Monday, March 08, 2010

Sacrificial Catechism: Yahweh's Unpresentable Parts

Mary Douglas suggests that the bodies of sacrificial animals correspond symbolically to the tabernacle topography and layout. On her reading, the entrails and genitals correspond to the Most Holy Place, the middle section of the animal with the fat and kidneys comes next corresponding to the sanctuary, followed by the head and meat sections for food which correspond to the outer court.

One obvious question that rises from this reading, which Douglas recognizes, is whether this is not too vulgar. Specifically: why align entrails and genitals with the Most Holy Place, the place of highest esteem and honor?

Douglas has several answers of her own to this question, but off the cuff, one possible parallel to this reading would be found in 1 Corinthians 12.

Could Paul have been working with something like this in mind when he wrote: "And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty..." (1 Cor. 12:23) Maybe so.

First, on the surface, the parallel works as "unpresentable parts" and members of "less honor" seem very likely to be a polite way of referring to the genitalia of the body. And upon these, Paul insists we bestow "greater honor" and "modesty." Both of which also seem to correspond well to the Most Holy Place where the greatest honor is bestowed, and certainly it is covered by the veil/curtain with great modesty and no one ordinarily goes behind the curtain, behind the veil except for once a year on the day of Atonement.

On this reading, Paul is working with the tabernacle structure in the back of his mind. And there are a couple of clues in 1 Corinthians that confirm this suggestion.

First, early in 1 Corinthians, Paul identifies himself as a "wise master builder" (1 Cor. 3:10). The word "master builder" is the same word used in the Septuagint to describe the work of Bezalel and Aholiab in constructing the tabernacle (Ex. 31:4, 35:32, 35). Paul insinuates that he is Bezalel and Apollos is like Aholiab (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-6). Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 3 to describe the building project.

Secondly, Paul identifies the Corinthians as in a parallel historical position to the Israelites in the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. The organization of right worship in the building of the tabernacle was the central building project of Moses and the Israelites during the wilderness sojourn. Paul says that the Corinthians are in a similar place in the story.

Finally, a cursory reading of the rest of the epistle reveals a number of other quotations or allusions to the same themes that make Paul's instructions about worship and the church beginning in 1 Cor. 11 fairly natural. Paul is self-consciously overseeing the construction of a new tabernacle in the wilderness. The Most Holy Place in the Church seems to be those members who are weak, poor, and otherwise unpresentable. Perhaps James has something similar in mind when he exhorts the Church to pure and undefiled religion: visiting orphans and widows (Js. 1:27). Likewise, his condemnation of the Church's preference for the rich (Js. 2:1-6). Our priestly ministry to the "least of these" is our ministry of bestowing "greater honor" and "greater modesty."

Could it be that this is "pure and undefiled religion" because it is our "day of atonement?" If the body is the temple/tabernacle and the body without the spirit is dead (Js. 2:26), then the "works" James has in view would specifically be that ministry to the poor, the weak, and the unpresentable.

No comments: