The phrase “99 and 44/100 percent pure” means only two things to most people. Either it’s the formula for Ivory soap or the measure of Ronnie Milsap’s love in a country song written by Eddie Rabbitt. Willy Wonka fans may recall that Gene Wilder used this sequence of numbers ironically—99, 44, 100—as the combination to the door of his chocolate factory. Whichever association you make with that percentage, it may be as much purity as we hope to see in an imperfect world like ours.
Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of Ivory and originator of the marketing phrase “99 and 44/100 percent pure,” had an ethereal purity in mind when they named their soap. The founder’s son, Harley Procter, claimed his inspiration as Psalm 45:8: “Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad.”
Psalm 45 continues on to an image familiar from the responsorial psalm used on Marian feasts: “Daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; / at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.” The Virgin Mother of God, standing at the right hand of divinity, remains the gold standard of purity: 100 percent pure, with no exceptions taken.
The rest of us might dream of finding our way to a measure of purity—in ourselves or our intentions—approaching the chemistry of a bar of soap. For this we seek a purification process that can get the job done after the fact, some sort of refining fire to remove the moral warts and blemishes that make us feel far from holy in the sight of God. The prophet Malachi promises the arrival of a divine messenger who will do just this: purify the people of God, starting with God’s priests. It sounds like a painful process, undergoing the refining fire. But it’s the only means of putting the “precious” into precious metals.
Malachi writes in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. This was a few generations after the dramatic return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile. After an experience as horrific as being dragged from your homeland and kept in a foreign culture until your children don’t even remember the place of their birth, you’d figure the returnees reentered the broken gates of Jerusalem with changed hearts. How much more refining does a community need? Yet a half century later, Malachi observes, the people have learned how to cheat their religious obligations, with the priests in hearty collaboration. Moral standards are lax, honesty is rare, and the demands of justice are ignored. The refining fire has its work to do.
We who live in a society in which cheating, lying, and injustice are pretty routine might shrug and wonder what’s the big deal about biblical purity. Why is the purification of this one particular society an issue? It helps to appreciate that the ancient world, even beyond Israel, was very concerned with two orders of existence: the common and the holy, the impure and the pure. These two realms were ordinarily understood to be entirely separate. Human beings reside in one, and divinity in another.
The only commerce that passed between the two realms took place in specially consecrated spaces like temples or shrines. Mediators, often priests, had to prepare in specific ways to enter these spaces and to perform the rituals needed to keep heaven happy a nd earth off the hook. The clothing, furniture, utensils, and activities of sacred times and places were totally off-limits at other times or to other people besides the designated actors. In the case of Israel, all male descendants of Jacob’s third son, Levi, were set aside as priests in perpetuity. Moses and his brother Aaron, the first high priest of Israel, were both Levites. John the Baptist and his father, Zechariah, were also of the house of Levi.
Intriguingly, the idea of ritual purity flowed from the sanctuary and out into Israelite society, making demands on the whole community. This is because the God of Israel uniquely chose not simply to meet at specific times and places engineered by religious specialists. In the story of Exodus, God pitches a Tent of Presence among the people of Israel and promises divine companionship along their journey. This presence eventually takes up residence in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The implications here are significant.
To be blunt, Israel’s God doesn’t leave. The typical divinity who shows up for the ritual moment and then departs only requires the sort of “Sunday best” behavior adopted for a visiting dignitary. Once the honored guest is gone, everything can go back to normal. You can take off the uncomfortable attire, put away the special dishes, and set your feet back on the coffee table. But if God never goes home? Then formalities must become the new normal. You stand on ceremony forever. You avoid the unclean foods, don’t touch the impure substances, and steer clear of situations that make you incapable of being in the divine Presence. That Presence is now inescapable.
The whole society becomes, in a sense, the sacred vessel of Israel’s God. Imagine community as a chalice. The people have to learn both ritual and moral purity codes to conform to these incredibly high expectations. Ritual purity involved avoiding contact with any matter of mortality—blood, sex, and death—which is incompatible with divinity. Meanwhile, moral purity involved observing 10 commandments and 613 laws that descended from them as spelled out in Leviticus.
If you’re paying any attention at all here, you recognize this is an impossible standard to maintain. Of course blood, sex, and death are regular, if not daily, occurrences in communal life. Women bleed naturally. Married people are obligated to multiply. Babies are born and people get injured, sicken, and die. Clearly, ritual purity has to be routinely reestablished by means of sacrifices, which are the priests’ domain. No one gets close to the Ivory soap standard for more than short periods of time.
Then, lop the standards of moral purity on top of the ritual ones. We see why Malachi is fierce about the moral laxity and ritual corner-cutting of his generation. The misbehavior of the priests threatens the entire system of purification from the top down.
Happily, our church doesn’t hang by the moral threads of our religious leaders—or may God have mercy on our souls! But we might want to reflect on the ancient notion of purity as a means to acknowledge two realms that are clearly not the same. What, if anything, today is considered sacred? Are there times and places we hold open deliberately for divine encounters? If we look askance at the idea of setting aside whole human beings for divine service in a modern age, are we willing, at least, to say there is such a thing as consecrated living—something we might all be capable of now and again?
Purity as something that makes us compatible with divine proximity seems like a forgotten concept in an age like ours. We’ve made our peace with clothes made of ambiguous fibers, chemically adjusted foods, air that’s only occasionally breathable in some of our cities, and water that has to be filtered from the tap. We’ve made our peace too with lifestyles that are largely self-serving and give little thought to God-serving. When it comes to purity, we’re all outdone by the soap.
Image: Unsplash cc via Nathan Dumlao