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You Shall Afflict Your Souls



 In our age of massing verbage, the Bible remains, still, a bastion of real words.  As I often tell my students, “you can measure the moral health of a society by how it uses language—the words it favors, the words it hates, and the words it simply can no longer understand.”  As we think, this week, about the ‘Day of Atonement’ in its end-of-time application, we could do worse than attend to the words we use.  Many of us will be members of a Sabbath School class in which a circle of chairs invites open discussion: a welter of notions, inspirations, opinions, narratives, occasional bible texts (or not!), and, perhaps, a veiled confession.  You will also learn that certain words, even when they stand glaring back at us from Holy Writ, will not be tolerated.  You see, our society (and Church?) has rejected all words which it finds ‘personally’ offensive.  Sadly, the word ‘afflict’ might be just such a word.  As postmodern Christians, we coldly reject the word ‘afflict’ just as warmly as we embrace words like ‘assurance’, ‘acceptance’, ‘authenticity’, and, of course, ‘diversity’.  Yet (and here lies the rub) the Bible will insist on using words which we do not like; words that we find offensive, or, if we have a godly conscience at all, words we find troubling.  

I do not put much stock in hermeneutics.  Interpretation is not the bugbear that many would have us think.  In practice, words are not as slippery or indecipherable as the Deconstructionists have claimed; the proof can be seen in the effect of words on readers.  I already know that among Adventists today, the word ‘affliction’ carries negative connotations. But there it lies, right there in Leviticus 16 and 23—“afflict your souls…”.  Of course, we immediately rush to water-down, to explain away, to utter the now ubiquitous, “but that does not fit with my picture of God” (the micro-waved slogan of secular Christians!).  But, please, let us show some restraint.  We are not in a position (the Enlightenment notwithstanding) to decide what God did and did not say; nor should we head for the ‘historical context’ exit to avoid words in the Bible we do not like.  No, let the Word speak its own logic: in the final Day of Atonement, our role, as life-time penitents, is to ‘afflict our souls’—not a popular message in a Christian age devoted to ensuring (ad nauseum) that all know that God “accepts us just the way they are…”.

In a curious ellipsis of Christian thought, contemporary Christians have made self-affliction and salvation antithetical.  Yet, in Leviticus 16 and 23, the ‘afflicting’ of one’s ‘soul’ stands as the defining occupation of the ancient Jews throughout the Day of Atonement.  For various reasons, we have come to associate religious self-affliction with neurosis—people who ‘fast’ or refuse physical comforts appear to us as tragically guilt-ridden, mentally imbalanced or, even worse, positively unchristian (as in ‘legalists’ or ‘will-worshippers’).  But Leviticus does not construct self-affliction as a means to salvation.  Ironically, the sanctuary is ‘cleansed’ of its accumulated sins entirely by blood, not human acts of virtue or ascetic ritual practice.  To be sure, the blood cannot effectively transfer sin from sinner to sanctuary without a frank confession, but confession, without blood, means nothing (note the mutuality of confession and blood).  Yet, as Ellen White explains in her book, Steps to Christ, confession is never inspired by self-abasement in the sense that we manufacture our own humility or penitence—no, all true repentance comes from God.  But, the human condition cannot be ignored—we require bodily time and physical limits in which to confess. 

We also need the pain of concentrated silence—in short, confession (repentance) cannot be multi-tasked; it cannot be done while we live distracted, in a state of incessant busyness, chatter, profane obsession, or (dare I say it?) physical repletion.  No, if we would confess in these last days, we must, like the Apostle Paul, ‘discipline our bodies and bring them into subjection…’ (1 Cor. 9.19).  Leviticus mandates that Atonement Day confessions require a modicum of physical ‘want’; what I term a ritual ‘bowing down’, the physical sense of an un-nerving weakness (‘Afflict’ means to ‘cast down’ in 14th century English).  Historically, Adventists, in this eschatological Day of Atonement, have willingly adopted physical limits (life-time ‘fasts’, as it were) which support penitential values: no jewelry, no make-up, no rich foods or spices, two meals per day, no addictive stimulants, and so forth.  While some may reckon such physical restraints quaint or even perverse, the Bible valorizes them given our place in history, and the fact that we are physical beings whose lives are not, as yet, transcendent or, for that matter, disembodied.


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