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Vayikra/Leviticus 11:33 And any earthenware vessel into which any of them fall, everything that is in it will become unclean ...
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This is one of those verses that generates significant discussion between the early sages; nearly a whole page of the Talmud is given over to this subject before the discussion widens to consider wooden and metal vessels, before, during and after manufacture. The word , present here as and , is responsible for the debate. Meaning simply "the middle, midst", it is almost always used with a preposition - in, from, to - and usually in either construct or possessive form: "in their midst", "from the midst of ...". The "them" in the verse refers to unclean creeping things, such as frogs and lizards, whose bodies may fall into containers.
The controversy here centres around the unusual proposition that an earthenware vessel - which is, because of its physical nature, slightly porous - and its contents, become unclean from the inside rather than the outside. "Our Rabbis taught: It is written: And every earthen vessel into which any of them falls, that is to say, even though it does not actually touch the vessel" (b. Chullin 24b). R. Ada b. Ahabah asked Raba why, if it can be made unclean from inside, it can't also be made unclean from outside and he replies by making a connection to the verse "And every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean" (B'Midbar 19:15, NASB), that since only uncovered vessels become unclean, it must be that the uncleanness comes only from inside and not from outside. Expanding the argument to the air-space inside the vessel,Abravanel comments, "even if [the unclean dead body] is hanging in the air and does not actually touch the vessel, everything inside the vessel is unclean". This means not only that the vessel itself becomes unclean, but all of its contents - even if they are not touching the vessel - also become unclean.
Of course, Yeshua would have been well aware of these issues, as earthenware pots were frequently used for storage and cooking in those days. Doubtless, He had it in mind when He was debating with the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also" (Matthew 23:25-26, NASB). Yeshua was using the inside/outside impurity issue as a way to talk about the Pharisees' behaviour and conduct; they seemed clean and respectable on the outside, but were morally corrupt on the inside. In Luke's account of the debate, Yeshua goes a step further: "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you" (Luke 11:39-41, NASB). If the Pharisees were to give their ill-gotten wealth or status away as charity - the Hebrew word is here used as a word play, as it can mean both charitable donations or works and righteousness - then their "inside space" would be clean, so all of them would be clean from the inside out.
The third place in which Yeshua covers this ground is in a different context. Mark chapter seven is often misused by people to try and show that Yeshua abrogated the kosher dietary laws for Jewish people, releasing them from the obligation to eat only kosher food as specified in the Torah. Without visiting that particular argument here, look at the way Yeshua uses the concept. Having called the multitude around Him to listen, He tells them, "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man" (Mark 7:14-15, NASB). Man is like an earthenware vessel and cannot be made impure from the outside; it is the "air space" inside a man that causes impurity. The talmidim didn't understand the connection that He was making, so He then outlines it again in more explicit terms for them: "Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (vv. 18-19, NASB). The real centre of a man's personality, his soul, what makes him human, the divine spark, is not his stomach but his heart; food simply goes through the digestive system. A Jew who innocently eats non-kosher food has not become impure simply because of food that he has eaten in good faith; one who chooses to eat non-kosher food or fails to ask the appropriate questions or make the necessary checks has become impure not because of the food, but because his heart either took a decision to disobey G-d's instructions or couldn't be bothered to obey them.
So Yeshua goes on: "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man" (Mark 7:20-23, NASB). These are not food substances, simply passing through the alimentary canal before elimination, these are habits, thoughts and practices which are stored in the heart of the unregenerate man. Sadly, they are also often stored in the heart of those who claim to be believers but are reluctant to give up their secret sins. Simply cleaning up the outside of our lives, while harbouring sin within, makes us just like the Pharisees who have cleaned the outside of the cup so that all those who see them think that they have got their act together, but in truth "are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27, NASB).
Of course all of us have moments of weakness, when we think thoughts that are not loving and charitable, when we absent-mindedly allow images and words that are not "true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of excellence and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8, my paraphrase) into our hearts. But these are easily dealt with; the moment you realise what you are doing, confess it to the L-rd, kick the thoughts out and seek His forgiveness and cleansing - "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, NASB). Get up off the floor and move on, resolving not to do that again.
More difficult to handle are those acts of deliberate indulgence, when we choose to flirt with the temptations that the enemy has dangled in our path, when we play with the ideas - not, perhaps, intending to actually do anything about them - until, without us having really been aware of exactly how it has happened, they become a part of us and we find ourselves doing or saying something out of that sin. Then Yeshua's words are true of us: the impurity proceeds from within and defiles us. Our "air space", our internal selves, has been corrupted by the presence of the impurity. But Yeshua's remedy for the Pharisees still applies: "first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish" (Matthew 23:26, NASB), "surrender the things inside for the sake of righteousness and then you will be clean from the inside out" (Luke 11:41, my paraphrase). We have to acknowledge that we have engaged in deliberate sin and repent, agreeing with G-d's word that "like sheep, we have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way" (Isaiah 53:6), then surrender the thoughts and activities to Him, being prepared to completely abandon them and give them up in order to be righteous and acceptable before Him. Recovery is always possible, although it may need time and healing to restore someone from significant sin.
This is not worm theology. Earthenware vessels we may be, fragile, liable to cracking and susceptible to impurity, but we are nevertheless chosen and precious to G-d, the vehicles in which He has chosen to display His grace and riches for all the world to see. "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of G-d and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, NASB).
Further Study: Colossians 2:16; Titus 1:15
Application: Do you struggle on an almost daily basis to keep the impurity out of your "inner space"? The tight-fitting lid of the Holy Spirit will protect you, if you ask Him. Then "the peace of G-d, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 4:6).
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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