The Meaning of Outside the Camp: A Good Friday Reflection

If I had to pick a favourite Bible verse or passage, it would be this:

The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought by the High Priest into the Sanctuary, as an offering for sin, are burnt outside the camp. And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be.  (Hebrews 13:11-14 TCNT)

I first picked up on this while working as the webmaster for the Church of God Chaplains Commission; v. 12 was their theme scripture, as it is for Outside the Gates Ministries, the current ministry of Dr. Robert Crick, the Commission’s director for many years.

Verses 11, 12 and 13 each take the reader “outside” something.  For v. 12 it is outside the gate.  That’s pretty straightforward: Jerusalem, like most ancient cities, was walled, and to enter or exit same you went in and out of gates.  Jesus Christ was taken through one of those gates outside of the walled city to be crucified and suffer.

But what about “the camp” in vv. 11 and 13?  It’s tempting to read that as an analogy for Jerusalem also, but there’s more to it than that.  To dig a little deeper we’ll have recourse to Philo Judaeus.  The relationship between Philo and the New Testament is subject to some dispute but there’s no question both of them drew to varying degrees from the same well, and no where is that clearer than in the Book of Hebrews.

A little introduction to Philo’s concept of the human person is in order.  Drawn from Greek philosophy and psychology, it posits the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul in each of us, joined to a body while on the earth.  The baser “passions” of the soul came up from the physical body, with its desires and irrationality.  The ideal was for the soul to gain mastery over these passions which, in Philo’s Jewish context, was necessary for us to be oriented Godward.  This runs contrary to much of the spirituality/emotionalism nexus that dominates these days, but the result in the society we have speaks for itself.

It is in this context that the following should be understood:

We have, then , in Jesus, the Son of God, a great High Priest who has passed into the highest Heaven; let us, therefore, hold fast to the Faith which we have professed. Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning. (Hebrews 4:14-15 TCNT)

The idea of Jesus’ sinlessness even while human, expressed more directly here than anywhere else in the New Testament, is one that also bears repeating.

In Allegorical Interpretation III, Philo divides the passions into two types: those of the breast, the “angry passions” which need to be excised completely, and those of the belly, which are related to our embodied state.  The latter too need to be excised.  But then Philo comes to the obvious question:

Is it then possible for us, who are bound up in our bodies, to avoid complying with the necessities of the body? And if it is possible, how is it possible?  But consider, the priest recommends him who is  led away by his bodily necessities to  indulge in nothing beyond what is strictly necessary. In the first place,  says he, “Let there be a place for thee outside of ‘the camp;” (Deut. 23:12)  meaning by the camp virtue, in which the soul is encamped and fortified; for prudence and a free indulgence in the necessities of the body cannot abide in the same place. After that he says, “And you shall go out there.” Why so? Because the soul, which is abiding in companionship with prudence and dwelling in the house of wisdom, cannot indulge in any of the delights of the body, for it is at that time nourished on a diviner food in the sciences, in consequence of which it neglects the flesh, for when it has gone forth beyond the sacred thresholds of virtue, then it turns to the material substances, which disarrange and oppress the soul.  How then am I to deal with them? “It shall be a peg,” says Moses, “upon thy girdle, and thou shalt dig with it;” (Deut. 23:13) that is to say, reason shall be close to you in the case of the passion, which digs out and equips and clothes it properly;  for he desires that we should be girded up in respect of the passions, and not to have them about us in a loose and dissolute state. On which account, at the time of the passage through them, which is called the passover, he enjoins us all “to have our loins girded,” (Exodus 12:11) that is to say, to have our appetites under restraint. Let the peg, therefore, that is to say reason, follow the passion, preventing it from becoming dissolute; for in this way we shall be able to content ourselves with only so much as is necessary, and to abstain from what is superfluous. (Allegorical Interpretation III, LII)

From this we can see the following:

  1. “Outside the camp” was a nasty place.  In addition burning the sacrifices (Heb. 13:11), Philo reminds us that it was the place where people and their sin was sent for purification of one kind or another.
  2. Since Jesus had no need for purification (Heb. 4:15), the reason he went “outside the camp” was not just to get outside of Jerusalem proper, but also to both experience our passions (in the Incarnation) and to achieve purification on our behalf as both sacrifice and priest at the same time (in the crucifixion and resurrection.)
  3. For us to go “outside the camp” does imply a need for purification, which is a process whose perfection is beyond human effort but whose initiation and pursuit involves some decisions and actions on our part.

We tend to make God’s becoming man a commonplace business.  Philo and the Greek world, however, did not: God was way up there and we were way down here.  The same sharp bifurcation is also very strong is Islam. For God to become one of us is amazing in many ways, we should never take it for granted.

And what about us going “outside the camp?” I think there are two levels we can interpret that.

The first is that, since Jesus bore our sin and the reproaches of being executed as a criminal, we should do likewise in the world, and not just hide “inside the camp.”

The second is that, since we bear the sins caused by our own embodied state, we should seek liberation and purification from same, and do so by sharing in his sufferings.  That’s a “penitential” concept of Christianity that’s not fashionable in many circles, but it should be.

As we celebrate the great work of redemption that our God has done for us, let us keep the following in front of us:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV)

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