III. The Laws of Cleanness and Uncleanness (Leviticus 11:1–15:33)


III. The Laws of Cleanness and Uncleanness (11:1–15:33)

A. Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals (11:1-23)

11:1-7 This section of Leviticus dispels any doubt that God cared about the everyday, routine lives of his people in relation to his requirement that they live holy lives before him. Nothing could be more routine than daily meals, but the Israelites were commanded to take great care in what they ate, or even touched, because God had designated some animals and activities as clean and others as unclean.

Much speculation surrounds the reasons behind Israel’s dietary restrictions. It’s clear from this list that in part God used them to set Israel apart from the pagan nations around them. There may also have been health reasons for the distinctions. In addition, some of the animals listed, including pigs, were used in pagan religious ceremonies of the day. But the main source of the distinction between the two categories of animals is simply the revealed will of God.

A land animal was considered unclean or clean—and therefore forbidden or edible—based on whether it had divided hooves and chewed cud (11:3). Animals that met the standard in only one of these ways were unclean. Thus, the Jews were prohibited from eating pork because the pig had a divided hoof but did not chew the cud. Even though the prohibition against pork is probably the most well-known of the Jewish dietary restrictions, the text does not seem to single out pigs as any more unclean (10:7) than other unclean animals.

11:9-23 For animals in the water, the standard for cleanness was whether they had fins and scales (11:9). God used the word abhorrent in relation to unclean fish, birds, and insects (11:10-13, 20, 23), meaning they were to be especially detestable to the Jews. The birds listed are birds of prey (11:13-19), which would be clearly prohibited because they ate flesh that still had the blood in it—something forbidden to the Israelites. The clean insects that could be eaten included the locust, katydid, cricket, and grasshopper (11:20-22).

B. Avoiding Defilement from Unclean Animals (11:24-47)

11:24-32 The carcasses of all animals were considered unclean, except for those sacrificed properly in worship, which also meant that their blood had been drained. Death in any form caused uncleanness and isolation from the Israelite community, and the goal of all cleansing was to be able to approach the holy God of Israel and worship him acceptably.

The second half of chapter 11 deals with the procedures the Israelites needed to follow if they, their clothing, or the things in their households—any item of wood, . . . leather, sackcloth, or any implement used for work (11:32)—were made unclean by contact with an unclean animal or the carcass of any animal, whether it was clean or unclean in life. The uncleanness meant the person had to go outside the camp until evening (11:31) and then wash his clothes so that he could be made clean and restored to the community.

11:33-40 This was also the case for the item of clothing or household item rendered unclean by contact with an unclean animal. A clay pot so contaminated, however, had to be broken (11:33), and an unclean oven or stove had to be smashed (11:35). Even contact with the carcasses of clean animals defiled a person, if the animals died in any way other than in the rituals of worship.

11:41-47 God repeated the prohibition against eating or touching unclean animals and gave the reason: For I am the Lord your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy (11:41-44). To make sure they did not miss the point, he repeated himself: You must be holy because I am holy (11:45).

Holiness is still a requirement for God’s people today. Of course, we cannot make ourselves holy. Sinners are made acceptable to God only through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ when they place their faith in him. But after coming to saving faith in Christ, we are called to live lives that please him. The New Testament, in fact, is filled with commands about walking in holiness and honoring the Lord with lives dedicated to his service (see Rom 12:1; 1 Thess 4:7; 1 Pet 1:15-16; 2 Pet 3:11). God is holy, and he calls his people to be like him.

C. Laws Concerning Childbirth (12:1-8)

12:1-8 The birth of a child was a cause for rejoicing in Israel, even as it is today. It wasn’t a child’s birth that made the mother unclean, but the flow of blood that followed the birth. It’s important to see here, then, that the mother’s ceremonial uncleanness was not because of sin. She needed only ritual purification after delivery (12:4), for which the proper sacrifice was prescribed, so she could enter the tabernacle and worship God again. Her time of purification was twice as long for a girl as for a boy, for which no reason is given (12:4-5).

A male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth (12:3), after his mother had observed seven days of ceremonial uncleanness. Then when her full time of separation from the sanctuary was complete, she was instructed to take a burnt offering and a sin offering to the tabernacle—again, not to atone for any sin she had committed just by giving birth, but for her purification. The specified sacrifices were a year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering (12:6), or in the case of the mother’s poverty, two turtledoves or two young pigeons (12:8) would do. This, in fact, was the offering Joseph and Mary made at the temple for her purification after Jesus was born (see Luke 2:21-24). Even giving birth to the sinless Son of God did not exempt Mary from obeying the law of Moses concerning purification after childbirth.

D. Laws for Diagnosing Skin Diseases (13:1-46)

13:1-8 A serious disease on the skin (13:1) that might be infectious is a threat to any community in which people live in close proximity. This was definitely the case among the Israelites who lived in the wilderness in a time before germs were understood and hospitals could help contain them. Removing from the community a person who had a disease that could spread to others had obvious benefits. Yet the real thrust of chapters 13–15 is not the medical implications of these conditions, but the fact that many of them made the sufferer ceremonially unclean and thus excluded him or her from the presence of God. This doesn’t mean, however, that God necessarily assigned moral blame to people with skin diseases. Nonetheless, they had to undergo a period of hoped-for healing, followed by a ceremony to be purified before the Lord.

Verses 1-8 deal with conditions such as a swelling, scab, or spot on the skin (13:2). The swelling could refer to a discoloration of the skin, and the scab could refer to a rash. These were the most common kinds of skin problems at that time and could include psoriasis or eczema. The question is often asked whether any of the diseases described in this chapter could be Hansen’s disease, the modern name for the Bible’s dreaded “leprosy” condition that destroys tissue and makes the victim more or less a permanent outcast from society. Hansen’s disease in the ancient world was progressive and incurable. We can’t say for sure whether it is included in this chapter, but the text seems to be dealing with more manageable conditions such as psoriasis or even acne.

The process for the priestly diagnosis of these skin diseases followed a pattern. The symptoms of the problem were described; the priest made his initial inspection, taking note of what he observed. He then declared the person clean or unclean. If the person was declared to be clean on the first inspection, nothing more was done. If the priest was unsure of the condition, the person was isolated for seven days and then re-examined to see if the priest could make a decision on the sufferer’s cleanness or uncleanness at that point.

Uncleanness required a seven-day period of isolation. The unclean person was then re-examined and either declared clean or told to stay in isolation. The ritual for cleansing involved washing the clothes (13:6), after which the person was clean and could rejoin the community and, even more importantly, regain access to the tabernacle to offer sacrifices and maintain fellowship with God.

13:9-17 This section describes another range of conditions. Note that if a person’s skin turns totally white over his entire body, he is pronounced clean (13:12-13). This symptom actually refers to a condition known as leucoderma, which cannot be passed from one person to another. Raw flesh, by contrast, indicated a much more serious problem (13:10, 14-16). Raw flesh is unclean; this is a serious skin disease (13:15). Thus, a person with a condition involving it had to go the priest for examination.

13:18-28 Visible skin problems resulting from a boil or a burn (13:18, 24) were dealt with next. The priest followed the same steps to diagnose possible uncleanness in those instances. An issue became a possible problem when there was inflammation, color change in the skin, or a spread of the condition. The best outcome in both cases was when the spot turned out to be just the scar from the boil or burn (13:23, 28).

13:29-37 The next category involved conditions on the head or chin (13:29). Key here was determining how deep the problem went—whether only skin deep or below the skin. If the problem was deeper than the skin, the priest pronounced the person unclean (13:30). If there was doubt about the depth of the problem, the afflicted person had to be isolated the prescribed seven days—and again, depending on whether the problem spread, the process of isolation and re-examination could go for several rounds. The person might be required to shave his hair, except for the affected area, allowing the priest to better determine if it had spread (13:33).

13:38-44 The reference to white spots (13:38) may be another indication of leucoderma (see commentary on 13:9-17). It was a harmless condition and not contagious, so the person with this condition was clean (13:39). You might smile to discover that being bald was also included in a chapter on skin diseases (13:40-44). However, baldness itself did not make a man unclean (13:40-41); the presence of a skin disease on the scalp did (13:42-44).

13:45-46 Many today find these long descriptions of skin problems and other potentially unclean conditions tedious. But verses 45-46 are a sobering reminder that such “tedious” details were necessary because failure to keep God’s holy standards in even matters such as these could have a life-altering impact on people. A person with an infectious skin disease had his clothes torn and his hair hanging loose (13:45). This alone would make the person repulsive to the eyes of others. But he also had to cover his mouth and cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” (13:45), signaling that he could potentially spread the infection he carried. Worse, he had to live alone in a place outside the camp (13:46). The holy standards of God, the well-being of the community, and a person’s life and family were at stake when disease was found within the camp. To banish a person from the camp and the tabernacle was significant, so it was vital that the correct diagnosis was made. With this background in mind, imagine the joy and gratitude overflowing from those Jesus healed from skin diseases (see Luke 17:11-19). He made a way for even those who’d once thought themselves hopelessly unclean to find total physical restoration. And that’s a picture of what he can do for people spiritually, too.

E. Laws for Diagnosing Mildew (13:47-59)

13:47-59 Like people, clothing and other garments could be rendered unclean by the appearance of something abnormal on them. Here that something is described as mildew (13:47). This was not just a spot on the surface of a fabric, but a contamination that went deep to the core of the piece, into its warp or weft (13:48), signaling that the problem had intertwined itself with the fabric and could not be cleansed away by washing. The procedure for diagnosis and resulting quarantine isolation efforts were similar to those for skin diseases—except that fabrics that could not be declared clean were burned (13:50-52). If, after washing, a questionable spot had faded, the affected part alone was to be cut out and burned (13:56). As always, the objective was for the priest to be able to pronounce the affected item clean or unclean (13:59).

F. Laws for Cleansing Skin Diseases (14:1-32)

14:1 The importance and solemn nature of the ritual to restore a person cured of a skin disease was indicated by yet another repetition of the words, The Lord spoke to Moses. Following these procedures allowed the person to again enjoy fellowship with the Lord and the community.

14:2-9 The cleansing process involved several stages. A person who believed he had been cured of his disease would send for the priest, who would go outside the camp and examine him (14:2). If the priest verified that the cleansing had taken place, he took two . . . birds, . . . slaughtered one, and caught its blood in a pot (14:4-5). Then the priest performed a unique ceremony. The live bird together with . . . cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop were dipped into the blood, which was then sprinkled seven times on the patient. The live bird was then released, probably as a symbol of the person’s cleansing and release from his isolation (14:6-7). (Seeing that bird fly away had to be a happy moment for one who had been in isolation for days or even weeks.)

Now pronounced clean, the person was allowed to enter the camp, but only after washing his clothes, bathing, and shaving off all his hair (14:7-8). He then had to sit outside his tent for another seven days, at the end of which he washed his clothes, bathed, and shaved off his hair again—even his eyebrows (14:9). Of course, a person who looked like this was a dramatic illustration to passersby that his life was beginning over. He could resume his life (14:8-9).

14:10-20 Though the person was clean again, there were sacrifices to be offered on the eighth day as part of his restoration (14:10). They included the various types of sacrifices presented earlier in the book, such as the grain, guilt, burnt, and sin offerings (14:10-20). The priest took some of the blood of the guilt offering and anointed the cleansed person’s right ear, right thumb, and the big toe of his right foot (14:14), and then he did the same with oil (14:17). The similarity between this and the consecration ceremony for the priests outlined in chapter 8 cannot be a coincidence. It must have symbolized that just as the priests had been fully consecrated and were ready to bring sacrifices to God, so was this cleansed person. Even the remaining oil from this ceremony was poured on the head of the worshiper (14:18), also in imitation of the priests’ ordination ceremony.

14:21-32 Here too provision was made for a poor person, who was to bring whatever he could afford (14:22). Otherwise, the requirements and ritual were the same for all. Once again, we see the significance of the mediating role of the priest—making atonement in order to reconcile God and humanity (14:31-32). This is what our great high priest Jesus came to do (see Heb 10:10-21).

G. Laws for Cleansing Mildew (14:33-57)

14:33-57 The regulations for this section are, in many ways, the same as those for cleansing mildew from garments (13:47-59). Since the Israelites were living in tents when these instructions were given, the regulations for examining a house (and either cleansing it or tearing it down) were for future use, when they took possession of the land of Canaan (14:34). The priest was to inspect the house to determine if it was unclean. Contamination required a period of quarantine, re-examination, and then necessary steps were to be followed if the mildew had spread (14:36-53). This is another reminder of how seriously God wanted his people to take the difference between cleanness and uncleanness, between the holy and unholy. Even in the case of houses, the cleansing ritual described earlier for people (14:4-7) was to be conducted (14:48-53).

H. Laws of Uncleanness Concerning the Body (15:1-33)

15:1-18 In chapter 15, the subject of cleanness and uncleanness is further covered through laws regarding what to do for periodic discharges for both men and women. Following the principle that something unclean touching something clean makes the clean unclean, the opening section on a man’s discharge reveals that every person and thing he came into contact with during this time became unclean (15:2-15). The people he contacted could be cleansed by bathing; they would then remain unclean until evening (15:5-11).

Interestingly, the man with such a discharge was not sent outside the camp as were those with skin diseases. Some argue that this was because the discharge was not infectious. Others say the lack of an isolation period indicated that God was mostly concerned with the man’s ceremonial uncleanness. Once the discharge had stopped and the man had waited seven days, he could wash and be clean, and then offer the sacrifices of cleansing (15:13-15). The second example was male semen emission, possibly during intercourse (15:16-18). The emission brought uncleanness to the man and the woman (15:18) involved.

15:19-24 A woman’s monthly menstruation also resulted in her being unclean. The stipulations for her bed (15:21) and other objects she touched, or for the person who came in contact with her, were generally the same as those for a man with a discharge. The exception is that the man who came in contact with her flow—like the woman (15:19)—was unclean for seven days (15:24).

15:25-30 The final case was that of a woman with a chronic discharge of blood. She was considered unclean during her entire illness (15:25). This scenario brings to mind the New-Testament-era woman who had suffered from bleeding for twelve years before she touched Jesus and was healed (see Matt 9:20-22). According to the law, she should not have touched Jesus. And this may explain why she came “with fear and trembling” when Jesus called her forward (Mark 5:33). But no contamination, of course, could make Jesus unclean!

15:31-33 These verses provide a summary and signal the close of the discussion on uncleanness. God’s regulations were to keep the Israelites from their uncleanness, so that they do not die by defiling [God’s] tabernacle that is among them (15:31). God’s holiness, and his demand for holiness from his people, gave these laws life-and-death importance.