The Old Testament. How Uncleanness Was Contracted and Treated. In Old Testament times the ordinary state of most things was "cleanness, " but a person or thing could contract ritual "uncleanness" (or "impurity") in a variety of ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead ( Num 5:2 ), or eating unclean foods ( Lev 11 ; Deut 14 ).
An unclean person in general had to avoid that which was holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a "dangerous" condition under threat of divine retribution, even death ( Lev 15:31 ), if the person approached the sanctuary. Uncleanness could lead to expulsion of the land's inhabitants ( Lev 18:25 ) and its peril lingered upon those who did not undergo purification ( Lev 17:16 ; Num 19:12-13 ).
Priests were to avoid becoming ritually defiled ( Leviticus 21:1-4 Leviticus 21:11-12 ), and if defiled, had to abstain from sacred duties. An unclean layperson could neither eat nor tithe consecrated food ( Lev 7:20-21 ; Deut 26:14 ), had to celebrate the Passover with a month's delay ( Num 9:6-13 ), and had to stay far away from God's tabernacle ( Num 5:3 ).
Purification varied with the severity of the uncleanness. The most serious to least serious cases in descending order were: skin disease (Lev. 13-14), childbirth (Lev. 12), genital discharges ( Leviticus 15:3-15 Leviticus 15:28-30 ), the corpse-contaminated priest ( Eze 44:26-27 ), the corpse-contaminated Nazirite ( Nu 6:9-12 ), one whose impurity is prolonged ( Lev 5:1-13 ), the corpse-contaminated layperson ( Num 5:2-4 ; 19:1-20 ), the menstruating woman ( Lev 15:19-24 ), the handling of the ashes of the red cow or the Day of Atonement offerings ( Leviticus 16:26 Leviticus 16:28 ; Num 19:7-10 ), emission of semen ( Lev 15:16-18 ), contamination by a carcass ( Levv 11:24-40 ; 22:5 ), and secondary contamination ( Lev 15 ; 22:4-7 ; Num 19:21-22 ).
Purification always involved waiting a period of time (until evening for minor cases, eighty days for the birth of a daughter), and could also involve ritual washings symbolizing cleansing, atoning sacrifices, and priestly rituals. "Unclean" objects required purification by water (wood, cloth, hide, sackcloth) or fire (metals), or were destroyed (clay pots, ovens), depending on the material ( Lev 11:32-35 ; Num 31:21-23 ).
The Rationale of the Purity Laws. The central lesson conveyed by this system is that God is holy but human beings are contaminated. Everyone by biology inevitably contracted uncleanness from time to time; therefore, everyone in this fallen world must be purified to approach a holy God. Although "uncleanness" cannot be equated with "sin, " since factors beyond human control could cause a person to be unclean, nonetheless, there is a strong analogy between "uncleanness" and "sin." The "sin offering" (better, "purification offering") served to cleanse both sin and ritual impurity ( Lev 5:1-5 ; 16:16-22 ). Moreover, the language of ritual impurity is used dozens of times metaphorically of various ethical sins. Human beings are "unclean" or "sinful" by nature and cannot approach a holy God. Just as uncleanness can come from within (natural bodily functions) or from without (contaminating things), so sin comes both from perverse human nature within and temptations without. The prohibition of eating the fat of sacrificial animals and the blood of any animal reminded Israel that blood sacrifice reconciles sinful/unclean people with a holy God ( Lev 7:22-27 ; 17:11 ).
The clean/unclean system divided animals, people, and land into three categories to teach separation from the Gentiles. Animals that could be sacrificed were "holy"; wild game and fish that could be eaten but not sacrificed were "clean"; and animals that could be neither eaten nor sacrificed were "unclean." This separation parallels that of people (cf. Lev 21:18-21 ; 22:20-24, ; where the same defects disqualify both priests and animals): priests (holy), ordinary Israelites (clean), and Gentiles (unclean). With space, there is the tabernacle (holy), the land (clean), and the nations (unclean). Thus the food laws symbolically reinforced teaching elsewhere that Israel was a "holy nation" ( Exod 19:6 ) set apart from all others, and promoted practical holiness by discouraging table fellowship with the Canaanites whose diet would ordinarily include the pig and other "unclean" foods ( Lev 20:25-26 ), as modern kosher laws have helped maintain the Jewish race as a separate people. Other laws, by creating distinctive customs (even where such customs were without any inherent moral value, as in Lev 18:19 ), nonetheless inculcated Israel with the concept of "holiness" and served as "object lessons, " creating in Israel a sense of self-identity as a "separated" people.
Some laws of purity express ethical lessons. Even arbitrary rules cultivate the virtue of self-control, a step toward the attainment of holiness. Eating meat torn by wild beasts not only defiled ritually, but dehumanized, reducing people to the level of scavenger dogs ( Exod 22:31 ). Cooking a kid-goat in its mother's milk ( Exod 23:19 ; 34:26 ; Deut 14:21 ) was a perverse act. Leaving a corpse of an executed man exposed on a tree overnight was barbaric ( Deut 21:23 ). That those involved in the slaughter of war ( Nu 31:19-24 ) even at the command of God nonetheless became unclean hints at the moral impurity of war. Laws concerning sexual emissions encouraged restraint and sexual self-control (e.g., avoiding sex during menstruation) and would rightly stigmatize violators (such as prostitutes) as social outcasts.
The command not to eat the flesh with the blood inculcates respect for all animal life. Animal slaughter was limited: only for food, only certain species, only if certain procedures were followed. Moreover, ritual pouring of the blood back to God symbolically acknowledged that only by divine permission could any animal be killed ( Gen 9:2-5 ). If killing animals is not trivial, how much weightier it is to shed human blood.
The laws of purity prohibited connecting worship with sexuality. Since sexual Acts made one unclean, Israel could not follow the practice of sacred prostitution where a god's giving of fertility was symbolized by sex Acts in the cult. This further separated Israel from her pagan neighbors.
The purity system conveys in a symbolic way that Yahweh was the God of life and was separated from death. Most of the unclean animals were either predators/scavengers or lived in caves (e.g., rock badgers). The pig, moreover, was associated with the worship of Near Eastern chthonic deities. Leprosy made a person waste away like a corpse ( Nu 12:12 ). Bodily discharges (blood for women, semen for men) represented a temporary loss of strength and life and movement toward death. Because decaying corpses discharged, so natural bodily discharges were reminders of sin and death. Physical imperfections representing a movement from "life" toward "death" moved a person ritually away from God who was associated with life. Purification rituals symbolized movement from death toward life and accordingly involved blood, the color red, and spring (lit. "living") water, all symbols of life. This symbolism excluded necromancy ( Lev 19:31 ).
Israel was not to cook a goat in its mother's milk not because it was a pagan practice, but because it was inappropriate to combine that which was a symbol of life (mother's milk) with the death of that for which it was meant to give life, especially in the context of the Festival of Tabernacles (so the context of Exod 23:19 ) celebrating the life-giving power of Yahweh.
There is an incidental contribution made by the laws of purity/impurity to hygiene. Certainly the exclusion from the camp of those with possible symptoms of leprosy (Lev 13-14) and gonorrhea ( Lev 15:2-15 ) in effect quarantined these dangerous diseases and contributed to public health. The avoidance of carcasses or contact with human sputum and discharges would do the same. The ritual baths associated with purification would also contribute to hygiene. Certain unclean animals are known to transfer diseases to humans: the pig bears trichinosis; the hare, tularemia; carrion-eating birds, various diseases. Eating animal suet is now known to lead to heart disease.
Hygiene, however, is at most a secondary explanation. Some excluded animals such as the camel, which have no association with disease when ingested. Most unhealthy foods (e.g., poisonous plants) and infectious diseases are not mentioned, surprisingly, if hygiene were the purpose. Moreover, why would Christ abolish the food laws meant for hygiene? Absolution took place after healing, whereas were hygiene the purpose it should have occurred before. Symbolism rather than hygiene must be the primary purpose of these laws.
The New Testament. The New Testament usually uses "unclean" in the moral rather than ritual sense, but it also testifies to the fact that the Jewish people practiced the biblical laws of ritual purity, as well as rabbinic elaborations thereupon. (The Mishnah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archeological remains of ritual baths, miqvaot, provide further evidence.) The New Testament refers to purification rites for birth ( Luke 2:22-27 ), ritual washings ( Mark 7:3-4 ; John 2:6 ), and disputes over ceremonial washings ( John 3:25 ). Jesus allowed "unclean" or "evil" spirits (in the New Testament "unclean" is twenty-two times connected with demons) to enter swine, perhaps in part because it was fitting for one unclean thing to enter another ( Matt 8:28-34 ; Mark 5:1-16 ; Luke 8:29-33 ). Jews seeking Jesus' death refused to enter the palace of Pilate to avoid contracting ceremonial uncleanness during Passover ( John 18:28 ).
Jesus condemned those who placed ritual above ethics. He rebuked those who, for ceremonial purity, cleanse the outside of the cup but do not practice inward moral purity or charity ( Matt 23:25-26 ; Luke 11:39-41 ). He implicitly condemned the priest and Levite who placed concern for ritual purity-they would be barred from temple service if they touched a corpse-over concern for human life ( Luke 10:25-37 ).
Jesus did not allow the laws of purity to keep him from touching lepers ( Matt 8:1-4 ; Mark 1:40-45 ; Luke 17:11-17 ), and he deliberately touched rather than healed by his word to show compassion and to anticipate by his action the coming change in law under the new covenant. Nonetheless, in the age of transition he required cleansed lepers to show themselves to the priest in accord with Mosaic law ( Luke 17:11-17 ). Jesus did not hesitate to touch the dead ( Matt 9:25 ; Mark 5:41 ; Luke 8:54 ), and allowed a sinful woman (e.g., a prostitute) to touch him ( Luke 7:36-38 ), despite her ritual (as well as moral) uncleanness. In such cases, and that of a woman with a flow of blood ( Matt 9:20-22 ; Mark 5:27 ), Jesus is not defiled (he went through no ceremonial purification), but those are cleansed and healed. This speaks theologically of Christ's impeccable person.
Jesus turned water, in jars for ritual purification, into wine ( John 2:6-9 ) to symbolize the replacement of ceremonial law with something better. He did not follow the ritual washing, going beyond Mosaic law practiced by rabbinic Judaism ( Mark 7:3 Mark 7:5 ), and implicitly declared all foods "clean" ( Mark 7:19 ; cf. Rom 14:14 ; "food is unclean in itself"). A new age had dawned with the coming of Christ and the ceremonial laws of purity were passing away. Typologically, the ashes of the red heifer (for corpse contamination), the sin offering, and the ritual baths foreshadowed the power of Jesus' blood to cleanse the conscience ( Heb 9:13-14 ; 10:22 ; 1 John 1:7 ; Rev 7:14 ).
Although the apostolic council ( Acts 15:29 ) encouraged Gentile Christians to avoid "unclean" foods ("food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals [blood not drained]") to facilitate table fellowship with Jewish Christians, the matter is presented as advice rather than law. There was nothing morally wrong with Jewish Christians observing the old rituals, and, accordingly, Paul did ( Acts 21:20-26, ; purification after a Nazirite vow), but Old Testament laws of purity, and all ceremonial laws, are optional, and even strangely out of place under the new covenant.
The abolition of the food laws conveys deep theological significance. The division of animals into clean and unclean symbolized the separation between Israelites and Gentiles. The abolition of the kosher laws then symbolizes a breaking down of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. As is seen in God's lesson to Peter in Acts 10-11, God now declares the Gentiles "clean." In the new messianic age the principle that God's people are to be separate (holy) from the world remains, but the lines drawn are no longer ethnic in character.
Joe M. Sprinkle
See also Offerings and Sacrifices
Bibliography. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, TDOT, 5:287-96, 330-42; H. C. Brichto, HUCA 47 (1976): 19-55; M. Douglas, Purity and Danger; J. E. Hartley, ISBE, 1:718-23; J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16; idem, Religion and Law; idem, Semeia 45 (1989): 103-9; J. M. Sprinkle, "A Literary Approach to Biblical Law: Exodus 20:22-23:19"; G. J. Wenham, Numbers; idem, Christ the Lord; S. Westerholm, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Clean, Unclean'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".