Finally Free: Demon Possession, Christ, and the Simple Things

Solemn Landscape by Sorcha Niamh

Solemn Landscape by Sorcha Niamh

In his 1987 article, “A Case of Demonic Possession” (The Journal of Pastoral Care 41 no 2, June 1987, pp. 151-61), David W. Van Gelder, then Associate Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Erskine Theological Seminary, ponders the implications, personally and ministerially, of an encounter he had with a possessed boy. Despite some points readers of the ongoing counseling debates will quibble with, the article is worth reading in its entirety, and I find his theological reflections are both sober (his experience having been, in a literal sense, sobering) and responsible. I suggest that the chief value of the article may be its brutal reminder of the real world in which the Gospel is proclaimed and believed and ministered. At the end of the article, as I note below, he speaks of now being “finally free” in ministry. What he means by this merits solemn consideration by all.

Among his reflections, we read the following:

My own experience with belief in this situation was emotionally draining. I had always left intellectual room for the type of event which we experienced; although, I believed most present day cases to be fake. (I still do.) Leaving intellectual room, however, did not mean I had emotional room for this event. Although I am learning, I am very rationalistic and empirical by nature. I found, therefore, that I was physically and emotionally exhausted after this experience. It took me several days emotionally to believe what had happened as well as intellectually to believe it. For me to accept this emotionally did not mean that the event became an organizing principle for my life or my theology. It did not mean being distressed over the fact that there are realities which were outside of the normal boundaries of my scientifically oriented mind. In the end, it did mean recognizing the power of Jesus Christ over all powers and principalities in a more complete way.

The question that continues to confront me now is what the phrase ” a more complete way” means. Even though I recognize the much greater importance of the experiential, how do I integrate this into learning and life rather than just append it or hold it in a dichotomy with the rational? To maintain a conceptual dichotomy in this particular case is, essentially, a heresy. Christians believe that God is over all and, therefore, are not dualists. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, Satan is the counterpart of Michael, not of God.

There is something precious about great crises of any sort, including those more obviously otherworldly: they have a way of reminding us what are the simple, urgent things of life. They lay us bare so that, with the tangled web of our own priorities and concerns and anxieties and interests ruthlessly cut away and burned, we finally (again?) see the simplicity of who we are and what we are for. Pastoral labor might be captured well with such a sentiment: it’s the work of leading sheep to the center of the fold, where the voice of the Shepherd can be heard more clearly, the voice which alone tells us the truth of who we are and what we are for.

This way of thinking may lead us to reflect differently on public worship and pastoral labor than perhaps we are used to. Despite the ease with which ministers fall into the trap of minutiae, we need to remember that the stakes of pastoral, family, and soul care could not possibly be higher, and they are far more simple than our–ministers’ and church members’–temptation to complicate things will like to admit. This is something of which I always need to be reminded. The care and cure of souls, to use that old expression, is the urgent thing of life everywhere and for everyone. And since the enemy within and without is all too real, sometimes we forget how he typically comes not after the strong but after the weakest and most vulnerable among us. He is a wolf, snatching what sheep he can from the periphery of the Church’s communal life, those on the margins in relative weakness, outside the protection and sight of the fold’s center. He preys on those who do not pray, he seeks to devour those who do not devour Christ. The simple yet urgent warnings throughout Hebrews suddenly burst into life: don’t neglect the assembly, don’t neglect prayer, don’t neglect praise, don’t neglect the One Who speaks. It’s not easy, no, but it’s simple, life-and-death simple. The world of the Christian faith is true, after all, and this is a frightening yet ultimately hopeful thing to know. This explains the Church’s otherwise strange devotion to the ordinary means of grace, to prayer and fellowship, and to the rhythmic cadences and habits that flow from these.

His final thoughts in the article:

There still are effects in my life from this experience which I hope will remain. I am less concerned with my own death. I am more concerned about the increased interest in the occult in our society. I am more open to direct supernatural intervention and less concerned to try to work out all the details of my life. In essence, to be able to believe that the power of Jesus Christ prevailed in an apparent, legitimate case of demon possession has freed me from a bondage to the empirical methodological way of thinking that had been prevalent in my make-up. I am finally free; free to use a methodology but not be enslaved by it; free to proclaim a foolishness of the gospel without always feeling a need to legitimate it within a framework of modern presuppositions. Its legitimacy never depended on me (or us) anyway. Can we help people become free enough to believe the unbelievable truth? Probably only the Holy Spirit can do that, but certainly The Holy Spirit will let us help by using all the tools at our disposal, including the religious and psychological.

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Wince+Sing and Greystone

Greystone-logo-rd3CIt has been quite a while since I’ve posted here at Wince+Sing. There are a variety of reasons for that, but one of them is particularly exciting to me. It has been a joy and privilege to labor alongside others far more gifted than myself in the formation and launch of Greystone Theological Institute. Wince+Sing — whose name is drawn from the Hopkins line, “on an age old anvil, wince and sing” — was the nascent form of the Greystone project, and after the recent hiatus the blog is now able to take a slight turn in its story, a turn in the direction of a more visible link with Greystone. In short, I will post here frequently, but others will as well, especially those connected in some way with the Institute.

This prompts a few remarks on the what and why of Greystone, not least since the Greystone site itself is currently being overhauled and updated (with no completion date yet nailed down).

I’ve noticed that when I’m asked what Greystone is like, I answer differently every time. Depending on my audience, it may be most meaningful to say that Greystone is like a more theologically oriented, institutional version of Mars Hill Audio, which remains among the most stimulating and thoughtful examples of Christian thinking out there. For others, I’ve said Greystone is like First Things, or like L’Abri, or like a rigorous Th.M. program. It’s important for others to learn that it is not a seminary but instead exists in purposeful complementary relationship to standard, existing seminary programs. Greystone courses serve as M.A., M.Div., S.T.M., Th.M., or Ph.D. electives for seminaries and universities who accept them as such (it is always the decision of the receiving institution, not Greystone). Our friends at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, for instance, with whom Greystone also has a library-use partnership, is one institution that recognizes Greystone courses as for-credit electives. It is possible, too, that a seminary may partner with Greystone to recognize one of our certificate programs as a modular option for their own Th.M. or S.T.M. degrees. Again, it is up to the receiving institution.

But Greystone is more than academic offerings. It is also a local resource for bringing together area clergy, scholars, and postgraduate or ministerial students for discussion, reflection, prayer, feasting, and constructive theological labor. Thus, I have found it is difficult to pound Greystone’s into a few words of soundbite description.

Greystone has been formed to provide training for scholars especially in the Reformed tradition, and its goal is to rehabilitate and encourage excellence in Reformed theology, biblical studies, and ethics in the mode of a deep confessional catholicity. There is thus a perceived lack with Greystone endeavors to help address, yet the vision is thoroughly positive rather than critical. Theology in the mode of a deep confessional Reformed catholicity is a faithful way to capture what makes the history and reality (rather than the myth) of the Westminster Assembly so compelling, and of course commending “Reformed catholicity” in one form or another has become a popular thing to do. For its part, Greystone aims for a “Reformed catholicity” that is impossible to confuse with mere breadth or variety, but which confidently yet humbly locates properly Christian theology in the Church’s long and deep tradition of theological thinking about the Scriptures who bear witness to Lord Jesus Christ.

To this end, Greystone offers a variety of advanced courses, and organizes them into two clusters, one theological and one ministerial. The theological cluster is self-evident; the ministerial one is somewhat subversive: it aims to recover the “theology” in “pastoral theology” and to redirect the Church’s momentum away from the professionalization of pastoral life and toward the old paths of patient, attentive, thoughtful, theological, and if possible scholarly ministry.

Yet the clustered courses – Greystone’s two Certificates – aren’t the whole picture, either. The Greystone vision is old-new in yet another key respect: theology in the mode of prayer and communion. Greystone holds events that are designed simply to get people talking theologically in comfortable chairs with quality wine in hand, or at table with laughter as free-flowing as opinion. Events are deliberately constructed so that periods of intense lectures or study are punctuated not only with times of pleasant feasting but also with prayer. As much as the open-access library, study spaces for visitors on sabbatical, and other elements of Greystone, this combination of study, discussion, and hospitality with prayer is an indispensable feature of the Greystone way.

A number of excellent scholars are invested in the Greystone vision, believing it is a timely and important endeavor. They teach for Greystone, or talk about it, or write or call to urge us onward and upward. It is a most humbling and joyful experience to see it.

In some cases, conversations with enthusiastic supporters yields a desire to see the Greystone way take root in other academic or ecclesial environments. These days, there are Greystone partnerships or programs under discussion domestically and internationally. Among our most cherished partnerships is the Davenant Latin Institute, a project with substantial overlap with the Greystone vision. Davenant is Greystone’s ordinary vehicle for satisfying all Latin requirements for a Certificate. (If you haven’t kept up with Davenant, it’s time to start.)

_cset-logo-fnlIn addition to Greystone’s main programs and offerings, two principal research arms of Greystone, formed to address specific areas of theological inquiry and practical faithfulness, are taking their first steps as well. Michael Sacasas, elder in a PCA congregation in central Florida and an outstanding young thinker in the emerging field of texts and technology, will direct Greystone’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology (CSET). This is a project worth keeping a close eye on.


It is also a great privilege to work alongside Dr Valerie Hobbs of Sheffield University in the work of Greystone’s Lydia Center for Women and Families. (Note that some of the Lydia-Center-type of posts that have appeared here will also be copied over to the Lydia site, where that material will find fuller development.) Dr Hobbs, Lydia Center’s associate director, is a perceptive voice in Reformed circles with expert skills in the tools of linguistic analysis. A member of a Reformed church in Sheffield and a graduate of Covenant College, Dr Hobbs is able to bring a fresh perspective to issues of Christian discourse and its relationship to gender and family questions.

Both Centers were formed in early 2015 and are poised to encourage thoughtful and fruitful work in areas of great importance to Christian faith and life. In addition to book reviews, articles, and interviews already in preparation, the inaugural Lydia annual symposium will likely take place in September of this year.

Time does not permit me to speak, too, of The Greystone Review, also in development, and of a variety of other Greystone vehicles and tools for advancing the cause of confessional Reformed Christianity in a new era of challenges and opportunities. Wince+Sing will serve as one voice among others in the Greystone effort, and I hope you will stay tuned. The foregoing can’t begin to serve as a full commendation of what Greystone is after, but I’ve discovered that, for many people, simply describing its goals often serves as sufficient rationale for the effort. Even more, I hope you will consider partnering with this ambitious, energetic group of scholar, clergy, and students in prayer, encouragement, and perhaps also financially. Your support is greatly appreciated.

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Word & Sacrament Greystone Course

word and sacramentAnnouncing a Fall, 2015 course at Greystone:

“Word & Sacrament” ~ Thursdays, 6:30-9:10 p.m., Sept. 10-Nov. 19, 2015, at Greystone in Coraopolis, PA

by Mark A. Garcia, Ph.D.
President & Fellow in Scripture and Theology
Greystone Theological Institute


An in-depth theological study of how Scripture and sacrament shape Christian and church existence from the perspective of confessional Reformed catholicity. Through a consideration of primary texts as well as select contemporary voices in theology and ethics, this course pursues sustained reflection on the nature and telos of Holy Scripture, the relationship of the two testaments in theology and ministry, the role of canonical Scripture in spiritual formation and ethical inquiry, the ontology and eschatology of sacramental communion in relation to the presence and activity of the Word, and disputed facets of baptism and the Supper.

Garcia 7FORMAT

This course complements M.A. and M.Div. programs and will be held at the Th.M./Ph.D. level. “Word & Sacrament” may be taken a la carte and outside of a degree program. As applicable, it fulfills a course requirement in both Greystone Certificates: the Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS, comparable to a Th.M.) and Certificate in Pastoral Studies (CPS, comparable to a S.T.M.).

This residential course is also available for distance students – both full credit and auditors – in online or audio-only form.

Full credit: $850 (accepted for elective credit at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA)
Audit: $300
Contact to register or for more information.

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2015 Greystone Summer Program


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A Clean Union With the Levitical Woman

marriageWe have reflected on Leviticus 12, though in a cursory way befitting a blog series. Already this “Levitical woman” has turned out to be what women in Scripture and experience always prove to be: much more than she is at first sight. Let’s turn now to another passage in Leviticus to bring new considerations alongside the ones already suggested, and see if the glimmering big picture I have promised you comes somewhat more clearly into focus. This post is rather lengthy, I know, and involves some intricate textual discussion which may not suit every reader. I strongly recommend you keep Leviticus 15 open before you as you read, but if you’d rather skip the middle sections of this post and move directly to the last section, I think you’ll still get the heart of the argument. We continue to benefit from the scholars of Leviticus mentioned in previous posts, and especially (though in different ways) from Richard Whitekettle and Jacob Milgrom.

The Great Puzzle of Uncleanness in Lev. 15:18

In Leviticus 15:18, we read “If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening.”

Now, pause for a moment and think about what that verse says. It is rather puzzling, says Wenham (perhaps with every Christian reader of this verse), that the consummating act of marriage and the physiological prerequisite for children should be deemed to result in impurity. It is puzzling in no small measure because of the overwhelming evidence within the Pentateuch itself that children and marriage are highly prized. Hebrews 13:4, too, cannot be ignored: the marriage bed is, at least potentially, kept – in the language of the cult – undefiled. Undoubtedly it will be helpful to us to remember that, as Ephraim Radner has put it, “Lev. 15, like so much of the book, exposes from one vantage the history of giving life.” But how does it do so? By seeing the woman as a figure for sacred space, and therefore as requiring priestly protection and care. We will build our case in steps.

Wenham turns to the aforementioned and important work of Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, and her symbolic-structuralist method, to sort out what may be going on here. Douglas’s study of the dietary laws in Lev. 11 argues that these laws were tied closely to a notion of physical perfection or wholeness within the created order. An animal was classified as normal or abnormal depending on how closely it conformed anatomically or physiologically to an ideal type of creature for that realm of creation. This, in turn, implies a concern for boundaries and their maintenance, which itself reflects a concern for distance from surrounding Canaanite culture.

Wenham, though, correctly finds this scheme incapable of handling Lev. 15, and especially our verse. Why would uncleanness be connected with childbirth, menstruation, and sexual intercourse – all of which Israelites would have regarded as normal, not abnormal? Instead, Wenham proposes an analysis in terms of the polarity of life and death, which he thinks provides the rationale for these laws in Lev. 15. These laws, he suggests, concern conditions which involve the loss of “life liquids” and thus involve movement away from life toward death. Recalling what we noted earlier regarding Wenham’s model, this defilement occurs because the person has the “aura” of death.

There is a lot of value in this proposal, but there are problems too, as Whitekettle and others have noted. Firstly, the place of semen in this schema is far from clear. Unlike blood, nowhere in Scripture is the loss of semen what leads to death; the connection of semen with an “aura of death” is untenable.

Secondly, in our verse (Lev. 15:18), there is an association of impurity with the emission of something called “seed.” This is a connection with life being created, so the focus isn’t on maintaining life (as opposed to death) but nascent life. Further, a child created through the emission of semen in intercourse is spoken of only as a sign of the father’s strength (Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17), never as having sapped his strength.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in the “one-flesh” union of husband and wife, ejaculation isn’t conceived of as loss but instead as a movement within a unitary whole (physical and “emotional”), as a movement from one part of a whole to another part of that same whole. Consider, fully taking at face value the scenario as conceived in the biblical world: the seed moves from an environment of origin to an environment of growth, but all within the “one flesh” of the husband and wife. Thus, here, defilement does not come from a violation of the body’s boundaries (as per Douglas), not if we are to conceive of such boundaries in terms of the biblical world of the body. Instead, the theological physiology of Lev. 15:18 concerns a movement within the confines of the one-flesh unity in which the boundaries remain intact. So, why the defilement?

Where to Put Verse 18

Again it is helpful to keep Wenham’s proposal at hand for reference. But first we need to read the chapter as a whole. (Go ahead, I’ll give you a few minutes.)

Now that you’ve read the chapter, note that Wenham proposes a chiastic structure for the chapter as follows:

A   vv. 2b-15     long-term     male discharges

B    vv. 16-18     transient     male discharges

B’   vv. 19-24     transient     female discharges

A’   vv. 25-30     long-term     female discharges

It has a certain prima facie plausibility, except for one critically important oversight: this structural proposal mistakes v. 18 for a subdivision of the second unit – transient male discharges. It is no such thing. Instead, v. 18 is independent, as its conditional syntax makes clear. (For Hebrew readers: each distinct legal unit in this chapter begins with a conditional clause formation (see vv. 2b, 16, 19, and 25), but v. 18 begins with asher which, in this case, is not a relative pronoun (the subject is plural, not singular feminine for the woman). It is instead a conditional particle. This means v. 18 is written with its own conditional construction comparable to the others used throughout the chapter to demarcate legal units.)

Also, v. 18 is unique within the chapter because its subject is plural. If it were a case of contagious impurity, v. 18 would have a singular subject, a clause similar to v. 24 (“and her menstrual impurity comes upon/touches him”), and there would be no need to mention that man in the verse.

The impurity of v. 18 is, thus, not simply that of the emission of semen. Nor is it simply intercourse. Instead, the impurity stems from some aspect of the whole event: the emission of semen in sexual intercourse. Here is a better structure, drawn from Whitekettle:

A   vv. 2b-15     long-term     male discharges

B   vv. 16-17     transient     male discharges

C   v. 18     intercourse     male/female

B’   vv. 19-24     transient     female discharges

A’   vv. 25-30     long-term     female discharges

Doing better justice to the uniqueness of v. 18 in the chapter, this structure accents how v. 18 serves as the fulcrum of the whole passage. This is further suggested by the way components of the verse interlock with sections B and B’:

B   v. 16     And a man… a laying of seed

C   v. 18     And a woman… a laying of seed

B’   v. 19     And a woman… a flow of blood

What, then? Well, let’s look at the passage as a whole again.  What is the chapter as a whole concerned with? Not physiology in general, but sexual physiology specifically. Given the Gen. 2:20-25 ideal for sexual relations (always in view throughout Leviticus), which of the various settings imagined in Lev. 15 is most akin to that ideal? Only v. 18. The chapter’s concern does not appear to be simply regulating sexual processes per se but to develop in the reader some deeper understanding of the ideal sexual physiology, more specifically, the ideal physiological functioning of the reproductive system, theologically considered. Is the reproductive “system” functioning so as to bring about reproduction, or is there some physiological deviation from ordinary sexual processes which departs from the ideal setting for those processes? Note, now, the following way of capturing the relationship of each section in the passage to the question of physiological integrity (PI) and systemic function (SF):

A   vv. 2b-15     Abnormal PI     Abnormal SF

B   vv. 16-17     Typical PI     Dysfunctional SF

C   v. 18     Normal PI     Normal SF

B’   vv. 19-24     Typical PI     Dysfunctional SF

A’   vv. 25-30     Abnormal PI     Abnormal SF

Now, consider:

A and A’ describe physiological settings that are pathological: the reproductive system is unsound. Neither discharge can lead to the creation of life.

B and B’ are not pathological (not life-threatening or degenerative), nor physiologically abnormal. But, while typical they are not the ideal conditions for reproduction.

C, which is the fulcrum of the chapter, portrays sexual, reproductive physiology in its fully functional setting: each individual in the scene evidences the physiology appropriate for the ideal sexual physiological setting for intercourse and, more specifically, reproduction – ejaculation of seed by the male and the absence of menstrual discharge in the female.

Now, notice how the chiastic structure of the passage noted above contains a chiasm for contagion and cultic resolution. Each section concerns a tabernacle contagion, and each contagion corresponds to a resolution in the form of washing. Furthermore, the degree of impurity decreases as the reader moves through the various physiological settings toward the center, and then increases from the center back to the periphery of the unit. No doubt you are starting to see what is happening here: the center and periphery of the unit correspond to the center and periphery of the sanctuary. But notice, too, that the degree of impurity decreases as one approaches the center, but it does not disappear. This is the more focused way of asking our question about that center (v. 18): why is there still impurity of some kind here?

The Key to Leviticus 15

The often-overlooked key to the passage is in v. 31:

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

Thus,” that is, by attending to the foregoing sexual and physiological scenarios, you will not defile my tabernacle in your midst. This is the chapter’s motive statement: if the body is not cleansed from the discharges in the prescribed way, the tabernacle is defiled. As noted previously in our studies in the Levitical woman, this treatment of the sexual encounter, and particularly (as we will see below) its way of interpreting here the feminine body, is another example of the biblical homology. A homology is a resemblance between two objects based on similarities in structural and functional aspects which provides a hermeneutical guide to the reader: understanding one means understanding the other more fully.

The presence of both body and tabernacle in Leviticus 15, and their prominence as blended motifs, is therefore not peculiar. It suggests that the defilement of intercourse might be understood in light of some aspect of the correspondence between the body and the tabernacle, with the most overt commonality being the need for cleansing for full access. This takes us a step further in understanding what is going on in v. 18.

The Holy Center, the Mixed Middle, and the Unholy Periphery

But with only a moment’s reflection on this relationship in light of what we’ve seen in the carefully crafted structure of the chapter, the wonder of this link comes more clearly into view. The tabernacle, of course, was the center of spatial and theological perception within Israel’s wilderness encampment. At the center was the presence of God in the “Most Holy Place” of the tabernacle. The divine presence transformed it into sacred space.

Organized around that center was a continuum of various degrees of consecration to the sanctity/sacredness of this center (see Numb. 1-4). Needed for access was “purity,” “wholeness,” “perfection,” being “unblemished,” and so forth – for Wenham, life, the fullness of life, being wholly and unambiguously given over/devoted to life. At the periphery was the wilderness which encircled the community. As periphery, notes Whitekettle, it reflects the obverse of the center: death or non-life. A corpse, empty of life, could contaminate a priest whose allegiance is toward the center (Lev. 21:1-4). Sacrificial animals, because they are marked out as full of life (unblemished, perfect), were brought to the center. But once their resemblance to life was erased through their destruction and the sacrificial rite, they were taken to a place of death and non-life outside the wilderness encampment (Lev. 4:11-12).

Within the camp, even social organization was devised so that there was increasing consecration/purity with movement toward the center, and decreasing purity (impurity) with movement away from that center. Socially, theologically, cultically, here is the dynamic of the degrees of sancta: from the center through the encampment to the wilderness, and again in reverse.

How does this find expression in ordinary life? One way is this: what else was removed to the realm of death or non-life? Among other things, waste products (Deut. 23:12-14). Waste products belong to the realm of death, on the outside. I mention this specifically because it is critically important to understanding v. 18. But before we make this further connection, note a few other important observations.

Restrictions were placed on approaching the center: only the High Priest could enter it, and then only after undergoing purification rituals, and then only on one day a year. This is described immediately after our chapter, in Lev. 16. Even though the center was sacred space it was not immune from the impurity of the community, since a sacrifice was needed for it to be cleansed (Lev. 16:16). We recall Hebrews 10:1-4 – if it were possible to attain absolute and abiding purity in the old tabernacle commensurate with the purity of Yahweh himself, through mere cleansing and sacrifice, sacrifices would have ceased and approach to the center would then be wholly unrestricted. This tells us the old tabernacle enjoyed no such absolute and abiding purity, and that this is signaled in the need for cleansing or purification even by the High Priest. Within Leviticus, cleansing is a continuous process because absolute and unambiguous purity is not yet possible in that order, in that fallen world. One could not remain at the center, and any access to that center retained, even in the nearly ideal scenario of v. 18 (nearly ideal because optimal and normal for sexual intercourse and reproduction), an element of ambiguity requiring cleansing. But what accounts for that ambiguity?

Identifying the Ambiguity in the Scene of Verse 18

Leviticus 15 depicts intercourse and its physiology as a tabernacle scene. It places ordinary and proper sexual intercourse at the center (v. 18), and, as the chiastic structure makes clear, varying levels or degrees of impurity occupy the surrounding “areas” of that center just as in Israel’s encampment and wilderness. We notice now that some of the discharges in the passage (at the “periphery”) suggest waste or non-life, which are more appropriate to the peripheral wilderness of the encampment. Thus, those examples of pathological discharges on the extreme outside of the chiasm are wilderness non-life and/or waste. On the one hand, the bloody discharge of the female, though typical, would still qualify as waste or non-life, though not pathological. Similarly, on the other hand, the seminal emission of the male, though typical and not pathological, is also waste or non-life because it is not in the context of normal intercourse.

But at the center (v. 18) there is no female blood, nor is there wasted seed. What, then, is the ambiguous element which compromises the cultic integrity of that setting? What in that setting is potentially alien to the “fullness of life,” not wholly and unambiguously given over/devoted to life in its cultic sense: absolute and abiding purity or sanctity? It is not the woman. There is nothing in her physiology as it would apply in this scenario that partakes of that ambiguous quality. But recall what belongs outside the camp, in the wilderness: waste.

What, then, is present here that partakes of ambiguity on this front? The male sexual organ. It is inherently ambiguous in terms of sanctuary sancta for it is the same organ which produces both waste and semen or seed. In the emission of semen, it fulfills the appropriate function for this setting. But, as Mary Douglas has noted, it is not wholly given over/devoted to this function. It is also used for urination, and urine is waste and non-life; it is of the periphery.

In 2 Kings 18:27 and 31-32, at a time of chaos on the periphery encroaching on the covenant community, urine is set opposite abundance and life. As non-life and waste, urine also shares in the textual or literary periphery of Leviticus 15.

Woman and Priestly Concern

Thus, Whitekettle’s conclusion seems most able to account for all the phenomena in the passage: the male organ is not wholly given over/devoted to the reproductive setting, the “fullness of life” setting, of the center of Lev. 15 and of Gen. 2. It is anatomically and functionally ambiguous, confusing features of both the production of life and the production of waste, features of the center and of the periphery. Only with the emission of seed does the functional ambiguity become actual: it isn’t actually doing anything in this setting until it does one of these two things. Thus, a scene of sexual intercourse, with the emission of semen, defiles not because of the center (the woman herself now is clearly the center, not only her relationship to something removed from her) but because, with the emission of semen, “that” (the organ) which “structurally” unites husband and wife as one flesh crosses functional boundaries. And with that, an ambiguous element of the periphery intrudes upon the event, requiring an accompanying cleansing, just as even the High Priest required cleansing to inhabit sancta.

The upshot so far? The woman, in the biblical world, figurally represents tabernacle sancta. We will discover this is true of Israel as woman, the Lady Zion, the Lady-Mother Jerusalem, of Eve and the matriarchs, of various Old and New Testament feminine figures, and of the glorified Church-Bride of Christ. In light of this, in the range of biblical texts we will soon move on to consider, the otherwise strange biblical preoccupation with feminine welfare, protection, nurture, and love, and the otherwise strange ways in which this preoccupation is a land, temple, life, and Gospel issue – become more understandable. To violate the feminine (and we have yet to review what constitutes such violation or violence in Scripture) is tantamount to the violation of sacred space, and thus calls upon the perpetrator the holy wrath of Israel’s Husband. Other forms of violence against any image-bearer are of course terrible and deserving of judgment, but violence against females partakes of a special character biblically.

By way of a faint gesture for now of what is coming later… Think in light of Lev. 15:18 of the birth of Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, without male semen. Think, too, of the way this discloses the glories of what Paul says in Eph. 5: Christ in his union with her cleanses his Bride through and through, and in relation to Hebrews 10: Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice has provided unambiguous, absolute, and abiding access in the union with his Bride. The Gospel pulls us into that sacred space of Lev. 15:18 intimacy, and then leads us through it to resolve its nagging ambiguity. We’ll see this more clearly soon, but Christ comes to render fully glorious his temple-Bride. He makes clean, he protects, he nurtures. He is the paradigm of the loving husband as the safety of the woman.

More coming.

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Woman, Womb, and Wellspring

overflowingLove Your Mother

We continue a series of reflections on the plight of women in the church and home, and the biblical teaching regarding men, women, and what it means to be safe. These reflections are truncated and snapshot versions of material for a book which is being organized under the title, Are Women Safe in the Church? In my view, to answer this question we must ask first what a woman is, then ask why she would be unsafe, then why she could be unsafe in the Church of all places, and then finally why, in the end, the Church as Christ has redeemed her and as his Spirit inhabits her is in fact – or, in every place it is applicable, must become – the safest place for a woman to be. Of course, though it is difficult and painful to admit, it will also, invariably, expose ways the Church has failed to be this. But let us take heart: even for Churches like these, and for fathers and husbands and sons and brothers and uncles and cousins and employers and neighbors like these, there is a way forward. Truly, there is. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Now, I know that endeavoring, even in this very roundabout way, to return us all to the flawed and restless Church, may sound to some a bit too close to betrayal. After all, I have said we have a problem, and that problem is far too often the Church. Granted, and I wrestle with this far more than I let on. But I cannot refuse the Church while I plead for her health: after all, in divine grace, the solution is in her, too. Yes, in her. As I point to what the Church must become in order to be, in deed and not just in word, the safest place for a woman, I will ask us to love our Mother:

“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26).

Woman and Levitical Life

The following reflections presuppose the material reviewed in previous posts, and so we pick up midstream, bringing some of our disparate remarks on the Levitical woman together for a – hopefully – more fruitful, or least less scattered, end. Again I note my indebtedness to the fine work of the scholars noted in our previous study, and particularly Richard Whitekettle, whose work I continue to summarize and interact with in this section on Leviticus, though largely invisibly.

As we have learned, in Leviticus 12:2-4 and 15:19-24, prior to the onset of the menstrual or puerperal discharge, a woman was pure. Following the onset, she was impure. After 7 or 40 days, she was pure again. This pure/impure distinction, then, involves not constant categories but sequential ones. This sets the woman apart from the purity/impurity of the animals: a fish was always pure, a crab was always impure, but a woman was sometimes pure, sometimes impure. And when a woman was pure, she was not a threat to sancta; when she was impure, she was a threat to sancta.

Sancta, to speak briefly, included any object which had been symbolically or physically set apart/devoted/transferred to the divine realm. In the Levitical schema, the divine realm was located at the center of Israel’s wilderness encampment, in the tent-dwelling of Yahweh, who created life and gave order to the cosmos. Contraposed to this spatial center is the periphery located in the wilderness beyond the encampment, a place of disorder and desolation. The parallel works as follows:

Center of the camp = divine realm = life

Periphery of the camp = divine absence; wilderness = disorder and desolation

As Wenham explains, the physical condition needed to approach the divine realm is epitomized by the phrase “fullness of life.” This “fullness of life” is a quality commensurate with the vivific character of the divine realm. God is, particularly in terms of the Leviticus-Genesis interplay, the God of creation, of holiness, of glory, of full life. Purity, then, and the notion of being unblemished, is a matter of fullness of life in the sense of being devoted or dedicated to life. Disqualification from the area of sancta comes with any lack of the fullness of life. A disqualifying thing was thus often relegated to the wilderness, the area of non-life and of desolation (Lev. 4:11-12; 10:4-5; 13:46; 21:1-4).

We return to the woman. What principle explains this Levitical schema in which the non-menstruating, pure woman = fullness of life = approach to the divine realm? (This schema will become clearer later, when we look at Lev. 15.) What was the basis of the timetable for the woman’s impurity noted in our last study, since purely physiological indicators (the cessation of discharge) evidently were not that basis?

The focus of Leviticus on reproductive systems (male and female) is key, since they determine purity or impurity. Note, in this light, the following highly significant features in the Levitical scenario:

1. The numbers 7 and 40 are hardly coincidental figures. Each connotes wholeness and completion.

2. The anatomical source of the menstrual and puerperal discharge was conceptualized in Leviticus as a geologic wellspring (maqor; cf. Hos. 13:15).  In Lev. 12:6-7, following the 40th day of impurity, a post-partum woman was cleansed from the maqor of blood when certain sacrifices were offered. In Lev. 20:18, a man who has sexual intercourse with a menstruous woman is said to expose her maqor. I will say more about this shortly.

3. The womb-wellspring link, in which the womb is conceptualized as a wellspring, indicates that a vaginal discharge was seen as overflowing its boundaries, just as a wellspring overflows. (For those interested in the historical-geological phenomena, crops destroyed by overflowing, flooding wellsprings, and estuaries are still a common problem in the region. The overflowing wellspring is also a part of Mesopotamian cosmology.)

4. A woman’s spatial orientation with regard to the sanctuary (either synonymous with sancta or a threat to sancta) was correlated to the condition of her reproductive system. Thus the overflowing, dysfunctional womb-wellspring was associated with the disorder of the wilderness, the periphery of the sanctuary, while the functioning, continent womb-wellspring was associated with the vivific center.

Woman, Waters, and Genesis

But we need to say more about this, and try to bring these observations together. We return to the maqor, which is an example of a biblical “homology.” A homology is a means of conceptual interpretation in which understanding one thing helps us to understand another. Another, and more familiar, closely-related homology is the female body as a farmer’s field. This leads to an understanding of impregnation controlled by agricultural realities: just as a farmer plows and plants seed in a field, so a male plows and plants seed in the womb during intercourse. Song of Songs plays on these homologies repeatedly, and they are common in the OT. In fact, I suspect that in many places we still use the field homology ourselves.

In this case, the Levitical understanding of the womb is shaped by the Levitical understanding of the wellspring, and vice versa. But the significance of this fact requires a glance back to Genesis.

Within Israel’s “primeval history” (Gen. 1-11), both the creation account in Gen. 1:1-2:4a and the Flood narrative in Gen. 6-9 exhibit intrinsic canonical (Pentateuchal) affinities with Levitical thinking. (And remember that Israel is herself a Bride.) For instance, both the Genesis and Leviticus passages work with a tripartite structure of the world and its inhabitants: water, land, and air in Gen. 1-2 parallels the tripartite division of the animal kingdom in Lev. 11. Also, the Leviticus 11 distinction between pure and impure animals is assumed in Gen. 7.

We further note, however, that both of the Genesis textual groups (Creation and Flood) are concerned with the varying conditions  of a physical environment within which the (re)production of human life takes place, with this difference: in Lev. 15/17 the environments are physiological whereas in Genesis 1-2 and 6-9 they are geological.

Also, the wellspring dynamic is part of both environments: as in Leviticus (12:2-4; 15:19-24) so also in both Genesis 1 (where unbounded waters are confined) and in Gen. 7:11b. In the latter of these, waters burst forth from the confines of geological wellsprings, the mayanot, and then are confined again in the wellsprings in Gen. 8:2a. Here the liquid or fluid become again, we could say, “living waters.”

Finally, remembering the clearly defined timetable of a woman’s time of impurity, we cannot overlook the fact that both Genesis textual groups also contain the numbers 7 and 40, and in each case they serve as temporal parameters during which the unbounded is bounded, disorder is reordered, non-life becomes life (Gen. 1; 6-9; Lev. 12:2-4). Note the structure that results:

1. At the beginning of the 7 days of Genesis 1, the world is flooded by unbounded waters (Gen. 1:2). During the 7-day process, and specifically on the first day, the waters are bounded or confined (Gen. 1:6-10).

2. Gen. 7:11b-8:2a describes the aquatic destruction of the terrestrial world, a process that extends over the course of 40 days. At the beginning of the 40 days, water bursts forth from the wellsprings (mayanot; Gen. 7:11b) and at the end of the 40 days, the wellsprings are closed (Gen. 8:2a).

3. Similarly in Lev. 12:2-4 & 15:19-24, with the onset of the discharge, fluid overflows from the womb-wellspring (maqorflooding the uterine reproductive environment. At some time during the subsequent 7 or 40 days, the womb-wellspring ceases overflowing and becomes continent.

4. The primeval world is first described in Gen. 1:2 as tohu wabohu, something like “wilderness and waste,” or at least “unproductive and uninhabited.” During the 7-day process of creation, this world is transformed into a habitable environment within which humanity is able to reproduce (Gen. 1:28; cf. 7:1). The confinement of water is a contributing factor to this transformation in both the Creation and Flood accounts. Similarly for the womb in Leviticus: it moves from dysfunctional or uninhabitable to functional or habitable with the bounding or cessation of the discharge.

Thus, the symmetry suggests that the woman is uniquely seen as microcosm (for the cosmic relationship) and microsanctuary (for the cultic relationship), though this conclusion should be suspended a bit longer as we await a close reading of Lev. 15:18, which follows soon (d.v.).

In short, the movement of creation to un/decreation to recreation is recapitulated historically in the Flood narrative but, in the Levitical world, is also figured in the physiological experience and condition of the woman. Inseparably related to this, the relationship of holy center to unholy wilderness to holy center again is figured in the sequential physiological condition of the woman as non-menstruous to menstruous to non-menstruous again.

If the wife/woman/girl has this kind of symbolic-cultic and homological significance, we can better appreciate why, on the one hand, special concern for the female distinguished Israel from her neighbors and was constitutive for her covenant relationship with Yahweh, and, on the other hand, why this special concern was sometimes expressed by connecting the welfare of Israel’s land with Israel’s women. Not mothers only, or wives only, but women. But more on that later.

In our next installments, our Lord willing, we pause over Lev. 15:18 and the conundrum posed by defilement even in a normal, healthy, pure sexual relationship between husband and wife, and then connect our reflections to the beautiful transformation of the Levitical world in Jesus’s healing of the woman in Mark 5. This, in turn, will set us up for exploring the great tragedy of Gen. 3:16 and the continuing temptations unique to men and women, and then the roles and status of women in Israel and in the New Testament. Throughout, we are learning what our problem really is, and being prepared to receive the Christ-saturated and life-giving solution.

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Woman, Childbirth, Impurity, and Leviticus

Leviticus 12 childbirthWhen Dorothy Sayers asks, Are Women Human?, we expect the Christian answer to be a simple and emphatic yes. But the simplicity of the question betrays the bewildering complexity of historical discussion over women. It seems impossible, but for long stretches in history, including Church history, women were in fact regarded as ontologically and psychologically inferior to men. In the early modern period, even accomplished writers known for their notoriously liberal proposals for women in marriage and society retained the conviction that women were not the intellectual or relational equal of men. John Milton is a classic example.

But we should drop our tsk, tsk condescension in relation to centuries of confusion, argument, and tradition. Are the Scriptures so clear on the question, or have we assumed they are because we read them through the cultural lenses of a more-modern era? Do we assume a kind of ontological equality of men and women in Scripture because we assume this equality is wrapped up in the image of God idea, even though many historically did not see it that way? Why didn’t they always make this connection the way we do? The flip side is also possible: perhaps our more-modern default mode of assuming ontological equality has blinded us to the significance of the differences between man and woman. We’ll explore some of these historical and theological questions later on. What about the Bible itself?

Modern criticism has functioned for at least a century with a default reading of Leviticus which regards it as undeniable proof-positive that the Bible is part of the problem. Instead of dismissing this notion, attending to it carefully enriches our appreciation of how Leviticus is in fact part of the solution. We begin now to explore how this is the case.

Our first example is the conundrum of the legal disparity in the purification of a mother who bears a male child on the one hand and a female child on the other. (A study by Richard Whitekettle (“Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World,” Vetus Testamentum XLVI, 3: 376-91) is notably insightful on this question, and for careful discussion of the issues see too the commentaries by Wenham, Milgromanother Milgrom commentary, Hartley, Radner, and of course many other articles and essays. I have these at hand as I write.)

Levitical law stated that a woman is impure for 7 days during menstruation (Lev. 15:19-24) and for 40 days following parturition (Lev. 12:2-4). The number of 40 days is the total of 33 days which continue beyond the 7 for menstruation. However, these 40 days apply in the case of a woman who delivers a male, whereas the duration is doubled to 66 days (as 33 x 2) in the case of a woman who bears a female: “But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days” (Lev. 12:5 ESV). Why this extra time for female babies? Does it indicate that girls are less pure or more defiled and thus require a longer period of purification than boys do?

At least two possibilities commend themselves, and both may be true in a complementary way. Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, female children lacked the rite of passage (circumcision) which marked all Israelite male children publicly as clean unto the Lord, so it may be that doubling the time reflects this fact and even substitutes for it in a way conducive to babies lacking a foreskin to cut, thus allowing in its own way for that public rite of passage. At the least, that there is a period of purification at all places the birth of baby girls alongside the birth of baby boys who also require the purification of circumcision. However, this does not explain the higher figure for females. Another possibility, again perhaps complementary to the first, is that this legal stipulation functions as a polemic against the surrounding nations by elevating the cultic importance of women.

There is – tentatively for now – at least a prima facie attractiveness to this proposal. Israel’s neighbors (let us be content with the general category of “the Canaanites” until we fill this out later) represented the unrighteous impurity which always threatened Israel’s sancta. But this was not a general reality but regularly a concrete one: they embody the mashal principle of Gen. 3:16 in their relationships to their neighbors, women, and children, and thus precisely (in part) in their devolution of the integrity of the feminine (pace Deuteronomy and Judges). The threat to Israel posed by the surrounding nations along the lines of cultic sancta becomes a climactically tragic issue for Israel as a whole in Ezra-Nehemiah. Thus this is at least highly plausible, though later studies in this series will have to bear this out with close exegesis. On this reading, rather than indicating a lesser quality or purity, the Levitical increase in the number of required days for purification indicates instead a recognition (and polemical argument for) the increased cultic significance of the female as such. This latter possibility fits naturally within the picture of how Leviticus deliberately and carefully weaves an aesthetically and morally beautiful tapestry of the woman’s reproductive physiology in relation to the sacred spaces of the tabernacle set-up.

Why an impurity at all, though? Since reproduction is normal and a constituent part of human createdness, why is it apparently seen here as problematic? Gen. 1:28 and the regular biblical theme of the blessedness of procreation would seem to push in the opposite direction. And why these specific lengths of time?

The common assumption in the scholarly literature is that the impurity is due to the presence of a bloody discharge. The classic and highly influential (and often very stimulating) work in this area is Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. Wenham, working with Douglas’s basic model, has commended a reading along these lines. Basically, the idea is that because blood represents life (Lev. 17:11, 14), the loss of blood represents death, so that the menstruous woman is surrounded by what Wenham terms the “aura of death.”

This seems to make a lot of sense and many have taken it and run, so to speak. But careful consideration shows that Levitical thought did not in fact connect vaginal discharge with death, and the locus of impurity was neither the female body nor the discharge itself.

We note, for instance, that other situations of potential blood loss (wounds, accidents, etc.) are not a concern in Leviticus, which is only interested in male and female genital discharges (Lev. 12, 15). Impurity was  ascribed to menstruous and post-partum women not because they experienced a bodily discharge but because it came from their reproductive system. The locus of the impurity is not the body generally, but something pertaining to the reproductive system specifically. But what is it?

We also note that although the onset of the discharge marked the onset of the impurity, the cessation of the impurity was not coordinated with the cessation of the discharge. This is quite remarkable and an important signal to us of what is going on. A menstruous woman was impure for 7 days even though the duration of the menstrual discharge was in fact variable and can last from 3-9 days. Similarly, a post-partum woman was impure for 40 days but the discharge can last 20-60 days. This disassociation between the impurity and the discharge shows that impurity is linked to some underlying aspect of the female reproductive system of which the discharge is a surface manifestation, and that the numbers, since they are not strictly coordinated with the varied physiological reality, are symbolic of something.

In the next post, we explore what that “something” is. Anticipating that next installment, ruminate on the following:

1. The numbers for the period of duration indicate that purity and impurity are sequential categories, unlike the fixed constancy of the purity or impurity of animals in Leviticus (a fish, for instance, is considered always pure, while a crab is considered always impure).

2. Alongside categorical distinctions are behavioral ones which also affect purity and sancta. In Leviticus, sancta pertains to anything “wholly given over to” the divine realm, the realm of the Creator and the God of life. The closer one approaches to the center of the wilderness camp, the closer one approaches to sancta and life. The further away from the center, the further away from sancta and life. The surrounding wilderness, as the realm of unbounded disorder, is the realm of anti-life or death.

3. The numbers 7 and 40 indicate wholeness or completeness, and the woman’s womb is conceptualized in Leviticus as a wellspring. In a range of verbal and thematic links with Genesis, and the Levitical use of the wellspring (and field) homology, we note the high importance of the ideas of boundedness-order-life on the one hand, and unboundedness-disorder-death on the other, when describing environments suitable for the flourishing of life. Consider, then, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9. And then read Leviticus 12 and 15 again.

4. The symmetry presents the woman as a microcosm (of the world, as per Genesis) and a microsanctuary (for cultic degrees of approaching the central, holiest space). Presumably you are familiar with Eden as a sanctuary,  not least because of the very helpful work by Vos, Beale, and others. We can begin re-thinking that theme now in light of the Levitical woman as we anticipate exploring biblical teaching on Eve later on.

5. In light of this symmetry and its function in Leviticus and the rest of the OT, what has taken place in Christ, especially as per Mark 5:25-34 (Jesus heals the woman with the 12-year “discharge of blood”; Matt. 9; Lk. 8), is nothing short of revolutionary. Something like a new creation, and precisely in connection with the Levitical figure of the woman’s reproductive physiology, namely, that unique physiological reality which identifies a woman – whether single or married, mother or not a mother – as woman.

We will read Leviticus closely and consider these features of the text in detail in our next installment. And, yes, we will see, in time, how these ideas are at work in a biblical solution to our problem.

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