A Serious Health Advisory
But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:26-28; ESV)
I am sorry for the crass language in the Torah verses I just quoted. This week's parsha (weekly Torah reading) contains strong warnings to the people of Israel, regarding rules that govern sexual intimacy, the consequences of which are rather disgusting. God through Moses states that if the people of Israel engage in these forbidden activities, the land would react negatively to them.
The word translated "vomit" is the same word that describes what the fish did to Jonah to get him from its insides up and out on to the land (see Jonah 2:11 [English: 2:10). The fish threw up Jonah. That's how God describes what the land would do to the people should they indulge in certain kinds of immorality.
Stating that the land would vomit out the people is certainly metaphorical language to describe exile. God was not saying that the physical terrain would literally violently regurgitate the people, sending them flying up and out of the land, causing them to drop down outside of Israel's borders, landing in foreign territory. The end result is the same, exile. But the process is not exactly that of vomiting. Or is it?
Apt metaphors vividly capture certain aspects of something in order to communicate with more power than when using plain words. When we know a language well, we don't normally consider those aspects of metaphors that are not intended to be taken literally. We simply get the point of what is being said. The intention behind saying, "shake a leg" is the urging of someone else to hurry up. The image of shaking is about the immediate call to action. No actual leg shaking is anticipated.
But while we rightly understand that the land would not literally vomit the people out, there is something in this expression we might too quickly miss, and that is the responding of the land to behavior.
However it actually works, the Bible is pretty clear that land responds to human behavior. Generally speaking, we can say that God blesses and curses our geographical locations in response to how we live. I am very aware that it is more complicated than this, but it is still fundamentally true. When people continually disregard God's ways it is only a matter of time before the land in which they live will no longer tolerate them. It's not the land itself responding, it is God at work through nature. Still, God designed the creation to be favorably disposed to morality and to reject immorality.
The vivid metaphor of upchucking immoral people reminds us that no society can get away with ignoring God's ways for too long. In case you are thinking that this only applies to the people of Israel who had been given the Torah, note that God's warning to them refers to the land vomiting up a previous nation.
How we live matters. The current popular morality that insists that people should feel free to follow their desires whatever they may be, rather than submit to God's rules, will result in disaster. When will that be? I can't say. Just listen for the tummy rumbles.
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