Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Choose Life

The book of Deuteronomy has a wonderful admonition: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

As I have studied the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and read commentaries on Exodus, it has become clear that Jewish values are a rejection of the values of ancient Egypt. Egyptian civilization was steeped in death. Its holy book was the Book of the Dead, and its greatest monuments, the pyramids, were gigantic tombs. One of God’s first tasks in molding the Hebrew people was to destroy the connection between religion and death. The Torah began this transformation by rejecting everything Egypt stood for. The ban on eating or even owning bread during the seven days of Passover, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt, was primarily a symbolic rejection of Egypt. The Egyptians invented bread as we know it. They discovered that allowing dough to ferment produced a light, expanded loaf, and they also developed baking ovens. Fermentation is likened to sin and death in both Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible. The Torah also banned Jewish priests from coming into contact with dead bodies. I know of no other ancient religious system that banned its priests from any contact with the dead. Why? The role of the Hebrew priest was to consecrate life. The Torah's ban on sexual intercourse during menstruation is also a separation of that which represents life (intercourse) from that which represents death (menstruation). Biblically, it had nothing to do with women being “unclean.” “Touched by death” is a better translation than “unclean,” and it leads to a far better understanding of the text. The ban on eating meat together with milk is another example of separating life and death. Meat represents death; and milk, the life-giving food of mammals, represents life.

The biblical transformation of human thinking from death to life has been a staggering accomplishment. Many cultures around the world still have a death fetish. One of our duties as Christians (and Jews) is to proclaim life. What did Jesus say? “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

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