On Separation

19 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, 20 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 30:19-20)

Sacred Scripture continuously presents us with a world-view based a simple, binary structure: there is God, and there is everything else - the Creator and the created. Given that we believe God to be intrinsic life, we can see this dichotomy in the above quote where Moses tells Israel there is life and there is death - choose life.

That in this binary worldview we have the ability to choose one or the other is a fundamental of our religion. We who by nature are part of creation can choose to join the Creator; we can enter into communion with God. How do we do this? By making the choice. We merely choose to separate ourselves from the created sphere and desire to unite ourselves with the Divine. It is God who will effect this transaction. Scripture teaches this again and again through the notion of separation.

In the OT, separation from all that is not-God is emphasized. In the NT, that emphasis shifts to communion with God. The binary world-view is constant; only the emphasis shifts. In this post, let’s review OT images of separation. As a kind of preface, I’d like to point to a very well-known character in the NT, the Pharisees, who were in a constant state of tension with Jesus. In English, we call them Pharisees, a transliteration of the Greek word Pharisaios, itself transliterated from the original Aramaic Perisa: Separated. Pharisees were The Separated Ones They understood the Law demanded a strict separation of God’s Chosen People from all other peoples.

We can see this in the story of creation in Genesis 1. On the first three days, God created the basic structure of the world: light, waters above/below, and dry land. Each of these creatures was made by an act of separation: light was separated from darkness; waters above were separated from the waters below by a firmament, the waters were’ gathered together’ away from the dry land. We can also consider that the world as originally created in v.2 was described as a mass of water existing in darkness. The light was the new thing on the first day and it was separated from the darkness that had been created. Likewise the firmament above was the new thing on the second day and it was called ‘heaven.’ It separated waters above from below. In both of these cases the new things created – light, heaven, above - are things we associate with God. They are separate from the world as initially created. Finally the dry land is described as a living thing full of living flora. It is separated from the water (though the word ‘separate’ is not used in this case, but the phrase ‘gathered together’ implies the same). We see here a living thing (land) separated from the non-living thing (water); again we associate life with God, so the new thing on the third day is again an image of God separate from creation. In each of these three days a new thing is made, a thing that we associate analogously with God and which was separate from the original created things (water, darkness).

Next, let’s take a look at an interesting covenantal ceremony. God swore a covenant oath with Abram four times; during the second time, He did so with a then common ritual:

9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him… 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram. (Gen 15:9-12, 17-18)

God swore His covenant with Abram by this ritual of separating the animals in two and passing between the separated halves. This raises the image of separation; in this case each half represents one of the two parties in the covenant (God and man) who are separate – passing between them represents bridging both of them: a covenant. This ceremonial would normally require both parties to walk between the halves, but in this case only God does so (in the form of the smoking pot and torch) because only He can bridge the divide; we cannot, so Abram does not walk. (For more on this text’s rich imagery, see this post.)

Next, let’s look at the Tabernacle, as described in Exodus. In the ceremonial Law delivered on Sinai, Israel was to build a Tabernacle with its outside court, its inner Holy Place and its Holy of Holies wherein resided the Ark of the Covenant. God dwelled visibly in the Holy of Holies, a cloud ‘seated’ on the Ark. The instructions for the Tabernacle included the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place exterior to it.

31 "And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen; in skilled work shall it be made, with cherubim; 32 and you shall hang it upon four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, upon four bases of silver. 33 And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in thither within the veil; and the veil shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. (Ex 26:31-33)

When Solomon built the Temple as a grand dwelling for God, he followed all the same instructions for its design, including this veil of separation. On one side of this veil was God; on the other side, humanity. We note an important event of Christ’s life: at the moment He died, this veil was destroyed:

50 And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mt 27:50-51)

Jesus’ redemptive death put an end to the separation between God and humanity. This gives us an indication as to why the NT shifts the emphasis from OT separation to NT communion: because in the God-man Jesus, the lines are blurred – God has united Himself to His creation so that we may more easily unite ourselves to Him.

Now let’s look at how the people of Israel themselves – God’s chosen ones – were to embody this idea of separation. Just prior to Israel entering the Promised Land, Moses gave a lengthy exhortation which is the book of Deuteronomy. In that exhortation he clarifies:

6 "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Dt 7:6)

This text is repeated again in Dt 14:2. In between these repeated verses is a lengthy exposition on not worshiping other gods, through the method of not associating with peoples who worship such gods. The quote above from chapter 7 is immediately preceded by an instruction to eradicate the existing peoples in the Promised Land; Israel is to separate themselves from the other nations to ensure their fidelity to God. The textual method of explaining this, bookending the explanation with the above quote, is a good example of chiastic parallelism.

There are many other examples of separation in the OT. For example, cleanliness laws are prescribed in a framework of separation (Lv 15:31); unclean individuals were to live separated from the community. Among the Israelites, Nazarites were a group of consecrated individuals, separate from the rest, fully devoted to God (Nm 6).

Let’s look at one last example, this time from the NT. Jesus described the Last Judgement as an event of separation – Jesus will separate those in communion with God from those not:

31 "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. (Mt 25:31-33)

All Christians know this description well, and the qualifications for being judged as ‘with God:’

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' 40 And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Mt 25:34-40)

There is a strange implication here: that judgement has nothing to do with Faith in Christ, but only to do with social justice. This seems antithetical to the whole course of doctrine presented in the NT, where Faith in Christ is the fundamental. How to reconcile? I think the overall context of this Mt. Olivet Discourse is about the Faithful, not about humanity in general. The preceding parables and comments imply Jesus is speaking of Christians only. He contrasts Christians who merely call Him “Lord,” vs. those who hear Him and obey His commandments (cf Mt 7:21), and He separates us. Of great interest to this topic is the rationale for such separation: it is because Jesus is in communion with His brethren.