The Israelite camp is where God manifests His presence on earth, and like any ‘sacred space’ must be kept holy. And so the final stage in its re-organisation is to exclude all those individuals who are seriously ‘unclean’, either temporarily (such as through contact with a dead body) or permanently (the lepers). Although still members of the community, they have to live separately in order not to ‘pollute’ the main body of the camp. For many Israelite families, this purging of the camp will be a distressing experience; but they nevertheless obey God’s command.
The end result of these instructions is a camp made up of concentric circles. At the very centre is the Tabernacle, the holy presence of God. Immediately around it are camped the priests and Levites, forming a ‘buffer zone’ between God’s dwelling-place and the rest of the camp. Then come the tents of the ordinary people, forming the main circle. And on the outermost edge, like orbiting satellites, are the ‘unclean’.
For us, such enforced exclusion seems unbearably harsh; but we have to understand how completely pure God’s dwelling-place must be – and will be, in the age to come. “Nothing impure will ever enter the city, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27) How should the Church (the current dwelling-place of God on earth) reflect this in the present age, bearing in mind that we must also copy Jesus’ willingness to associate with sinners? We have to be welcoming to all outsiders, without discrimination; but at the same time we ought to deal strictly with our own members and discipline anyone whose behaviour is glaringly incompatible with their Christian profession – such as the Corinthian believer who was living openly in an incestuous relationship (I Corinthians 5). This will never be a comfortable task; but the alternative is to allow the distinction between the church and the world to become blurred. It’s worth remembering that ‘excommunication’ in the Biblical sense is neither permanent nor total; such people are merely ‘on the fringe’ until they come back to their senses, at which point they can once again become full members of the church.