Zechariah’s vision of the High Priest dressed in ‘filthy garments’ may be one of the best cliché busting scenes in the entire Bible. Yet, Adventist readers may find themselves quite impervious to its power. We have known this scene from childhood. The phrase, ‘filthy garments’ lives in our brains like so many other Bible verses nearly worn-out through vain repetition. Just how ‘filthy’ can garments be after they have been sterilized by so many devout tongues all reminding each other of just how sinful we really are? How sinful can a sin be which survives only as a word?
Just how filthy can ‘filthy’ be? Well, in English the term ‘filthy’ dates to Old English and even further back to proto-Germanic and, ultimately, back to the proto-Indo European language itself. In Old English ‘filthy’ means, ‘unclean, impure or foul’. Significantly, both the Old English word for ‘filthy’ (fulthe) and the Old English word for ‘foul’ (fulian) share the same root word, ful-. The word ful probably dates back to the proto-Indo European language where it originally existed as the root word pu-. We know this because we find this same root word used in other languages like Latin and Sanskrit to mean something that smells bad. In Latin the root pu- literally means ‘stinky’—hence the modern English word ‘putrid’. In Greek, the word puon means ‘discharge from a sore’, and in Sanskrit the word puyati means something that ‘rots or stinks’. Assuming that the King’s James version (and William Tyndale) got the translation correct, we now have not only a soiled priest, we also have a priest who stinks.
What kind of dirt stinks? The Hebrew language is nothing if not concrete. The Hebrew word for ‘filthy’ in Zechariah 3 is ‘tsow’, a word which simply means ‘issue’. We find two other places in the Bible where this word is used: in Isaiah 28:8 the word ‘tsow’ means ‘vomit’ while in Isaiah 36:12 ‘tsow’ refers to what the population of Jerusalem will eat in in extremis during the forthcoming siege (they will “eat their own dung… “). Thus, in Hebrew the word ‘tsow’ does not signify the sort of clean dirt you find in your organic garden or dusting your mantle-shelf. Instead, it refers to human excrement (from both ends). Now we possess something like the full value of the word ‘filthy’ as found in Zechariah. The High Priest of God both appears and smells to be wearing garments besmeared with his own vomit and his own feces.
The image of the incontinent High Priest gives us a truer picture of sin than our abstracted age prefers. Jesus may well have been recalling Zechariah’s vision when he stated, “it is not what is outside of a man that fouls him, but, rather, it is what is inside of a man that makes him dirty”. The problem, of course, with incontinent people is that they tend to be repeat offenders. God commands that the High Priest be stripped naked and re-clothed with clean garments, but I have often wondered what guarantee we have that the High Priest won’t just lose control and excrete all over again! Perhaps Satan makes the same point as he “resists” what he sees as God’s naïve decision to offer this sin-ridden priest yet another chance. Note too that Zechariah can’t help but join in with God’s burgeoning mercy-- the prophet suggests that they also put a “fair mitre” on the priest’s head (Zechariah could have been offended by the High Priest’s filth, but instead he spontaneously affirms the redemptive mood). Yet, amidst all this enthusiasm for new beginnings, Satan intrudes the following question: why keep applying clean raiment to a man sick with the moral equivalent of dysentary?
God’s answer is direct: “Satan, God rebuke you”. But what is the basis for this rebuke? Has God refuted Satan on rational grounds, or has God merely asserted his naked power? Actually, the grounds for this rebuke truly are nothing less than God’s power—that is, God’s rightful power to save. The rationale for all human fates lies in God’s power to save or, conversely, our power to refuse that salvation. We can safely assume that Joshua, the High Priest, has accepted God’s power to save him, and thus Satan loses the debate. It would appear that God possesses an inexhaustible supply of clean linen.
Have I over-cooked the metaphors of Zechariah? Perhaps. But surely we cannot be too concrete when it comes to either sin or salvation. The real danger lies in abstractions (and cliché’s) because once we can no longer see or smell the rank filth of our own sins the invigorating perfume of grace seems superfluous. Curiously, only after the High Priest has been clothed with the pure and fair clothes provided by God does the Angel of the Lord exhort the priest to be diligent to “walk in my ways”; a redemptive sequence which invests trust not in the High Priest’s ability to ‘do better in the future’, but in the power of incessant acts of Divine mercy to inexorably convert our dirty craven hearts. It seems then that the only real barrier to a willing and glad obedience from within lies in our tendency to find our sinful odors tolerable (if not dismally sweet) and our foul stains merely dysfunctional. I think we might all consider breathing more deeply for a change.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3172