On Being a Seminarian: Power of Nuance…

This is my first post as a part of Near Emmaus. Feel free to view it there or view other posts by the other bloggers.

Three years ago around this same time I was in Eugene finishing up my final year at the University of Oregon. Since my final two required courses I needed for my communication studies minor weren’t offered until the spring, I was spending the winter term taking a couple electives from Dr. Daniel Falk. One was Early Christian Religion and the other was Dead Sea Sectarian, an area of expertise for Falk.

In both classes we were required to write 10-12 page research papers and the topics were relatively open-ended. For an English major who was used to one or two prompts to choose from for a 4-5 page argumentative essay, finding a topic was a bit of a challenge. However, after reading the Community Rule from the Dead Sea Scrolls, something caught my eye:

“And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of unjust men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him; as it is written, Prepare in the wilderness the way of … make straight in the desert a path for our God,’ [Isa. 40:3]. This (path) is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses, that they may do according to all that has been revealed from age to age, and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit.” – Column VIII, lines 14-17 (about)[1]

Recognize anything – particularly from Isaiah? This same exact verse is found in the Gospels: Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4; and John 1:23 (John’s own version, of course). However, the Gospels obviously interpret this verse differently. Instead of beginning a new community out in the wilderness, it is John who is already in the wilderness “crying out.” And instead of launching God’s movement through a stronger devotion to the Sinaitic Law (“by the hand of Moses”), it was announcing the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.

Such a slight variation in interpretation is a prime example of what’s called “nuance.” Regular readers of Near Emmaus probably know this word quite well, but for the newcomers (kind of like myself), its literal definition is “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.”[2] This particular nuance in utilizing Isaiah 40:3, the focal point for both my research papers that winter term, was what really piqued my interest in the academic side of seminary – and in the world of biblical literature beyond the Bible. Barely over one semester into George Fox, I find myself fully immersed into that academic world.

Yet, and I imagine many have similar stories from their respective seminaries, I have also found nuances in the spiritual side of life here. Hearing all the stories I have from my classmates, I often find myself amazed at the diversity of life experiences that brought everyone here. Many of them similar; not quite satisfied with the “real world,” so trying their hand at something more fulfilling to them. And yet there is such rich flavor in their various ways of perceiving their world.

I mentioned something along these lines in my reflection over fall term at George Fox; that my perspective isn’t yours and that our real challenge in the midst of such diversity is to find the beauty in each other’s point of view, each other’s nuance. Whether it be the text of Scripture or our own personal stories, the power of nuance – of a slight, subtle difference in expression – speaks volumes to the expanse (and complexity) of our God. And what’s driving my studies through my second semester (coincidentally enough with two 10-12 page research papers, also) is every little nuance I find. They’re kind of like breadcrumbs.

Tomorrow I’ll share a few notes from my class’ discussion of Paul and the nuances in the way he uses “law.” I’ve already begun that series over on my own blog, but I’ll share that post here as well.

What are some nuances you’ve discovered in your own studies? Your community? How have they guided your life?


[1] Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Classics, 2004), 109

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nuance?s=t (emphasis mine)

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Sound of Sheer Silence…

“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” – 1 Kings 19:11-13

In my Indigenous Spirituality class we’re reading a book by Kent Nerburn titled Neither Wolf Nor Dog. It’s a wonderful read, especially if you’re ever curious about Native American sentiment toward our Western culture – and, if you’re living in the United States, you really should be curious. After all, we are all living on stolen property.

As the subtitle describes, On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder, this is a story of a white man encountering an elderly native (“old man Dan”) and learning what it means to be a part of native people and earth as a whole. As Dan recounts all the things that were handed down to him from his ancestors, Nerburn begins to realize just how devastated native culture has become and just how much he – and by extension, his readers – could learn.

In a conversation early on in their journey, Dan tells Nerburn:

“You’re getting better with silence,” he said.

“I am?”

“I watch you.”

“I know.”

“You’re learning. I can tell because of your silence.”

I sensed that he had something to say. Dan did not make small talk when he was on his hill.

“We Indians know about silence,” he said. “We aren’t afraid of it. In fact, to us it is more powerful than words.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live.

“Watch the animals to see how they care for their young. Watch the elders to see how they behave. Watch the white man to see what he wants. Always watch first, with a still heart and mind, then you will learn. When you have watched enough, then you can act.”

There was a silence.                                                                                                                                                                 – Nerburn, Pg. 65

Even for someone as introverted as me oftentimes becomes bugged by silence. I need some background noise or something to watch or something to entertain me. But why? Why do we have a difficult time in silence with no music, TV, cell phone, computer, or anything else to distract us?

Another professor of mine, for my “Knowing Self, Knowing God” class, gave an entire lecture on solitude last Thursday. He pointed out how we have a tendency to move from one distracting thing to another and said that it was because, “We don’t want to deal with who we are.”

Is it shame? Sure. Is it loneliness or depression? That, too. What about guilt? Definitely. Or it could even be something that happened to us. Whatever it might be, it oftentimes comes to the forefront of our hearts and minds when we’re in solitude. When the silence comes, that’s oftentimes when God shows up and, like Adam and Eve, we don’t want to be seen naked – we don’t want to be seen with our pain, depression, shame, or whatever exposed.

Elijah recognized that the “sheer sound of silence” meant that God had arrived. What’s critical about this passage is what Elijah was going through right before going out on the mountain.

In chapter 18, he challenges the prophets of Baal to display which God is the true god to be worshipped. And after the fire burns up the altar that Elijah had constructed and everyone had bowed to God, rains came, which ended a long drought. Almost immediately after, Elijah had received a death threat from Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife. Terrified, Elijah fled.

“[H]e got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” – 1 Kings 19:3-4

Elijah was suicidal.

And then he meets God on the mountain.

Oftentimes we cast these biblical characters as super-humans; capable of scaling tall buildings in a single bound, flying faster than a speeding bullet, or whatever other feat of Superman we want to use, but they were just as human as we are. Including Jesus.

Especially Jesus.

They were sad. They were lonely. They were scared. They were depressed. And yes, they were suicidal. But what also happened? They found solitude with God and, over time, were healed.

Jesus repeatedly found time to get away and simply be with God. He didn’t have a journal, a “devo” – not even a Bible. He simply got up, got away for a while, and then came back and got to work. He repeatedly got away from the many voices pulling Him whichever direction they wanted Him to go and listened to the One Voice that mattered: God’s.

Being silent in mind and heart, like Old Man Dan talked about in Nerburn’s book, is the most essential element to healing and growth. It is where we encounter God, which means it’s where we encounter the truth about ourselves – the very truth we do not want to hear. As Henri Nouwen says, when we commune with God, we have to face our demons, too (paraphrased). When we’re silent, alone, undistracted, and focused on the moment with God, we can deal with who we are and move forward.

I share these thoughts because my life is getting busier with school and work. Football season is upon us, which means there are games nearly every night of the week. If not, then there are the baseball playoffs that are right around the corner. And when those are over, hockey and basketball are waiting – and those are just the sports that are demanding our attention; I haven’t even gotten to all the TV shows and movies that are coming up.

It simply means that it is a critical time to be centered in God. The only way for that to happen is to follow Jesus’ example. Shortly after hearing of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” (Matt. 14:13a). Jesus dealt with His pain by going to God alone, which then enabled Him to carry out His work, for in the very next few verses, Jesus feeds roughly ten thousand people (if you count the women and children who were with them – Matt. 14:21).

Whatever our mission may be, it won’t be carried out if we don’t consistently return to God for healing, guidance, and peace. Jesus didn’t do it just to be an example; He did so out of necessity for His own well-being.

May we follow His lead and listen for the sound of silence.

God bless.

Side note: Louis C.K., a very famous and hilarious comedian, shared some eerily similar thoughts on Conan the other night. Silence has an incredible power on the human psyche, which is all the more reason why God meets us there. We just have to listen.

Preparing the Way…

Waking up three hours before work was not what I had in mind to start this week. It did, however, give me the prime opportunity to start a morning reading routine. Morning reading routines have often been all-or-nothing for me; either I get up really early and read a ton or I sleep in, not read anything, and almost show up late to work. Got to make life suspenseful, right?

Anyhow, I started reading Luke’s Gospel. I wish I could say it’s my favorite Gospel, but they are all my favorites. Luke’s unique elements, though, begin with the first chapter. Matthew is the only other Gospel with a birth narrative, but Luke has two birth narratives; one for Jesus and one for John the Baptist. Where one might expect Luke to start with the birth of the Savior of the World, he starts with his fore-runner, John.

What hits me about this back story to John the Baptist is his role in God’s story. Every Gospel reveals John’s task, but Luke has Gabriel, one of God’s most prominent angels, delivering the news to Zechariah, John’s father. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth believe they’ll never have children because it seemed to them that Elizabeth was barren. To their wonderful surprise, declares Gabriel, they’re going to have a son. Yet what is said about him is the most important thing:

“And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” (1:17).

Later in the same chapter, Zechariah regains his ability to speak and sings a song after John’s birth. He sings, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,” (1:76).

In Luke 3 Isaiah 40:3 is used to describe John, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him,’” (3:4b). While all the Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3, Luke emphasizes John the Baptist’s role in how God would rescue His people: He prepares the way. He gets things ready.

What I think God was asking me was what am I preparing? Or, to be more precise, how am I preparing?

Back in high school, I golfed a lot. I even skipped soccer during my junior year just so that I could play more golf. I wanted to do well for the upcoming season and the only way that would happen was if I practiced as much as possible. Back then, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson were among the top five of the world’s best golfers. What did they all have in common besides a ridiculous ability to hit a golf ball? A ridiculous work ethic in preparing for each tournament.

It is no mystery that the best athletes in any sport are the ones who prepare the most. They’re like Vijay; the first on the driving range and the last to leave. Every swing, every shot, and every possible scenario is played out in practice so that when it comes time to compete, nothing will catch them off guard.

What would this look like spiritually? How do we prepare the way for God to work in our lives? Prayer, reading Scripture, meeting with fellow believers – all of those are helpful, but what else? Are we practicing what we preach? Are we actively seeking to share Jesus – not a pamphlet, business card, or tract about Him – with those around us?

It’s not a surprise that on the day I decide to start preparing for my day more effectively is the day God reminds me of the importance of preparation. Jesus needed John to prepare things for Him because maybe who He was and what He had to say was more than the people could bear. I think the same could be said for many today; they’re not ready to receive Him. So in essence, we’re the ones to warm people up for Christ; to get in a spot where they might be more ready, willing, and able to receive Him.

Yet this immediately raises another difficult task: Are we preparing ourselves for this task? Like I said above, are we practicing Jesus’ words, praying as often as possible, and sharing all we have with the church we’re a part of? In order to prepare others, we must be prepared already. In order to give Jesus to others, we must already have Him.

I’m not suggesting we all quit the day jobs and become missionaries; I’m simply saying we’re all missionaries wherever we are. So if that’s the case, how are we treating our coworkers? Are we loving the regular people in our lives – the baristas, bankers, and bosses? Are we already in the habit of embodying Jesus so that whether we’re aware of it or not we share Him with others? It is by no means an easy task, but it’s the task before each of us.

It might help to think through every aspect of your daily life and the people you come across. How are you treating them? Could you treat them better – showing more kindness, gentleness, patience, self control, etc.? When I consider how well or not well I’m preparing the way for God to work, I realize there is always room for improvement.

God bless.

Christian Baptism Part 1: John the Baptist…

“The Jews asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,’” – John 1:25-27

Baptism carried a great deal of significance in Jesus’ time. Notice, though, that “the Jews” aren’t questioning John because he is baptizing, but because he’s not “the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” They don’t ask him, “Why are you dunking people in water?” This indicates to me that somewhere along the way the practice of baptizing people became the norm.

John the Baptist has stood as a seemingly-pivotal character in Christianity; he’s the forerunner for Christ – clearing the paths for Him, so to speak. The Gospel authors interpreted Isaiah 40:3 as speaking of John (while the small sect of Essenes located at Qumran interpreted this verse for themselves and their movement); “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” To the Gospel authors, John was a game-changer.

But what does his baptism mean? Can Christianity exist without it? Does John the Baptist even need to be a historical character in the Christian narrative? These are questions that drove most of my research for my Early Christianity class last winter. When it came time to write my paper, I didn’t get to talk much about John or his baptism since I was more focused on Christian baptism as a whole. But looking back over what I’ve studied, what I’ve written, and what I’ve read since last winter, I would have to say that John the Baptist is a fascinating character in Christianity.

Gerd Theissen offers interesting thoughts about John:

“His baptism is a symbolic action. And implicitly it has a political significance. If all Jews have to have themselves baptized again, the whole land is threatened with uncleanness. Here the question of cleanness is pointedly blown up – against a ruler who blatantly violated the commandments relating to cleanness in building his capital. John’s criticism of [Herod] Antipas’ marital politics also fits this picture. For Jewish marriage laws had been violated in this marriage. Here John the Baptist was merely articulating a widespread hostility to rulers who were increasingly alienating themselves from Jewish traditions,” – Pg. 35

To the Gospel authors, John’s baptism was something more than a political statement or a symbolic action; it was the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It was clearing the way for Jesus. But historically speaking, as plenty of scholars have discussed, John the Baptist and Jesus may have never had any contact with each other whatsoever. This idea is shocking to the average Bible-believing Christian, but hypothetically speaking, the Gospel authors could have adopted John and his baptism into the narrative of early (or as Theissen likes to say, “primitive”) Christianity. The encounters we see in the Gospels may have been creative insertions into the historical facts in order to get at the deeper picture: Many thought John was the Messiah or that his baptism was powerful; but Jesus supersedes him.

If it had been the center of my research paper, I would have argued that John didn’t need to be “preparing the way” for Jesus; He could have believed that he was waiting for someone else and Jesus surprised him as well. Case in point, re-read Matthew 11:2-3; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Many interpret this as John simply doubting his earlier convictions about Jesus (especially if we take Luke 1:41-44 as historically true), but what if he was discovering for the first time, here in Matthew 11 (or in Luke 7:18-35) that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting for all along? It changes things a little, doesn’t it? It describes John the Baptist with a little more humanity than what we might have been taught in Sunday school, doesn’t it?

Then what meaning can be found in his baptism if he had little or no communication with Jesus? If he was unaware that he was “preparing the way” for Jesus, then what good is his baptism? Mark’s Gospel (believed to be the earliest of all the Gospels – except for maybe Q, but that’s for another post) gives a pretty clear description of why John was baptizing: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Much like his Jewish relatives at Qumran, John was enacting a symbolic action of repentance.

What does it mean, though, for Christianity? I think it means quite a bit: It was the model early Christians used to signify their death with Jesus (and to their sins) and rise to life with Jesus (and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit). Of course this took a long time to get worked out in Christianity because we religious folk like to disagree on a lot of things, but without the model of John’s baptism of repentance, it may not have had much of an affect for the early readers to follow Christ. What I mean is, it’s quite possible that the early readers knew who John the Baptist was and if his work was interpreted as the beginning of Christianity, then the early followers might be much more convinced to follow.

I do not mean to imply that John the Baptist’s role in Christianity was entirely made up by the Gospel authors. John’s historicity is just as probable as Jesus’; Josephus talks (I think) more about John the Baptist than he does Jesus (he barely mentions Jesus). What I do mean to say is that John may not have had contact with Jesus and/or may not have believed Jesus was the Messiah he was prophesying about. Either way; John’s baptism was eventually done away with – even though it was the blueprint to Christian baptism.

Why was it done away with? Jesus had arrived. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist’s departure begin very early. Jesus had been teaching His disciples to baptize and happened to be doing so in eyesight of John. John’s disciples asked him why and he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (3:30). To John the Gospel author, John the Baptist knew his time had come and his purpose was fulfilled.

And yet even to the author of Luke and Acts we see John’s baptism superseded by a baptism “into Christ.” In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters former disciples of John and says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus,” and then proceeds to baptize them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (19:4-5). This is one passage I highlighted for discussion in my paper, so I’ll save most of the talk about it for the next post(s) (although, it’s worth pointing out that Paul never talks about this incident in his letters). But suffice it to say, when Jesus had died and then resurrected three days later, John’s baptism was no longer needed. It had served its purpose.

Theissen’s suggestion of political implications is still highly plausible. In fact, all of the elements discussed here (symbolism, political statements, allusions to Jesus, etc.) could be present in John’s baptism. I believe this is the beauty of the Scriptures we read; they’re so incredibly nuanced (layered in meaning) that they never run out of life. And I don’t think God intended them to, either.

Baptism Part 6: Immersions in the Greco-Roman World…

To read (or reread) the previous posts regarding baptism, here they are: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments on any of these posts.

Ritual purity was not an exclusively Jewish or Christian idea; paganism had a major emphasis on purity through immersion as well. As a friend commented on my last post, it was a way to keep the gods happy so that bad things wouldn’t happen. Newborn Christians in the ancient world, especially the Gentile Christians, had to come face to face with the surrounding pagan view of immersion. Much like separating from Judaism, Christianity now had to separate itself from paganism.

And yet, as discussed below, there was something unique about pagan rituals of immersion that one doesn’t necessarily find in Jewish immersions: washing for personal hygiene. Baptism within the Christian mythology and teachings needed to be interpreted as something more than a ritual and more than a simple bath. Everett Ferguson (the scholar who discusses quite a few similarities and differences between John the Baptist and Qumran) outlines 4 main points for Greco-Roman pagan washings: general usage for purification, washings in the mystery religions, bathing practices, and then a special case from mythology (25-37).

a.      General Usage for Purification

Ferguson notes that these washings were already so common in the Second Temple time period that little information exists that details how they were conducted. But basically, paganism within the Greco-Roman world believed immersions were necessary in order to be cleansed before entering a temple (i.e. the temple of Athena at Pergamum), after warfare, before handling sacred things (i.e. one’s hand-made idols), and/or in order to set oneself in a spiritual position to properly obtain an oracle. As I’ll discuss in later posts, Christian baptism appears essential in order to receive the Spirit of God.

b.      Washings in the Mystery Religions

While the Mysteries had similar themes to the Christian baptism (i.e. “ideas of forgiveness, rebirth after a mystic death, eternal life, and illumination,” – Ferguson 28-29) their immersion ritual usually was a preliminary preparation for the entire ceremony of initiation. I’ll get into this a little deeper later on, but it’s important to emphasize the preliminary aspect of the immersion ritual. The whole ceremony for initiations was usually concluded with a meal (which in and of itself was similar to the Christian Eucharist or communion, but that’s a topic for another post).

c.       Bathing Practices

In Roman society, as Ferguson notes, bathing was regarded as healthy and encouraged amongst the Roman men. The “ritual,” as he suggests was as follows; “The typical order of the baths was a warm bath, a hot bath, and a cold plunge, and the baths had separate rooms for each: the tepidarium [tepid’ water], the caldarium [hot water], and the frigidarium [‘frigid’ water],” (35).

d.      A Special Case from Mythology

Of the four points from Ferguson’s outline, I found this one most interesting, especially in regards to the baptismal idea of complete immersion. Thetis, the goddess of mother of Achilles, dipped him in the River Styx in the underworld in order to make him entirely invulnerable. Where she held him at – and the only point on Achilles’ body that was not immersed in the water – was his heel, which implicitly stresses the importance of complete immersion. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus bends down to wash Peter’s feet, Peter cries out, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (13:9). It isn’t entirely clear whether or not this mythological example influenced the early Christian idea of full immersion, but it’s an interesting resemblance nonetheless.

This is the world surrounding Christianity when it emerged. As is the case on several levels of theology, immersion into water had to be redefined for the early Christian. If it wasn’t so very different from pagan or Jewish rituals, then the whole message of the gospel could have been disregarded. As I’ll discuss in the next couple of posts, the early Christian world had some difficulties in defining what baptism meant, but ultimately, it had to be more than a bath and more than a purity ritual. Christian baptism had to contain a key ingredient that superseded all other versions of immersion. As the NT makes clear, there is indeed such an ingredient: the Holy Spirit.

Baptism Part 4: Common Judaism and Qumran…

After a month-long hiatus from baptism postings, I’ve decided to start them up again. Below is a condensed version of the second section of my Dead Sea Scrolls paper on ritual immersion. This is a long read, so I recommend you take it bit by bit. And as always, feel free to ask questions. Enjoy!

P.S. In case you haven’t yet read the other posts, here they are: Introduction, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Below is Part Four and I’d recommend reading it a while before and/or after lunch… Just sayin’…


In order to see just how different the immersion practices at Qumran were, we must first understand the context surrounding the Dead Sea sectarians. During this time period (referred to as the “Second Temple time period” or “Second Temple Judaism,” which dates roughly from the 6th c. BC to the 1st c. AD), there was a great diversity of Jewish groups in and around Jerusalem and yet, there was something held in common. E.P. Sanders, a prominent figure in this field, calls this “Common Judaism.” To him, it was an era in which ordinary Jews “worked at their jobs, they believed the Bible, they carried out the small routines and celebrations of the religion, they prayed every day, thanked God for his blessings, and on the Sabbath went to the synagogue, asked teachers questions, and listened respectfully,” (Practice and Belief, 494).

A better way to understand Sanders’ words is to depict a group sitting around a camp fire. These people, all Jews, are from all over the Roman Empire sitting at this one camp fire. What Common Judaism asks is: Could there be common ground found amongst these Jews – even though they grew up in very different parts of the Empire? Or, specifically dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls, could a regular Jew come across the practices at Qumran and understand what was going on? We come to find out that the existence of the Qumran sectarian depended upon a common understanding of Judaism.

To help outline what seemed to be common in regards to purity laws, I follow an outline given by Hannah K. Harrington in her book, The Purity Texts. Calling them the “Levels of Impurity,” she gives three main points: sources, contagion, and purification. Following these three points, we’ll see how the Yahad (“community”) distinguished themselves from “Common Judaism” in their ritual purification practices.

Sources:

Although not a very popular read, Leviticus 11-15 outlines the main purity laws, which Jews in the Second Temple period made an emphasis to follow. From this section alone, we also see three main sources of impurity; death, leprosy, and bodily discharges. Sources of impurity at Qumran, however, have two more; excrement and outsiders. Rabbinic Jews regarded excrement as indecent (Deut. 23:12-14), but it wasn’t technically a source of impurity. Likewise for the treatment of outsiders; the Torah does not explicitly state that outsiders are impure, but as we shall see in certain scrolls, they certainly were treated as impure at Qumran.

Excrement

Three major passages within the Hebrew Bible that highlight the indecency of excrement are; Deut. 23:12-14, Ezek. 4:12-14, and Zech. 3:3-4. It is likely these passages inspired the Qumran sectarians to regard excrement as impure, but what’s necessary here is the tone each of these sets. Deuteronomy requires Israelites to relieve themselves outside the war camp because God was present amongst the camp; excrement would be “indecent” in the eyes of God (v. 14). Ezekiel was commanded by God to eat bread baked on human dung, which repulsed Ezekiel on the grounds that his mouth had never been defiled. In Zechariah’s example, Joshua is standing before the Lord in a “filthy” garment and is changed into a clean one. It isn’t surprising for a common Jew to regard excrement as indecent, but the Community at Qumran went a step further.

Following the example from Deuteronomy, the Yahad had an area outside their camp designated for relieving oneself – and the only place to do so. And with a miqveh located at the entryway to the camp grounds, one who needed to relieve himself would go through the ritual purification process to re-enter back into the community, which seems to follow Zechariah’s story. Harrington says this designated area was located no closer than 4500 feet from the camp. Not only is that a long walk, but on Sabbaths, one could not walk more than 3500 feet (4Q265: 7), which means no one relieved themselves on the Sabbath (that’s when I’d stop being part of the Yahad, I think).

Outsiders

According to the Torah, Gentiles were allowed to live amongst the Israelites, but the daughters descending from Canaan were forbidden as wives to the Israelites. This was not for the sake of purity, but rather the belief that Canaan’s daughters were thought to persuade the sons of Israel into idolatry. This is possibly the influence for the Qumran Community to regard all Gentiles as inherently impure. The Damascus Document says that no member of the Community could send a Gentile to do his business on the Sabbath (11:2); spend the Sabbath near pagans (11:14); or sell animals, slaves or produce to Gentiles (12:8-11). And yet, as Harrington carefully points out, “Jews [were still] admonished by the Scrolls not to treat Gentiles unfairly so as not to give them a reason to blaspheme the God of Israel (12:6-8),” (Purity Texts, 114).

With two additional sources to the original list, the Scrolls indicate that the Qumran sectarians had a sort of “better safe than sorry” theme in their day-to-day conduct. An example that might shed a little light onto what this might have looked like comes from Luke 11: 37-38; “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And yet, the Qumran sectarians weren’t about sheer avoidance from impurity; there was a purpose, a direction they had within all of it.

Contagions:

In regards to ritual purity, contagions are not the same as sources. According to the Leviticus chapters on purity laws, sources rendered one impure while contagions were whatever that impure person touched or came into contact with in that state of impurity. If someone had come into contact with death, they would be considered impure as well as everything they touched (clothes, household objects, other people, etc.). In Common Judaism, a dead man’s house was considered impure along with everything in it – except for sealed containers (i.e. food or wine). But at Qumran, such a qualification did not matter; sealed or not sealed, if it was in the man or woman’s house, it was impure.

Along with a more extreme treatment of contagious objects and items, the Temple Scroll indicates certain camps designed to house the impure; “And in every city you will make places for those afflicted with skin disease, plague, or a scall who are not to enter you[r] cities and defile them,” (11Q19 48:14-15a). Ian Werrett says these quarantine camps would include “those with skin diseases, bodily discharges, women who were menstruating, and those who had recently given birth,” (Ritual Purity and the DSS, 153-154). The hemorrhaging woman in the Synoptic Gospels, if a part of the Essenes, would never have been healed; she would never have been allowed to leave her quarantined spot.

Purification:

As was already indicated in Part Three, repentance would make or break the sectarian’s experience and pursuit of purity. In many ways, it was the added element that truly enabled one to enter the “highway” preparing the entrance for God into the world. To the Qumran Community, ritual purity was not a system to be worked; it was a lifestyle to be lived. It was a gradual alteration of identity hinged upon one’s repentant heart and mind. As some scholars have speculated, the group at Qumran was out in the wilderness partially due to what they believed as the erroneous treatment of the Temple by the chief priests and “seekers of smooth things,” which was a rhetorical way of referring to the Pharisees (4Q169). Practicing ritual purification intertwined with a repentant heart and mind was everything to the Community at Qumran. As Harrington says, “[W]ithout repentance, immersion was meaningless,” (Purity Texts, 23).

Here is where we begin to see the similarities within Qumran’s literature and the personality of John the Baptist – as depicted in all the Gospels. I’ll save this comparison for the next post on baptism, but what’s important here is the emphasis on the necessity of a repentant mindset and state of heart before ritual immersion could affect anything in a person’s purity. Unlike the Rabbinic Jews, who sought to “interpret the gaps in Scripture [in order to create] a workable system,” the Qumran community saw purity as more than a system; it was the pathway to God’s kingdom (Harrington, Impurity Systems, 115). And this pathway required an “upright and humble condition of the heart during immersion,” (Pfann, 2).

Which Leaven Are You Living?

An interesting contrast came to mind during my Bible study with Tony Overstake – my pastor from Calvary Fellowship. We’ve been plugging along through Luke these past couple months and today’s section was chapters 13-15. Both he and I have been frequently busy in the last couple months, so we haven’t been meeting up as much as we’d like to, which means the text hasn’t been as fresh on my mind as I’d like it to be. Knowing this two days ago, I re-read the previous 6 or 7 chapters of Luke to get a real sense of where I was at in Luke 13. I didn’t need to back up very far, though, to pick up on a piece of figurative language Jesus uses to describe two very different groups of people.

In chapter 12, shortly after Jesus gives the religious elite a verbal slap in the face, He turns to His disciples and says, “Be on you guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy,” (v.1). As I touched on in my last post, this means not condemning others for doing things that I practice as well. In its proper context, Jesus is emphasizing to His disciples to avoid pretentions; He wants genuine followers, even if it means their very lives would be forfeit (12:4-5). But what does a genuine follower look like?

It’s here where today’s study with Tony comes into play. Luke 13:20-21 says this, “Again he asked, ‘What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.’” Here is the exact opposite usage of yeast than in chapter 12; it’s a positive thing here, but a negative thing in 12. So what then does this mean? It means we have a choice to make – a very big one.

Which yeast are you?

Do you seek out peoples’ attention in your prayers, service, or general charismatic personality come Sunday morning? Do you modestly brag about the nice things you’ve done for people or usually talk about how God’s used you to do something recently? Do you keep your eyes peeled for the debates about inerrancy, salvation, Rob Bell, etc.? If this is you, then at the very least you’re dangerously close to practicing Pharisaic tendencies. And oftentimes, I’m right there with you.

But here’s the yeast we’re supposed to use: God’s kingdom dwelling within us.

His culture, His teachings, His love, His mercy, His grace, His heart for righteousness and justice, and His desire to sacrifice Himself for the gain of others is all part of a kingdom that lives within our hearts and souls. If we use this yeast, Jesus says, the whole lump of dough will be filled. What Tony took that to mean, and I think is a powerful message, is that through our genuine faithfulness to God and His ways, the whole world could be filled with His spirit. No; it doesn’t depend entirely on us. It’s God’s Spirit doing the work from within us; not us doing it ourselves.

And yet this isn’t a license for us to sit around and do nothing. As NT Wright says, “If it is true… that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central,” (Surprised By Hope, 266). But what I’ve been wondering ever since my coffee with Tony is what it all comes down to: Which yeast am I? Which yeast do I want to be?

My first question is an assessment of my current situation. Which one am I acting more like; the Pharisaic yeast or the kingdom of God yeast? Usually it’s the former, but I should not be alarmed by this because there is the power to change. Which yeast do I find as acting more in line with God’s teachings and His ways? It ought always to be the latter.

This may go against some peoples’ deeply-ingrained beliefs, but I belief it’s never too late to make a change. John the Baptist has been regarded as a former Essene, possibly even a member of the Qumran sect. But unlike any of them, he believed people could change – he believed they could repent. We all can repent of our hypocrisy and strive for Godliness at any moment. It just takes a deep, serious answering of the question, “Which leaven are you living?”

Choose wisely.

God bless.