Sunday, April 17, 2016

Clean and Unclean

It's a story about a "container" of animals - clean and unclean. The Easter 5C reading from Acts (Acts 11:1-18) tells a story like that. But that isn't the only Biblical text that tells that sort of story. Right at the beginning of the Bible is another story about a container of clean and unclean animals.

Though we don't normally think of the story of Noah and the ark as a story about clean and unclean animals, it is. Genesis7:2-9:
2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; 
and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 
3and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, 
to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 
4For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.’ 5And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.
6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. 7And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. (NRSV)
Edward Hicks. Noah's Ark. 1846. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/52107.html?mulR=921582323|2
Artists have usually depicted the story with animals marching two by two disregaring the designation of seven pairs and one pair, clean and unclean. It is interesting that artists have skipped that detail when it was clearly important to the author of this section of Genesis. The animals are segregated by the designation of clean and unclean, but the naming of which animal is in which category is not made until the 11th chapter of Leviticus.

So why not take a look this week at the two paintings here of the animals going into the ark in conversation with Genesis 7 and Leviticus 11. Which animals do we usually see in these pictures? Are they clean or unclean animals? How many pairs of the animal(s) are shown? Seven? Or one?
Jan Brueghel the Elder. The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark. 1613. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.  http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/850/jan-brueghel-the-elder-the-entry-of-the-animals-into-noah's-ark-flemish-1613/
It is clear that the ordering of clean and unclean, though perhaps baffling for us, was important in the context of the Biblical text. Why else would a distinction be read backward into a text? So Peter's vision, which may seem odd to those of us who have grown up loving shrimp, was in fact a radical new expression about the nature of the church. 'What God has called clean you must not call profane.'

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