Light from the Sidra

Tazria (‘She will conceive’). 29 March 2014. 29 Adar 5774

Torah: Leviticus. 12:1–13:59. Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16–46:18.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Life, death and the birth of a temple

Criticising the Bible is easy. In a collection of books written over a period of 1,500 years, written by over forty authors as diverse as shepherds and kings, politicians and fishermen in places as far apart as Jerusalem, Babylon and Corinth you are bound to find verses that appear to contradict other verses and it’s easy to sit in judgement on the morals of a culture that existed thousands of years ago situated thousands of miles from our own.

The second chapter of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has become infamous for its opening paragraph, which starts: ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction . . .’ I won’t repeat the rest of the sentence but it is arguably one of the most offensive paragraphs in all fiction. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks accused Dawkins of being anti-Semitic; a charge Dawkins denied, claiming the sentence was ‘a joke.’ At best, the defence reveals Prof Dawkins to be devoid of a proper sense of humour; at worst, it is an anti-Semitic slur. After all, what kind of people would invent a god as vile as the deity portrayed by Richard Dawkins? Only a people who are irremediably evil.

What astonishes me is how limited and superficial most criticisms of the Bible are. You’ve probably heard them: ‘the-Bible-is full of contradictions’; ‘the-Bible-is homophobic’; ‘the-Bible-is misogynistic.’ It must be said that, at first reading, Leviticus 12 does appear to justify the idea that the Bible has a low view of women. So how do we meet that charge?
Israel was a people holy to HASHEM. They had been redeemed from Egypt by the power of God and set apart as his special people. They were to be different from the other nations, ‘set apart’ for their God. The divine plan was that HASHEM, the one true, holy God, would live in the midst of his holy people with the result that Israel’s holiness would attract the nations to their God. But this would work only if HASHEM really was living in the midst of his people. How was Israel to remain holy so that God’s presence did not leave them?

Holiness was not simply a matter of morality and ethics. Biblical scholar John Goldingay, suggests that the word ‘unclean’ in Leviticus 12 is a misleading translation of the Hebrew word tume. Tume, says Goldingay is actually a positive concept, indicating the ‘possession of a quality,’ not the absence of cleanness. Tume suggests something ‘mysterious, extraordinary, perplexing, and a bit worrying.’ There is certainly something mysterious, extraordinary, perplexing and worrying about childbirth. In the ancient world childbirth was a dangerous process because many women died while giving birth to children.

What is mysterious, extraordinary and perplexing about childbirth is the close connection of life and death giving birth. The conception and birth of a child produces new life but it also involves the shedding of blood, the pouring out of life: ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood’ (Leviticus 17:11). The pain of bringing a child into the world is a reminder of the curse of Genesis 3:16.

So, after giving birth, the mother stays at home for a week and does not go to the Tabernacle or the Temple for another month. Just as it is inappropriate for a man who has come in contact with a dead body or who has buried a dead person to approach the living God until he has been purified, so it is inappropriate for a new mother who has come in contact with a symbol of death to enter the presence of the living God, the God of life.

The Bible does not teach that women are dirty and that childbirth is evil. Nevertheless, the birth of a child teaches all of us lessons about the human condition and about God.
The reality is that in the midst of life we are in death; and death is a reminder that we live in a world that is not as God intended it to be. Our world is a fallen, abnormal place in which there is little holiness. It will not remain so, however. The Haftarah teaches us to look forward to a new, purified, truly holy temple in which the Prince of Israel, the Messiah, lives.

Just as the Temple was more magnificent in appearance than the Tabernacle, so Messiah’s temple is greater than that constructed by Solomon. The first temple was made of stones but the Gospel of John 2:19-22, in the New Testament, records Jesus the Messiah claiming that his own body was the temple foreseen by Ezekiel. Men destroyed the Temple that was Messiah’s body just as the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple and the Romans brought down the second Temple, but Jesus made the bold claim that after his body was destroyed he would raise it again. And, sure enough, after three days in the grave his body was raised to life. And, just as that Temple was raised, so he grants his people – Jew or Gentile; man or woman; slave or free man – to become living stones in that Temple (First Letter of Peter 2:5).

And the birth of Messiah’s living temple came about through blood. Man’s blood. Messiah’s blood.


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