Rethinking Dirt— Earthy Matters

Rethinking Dirt— Earthy Matters October 2, 2011

Warning:  This will be a dirty post.  Anthropologists remind us from time to time of their basic definition of dirt—- namely that it is matter out of place.  For example, the soil in my front garden is rich and good, but if I walk through it in my good Sunday shoes and then walk onto the carpet in my living room, suddenly the good soil just becomes dirt, and the carpet is dirty, or soiled— not a good thing.   But the only difference between the dirt in my garden and the dirt on the carpet is it’s location.  This in turn leads to the observation that lots of ethical concepts have to do with things that, while good in themselves, are out of place if moved.

Let’s take for example, the old testament rules about clean and unclean. Let’s take the category of blood.   Blood on the one hand, when its part of a woman’s monthly flow, can be considered something that makes a person unclean.  On the other hand, blood shed in a sacrifice and sprinkled on the horns of an altar is considered cleansing.  Why is it defiling in one case, and cleansing in the other?   Blood in the right place can do some good for us, but in the wrong place….. well the opposite result happens.

Of course the irony is that neither blood nor dirt is inherently dirty or defiling.   Some ethical categories, at least on the surface, seem to be entirely arbitrary.  But we should not overlook the importance of place in the Bible, whether we are thinking of a holy land, or a clean space, or similar concept.

I’m afraid that both dirt and blood which are life-giving in the right context, have gotten a bad reputation from being out of place. And guess who is usually responsible for those things being in the wrong place?  Human beings are.   And this leads me to another observation.

The Bible says that everything that God has created, including dirt and blood is inherently good.  It only takes on a different ethical quality when it involves human beings who are in the wrong place or in the wrong condition.  God is mainly concerned with the ethics of the higher order of sentient beings— humans and angelic spirits.   He doesn’t much care about the behavior of say bunny rabbits.    You will notice there are not a lot of ethical rules for animals in the Bible, and while I  wish there were some rules about chiggers, and flies, and cockroaches, there just aren’t.  Someday, I’m going to have to ask the Almighty why in the world he created some of those critters.

The bottom line is, that the only really dirty thing in this world is the fallen human heart and the ugly behavior that comes from it.   And this leads to another point—- if you want to know why Jesus declassified and made obsolete all those clean and unclean rules about things, I suspect it was so that we could focus on the real source of our problems— its not our dirty clothes, but our dirty hearts and behaviors.   As Mark 7 says, there is a reason why Jesus declared ‘all food clean’, and then he went and died for us, so he might make all persons clean.    Jesus is definitely Mr. Clean, and he is the ultimate cleanser.  And he reminds us not to call anything or any person unclean when God has declared them clean.   It’s a good reminder.

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