Holiness: Purging the evil from our midst

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 07, 2015

During Lent I read again the classic “boring” books of the Bible: Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Of the five books that are attributed to Moses (the Pentateuch, including Genesis and Exodus), these are the ones which emphasize regulatory laws and liturgical rubrics. They are, I fear, texts that only Moses’ mother could love. But they are still the inspired Word of God and, as St. Paul tells us, all of Scripture is immensely valuable, “for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).

So having taken my Lenten medicine, what benefit have I carried forward into Easter? The answer is the unrelenting emphasis in these books on holiness.

Throughout the Pentateuch, God emphasizes that He is holy and that anything set apart for Him must be holy as well. The whole point of this emphasis is that Israel herself has been set apart for God; Israel is His special possession, the instrument of His power and glory before the nations. All of the regulations and rubrics enshrined in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are designed to instill in the Jews this conviction that they have been set aside for God and must be radically holy in His sight.

This lesson is stressed with an almost brutal intensity, particularly in Deuteronomy. Again and again God prescribes to Moses that those who transgress the fundamental character of His law must be utterly removed from the people in order to preserve its holiness—very like cutting out a cancer to preserve the life of the body.

This applies first and foremost to fidelity to God in belief and worship. Thus any “prophet” or “dreamer” who, regardless of the signs he performs, tries to lead the people to follow other gods “shall be put to death because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage…. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you” (Dt 13:5).

Similarly, “If there is found among you…a man or woman who…has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, …you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones…. So shall you purge the evil from the midst of you” (Dt 17:2-7).

Holiness both Revealed and Natural

But this purgation does not apply only to the sin of following false gods. It also applies to those who sin against civil order, against their neighbors, against authority in the family, and against marriage—that is, it applies to all serious sins against the fundamental demands of a naturally moral life. Here are five proof texts:

  • “The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest…or the judge, that man shall die; so shall you purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again.” (Dt 17:12-13)
  • ”If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing…and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you. And the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” (Dt 19:16-20)
  • “If a man is found stealing one of his brethren, the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.” (Dt 24:7)
  • "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother…then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Dt 21:18-21)
  • “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Dt 22:22)

What is both envisioned and commanded here is a way of life consistent with having been redeemed (from slavery in Egypt) and set apart for God (to enjoy His benefits in the land He will give them). God painfully teaches that the connection between goodness and life is unbreakable. In fact, the entire moral discourse in Deuteronomy concludes with the famous exhortation to choose goodness, blessings, and life:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. [Dt 30:15:20]

Holiness Today

Having just passed through our own forty days in the desert, and having emerged again into the fullness of life in Christ, the lesson I take away from the books of the Law is that we too are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that we may “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). As such, we ought surely to have an even greater awareness of the urgent necessity of holiness, and of the devastating consequences of sin.

The Catholic Church has always been centered on the redeeming mercy of Jesus Christ and her consequent commission to preach the Good News to all. But as members of that Church we do not always treasure in our minds and hearts the implications of redemption for holiness. Particularly in modern times, with our increased awareness of what we might call the psychology of sin and the difficulties of making judgments about the sinner’s personal guilt, we can run the danger of shifting our focus entirely from moral responsibility to mercy, almost as if these are not two sides of the same coin.

But they are. It is a stupendous mercy that God has set us apart as special recipients of His love and His Presence. It ought to be obvious that, like God, we must show mercy to others while being very careful ourselves to respond to God’s mercy through our own personal holiness. Anything else deliberately puts Our Lord in the position of casting pearls before swine—swine being all those who drag grace into the mud and trample it under foot.

Reading the books of the Law during Lent has taught me something about God’s demand for righteousness. Reflecting on the same lesson at Easter teaches me that, out of all the possible legitimate responses to mercy—astonishment, relief, gratitude, joy—the most important is the one that comes from love. That response is the hunger and thirst for holiness.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 07, 2015 7:49 PM ET USA

    Only Moses' mother could love? I will remind you that Leviticus 19:16 contains the only clear support for self defense and military defensive postures that I've been able to find in the Bible. Of course, this is only evident in the NAB and No. 489 of the 613 commandments of the Torah (Maimonides' list): "489. Not to stand idly by if someone's life is in danger" (Wikipedia). Be reminded as well that these 3 books contain the bulk of the 613 commandments. Like Moses' mother, I love these books.