The distinction between sacred and profane is said to be a universal religious structure, but it’s remarkably rare in the Hebrew Bible. Holy things are “profaned” with some frequency (e.g., Exodus 31:14, on profaning the Sabbath) but “profane” as a noun describing a space is use only a handful of times. 

Ezekiel condemns the priests for failing to make division between the holy and profane (Ezekiel 22:26), and the massive walls of his visionary temple run between the zones of holy and profane (42:20; 44:23).

In the Torah, the distinction comes up only once, in Leviticus 10, where after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu Yahweh tells Aaron that as priest he is responsible to “make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel” (vv. 10-11).

That instruction follows immediately on the prohibition of wine and strong drink in the tent of meeting (v. 9). Refraining from wine in the presence of Yahweh is presented as one of the markers - here, as the marker - of the distinction between holy and profane, and this in the one passage where the distinction is explicit. Wine and strong drink are boundary markers for the sacred. What makes the sacred sacred is the absence of wine.

That sheds some considerable light on what’s happening in the Eucharist. Every time Christians drink wine in the presence of God, we are memorializing the end of the sacred-profane distinction, at least in its archaic form. Not only memorializing; the Eucharist is an effective sign, and so is a continuous re-enactment of the destruction of graded holiness, a weekly re-enactment of the rending of the temple veil.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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