A priest doing priestly things
It is easy, given John the Baptist’s high profile as a prophet, to overlook that he was also a priest (cf. Luke 1:5-13), especially since he opted for a lifestyle atypical of his caste1. Yet, John was caught up in the sort of restoration envisaged by Isaiah (Isa 34:14-35:8). A flood from Roman had swept away the Herodian dynasty’s control over Judah and God’s creative activity had begun to produce a new Eden in the wilderness. As with Noah’s cataclysm, the intended outcome was a clean place, wherein nothing offensive remained to prevent mankind enjoying God’s presence. In Isaiah’s case, this involved bringing unclean animals under the authority of God and thereby establishing a ‘way’ in the wilderness on which all was clean. Therefore, as the Spirit gathered inherently unclean people in the Judean wilderness and John ‘cast the lot’ for them, there was a return to cleanliness2. Thus, John had good reason to share his priestly caste’s concern for restoring cleanliness3.
Under the Mosaic Law, the return to cleanliness involved a range of procedures, all overseen by the priesthood and most involving immersion (e.g. Lev 11:1-15:33). John’s advocacy of baptism therefore cries out to be understood in the context of restoring cleanliness. Indeed, it was so integral to his cleanliness agenda that, among his disciples, a conversation concerning ritual purity could lead naturally into a discussion concerning the numbers being baptised (John 3:25-26). Moreover, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus could unequivocally link baptism to ritual purity, whilst claiming that it was for ‘purification of the body’, the soul already being ‘purified’ (Ant. 18:117). Whilst John’s one-size-fits-all approach might seem at odds with the Law’s approach to cleanliness, take a closer look and it becomes clear that his sacrament flowed naturally from the Law’s procedures and, thanks to prophetic precedents, achieved just the sort of return to cleanliness that Isaiah envisaged.
Seeking cleanliness by the Jordan
From the lack of a king and the Judah’s subjection to direct Roman rule, one might reasonably infer that the Day of Atonement ritual performed in Herod’s temple was ineffective. However, as Matthew introduces us to John’s ministry, he employs exaggeration to emphasise that Elijah’s first-century counterpart was achieving something equivalent beside the Jordan (Matt 3:5). ‘All Judea’ were going out to John and confessing their sin, a scale of corporate assembly and repentance that normally occurred only on the Day of Atonement, when all Israel assembled and sought afresh the continued cleanliness of their land through the divine grace experienced by Noah.
John could not lead his re-born Israel in a corporate Day of Atonement, for, aside from the logistic problem of not being the incumbent High Priest4, access to the relevant altars and the Holy of Holies required venturing onto unclean ground. Therefore, he made do with restoring cleanliness on an individual basis and, as becomes apparent when you dig a bit deeper, he did so ‘by the book’.
The cautionary and the cataclysmic
I have already dealt with the way in which the Law equates cleanliness with fitness for a place in Eden (see Chapter 4). However, having defined uncleanliness, the Law also defined procedures for dealing with it. Over the centuries whole volumes have been generated concerning the minutia of their application. However, one thing seems clear, these personal procedures were not magic formulae5, but sacramental frameworks within which an individual could seek and find the divine gift of restoration. Because Leviticus amalgamates them with other procedures, documents them with a variable level of detail6, and provides no rational for their individual features, they can seem bewildering complex. Yet, behind even the most convoluted there lies a relatively simple pattern of three phases, each with its own steps (see Appendix O). The most complex procedure, that for an individual recovering from tsara`ath ‘leprosy’ (Lev 14:1-32), illustrates these well. A cautionary phase prevented the sufferer from bringing wrath upon himself and the community, containing the spread of the problem until the individual was once again fit to re-join the camp. Once restoration became possible, the procedure entered a cataclysmic phase. Its steps, comprising sprinkling with a ‘water of purification’, ritual washing, and a sunset encounter with God, all had their roots in the Exodus7. This cataclysmic phase provided sacramental recognition of salvation from the curse of death, separation from an unclean past, and re-admittance into the divine court. Completion of these first two phases permitted re-entry to the camp, however the procedure, as documented in Leviticus, assumed that the sufferer was formerly a priest, so a concluding phase saw an official, albeit scaled down, re-ordination (see Appendix N). This prepared the individual to resume that place amongst the priesthood for which God had created them.
Some of the steps are context specific and, whilst used with tsara`ath, they are omitted or varied elsewhere. As a result, some procedures, though following the same framework, are incredibly simple. For example, restoration after touching an animal that died required only an assessment that the contact had ceased, ritual washing and a wait until sundown.
From segregation to repentance
The first step in dealing with any uncleanliness was to protect the community from any transmissible effects, such as those associated with tsara`ath leprosy, dead bodies and menstruation. Thus, having ascertained that such uncleanliness existed (which could itself be quite a procedure), Leviticus eliminates the danger of contamination by destroying the unclean item or keeping it strictly separate from the clean. This was usually handled by quarantining the individual in a place they could not taint. For example, whilst Israel was in the wilderness they sent ‘lepers’ outside the camp (Lev 13:45-46). Once they settled in Canaan, outside the camp became synonymous with outside the city (cf. 2 Kgs 7:3-6) and ‘leprous’ stones were to be dumped ‘outside the city’ (Lev 14:40-41)8. By Hezekiah’s time Jerusalem came to be understood as the camp of the Lord, whilst the nearby Kidron valley was a place ‘outside the camp’ (cf. Hebrews 13:12-13), to which unclean things could be removed (2 Chr 29:15, 31:2). This understanding then persisted in Jewish culture and was still the understanding of the Qumran community (4QMMT 2.29-30, 60-62)9. Of course if the land itself became unclean, the priest could not separate the land from its cities, they could only follow Moses example, when he removed the camp of God from the unclean camp of Israel (Exod 33:7). That meant being prepared to re-establish the camp of God in the wilderness.
Once God called something unclean, explicitly or by implication, then restoration always depended upon restoration of their fitness to carry forward God’s Edenic purposes. That unsuitability depended upon a divine judgement, so provided God did not revise the judgement and the condition persisted, the uncleanliness remained (Lev 13:1-59). However, things do change, so the second step involved identifying when a judgement ceased to be relevant. In some cases, this would involve an indefinite delay and/or a further period of seven days quarantine, just to be sure.
Where offence was based on a specific activity, such as touching a dead animal’s corpse, it often lasted only as long as the activity. When it involved exclusion, then, as with Miriam’s tsara`ath leprosy (Num 12:10-15) it was for a minimum of seven days. However, in some cases, no restoration was possible until God mercifully set aside a previous judgement, thereby removing the condemnation of the Law. That was what happened in Moses’ day for Miriam, in Hezekiah’s day for Isaiah’s jackals and snakes (Isaiah 34:14-15), in Zechariah’s day for Joshua’s filth rags (Zech 3:1-6, 13:2) and in Peter’s day for Cornelius (Acts 11:13-17). It was the same principle that granted cleanliness to the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, even though latterly the divine word came through Melchizedek’s heir, the Son of God.
Emulating the Exodus
With fitness for purpose restored, the procedure’s subject stood in an analogous position to the Israelites who accepted Moses’ authority in Egypt. They no longer bore the reproach of Pharaoh’s unclean land, yet as with Jacob’s descendants, their uncleanliness brought with it a curse. They were fit to serve, but not free to serve. Therefore, they needed the creative transformation of a personal exodus from the curse of slavery to the freedom of the sons of God. Such a new-creation event was precisely what the cataclysmic phase provided, for its three steps have their roots in the Passover, Red Sea crossing and first Day of Atonement, which in turn had echoes of the Noahic cataclysm.
If the uncleanliness was related to the curse of human death or tsara`ath ‘leprosy’ (Num 19:1-22, Lev 14:1-7), the symbolic death imposed upon disobedient leaders, then a priest sprinkled the unclean individual with a special ‘water of purification’. I shall return to this sprinkling’s significance in a later chapter, but it is sufficient to say here that it served a similar function to the blood of the Passover lamb sprinkled on the doorposts (Exod 12:7). It was a mark that separated those under God’s authority from those who were not. It defined a safe place, in which the procedure’s subject could remain, like Noah, until the indignation passed and God had freed them.
Although the penitent’s heart was right, superficial residue could still act as a reminder of sin and needed removal. The Law only gave three options for removing such contamination, wash it off, burn it off and total annihilation (Num 31:18-23). Washing was therefore the procedure’s method of choice and the next step in the cataclysmic phase was the use of a mikvah, a ritual bath in living water. The intimate relationship between such bathing and the removal of evidence is alluded to by Isaiah when he parallels “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” with “remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes” (Isa 1:16, NRSV).
The seemingly ubiquitous use of washing, or baptisms as Hebrews calls them (Heb 9:10), even under circumstances in which there was no physical residue (see Appendix O), highlights the sacramental nature of this step and for its significance one needs look no further than the account of Noah. At a personal level, the individual entered into the experience of Noah’s family, with immersion in a deluge of living water removing all superficial evidence of the tainted existence that they had left behind. As we know, from both the account of Noah and Isaiah’s use of it, such floods involved the creative activity of God and those who passed through them emerged as a new creation10. Thus, this step provided and absolute release from the guilt of prior personal sin and total freedom from condemnation.
The oft-mentioned delay until sunset has the feel of another mandatory step (see Appendix O), concluding the individual’s personal mini-Exodus with a personal day of judgement. The Day of Atonement was a built in time when the nation assembled before God and judgement took place, so this was akin to that first Day of Atonement in Sinai (Exod 24:1-11)11, at which God accepted Israel into covenant. In these cleansing procedures for individuals, the court of heaven convened at sunset on their day of judgement, however, as the preceding repentance, sprinkling and cataclysm guaranteed the outcome, all that remained for it to do was hear God’s pronouncement ‘it is good’ (cf. Gen 1:31).
In many cases, the divine dusk-time declaration saw the end of the procedure. But, in a few, there remained a concluding phase in which the eighth day, the earliest on which an excluded individual could return to the camp, was significant and some form of guilt offering was made. The latter probably related to the conflict between commandments cause by exclusion from the camp (see Appendix P).
Whilst re-creation removed the impact of curses and reverted earthly agreements, it did not break agreements between God and man, hence the Law survived the process, as did the precious covenants given to Israel’s founding fathers12 (cf. Mark 3:28). The re-creation did not alter the purpose for which God created an individual, a Levite should remained a Levite and those called to serve as priests, should continue to serve as priests (cf. 1 Cor 7:24). Hence the procedure relating to tsara`ath and that for a disrupted Nazirite vow both contain a priestly re-ordination that prevented God’s investment in their training from going to waste.
In these sacrificial procedures it is interesting how individual animals serve multiple purposes to minimise the loss of life. Hence, in the re-ordination procedures the one lamb serves as both ordination offering and guilt offering. Similarly, for those bearing children and who could afford it, their lamb doubled as the burnt offering part of a composite guilt offering, replacing the need to kill a second bird (Lev 12:6-8)13. All life was valuable, so they avoided multiple offerings if one would do.
A handful of precedents
The Levitical regulations appear to achieve the outcome that John required, but some significant issues stood in the way of him using them. Those who sought him out, came as if with tsara`ath, for, through the corporate enslavement of their nation to Rome, God had declared their land unclean. I would therefore require a word from God to declare them clean. Moreover, the death of their nation had tainted them (cf. Heb 6:1, 9:14, Eph 2:1), so it is reasonably safe to assume John’s procedure would require sprinkling. Unfortunately, sprinkling required water of purification and the Mosaic Law’s method for preparing that required the involvement of at least two clean priests. However, John, like Elijah, was the only clean priest in evidence (cf. 1 Kings 19:10).
Fortunately, John could turn to a prophetic precedent for guidance. Elisha had faced a very similar situation and Matthew’s text, by emphasising John’s connection with the Jordan (Matt 3:6), neatly points us to it. The Syrian leader Naaman was just like those who came to John, an inherently unclean person coming out of an unclean land. However, in the healing of his tsara`ath (2 Kgs 5:1-14), Elisha followed the standard procedure, but by taking account of an earlier precedent established by David, he was able to work through it single handed.
The King of Israel’s reaction to Naaman’s request for healing served to emphasise the Syrian’s need for divine intervention. Elisha then got involved and began to put his own twist on Leviticus’ standard steps. First, he offended the official by keeping him outside his house because it represented the Camp of the Lord. Next, he encouraged Naaman to serve the interests of Eden, by setting a symbolic task that required the Syrian to accept God’s authority over that of his Aramean masters14. The Syrian was to wash in the river of Israel instead of the rivers of his homeland, however Elisha acknowledged the need for seven-fold sprinkling by getting Naaman to dip seven times. He was assuming that, in the absence of anyone capable of doing so, God would sprinkle the Syrian. He could do that on good grounds, for when David’s crime brought him under a sentence of death, the Levitical priesthood, who ministered under his authority, fell with him. There was nobody who could wave the hyssop and perform the sprinkling he needed, so he cried out to God to do it for him (Ps 51:7). God did precisely that, for David’s life was spared. As the Syrian rose from the waters of the Jordan healed, the reader is left to conclude that God had once again intervened to perform the sprinkling.
Naaman’s case adds one further twist to the standard procedure, for there was no waiting until dusk for God’s declaration. The Syrian’s miraculous healing was evidence enough of that ‘it is good’ and it took place within the washing ritual. Like the father of the prodigal son, God had just thrown precedent to the wind, outrun the approaching darkness and welcomed Naaman at the first sign of a willingness to accept his authority.
As Naaman was not a Levitical priest, there was no need for the further delay and sacrifices seen in Leviticus (Lev 14:8-32). He could simply return home, his restored cleanliness now integrally bound to the fate of Elisha’s land, a piece of which he made sure to take with him (2 Kgs 5:17).
Through prompting the Syrian’s obediently self-administered baptism, Elisha precipitated a cataclysmic moment of atonement in which God remembered Naaman and healed him. I deliberately call this a baptism, for despite that word’s limited use in the Septuagint, that work uses it to describe both Naaman’s actions and the washing required after contact with a dead body (2 Kings 5:14, Sir 34:24). Indeed, this passage may well have inspired the practice prevalent in the First Century C.E., of using self-administered immersion for gentile converts to Judaism15.
Elisha had taken an inherently unclean animal from an unclean land, led him through the standard procedure for dealing with uncleanliness and restored him to fellowship with God. Yet that had all been achieved by the Aramean humbling himself, accepting the authority of Israel’s God and baptising himself in the living waters of the Jordan. If ever there was a precedent for John’s activities, then this personal Day of Atonement was it, for it achieved his objectives with no second clean priest in sight. Yet, whilst Elisha cleansed an individual ‘leper’ without the use of ‘water of purification’, John was concerned with cleansing a fledgling nation.
Fortunately, John was not the first to face that dilemma, for the priests who returned from exile in Mesopotamia encountered a similar problem. They, at least initially, had no clean priests. However, given their predicament, Ezekiel confirmed Elisha’s basic premise (Ezek 36:25). God would sprinkle those who returned with clean water, cleansing them from the filthiness of idols, i.e. freeing them from the sentence of death that brought the curse of exile. Those whom God brought out of the unclean land, he would personally shower with divine ‘water of purification’, and sprinkle their hearts clean of an evil conscience (cf. Heb 10:22).
With sufficient precedents before him, John began to follow the standard procedure. First he separated the clean from the unclean by removing the camp of God into the wilderness. Then he waited for the Spirit to bring people to him. People whom, like Isaiah’s unclean animals (Isa 34:14-15), were dependant upon God’s declaration for their cleansing. Yet, John knew they could rely upon the precedent set by Isaiah’s process. If the human ‘snakes’ that came to him would just look in the scroll and seek to obey God’s judgements, then God would declare them clean and cast the lot for them so that none would be excluded. Moreover, as Isaiah emphasised (Isa 40:1-11, see Chapter 23), leaders who shared God’s wisdom show mercy toward the repentant and accept them. That left John able to assume that a repentant desire to return to the way was sufficient to release divine mercy and render the individual once again fit for the purpose of populating Eden. With the cautionary phase thus dispensed with, all elements of the cataclysmic phase could roll into the single act of baptism, leaving nothing further to be done.
The waters of Zion
Whilst John’s procedure was simple, there was one element of it with which he had to exercise particular care. Washing evidence of uncleanliness from those still shrouded with the grave clothes of exile, i.e. from living corpses like Naaman, was not easy. Such a ‘dead’ body, had the ability to contaminate most liquids (Lev 11:34-36), the exception, as demonstrated by Noah’s flood, being the living water that God alone controlled (cf. Lev 15:13). The use of living water prevented baptismal candidates cross contaminating the already clean, at least provided they, like Naaman, self-immersed. Therefore, ritual bathing was generally restricted to bodies of water large enough for total immersion16. Typically these were baths, which could be fed by a spring or contained rainwater, and rivers that carried a significant flow of water17. Many passages attest the significance of such ‘living waters’ for cleansing. For example, Isaiah warned that, because Judah had rejected cleansing by the gentle waters of Siloah (i.e. Siloam the bathing pool fed by the Gihon spring), they faced a cleansing flood from the Euphrates in the form of an Assyrian invasion (Isa 8:6-7). Zechariah provided another instance, when he promised a cleansing fountain for the house of David (Zech 13:1), a cleansing fountain that, in John’s day, was already waiting in the wings.
The dove that remained
As John baptised, a remnant nucleated around him as God was adding to this new creation in the wilderness. To enter it, each member followed the same spiritual route taken by the Exodus. Through a personal Passover, deluge and a day of judgement, they emerged as accepted citizens of the Kingdom of God. John’s newborn nation was growing numerically, but still lacked several components that would be vital for its viability. It still needed a high priest after the order of Melchizedek to establish a new priesthood, a king from David’s line to rule over them, and a Spirit-wise ‘Moses’ to lead them to their land. Jesus was to step into all those roles and more, as he too, having submitted to God’s established authority, in the form of John, followed the sole path into membership of the remnant.
In Jesus baptism, resounds perhaps the clearest echo of the cataclysm that lay behind John’s activities, for as Jesus emerged from the water the descent of the Holy Spirit echoed a scene from the account of Noah. As Noah waited for God to finish creating the new Eden, the patriarch sent out three doves. The first found nowhere to land. The second found a tiny sign of life but, with the creation yet incomplete, also returned. However, the third dove, finding the new Eden perfected, chose to remain.
As the Spirit hovered over a Judean wilderness devoid of anywhere that a dove might land, John’s activities undoubtedly produced an olive twig18. However, the incorporation of Jesus into that infant community completed the creation of this ‘Eden’, ensuring a clean place in which the Spirit would remain and in which God would meet with men.
Administering a time honoured sacrament
Much has been written about John’s rite of baptism and what it did or did not represent. Whatever else may be the case, it was undertaken in a context that reflected Isaiah’s new creation (Isa 32:1-35:10). God had reduced the unholy schemes of men to formless chaos, yet even amidst that disorder the Spirit and the word of God were achieving a new creation, an Eden in the wilderness. John, as God’s appointed midwife for the birth of a righteous remnant, was casting the lot for the unclean animals and restoring the judgement of God. He was activating a process that would find its completion in Christ as the dove remained.
As the Spirit gathered an unclean people in the wilderness, they met with a clean priest called John, who had moved the camp of the Lord outside the unclean land. There he rebuked them and instructed them, bringing them to repentance and thus fitting them for a part in Eden. For these penitent people, John then administered the time-honoured method his caste had used for freeing people from the physical and spiritual residue of their disobedience. He applied the cleansing procedures of Leviticus, but in accordance with the precedent of Naaman, through which Elisha had clarified how Leviticus could be applied in an unclean land. For those who came to him, their immersion in the living water of the Jordan became a combined sprinkling, removal of evidence and acceptance into the court of the kingdom that was neigh. John’s strange priestly behaviour achieved the object of his priesthood. It had enabled the Lord to do those things that only God could do, sovereignly declaring the inherently unclean clean and sprinkling them with divine water of purification.
Return to outline
of The Emmaus View book
1 Priests usually lived in cities (Josh 21:1-42) and eat the offerings of the people (Num 18:11, Deut 18:1).
2 The redemption of those who return from exile by the ‘way’ also implies restored cleanliness.
3 The ministry of an unclean priest offended God and was counterproductive (Exod 19:22, Lev 15:31). Hence, Moses instructed Israel to cut off any descendant of Aaron who approached the holy things whilst unclean (Lev 22:2-7) , the High Priest never left the sanctuary for fear of contamination (Lev 21:10-12) and gatekeepers vetted the cleanliness of those entering the House of the Lord (2 Chr 23:19).
4 Until Jesus came of age, there was no way to render such a high priest clean.
5 This appears to be the point behind the technical question through which the prophet Haggai got the priesthood of his day (Hag 2:11-14) to confirm that a sacrifice alone could not cleanse.
6 For example the text implies that after contact with something a man with a discharge had sat on, one need only wait until evening (Lev 15:10), yet an earlier statement clarifies that this involved washing of clothes and bathing as well (Lev 15:5-6).
7 Which in turn was rooted in the Noahic cataclysm.
8 Note the similar treatment of idolatrous paraphernalia prior to Hezekiah’s Passover (2 Chr 30:13-14).
9 Miqsat Ma‘ase HaTorah, 2.29-30 states explicitly that Jerusalem is the camp in the context of outside the camp, whilst 2.60-62 considers Jerusalem as the camp of holiness, the capital of the camps of Israel.
10 Paul’s reference to bathing of re-genesis (Tit 3:5) conveys a similar sense.
11 Note that, because it follows the cataclysm rather than preceding it, it cannot equate to the Passover.
12 Hence, if ownership of a field was transferred to God, it did not revert at the Jubilee (Lev 27:16-21).
13 For menstruation and childbirth, the text makes it sound as if these precede the restoration of cleanliness. However, as the participants were required to attend at the door of the tent of meeting, the legal exclusion suggests that could not have been the case, as does the timing of the guilt offering in the procedure for the cleansing of a priest with ‘leprosy’, for there it clearly follows the re-admittance step.
14 Because of this incident, Elisha’s subsequent insights into Syrian movements may have had less to do with divine revelation, and more to do with a spy in the Syrian court, than one typically supposes.
15 T. R. Schreiner, “Proselyte,” ISBE, 3:1005-1011.
16 John’s gospel links suitability for baptism was linked with the presence of much water (John 3:23).
17 “Washing” in Ralph Gower and Fred Wright, The new manners and customs of Bible times, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997; Logos Electronic Edition), n.p.
18 The olive tree was symbolic of Israel (Judg 9:9, Isa 17:4-6, Jer 11:16).