Hope to Die: Communion with the Dead

“At the dawn of creation, God filled the universe with signs that pointed to Himself. The whole world was meant to be a type of catechesis, an instruction in Who God is, what He does, and how He loves us.

It still is. Everywhere you look, there are natural analogies of His power, goodness, and love: the sun, the moon, the stars; the mountains, the oceans, the rivers; and especially, the man, the woman, and the child. Like the sun and the oceans, the human family reveals important truths about God. We are made in God’s image, and how we care for each other, protect each other, and especially how we give life to each other—to new generations—teaches us something about God, Whose nature is life-giving love.

This is good. The world, the family, what it has to teach us—it’s all good. God created it to be good. But the good is not God, and in a fallen world, the danger always exists that we will confuse the two. That we will worship the sun instead of the One Whose light the sun reflects. That we will worship the river instead of the One of Whose power the river reminds us. That we will worship the earthly family instead of the divine family for which we were made.

This is demonic bait. The world is pointing to the world to come, but the devil doesn’t want us to see that. Or, he doesn’t want us to care. Satan wants to convince us that this world is all there is, that this life is enough.

But the natural world is passing, which means that to worship the natural is always to enter into a covenant with death. It’s the deadliest form of worship. And yet, this is and was a temptation for fallen humanity. It was especially a temptation in a world where the fullness of truth had yet to be revealed, where God was only gradually filling in the blanks about Who He is and what He has in store for us.

To prevent the Israelites from the tendency to ancestor worship is why specific mourning rites are forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, such as the shaving of the head and the gashing of the skin (Lev 19:27, 21:5; Deut 14:1). Both rites were practiced among the Canaanites, who saw those acts as a way of making sacrifices to and communing with the dead.

For similar reasons, the Israelites are forbidden from offering tithes to the dead, such as wheat or animal products (Deut 26:14). Throughout the ancient world, people commonly made offerings to the dead or buried the dead with wealth and food. But Israel was not to be like its neighbors.

Likewise, in Numbers 19:11 we read, “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days.” Numbers then goes on to outline an elaborate cleansing ritual, not only for those who touch the dead but also for anyone who even goes into the tent of someone who died.

Why would God issue such laws? Because the Israelites were going to catch cooties from the dead body? Because the body isn’t hygienic? No. Because God wanted Israel to understand that physical death is a sign of spiritual death. It’s a sign of what sin does to the soul. And sin is catching. It’s as contagious as any disease and as deadly as any disease. More deadly, actually.

We see this even more explicitly in Ezekiel 37 when God has Ezekiel preach to a valley of dead bones. The bones are a symbol of Israel. They are dead and defiled. And the defilement of their physical condition is a sign of the defilement of their spiritual condition. They had forgotten God, forgotten His ways, and lost the hope He had promised them. Through that forgetting, they defiled their souls. “Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off ’” (Ezek 37:11).

Telling the Israelites that touching the dead defiles them is a pedagogical lesson to help the Israelites learn to detest sin. The same goes for the prohibition on touching a leper. God doesn’t primarily care about skin purity. He cares about soul purity. And leprosy in the Bible is a sign of sin. It does to a person’s body what breaking God’s law does to the soul.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

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