spirit is the very essence of our faith. Without moving into useless speculation about the logistics of what is to come, I think it suffices to say that the ‘brokenness’ of the now must *always* be viewed in the light of the not yet. It’s hard to divorce Christian thought from the Christian hope and think that we retain anything ‘Christian’ at all.

        However, this can never become a license for theological revisionism or anachronistic ‘smoothing over’, even if it is done from a perspective that seeks to hold the texts in high esteem and emphasise the the unity of the progressive revelation.

        And I think this is where the work of scholars such as Elizabeth Johnson comes in (and, in a funny way, retains George’s desire to treat the text prophetically). Thus, it can be said that the text remains prophetic (and useful for teaching, etc.) in the way that it even prophetically overturns itself at the very points where the human-ness of the text’s contextuality overrode its divinely inspired-ness.

        And I come back to my favourite example here of Isaiah 56.

        And this is what, I believe, the NT continues to do to the whole of the OT. And perhaps I might affirm here, with Shane, the possibility that it might even happen, through the ongoing prophetic community, to the NT texts themselves…but I won’t say that too loudly in public at this point ; )

        I just think Shane has a point here, George, with the idea that we need to recognise even those points that need to be over-ridden, not just smoothed over with eschatologically enthusiastic exegetical or hermeneutical gymnastics!

        In the end, I think Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is right on this point: there are some ideas/passages in Scripture that are not just (mis)read as [discriminatory]; there are some ideas/passages in Scripture that *are* [discriminatory]. We need not try to brush them away through either ignorance or clever-sounding arguments. Rather, we need to embrace them as a wonderful illustration of the ongoing revelation of God in our world and the (in)ability of us as humans to sometimes grasp that revelation in its fullness.

        Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation so far, and hope that these discussions keep going, even if not on this particular blog : )

      2. Josh, you’ve stated my position better than I could have. There’s nothing I disagree with in what you’ve written. I was never trying to ‘smooth over’ a difficult passage (for some reason I was perceived as trying to do that, but I often seem to be misunderstood, so perhaps that’s just a personal fault of mine). I was just trying to see a difficult passage (which grates against us) within its theological trajectory. Nothing more, nothing less.

        Cheers!

  3. I recently read a short snippet by Jewish theologian Dr. Rosenbach on the same topic. His leading question is, “Is the Torah predjudiced?” which he answers with yes – the Torah is predjudiced. With the predjudice of the people.

    It’s quite interesting to read the text with the idea that this isn’t God forming a human perception, but rather using human perception to shape the perception of God through the temple experience. Community perception of ‘disability’ (especially when the text was written) was unclean, lacking, missing something. The perception of the Temple was to be whole, holy, the reflection of God. The perfect dwelling space for the perfect one, which promotes a sense of awe.

    Of course, this is all irrelevant (or SHOULD be irrelevant) in today’s Christian ‘temple’. We are not so much an insitution as we are a community, thus discrimination in interpersonal relationships is the general focus of your question. However a Kohen would not have been rejected from their family (in our case, the Christian community), just excluded from public practice i.e., they could not take part in active, public ministry.

    I do think the idea is very much evident in Christian ministry, e.g., people with obvious physical disabilities being re-directed to off-camera seating at healing rallies. You do not often see Charistmatic pastors, or leaders, who are in some way physically deformed or disabled. There are definitely Christian personalities (such as Earickson-Tada, and the guy that has no arms or legs) who are used to market the inclusivity of the Christian community, however they do exactly that: evangelise and market inclusivity. Not lead, as is the job of a Kohen.

    I really do not think we have come that far as a non-discriminatory insitution as we would like to think.

    (You can read the Dr. Rosenbach snippet here: http://www.frumsatire.net/2011/05/06/dvar-torah-emor-establishing-a-reputation/

  4. I think that within the ancient mindset weakness, sickness and disability represents God’s disfavour and of course its a no brainer that you can’t have someone representing God – who is so obviously cursed by him! In today’s circle of churches we also see people tainted with the brush of divorce or even womanhood which prevents them from serving God for they carry such a perpetual weakness, curse, sin on their lives.

    I have found it personally interesting that the churches that don’t have an emphasis on divine healing can often have a better ministry to the sick, disabled and dying then what other churches with such an emphasis can have. Within some church structures / belief system ones continued sickness, disability or other is seen to be a sign of spiritual weakness and lacking of faith – A mindset that I believe stems from such passages as you have mentioned.

    Within the context of the inclusiveness of Jesus towards the disabled and sick – he again was representing the fullness of the law. While such people may not have been able to represent the people / nation before the altar – those same leaders and therefore the nation were supposed to also care for the weak, the sick, the poor, the refugee and the disabled – showing them compassion…which in Jesus day had been totally ignored by those very people whom were supposed to lead and show the way of care.

  5. I agree with Lee-Anne. “This isn’t God forming a human perception, but rather using human perception to shape the perception of God.” The denial of this is fanaticism. On things like disability the world actually leads the church for the most part now, and is much less tokenistic about it as well (cf. Lee-Anne’s examples from church). How should a Christian take such a passage as you quoted Shane? I think the whole idea of “the new testament” is: don’t be hung up on the Tanakh. Unless the Tanakh is pointing to the Good News, forget it. That is what Paul meant. About the most holy and sacred circumcision (in his day) he said, don’t bother. Its a man thing anyway and women are just as important. That was how Paul saw it. So long as the Tanakh points to the new testament – which is a whole new consciousness (that is the crucial thing, not the blessed book! that’s just secondary) – then to that extent the Tanakh is an “old testament” and we can deal with it and align it with the new (to some extent, most of it we can’t). Actually from a Christian perspective I think the Tanakh is more than the “old testament” it is useful background for knowing about Jesus’s Jewishness. I think the new consciousness Jesus and Paul got up is a middle way between legalistic moralistic “righteous” mentality, which is Judaic Christianity, and constantly reading the Bible and going on about it, which is Islamic Christianity. Christianity is not a religion of the Law, and it is not a religion of the Book either. It is spiritual materialism that wants to clutch at these for support, but noone in the early church ever read the Bible becuase it didn’t exist until the Middle Ages, and the “new testament” was compiled in the fourth century, and the “old” in the seventh and then few copies existed for hundreds of years. Anyway, I’ve done a Paul and wandered off the topic….

  6. The thing about reading the Tanach, and specifically the Torah, is that you need to first understand it from the ‘them’ perspective. Jacqui Grey explained it perfectly in college, and the more I learn about Judaism the more evident our lacking of ‘them’ knowledge becomes. We will never truely understand the meaning of the OT without understanding, the understanding of, the people and cultures amonst whom it was written. In the oral Torah – Sayings and arguments written by Rabbi’s after the second temple – there is a midrash or saying roughly translated to ‘[God] Who has fashioned people in various forms’. It places the responsibility of disability on God (I don’t know any Charismatic who will accept that!) BUT doesn’t have a negative connotation. Some people are smart, some people are slow (another Midrash says that Rabbi Yochanan gave a gift to the teachers, only after forty days of teaching. He waited forty days so that the teachers didn’t give up on teaching the ‘slow learners’. Some people can run, some people are too fat to do so without having a coronary. Different abilities, equal worth.

    Halacha (lit. ‘path’, meaning ‘the law’) makes tzedaka (lit. ‘charity’) a complusory activity for all people. But it’s not ‘charity’ in the Christian sense of the word. It is rather a call to act to restore or enable the dignity of a person who is unable to do that for themselves. Very empowering and very Christlike.

  7. I think it is naive – and in fact wrong – think this (Lev 21: 16-23) as merely a text and a matter of textual interpretation. It may be, at a superficial level. At a more real level, it this text is part of the Christian unconscious and that is where it lives and moves and has its being. We do not know it is there, but it is. It overflows. I think of Pastor Brian’s many talks about overflowing and he is not wrong. But there is a dark overflowing. This text is in perfect line with the Nazis for instance, who flowed so easily out of the Christian heartland and were so unifying on the Catholic-Protestant divide across Europe. In murder Christians could unite. In cleansing the earth of the unclean, they could overflow with energy for the task. That said, if we are Christians today we have to be Christians more in touch with our unconscious, otherwise, it governs us; I believe it does govern us. While we are politely and nicely interpreting texts, mucking around with “meaning”, the Devil, is saying, “go on, I love it! Keep interpreting, keep thinking it is all about reason and hermeneutics.” Who has been in a class where Lacan was the theoretical lens on the theology? No-one? Point proved. And here Lacan is just a symbol of a theorist in touch with the Christian unconsciousness.

  8. Following from the above comment of my own, the question that Shane’s text throws us today is: do Christians really like sinners? Are the defectives the in-crowd in our church? Bill Cruise’s church in Ashfield is surrounded all day everyday with the poor and homeless, they know where the care is. It is the only church in Sydney like it that i am aware of. Some churches are not within walking distance of anywhere and are surrounded by smart cars and busy people. Not a place for sinners. Sin in there and they’ll boot you out. The perception being that Christians hate sinners. Please, no-one say, we hate the sin but love the sinner. Seems to me this law is still kept but we are not conscious of it.

  9. Harsh Old Testament issues;

    Thank you Shane for raising one of the difficult harsh Old Testament issues; thank you learned gentle persons for your comments and replies to the most perplexing of matters. Together, you have enriched my understanding of how to view much of the old testament probmatic verses.

    The whole of this blog and replies should be compulsory reading for us Christians that read and just accept we do not like the way God is portrayed as being so harsh in old testament times. Also those that have walked away from Christianity and those that have chosen a different belief could gain a new understanding of Christianity!

    Well done ball boys (oops; ball persons) well done lines persons, well done Shane on a game well played!

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