A friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in marine biology volunteered to go on a short-term missions trip to Rwanda. She came back very enthusiastic about her new relationships with the people she had met there, and she shared all sorts of things that she learned. Then in a sotto voce (whisper), she said, “I never learned how to be comfortable relieving myself in the shadow of a tree. The most awkward moments were when we traveled from village to village and I asked where the bathroom was.” She looked to me and said, “You do not look surprised!” I told her that I grew up with the same system. I lived in Eastern Europe in the 1950s—the school I attended had two outhouses for over 100 children and the farmers would relieve themselves on top of animal manure. One of the major spring events was to take all that gathered manured—animal and human—and spread it all over the fields, instead of using artificial enrichments. After living without an outhouse on the farm, my family lived in a refugee camp and experienced public outhouses again.
This short conversation made me think about the presence and absence of outhouses and toilets in the Bible. It is interesting that the Israelites had guidelines to keep their camp clean and cover their excrement during their 40-year trip through the wilderness. This was for the health of their large community, and because they had a principle of keeping their camp clean or undefiled.
There is another toilet-related story in the Bible, which could be called “Killing in the Bathroom.” A Jewish hero by the name of Ehud kills the oppressing king in his chambers and then Ehud escapes. Here is the continuation of the story. “After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors the doors of the upper room locked. They said, ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house.’ They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.” (Judges 3:24-25) It is very interesting how the idea of an inner room has been translated across the millennia.
In the time of Jesus, there was a discussion about which things were clean and which were unclean. The Pharisees had guidelines for washing their hands, and for touching people or eating animals that would make them unclean. Jesus joined this debate and after he had finished teaching, his disciples asked him what he meant. ‘“Are you so dull?” he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” (Matthew 7:17-19) The words in the parentheses become important later when Peter had a vision and was told to eat the food put before him. A voice in the vision told him that “what God has made clean, you must not call unclean (common).”
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I looked at the verse from Matthew in my Bible that shows side-by-side translations. Here are the ways that verse is written:
KJV – into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats
Living Bible – but only passes through the digestive system
TEV – into his stomach and then goes out of his body
Philipps – into his stomach and passes out of the body altogether
RSV – his stomach and so passes on
Jerusalem Bible – through his stomach and passes out into the sewer
NEV – into his stomach and passes out into the drain
None of the translations mention an outhouse or toilet since private bathrooms were not yet common. The KJV is one of the most confusing translations, since we do not know what is meant by draught.
When Americans are buying a new home, there are two rooms that receive top priority – the kitchen and the bathroom. Real estate listings often brag about three bedrooms and 1 ½ bathrooms or 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms (you almost have to pity the person who does not have a bathroom all to him or herself). Tony Blair, the former prime minister of England, discusses his time in the bathroom in his autobiography, where he states that the British people cannot be rushed in the morning.
In a recent eschatological conversation (about the return of the Lord Jesus Christ), I was talking about the heavenly banquet and I became emphatic about the delicacies we will enjoy. After traveling internationally and eating at receptions after officiating hundreds of weddings, I have tasted some great food. I imagine that the heavenly banquet will have exquisite foods that the human palate can never experience on earth. As I waxed poetic about the mouthwatering possibilities, I could sense that my colleague was thinking either that I was raised in poverty or that I was indeed a barbarian. I asked my colleague how they envisioned the heavenly banquet. Their response was that the heavenly banquet is a spiritual banquet, not literal as this son of a peasant imagined it to be. Upon pursuing this waferish, or thin, spirituality, my colleague revealed that his concern was if one eats, then one needs a bathroom, and he cannot imagine bathrooms in heaven.
It dawned on me that I have heard something similar when Silicon Valley people talk about artificial intelligence. When scientists envision the man or the woman of the future, they do not have a body because they are robots; the consciousness or essence can be transferred from one machine or body to another. When my theological colleague thought about the future, hyper-spirituality took over and the human body disappeared. But our bodies and the way that they work were created by God and He calls them good. We lose something when we focus only on our consciousness or our souls. This anti-body idea of the afterlife is disproved in a single verse: The Risen Christ asked the disciples for something to eat and they gave Him a piece of fish and he ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:42)