This chapter sent my religious studies major sense tingling. All the dividing out and purification – it’s Durkheim’s glorious sacred and profane! He argued that in order for something to be sacred, it must be set apart from everyday life, usually by a series of proscriptions. That’s definitely what’s going on here.
First there’s the mountain. They set up a barrier line around it that no one can cross, and if anyone touches it, human or not, they are to be put to death. Not that, by the time God shows up, anyone would need to put anybody to death. They’re told to stay away from the mountain because “otherwise [the LORD] will break out against them” (v 24). The Japanese translates this as utsu or “to attack,” but I think the image of “breaking out” isn’t a bad one here. The border is a fence, and God’s presence is being contained inside. Otherwise, it would spill out and harm the unprepared people around. The holy is dangerous, and sacred places, rites, and times give people or chosen persons a way to approach it safely.
The people themselves are also being set aside. This isn’t just the specific three-day rules, it’s the promise God gives them. They are being set aside as God’s “treasured possession” (v 6), “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (v 7). In other words, they, as a people, will be set aside as sacred in perpetuity. How? By obeying God’s voice and keeping his covenant (v 6). Practicing Judaism itself sets Jews apart as a sacred people within a profane world.
Then there are the preparations made for these three days. God tells Moses to have the people wash their clothes and stay away from the mountain. Moses transmits this, and adds “do not go near a woman.” (v 15)
What the heck, Moses! God didn’t say anything about that! I know that sexual abstinence is frequently a part of preparation for sacred events, but the way that Moses puts it – do not go near a woman – sounds very much like “women will make you unclean,” which is probably what it did mean. And with the current discussion going around Christian blogs on purity culture, that hit a bit of a barb with me.
I was lucky enough to be raised in a church that didn’t teach that. I knew people whose parents had personally raised them with that kind of thinking, and I’ve since met many people who encountered it growing up. It horrifies me that some even hear it from the pulpit. I know I could have used some more sex-positive messages from my church, but I at least didn’t get any sex-negative ones either.
Plus, while this “go near” might be a euphemism, it could just as easily be interpreted as “don’t touch women” or “don’t talk to women.” Women = profane, men = sacred. Ugh.
Moses, what were your issues?
The Japanese: issei ni “as on together,” toritsugu “to mediate, to bear a message” (v 8), moukeru “to establish, to set up,” shosuru “to sentence” (v 12), tsunobue “horn” (v 13), surudoi “sharp” (v 16), ekkyou suru “to cross the border,” keikoku suru “to warn, to caution” (v 21).
Next time: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS!!