The Laws of Clean and Unclean and their Relationship with the Concept of Sacred Space

Joe M. Sprinkle

Ritual cleanness/uncleanness is a major theme in the ceremonial (or cultic) laws in the Pentateuch. It was one of the duties of priests to distinguish between the ritually clean and the ritually unclean (Ezekiel 22:26; 44:23; Haggai 2:11-13). The concept might be rendered better “purity and impurity” since the Hebrew for “clean” (tahor) more precisely means “pure” (cf. Exodus 25:11 where it is used for “pure,” i.e., “unalloyed,” gold). A whole block (chapters 11-15) of the book of Leviticus is devoted to this topic, and there is continual reference to it elsewhere in the Pentateuch.
Leviticus 10:10 provides orientation.1 It states that the priest must distinguish between two pairs of overlapping categories (expressed in chiastic parallelism):

A. The holy things (qodesh) and
B. The common things (chol);
b. The unclean (tame’) and
a. The clean (tahor).

That which is “holy” is set apart to God, and must also be “clean.” All that is not “holy” is “common.” That which is common can be either ritually clean or unclean. Hence there are actually three categories: (i) holy and clean, (ii) common and clean, (iii) common and unclean. There is a close connection between “cleanness” and “holiness” and an incompatibility between “uncleanness” and “holiness.”

How Uncleanness Was Contracted

According to the laws of the Pentateuch, the Israelite was to regard most things as “clean,” but a person or thing could contract uncleanness in a variety of ways. Several broad categories of uncleanness are found in Numbers 5:2, including: having a skin disease; having a discharge of bodily fluids; and touching something unclean, such as a dead body. The other broad category has to do with unclean animals and foods. These categories will now be elaborated.

(i) Skin Disease. Anyone with a scale-like skin disease (tsaru) was regarded as unclean (cf. Leviticus 13-14). The term tsra'ath has been traditionally translated “leprosy,” but the consensus of scholars is that the term is not limited to modern clinical leprosy (Hansen’s disease); instead, this term covers a variety of skin diseases. If a garment or leather object in a household, or the house itself, contracts mold or fungus which looks like scale disease, it is likewise deemed unclean (Leviticus 13:47-59, 14:33-57).

(ii) Discharge of Bodily Fluids. Bodily discharge refers primarily to natural and unnatural genital flows, but not, for example, to open wounds from accidents.2 Childbirth, via its association with the discharge of the bloody placenta from the vagina, rendered a woman unclean for forty days for a male child and eighty days for a female child (Leviticus 12:1-8). Onset of menstruation rendered a woman unclean for seven days (15:19-24) and any unnatural genital flow of blood rendered her unclean until seven days after that flow of blood ceases (15:25-30). Ordinary marital intercourse rendered the couple unclean till evening (15:18; cf. the command for the Israelites not to go near a woman before meeting God at Sinai in Exodus 19:15), while inadvertent intercourse with a menstruating woman rendered the man unclean for seven days (Leviticus 15:24) and deliberate intercourse with such a woman made both subject to divine “cutting off” (Leviticus 20:18). “Cutting off” probably denotes neither banishment nor human execution, but death and extirpation of descendants by divine intervention and/or separation from the relatives in the afterlife, a view that explains why some cases involved both “execution” and divine “cutting off” (Leviticus 20:2-3; Exodus 31:14).3 Ezekiel, likewise, refers to menstrual uncleanness and the need to avoid intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period (Ezekiel 18:6; 22:10; 36:17; cf. Isaiah 64:6). Ejaculation of sperm outside of intercourse (wet dreams, etc.) rendered a man and his bedding unclean till evening (Leviticus 15:16); any other flow from his genitals (15:2-3), such as from gonorrhea or urinary infection, rendered him unclean until seven days after it ceases (15:13).

Discharge from the “flesh” (basar) in Leviticus 15:2-3 is to understood as synecdoche for the “sexual organ” as in 15:19 rather than taken more generally for the “body” (cf. NIV “bodily discharge”) since the other cases contextually refer to sexual emissions. R. L. Harris,4 who accepts this less likely view that basar means “body,” adds other abnormal bodily discharges such as diarrhea to those causing uncleanness (cf. Deuteronomy 23:10-11 [Hebrews 11-12]), and ties this to a hygienic explanation of these laws as a whole, though it will be shown below that the hygienic interpretation is in general problematic. Leviticus seems to limit uncleanness to genital discharges.

There does seem to be one exception to the limitation of bodily discharges that produce uncleanness to genital flows: defecation. Defecation was to take place outside the camp during war (Deuteronomy 23:12-13 [Hebrews 13-14]). The juxtaposition of the law of defecation between a law regarding seminal uncleanness (Deuteronomy 23:10-11 [Hebrews 11-12]) and a common motive clause that the camp must be holy because “YHWH your God goes in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:14 [Hebrews 15]), as well as the fact that both required the Israelite to go “outside the camp,” suggests that human feces were a source of ceremonial defilement (cf. Ezekiel 4:12-13). Perhaps the close proximity of the organs of excrement and the organs of reproduction make this extension possible.

(iii) Touching Unclean Things. Uncleanness conveyed by touch usually lasted until evening, though touching a human corpse made one unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11). Touching the carcasses of unclean animals (Leviticus 5:1-3; 7:19, 21; 11:24-28, 44), or the unwashed person, contaminated chair or bedding of a menstruating woman or of a man with an unnatural genital flow, conveyed uncleanness till evening (Leviticus 15:4-11, 19-24). An unclean man could transfer uncleanness onto a clay pot by touch (15:12) and onto a person by spitting (15:7). Objects touching a carcass became impure (15:32), though certain objects—springs, cisterns, plant seeds—were immune from impurity by touch (11:36-38). The contents of a vessel which is unclean, and anything touched by water from an unclean vessel were rendered ritually unclean (11:33-34). Hosea states that “mourner’s bread,” i.e., food contaminated by being in the house with a corpse, defiles (Hosea 9:4) and Haggai affirms that a corpse-contaminated man transmits uncleanness via touch (Haggai 2:13).

The purification or chattath offering, itself used as a purifying agent, ironically could also convey impurity.5 The carcass of the Day of Atonement chattath had to be burned and its handler evidently became ceremonially unclean since he had to wash his clothes and body before returning to the camp (Leviticus 16:27-28). Similarly, vessels in which the chattath was cooked evidently also became unclean since they must be broken if earthenware, and scoured if copper (Leviticus 6:21 [English versions: 28]). The ashes of the red heifer chattath-offering6 also conveyed uncleanness on its handlers so that it had to be taken outside the camp, and both the priest conducting the sacrifice and the one who burned it into ashes were unclean, as was the one who applied the ashes, and hence all these had to bathe and wait until evening to return to a state of purity (Numbers 19:3, 7-8, 10, 21). Leviticus 7:7 suggests that the guilt/reparation (‘asham) offering was disposed of in the same way as the chattath offering, and so probably likewise conveyed uncleanness. The bodies of clean animals properly slaughtered for the well-being (peace) offering (zebach shelamim) and other offerings did not convey uncleanness at first, though it was best to eat the sacrifice on the day of the sacrifice, and by the third day any sacrificial carcass must be burned (Exodus 12:10 [Passover]; Leviticus 7:17 and 19:6 [well-being offering]; Exodus 29:34 & Leviticus 7:31-32 [ram/bread of ordination]).

(iv) Unclean Animals and Food.7 Animals were either “clean” or “unclean,” a distinction first made in the account of Noah’s flood (Genesis 7:2), but elaborated in detail in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Quadrupeds with hoofs having clefs and which chew the cud (which excluded camels, rock badgers, hares, and pigs, as well as all quadrupeds which walk on paws rather than hoofs), and fish with fins and scales (which excluded shellfish and crustaceans) were clean, while many birds, especially the predatory and scavenger species (eagles, vultures, falcons, ravens, owls, etc.), were listed as unclean.8 Also forbidden were all flying insects except locusts and similar insects. Some among the unclean animals are designated shegetz (“cultic abomination”), or to'ebah (“abomination, abhorrence”). These transmitted an especially loathsome form of uncleanness (Leviticus 11:10-13, 20, 23, 41; Deuteronomy 14:3). Eating an unclean animal rendered a person unclean, in this case till evening, whether it be flesh from an inherently unclean animal, flesh of a clean animal rendered unclean by death from natural causes (Leviticus 11:39-40; 17:15), or any food rendered unclean by contact with something else unclean (cf. Haggai 2:10-13). Pious Israelites such as Daniel would refuse to defile (ga'al) themselves by eating non-“kosher” foods (Daniel 1:8), whereas eating unclean food such as swine and mice was an act of impiety condemned by Isaiah (Isaiah 65:4; 66:17).

As already stated, touching the carcasses of unclean animals (Leviticus 5:1-3; 7:19, 21; 11:24-28, 44) rendered a person unclean. It was only the dead unclean animals that polluted by touch, perhaps for the practical reason that otherwise one would be unclean every time one rode a donkey or a camel.9 As discussed under (iii) above, touching or eating a clean animal properly slaughtered as a peace offering did not convey uncleanness on the day it was slaughtered, but even a clean animal that died of natural causes conveyed uncleanness by touch (Ezekiel 44:31).

An animal which is lame, blind or with other defect was not unclean, hence both the clean and the unclean may eat of it, but it could not be rendered “holy” so as to offer it and/or partake of it in the central sanctuary (Deuteronomy 15:19-23). It is thus rendered no more than “common.” However, to offer a “common” blemished animal to God is to offer what Malachi terms “defiled” (ga'al) food, and such an act did ritually defile (ga'al) the table of the Lord (Malachi 1:7-8, 12).

In addition to these unclean foods, there was also a prohibition against eating fat and blood (Leviticus 7:22-27), the violation of which put a person under threat of being “cut off” by divine punishment. In the ritual of sacrifice, all the fat was burnt in offering to God even when (as in “peace” or “well-being” offerings) most of the animal was eaten by the worshiper. Suet for animals permitted for the altar (cattle, sheep, goats) was not to be used at all when the animal was sacrificed to God (i.e., none is to be saved for private use), and the fat not be eaten even if the animal becomes ineligible for the altar by dying of itself or being killed by predators, though (in an economic concession) the fat in the latter case could be used for other purposes (such as fuel for lamps). Though it is less clear, the fat of wild game (i.e., clean animals ineligible for the altar) probably could be eaten (cf. Leviticus 17:13-14, where blood requirement is repeated for wild game, but not the fat).10

The backdrop of the blood prohibition is in Genesis. It seems that initially men were supposed to be vegetarians (Genesis 1:29-30), but after the flood permission was granted to eat animal flesh provided that one did not “eat the flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:2-5). From First Samuel 14:31-35 it may be deduced that “eating with the blood” means eating meat without first pouring out the blood before God, normally on an altar. Similarly, in the case of wild game which could not be brought to an altar or domestic animals not near enough to a sanctuary so as to sacrifice it there, one was to pour out the blood on the ground and cover it with earth, or else utilize a “natural” altar made of materials such as unhewn stones (Exodus 20:24-25). This “lay” or “profane” sacrifice was without benefit of priests and lacked the kind of sanctity associated with the tabernacle’s altar so that even the unclean could eat of it (Leviticus 17:13-14; Deuteronomy 12:15-16, 20-23).

What Was Done about Uncleanness

These regulations imply that one should avoid ceremonial impurity if possible, but the nature of the rules given above shows that often this was, even by natural biological processes, impossible. Everyone became unclean from time to time. Periodic states of uncleanness were unavoidable.

Where contraction of impurity occurred, it was obligatory that the unclean person avoid that which is holy and take steps, involving the rituals for disposal of impurity, to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a “dangerous” condition under threat of divine retribution, even death (Leviticus 15:31), especially if the person were to approach the sanctuary. Indeed, the largest body of laws of clean and unclean, Leviticus 11-15, is bracketed (forming an inclusio)11 first by the account of the death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for improperly approaching the sanctuary (Leviticus 10), and the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16) where reference to the death of Aaron’s two sons (16:1) is part of a warning against arbitrary entrance into the sanctuary (16:2) that in turn leads to a prescription to conduct an elaborate sacrificial ritual to cleanse the priest first, and then to remove sin and uncleanness from both sanctuary and people (16:3-19). The community’s uncleanness imperiled the whole nation because uncleanness defiles the Lord’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place in their midst (Leviticus 16:16; Numbers 19:13, 20), as well as the land itself (Leviticus 18:27). Ezekiel in his vision of a new temple refers to corpses of kings (and others) which defiled the first temple and made God’s continued dwelling in their midst impossible (Ezekiel 43:7-9; cf. 9:7). If unpurged, uncleanness could lead to a general outbreak of divine wrath and ultimately the expulsion of the land’s inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25), as did in fact happen in the Babylonian exile. Consequently, there must be through the various sacrifices a purging of uncleanness from the altar and the sanctuary (Ezekiel 43:19-27; 45:19) to remove the contamination of both sin and ceremonial impurity. Uncleanness and the danger pertaining thereto lingered upon those who did not take the necessary steps to be purified (Numbers 19:12-13; Leviticus 17:16).

Since priests are holy and their job was to minister in the sanctuary, they were to take special care to avoid becoming ritually defiled, and if defiled (as everyone from time to time must be), the priest was to abstain from his sacred duties. Failure to do this could result in the priest being “cut off from [God’s] presence” (Leviticus 22:3-9) by divine punishment (e.g. Nadab and Abihu, Leviticus 10). A priest was not to be involved in the burial of any corpse except that of an immediate relative (mother, father, son, daughter, brother: Leviticus 21:10-2) since touching the corpse would lead to defilement and exclusion from his duties in the sanctuary. Some close relatives were excluded: he could not bury in-laws nor a non-virgin sister since in both cases others could take that responsibility and in the case of a non-virgin sister, her sexual impurity heightened her corpse contamination (Leviticus 21:3-4), and the High Priest was not to be in the same room as a corpse even for a close relative (Leviticus 21:11-12). Isaiah reminds priests and Levites not to touch what is “unclean” (Isaiah 52:11). Priests were required to marry virgins, since any women previously sexually active (the immoral, divorced, for the high priests even a widow) brought with them elevated levels of sexual impurity (Leviticus 21:7, 14). Whereas elsewhere the penalty for non-adulterous sexual immorality was (possible) marriage (Exodus 22:16-17 [Hebrews 15-16]), a priest’s daughter who brought elevated sexual impurity into her father’s house through sexual immorality was subject to being “burned” (Leviticus 21:9).12

Those under a Nazirite vow being temporarily “holy” also had to avoid defilement through contact even with the dead body of a parent (Numbers 6:6-7). Priests and Levites would purify themselves with a ritual sprinkling of water and washing their clothes in preparation for service in the sanctuary to remove any vestige of uncleanness, as well as by a purification offering (Leviticus 16:3-4; Numbers 8:7-8). Samson’s parents were told that because the boy would be a Nazirite for life, he was not to eat anything unclean (Judges 13:4, 7, 13) in accord with the Nazirite law.

For ordinary laymen, an unclean person was not to eat consecrated meat sacrificed to God in the sanctuary (Leviticus 7:20-21), nor even tithe consecrated food to the Levites while unclean (Deuteronomy 26:14), though wild game and meat slaughtered outside of the central sanctuary could be eaten even by one ceremonially unclean (Deuteronomy 12:15, 22). An unclean person could not celebrate the Passover while unclean (Numbers 9:6-13), though provision was made for celebrating Passover after a month’s delay. Saul at first assumed that David (who in fact was avoiding Saul) did not take his place at the royal table on the day of the new moon festival because David was ritually “unclean” (due perhaps to a seminal discharge or touching something unclean), and therefore ineligible according to Mosaic law to partake of meat consecrated for the holy day (1 Samuel 20:26). The priest Ahimelech offered David consecrated (holy) bread of the Presence, there being no common bread on hand, but would allow his young men to eat it only if they “have kept themselves from women,” that is, if they were ritually clean according to the law (1 Samuel 21:4). In the context of the sojourn in the wilderness, an Israelite who became unclean was to go “outside the camp,” that is, away from the tabernacle where the Lord dwelt among them (Numbers 5:3).

The way in which a ceremonially unclean person became clean varied in accord with the severity of the uncleanness. Judging from the purification procedure Milgrom13 has categorized types of impurity from the most serious to least serious cases as follows: skin disease (Leviticus 13-14), childbirth (Leviticus 12), genital discharges (Leviticus 15:3-15, 28-30), the corpse-contaminated priest (Ezekiel 44:26-27), the corpse-contaminated Nazirite (Numbers 6:9-12), one whose impurity is prolonged (Leviticus 5:1-13), the corpse-contaminated lay person (Numbers 5:2-4, 19:1-20), the menstruating woman (Leviticus 15:19-24), the handling of the ashes of the red cow or the Day of Atonement offerings including the scapegoat and the purification [sin] offering which was burnt to ashes (Numbers 19:7-10; Leviticus 16:26, 28), emission of semen (Leviticus 15:16-18), contamination by a carcass (Leviticus 11:24-40; 22:5), and secondary contamination (Leviticus 15, 22:4-7, Numbers 19:21-22).

1. Skin disease Leviticus 13-14 Permanent uncleanness unless declared healed by a priest. The afflicted was to wear rent clothes, disheveled hair, and call out “unclean, unclean” as a warning to others, and to live outside the camp (13:45-46). If healed, the purification ritual lasted eight days (14:1-32). On the first day there is a ritual outside the camp involving two birds, cedar wood, crimson yarn, hyssop, and spring (or “river”; literally “living”) water; then, after washing his clothes, washing his body and shaving, he may enter the camp but may not yet sleep in his tent. On the seventh day he shaves and washes his clothes and his body to remove symbolically another layer of impurity, and may enter his tent. On the eighth day he brings to the sanctuary oil and offers a reparation (guilt) offering, a purification (sin) offering, and a whole burnt offering in which blood from the reparation offering and some of the oil is placed on the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the man, and then the whole person is anointed. He is then fully “clean.”
2. Postpartum Woman (Uncleanness after Childbirth) Leviticus 12 With BIRTH OF A SON, the woman was highly unclean for 7 days. On the eight day the son was to be circumcised. Afterwards the mother remained somewhat “unclean” and unable to touch (i.e. “eat”) that which is holy for another 33 days after which her purification is completed (total of 40 days). With the BIRTH OF A DAUGHTER, the numbers double: she is most unclean for 14 days, and somewhat unclean for 66 days beyond that (total of 80 days). At the end of her impurity she brought a lamb (a bird will do if she is poor) for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering.
3. Abnormal genital discharges Leviticus 15:3-15, 28-30 A man or a woman with an abnormal genital discharge was to wait seven days after healing, launder his or her clothes, and bathe the body in spring (“living”) water to obtain one degree of purification. On the eighth day he or she was to take two turtledoves or pigeons and offer up one as a purification offering, and one as a burnt offering to effect full purgation of uncleanness.
4. Corpse-defiled priest Ezekiel 44:26-27 The corpse-contaminated priest waits 7 days after the impurity from a corpse and then offers a purification offering.
5. Corpse-contaminated Nazirite Numbers 6:9-12 This Nazirite by becoming unclean violates his Nazirite vow that prohibits contact with corpses (Numbers 6:6). The contaminated Nazirite was to shave his head on the first and seventh day after the period of uncleanness had passed, and offer two turtledoves or pigeons, one as a purification offering, one as a burnt offering (these were required to end his vow anyway; 6:13-16), as well as a lamb for a reparation (guilt) offering for his violated vow (Leviticus 5:14-6:7 English).
6. One whose impurity is prolonged Leviticus 5:1-13 Anyone whose impurity is prolonged by failing to go through the proper purification rite within prescribed time limits was to offer a reparation/guilt offering.
7. Corpse-contaminated layman Numbers 5:2-4; 19:1-20 Unclean for seven days and had to go though a ritual involving being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer purification offering (Numbers 19:1-22). The corpse-contaminated layman was then sprinkled with water mixed with these ashes on the third and seventh day, and on the seventh day he laundered his clothes and bathed himself to become clean. Garments, and whatever was made of leather, goat hair or wood were to be purified with water and items of metal purified with fire.
8. Menstruating woman (or a man having intercourse with her) Leviticus 15:19-24 Waiting seven days with ritual washing not stated but probably implied.
9. Handling of various sin offerings Numbers 19:7-10, 19; Leviticus 16:26, 28 Launder clothes and bathe body, and in the case of the priest, offering the red heifer and the one burning it to ashes and gathering the ashes (though not mentioned with the releaser of the scapegoat, though perhaps assumed) unclean till evening.
10. Emission of semen Leviticus 15:16-18 Waiting till evening for an ejaculating man (and his inseminated wife) with ritual bathing of his body (and his wife’s) specified.
11. Contamination by animal carcass Leviticus 11:24-40; 22:5 Unclean till evening if merely touches carcass.
If one carries the carcass, one must also launder clothes and be unclean till evening. Foods and objects and seeds touching the carcass are also unclean (though springs are immune).
12. Secondary contamination Leviticus 15, 22:4-7; Numbers 19:21f Uncleanness by touching something unclean, one is unclean until evening and cannot eat of the holy things.

The most serious case of uncleanness was the person with a skin disease who remained permanently unclean unless healed. A priest determined if a skin irritation was serious enough to declare a person unclean (Leviticus 13:1-44). Once a person with a skin disease was declared “unclean,” he was to wear rent clothes, have disheveled hair, call out “unclean, unclean” as a warning to others, and live apart from others outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46). If the skin disease healed, the person could undergo a purification ritual over eight days to return to full cleanness (Leviticus 14:1-32).14 On day one he was to meet a priest outside the camp who performs a ritual involving two birds, cedar wood, crimson yarn, hyssop, and spring (or “river”; literally “living”) water. The priest was to sacrifice one bird and dip the live bird in the blood mixed with the other items, and then release the live bird. This ritual, by analogy with the Day of Atonement sacrifice (Leviticus 16), probably symbolizes purification via sacrifice (the killed bird whose purifying blood is sprinkled by hyssop seven times onto the man designates the man as “clean”) and removal of uncleanness (the live bird having symbolically absorbed uncleanness flying to an open country). The man then washes his clothes, shaves his hair and bathes his body, and may enter the camp but may not sleep in his tent until the ritual of the seventh day, for he is only partially purified. On the seventh day he again shaves his hair and washes his clothes and bathes his body to remove symbolically another level of impurity, and is now considered sufficiently clean to enter his tent. On the eighth day he brings to the sanctuary oil and offers a reparation (guilt) offering, a purification (sin) offering, and a whole burnt offering in which blood from the reparation offering and some of the oil is placed on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of the man. The man is then anointed with the remainder of the oil, symbolizing that the whole person has been cleansed and elevated to the status of fully “clean,” restored to the community and free to approach the sanctuary. In the New Testament, Jesus required the lepers he had cleansed to show themselves to the priest in accord with this Mosaic law (Luke 17:11-17).

For childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8) a woman who bore a son was highly unclean (as with menstruation) for seven days. On the eight day the son was to be circumcised. Afterwards the mother remained somewhat “unclean” and unable to touch (i.e. “eat”) that which is holy for another 33 days after which her purification is completed (total of 40 days). In the case of a daughter the numbers double: she is most unclean for two weeks, and somewhat unclean for 66 days beyond that (total of 80 days). The reason for the numbers 7 and 40 is not explained in the text, though a case can be made for them being numbers symbolizing “wholeness, completeness,”15 seven representing completion of the period of greatest impurity, and forty representing completion of all impurity. Moreover, it is about that period of time necessary for the womb to undergo the process of devolution and destruction followed by regeneration during which it goes from being uninhabitable/dysfunctional (for reproduction), to being once again restored to “wholeness” and full sexual function.16 At the end of her impurity, the postpartum woman is to bring a lamb (a bird will do if she is poor) for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering to be offered by the priest. Mary, the mother of Jesus, underwent this ritual after the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:22-27).

The reason for the distinction between the sexes in postpartum uncleanness is not stated. Among the speculations (listed more or less in the order of least to most likely in my judgment) are: that women are supposedly subject to stronger attacks by demons;17 that it reflects the female’s role as first in transgression in the garden of Eden;18 that it is a provision for the care of baby girls who, being less desired than boys, might otherwise receive inferior care from thoughtless husbands;19 that circumcising the boy baby on the 8th day somehow reduces the attendant uncleanness;20 that the distinction reflects the lower social status of women in ancient Israel;21 that girls are destined to become a source of menstrual uncleanness in the future;22 and that the longer maternal discharges after the birth of a girl as compared with that of a boy and the periodic vaginal bleeding of baby girls demands a longer period of uncleanness.23 More than one of these explanations may be true.

Abnormal genital discharge (Leviticus 15:3-15, 25-30) is the next most serious “uncleanness.” A man or a woman who had an abnormal genital discharge, which might be due to a venereal disease or a urinary tract infection, was to wait seven days after healing, launder his or her clothes, and bathe the body in spring (“living”) water to obtain one degree of purification. On the eighth day he or she was to take two turtledoves or pigeons and offer up one as a purification offering, and one as a burnt offering to effect full purgation of uncleanness.

The next most serious case is the corpse contaminated Nazirite (Numbers 6:9-12). This Nazirite did not simply become unclean but also violated his Nazirite vow which prohibits cutting the hair, drinking anything made of grapes, and contact with corpses (6:6). The remedy for the contaminated Nazirite was to shave his head on the first and seventh day after the period of uncleanness had passed, and offer two turtledoves or pigeons, one as a purification offering, one as a burnt offering (these were required to end his vow anyway; 6:13-16), as well as a lamb for a reparation (guilt) offering for his violated vow (Leviticus 5:14-6:7, English).

Anyone whose impurity is prolonged by failing to go through the proper purification rite within prescribed time limits was to offer a reparation/guilt offering (Leviticus 5:1-13).

Any layman who touched a human corpse (Numbers 5:2-4, 19:1-20) was unclean for seven days and had to go though a ritual involving the ashes of a red heifer (Numbers 19:1-22). A red heifer (red a symbol of blood and life) was burned to ashes, which could be mixed with water whenever needed. The corpse-contaminated layman was then sprinkled with water mixed with these ashes on the third and seventh day, and on the seventh day he laundered his clothes and bathed himself to become clean. Numbers 31:19-24 elaborates on the regulation: In war, soldiers involved in killing and who touched corpses, as well as the captives returning from war were unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days they themselves, their captives, their garments, and whatever was made of leather, goat hair or wood were to be purified with water and items of metal purified with fire.

Normal genital discharge (Leviticus 15:16-24) only required waiting a certain period of time and ritual bath: Seven days for a menstruating woman (or a man having intercourse with such a woman) with ritual washing not stated but probably implied, and waiting till evening for an ejaculating man (and his inseminated wife) with ritual washing of his body (and his wife’s) specified. Bathsheba in her bathing within eyeshot of the palace rooftop (2 Samuel 11:2-4) was probably undergoing some sort of ritual purification, perhaps for menstrual uncleanness; this would prove that the child she conceived after adultery with David could not have been fathered by her husband Uriah. If so, by David’s day, it was assumed that Leviticus 15 required a bath for the menstruating woman. Then after having sex with David, Bathsheba left, but only after “having purified herself from her uncleanness” (v. 4). This expression (mithgedesheth mittum’athat) is probably a reference to ritual washing after sexual intercourse.

In other minor cases, such as secondary contamination by touch (Leviticus 15; 22:4-7; Numbers 19:21-22), touching a carcass (Leviticus 11:24-40; 22:5), or handling the red cow ashes, a purification offering or the Day of Atonement (sin) offerings (Leviticus 6:27-28; 16:26, 28; Numbers 19:7-10), a person simply washed his person and clothes (in some cases washing is not stated but is probably implied) and waited till evening to be considered clean.

Objects which became unclean had to be washed in water (wood, cloth, hide, sackcloth), purified by fire (metals), or destroyed (clay pots, earthen oven, or clay cooking pot), depending on the material (Leviticus 11:32-35; Numbers 31:21-23).

The Role of Sacrifices

There is a close connection between the purity/impurity system and the sacrificial system, as is evident from the purification rituals which frequently involve sacrifice.

The most important sacrifice for purification is the purification offering (chattath), misleadingly translated “sin offering” even though it is just as much for ritual impurity (caused by childbirth, ending a Nazirite vow, etc.) as it is for “sin.” The Day of Atonement purification offering is said explicitly to purify, not the people, but the sanctuary from the people’s uncleanness (Leviticus 16:19), which could drive God away from His sanctuary or else cause Him to break out in wrath upon the people. However, the second goat, the “scapegoat,” not only symbolizes removal of sin/impurity from the sanctuary, but also from the people,24 and this opens the possibility that the first goat offered as a purification offering on the Day of Atonement may in a secondary way also purify the people. Similarly, although the blood manipulation of other purification offerings are meant primarily to purify the sanctuary, Milgrom probably goes too far in denying any secondary purification to the person giving the sacrifice in the process.25 It appears that the chattath (ritually speaking) absorbed impurity during the purification ritual, and accordingly could then become the source of impurity by touch as discussed above. Allowing a priest to eat the chattath could possibly be viewed as another means of disposal of impurity (Leviticus 10:17-18), symbolically taking the impurity to some degree upon the priest’s own person, though this interpretation is disputed.26

Some “more serious” cases also required the burnt offering ('olah) as a further expiratory gift, possibly also an expression of gratitude.27 The burnt offering is required for such things as skin disease, childbirth, abnormal genital discharge and a Nazirite’s contamination by a corpse. The exact meaning of the burnt offering (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13) is not explained. The burnt offering is the sacrifice in which the entire animal was burned to ashes on the altar. There was a daily burnt offering and it could be offered at will by individuals in addition to being required for certain forms of purification, for it is an atoning sacrifice. It appears that the worshiper in the ritual identified himself with the animal by laying his hand on it (Leviticus 1:4). Wenham points to Genesis 22—where a ram replaces Isaac on the altar—to suggest that the burnt offering (similarly meal and libation offerings) served as a substitute for the worshiper; its being totally consumed symbolized total consecration of the worshiper to God, a way of expressing entire allegiance of oneself to the Lord and His service (cf. Rom 12:1—“. . . offer your bodies as living sacrifices”).28 Though not entirely certain, this interpretation would be appropriate to one in the process of purification, where the old, impure self is ritually burned away.

Also the reparation (guilt) offering (‘asham) was required for the following cases: anyone whose impurity was prolonged by failing to go through the proper purification rite within the prescribed time (Leviticus 5:1-13); the leper; and the Nazirite who violated his vow by touching a corpse. The Guilt (or Reparation) Offering (Leviticus 5:14-6:7) covers offenses committed “unintentionally,” which cannot mean “unknowingly” since theft is covered, but rather refers to sins that are not committed arrogantly and without repentance. Payment is made for the offering and, where property is involved, restitution is made with twenty percent added as a penalty.

Leviticus 5:14-19 deals with offenses against the Lord’s sancta, such as making ceremonially unclean something dedicated as a votive offering to God, eating food only intended for priests (22:14), failure to pay the tithe, or the like. Having in a sense “robbed God,” the guilty party replaces the item, adds twenty percent as a penalty and makes his offering. Leviticus 6:1-7 (Hebrews 5:20-26) deals with offenses such as fraud, theft, failure to turn over property as promised, etc. Where the offended feels guilty and repents, he is to restore what he stole, defrauded, promised, etc. to the one whom he deprived, with an added twenty percent as a penalty, and then make the offering to God. In case of theft without repentance, reparation was twofold to fivefold (Exodus 22:1, 7). Thus there is a reward in the law, in terms of reduction of penalty, if one repents. The reparation offering, involving as it does violations against sancta, is most appropriate for violations of a vow (the Nazirite) or breech of divine duty (uncleanness prolonged). Less obvious is its association with the ritual cleansing of a leper, though perhaps it covers any unwitting contaminations of sancta on the leper’s part.

The well-being (peace) offering (zebach shelamim), being a non-atoning sacrifice for maintaining and strengthening one’s relationship with God rather than for correcting a state of affairs, was not required as a remedy for impurity.

The Rationale of the Purity Laws

Complex religious and theological symbolism is conveyed by the system of purity and impurity, though unfortunately in most cases the symbolism is implicit rather than explicit. The interpreter must take the details and what interpretation the text provides in order to reconstruct the conceptual world of the purity/impurity system. The following analysis leans heavily on works of Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom who as done a lifetime of research in the area of cultic law. I have also found the works of evangelical scholar Gordon Wenham of help in this area. Milgrom has provided the most satisfactory reconstruction of the symbolism heretofore.

The following is a survey of seven explanations of these laws from the least to the most important, though in my view several categories are simultaneously applicable.

(i) Hygiene. The explanation that I heard as a new Christian for the laws of clean and unclean was that they had to do with health and hygiene.29 There is, to be sure, 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 (Leviticus 13-14) and gonorrhea (Leviticus 15:2-15) in effect quarantined these dangerous diseases and contributed to public health. The avoiding of carcasses, or eating animals which died of natural causes, or contacting human sputum and discharges would do the same. The ritual baths associated with returning to cleanness would also contribute to hygiene. Certain unclean animals are known to transfer diseases to humans: the pig transmits trichinosis (tapeworm), the hare tularemia; carrion-eating birds harbor disease; fish without fins and scales attract disease because they are mud burrowers. Eating animal suet is now known to lead to heart disease.

Hygiene, however, is at best a secondary explanation. Some animals which are excluded have no association with disease: the camel, for example, is a delicacy for Arabs to this day, and there is no evidence that the camel passes disease to humans.30 Wild boars rarely have trichinosis and proper cooking of pork, in any case, generally makes its transmission to humans rare.31 Pork was a staple of Israel’s neighbors, so evidently they had learned to prepare the meat in such a way as to avoid most ill effects. Other foods that are bad for one’s health, such as poisonous plants, are not mentioned, though inclusion of “clean and unclean” plants would be expected to be included were hygiene the main purpose of these laws. Furthermore, some of the clean animals present health hazards; the ruminants of “clean” cud-chewing animals, for example, are host for a number of parasitic organisms.32 Although leprosy is covered in the biblical regulations, other infectious diseases well known in antiquity are ignored, a fact inexplicable if hygiene were the primary motive. Moreover, absolutions through ritual baths for a skin disease occurred after one’s healing, whereas for the purpose of hygiene it should occur before healing.33 Finally (and for the Christian this is especially important), it is inconceivable that Christ would have abolished the distinction between clean and unclean foods (Mark 7:19) if hygiene were the purpose of this distinction.34 These data lead to the conclusion that ritual symbolism rather than hygiene is the primary purpose of these laws.

(ii) Association With That which Is Disgusting, Pagan or Demonic. Some have proposed that some unclean things were condemned as such because of an association with disgusting things and/or paganism. For example, snakes (Leviticus 11:42), camels (Leviticus 11:4; Deuteronomy 14:7) and certain predatory or slimy or creeping animals may have been declared unclean because they awaken a natural aversion in the minds of people.35 In the case of snakes, this aversion may go back to the curse of the fall (Genesis 3:14-15). The pig (Leviticus 11:7: Deuteronomy 14:8) and dog (cf. Leviticus 11:24) may have been unclean because they are scavengers that feed on refuse (including corpses).36 Matthew 7:6—“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (NASB)—shows how the bad and disgusting behavior of these two animals came to be proverbial. Rodents such as the mouse (Leviticus 11:29) invoke disgust as they infest and destroy human stockpiles of grain.

However, certain observations argue against this theory. It perhaps explains why certain animals might be clean or unclean, but does not adequately explain others. There seems no natural aversion to the hyrax or hare, whereas the goat (an animal declared “clean”) can be disgusting in its omnivorousness.37 Some animals, perhaps even the camel, may have been excluded to keep the classification system simple and without many exceptions (e.g., hoofs having clefs and which chew the cud), rather than because of disgust.

Association with pagan religious practices could be a rationale for declaring certain animals unclean, and yet against this notion is that the animals commonly used by Israel’s pagan neighbors for sacrifice and worship (e.g., the bull) were the very same animals commonly used by Israel itself.38 It is often supposed that “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk” was condemned because it was a pagan practice. However, there is no evidence of such a pagan practice. A text from Ugarit once used as evidence of such a practice is now to be interpreted otherwise.39 Moreover, if God wished for Israel to avoid the appearance of pagan practices, he should have condemned the use of the bull for sacrifices, since the bull was a favorite sacrificial animal among Canaanites, and gods in the form of bulls were worshiped in both Egypt and Canaan.40 Since it is clear that Israel’s sacrificial worship shared much in common with her pagan neighbors, this line of interpretation seems doubtful. However, cooking a kid goat in its own mother’s milk might be considered a disgusting, unbecoming thing to do, even if it were not specifically pagan.

Noordtzij’s view41 that the purity system was based on the belief that sin and death were the result of demonic forces and the one “unclean” has fallen under the power of the demonic is purely speculative since there is nothing about demons in the laws. It might be argued that “Azazel” in the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16:8-10, 22; 'aza’zel) is a reference to a “goat demon.” The parallel between the goat “for the Lord” and the goat “for Azazel” (vv. 9-10) lends support for this. However, the text does not attribute any personality to “Azazel,” which is strange if it is considered a living, active demon. Moreover, this so-called demon is not found anywhere else in the Bible or in extra-biblical ancient Near Eastern texts.

In fact, Azazel probably does not refer to a living demon. The word 'aza’zel was understood by the translators of the LXX and Vulgate as 'ez ‘azal, “the goat which goes away,” the origin of the traditional rendering “(e)scapegoat.” This traditional rendering has been too lightly dismissed, and could in fact be true. In that case, there would be no reference to a “goat demon” at all.42 On the other hand, even if Azazel were a name for a demon, it need not be considered a living entity. Wright, while accepting that the word 'aza’zel refers originally to a demon, argues that the meaning of 'aza’zel has been reduced contextually to little more than “the place or goal of disposal”; in other words, the demon became no more than a figure of speech—a metonym—so that “Azazel” meant “the place associated with Azazel.”43 No living demon need be deduced from this passage.

(iii) Ethical Lessons. More plausible than the first two categories (without denying a hint of truth in them) is the possibility that some laws of purity are meant to promote ethical behavior. All the laws of purity, even where arbitrary, cultivated in the Israelite the virtue of self-control, an indispensable first step in the attainment of holiness.44 Other regulations seem to have more specific ethical concerns. Eating meat torn by wild beasts not only defiles ritually, but is contrary to ethical holiness by its dehumanizing effect, reducing human beings to the level of a scavenger dog (Exodus 22:31 [Hebrews 30]).45 It is possible, though no text explicitly states this, that predatory animals (most unclean animals are predatory, no clean ones are) are all unclean because we are not to be like them morally (i.e., destructive and murderous);46 a similar moral explanation could apply to some specific, repulsive species (pigs, snakes). Some rabbinic interpreters (Philo, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam) understood cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21) to be a perverse, savage act on the part of those who take delight in creating such an ironic circumstance.47 Leaving a corpse of an executed man exposed on a tree overnight defiles the land (Deuteronomy 21:23), perhaps because it represents an attitude of excessive vindictiveness and barbarism. That those involved in the slaughter of war (Numbers 31:19-24), even for legitimate reasons (in this case at the command of God), nonetheless became unclean hints at the moral defilement of war. Laws concerning sexual emissions encouraged restraint and self-control (e.g., avoiding sex during menstruation), and would rightly make violators (e.g., prostitutes) into social outcasts.48

The command not to eat the flesh with the blood not only reminded the Israelite of God’s use of blood for atoning sacrifice, but arguably has a further ethical dimension: inculcating respect for animal life. The Israelite was to slaughter an animal in the most painless of ways: slitting the throat (shachat, translated “slaughter,” means “to slit the throat” as in 2 Kings 10:7).49 Moreover, pouring the blood, symbolic of the life, back to God even for non-atoning slaughter symbolized that only by divine permission could even animal life be taken. Hence, the blood prohibition (Genesis 9:3-6) taught the Israelite respect for animal life and for the Author of life whose permission was required to shed any blood, whether animal or human. This leads to a further moral implication: If taking mere animal life is not trivial, how much more serious is shedding human blood! Milgrom50 adds that the food laws, in accord with a reverence for animal life, limited the slaughtering of animals—only for food, only certain species, only if certain procedures are followed. The practical effect of the kosher laws (which are even more complex than the biblical injunctions) has indeed been that many modern observant Jews become vegetarians due to the complications of obtaining kosher meat.

There may be something to Milgrom’s suggestions, but as Wright51 observes, it is doubtful that these laws actually reduced the quantity of meat consumed by ancient Israel since one may compensate for the limitations by breeding more animals (cf. Genesis 7:2, where more clean animals were brought onto the ark in anticipation of their use as food). Moreover, as Houston observes, designating certain species as “unclean, abhorrent or abominable” rather than “holy” seems to be an odd way of inculcating “reverence for life.”52 The laws do, nonetheless, discourage indiscriminate killing of animals (e.g., recreational hunting that leaves the flesh to rot).

(iv) Association of Yahweh With Life And Wholeness Rather Than Death And Disorder. The purity system arguably conveys in a symbolic way that Yahweh is the God of life (order) and is separated from that which has to do with death (disorder). Corpses and carcasses rendered a person unclean because they obviously have to do with death. Most (though not all) of the unclean animals are somehow associated with death, either being predators/scavengers (animals with paws rather than hoofs) or living in tomb-like caves (rock badgers). The pig, in particular, in addition to being a scavenger, was associated with the worship of chthonic or underworld deities and/or demons among the Hittites, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.53 The scale disease rendered a person unclean because it made a person waste away like a corpse (cf. Numbers 12:12, “Let her not be like a corpse,” referring to Miriam’s skin disease).54 Bodily discharges (blood for women, semen for men—blood and semen both symbols of life) may represent a temporary loss of strength and life and movement towards death. Whitekettle advocates an alternative view that bodily discharges represent lack of wholeness and sexual dysfunction, a womb undergoing self-destruction during menstruation or postpartum, during which time conception is unlikely.55 Similarly men, after ejaculation, typically need some time to regenerate before returning to full sexual function. Because decaying corpses discharge, so natural bodily discharges are reminders of sin and death.56 Purification rituals symbolize movement from death towards life and accordingly involved blood, the color red, and spring (literal “living”) water, all of which are symbols of life (Leviticus 17:11; 14:5, 50; Numbers 19:2, 17, etc.).

Even some food laws can be explained on this basis. Why was Israel not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21)? Perhaps it was because it was inappropriate to combine that which is a symbol of life (mother’s milk) with the death of that for which it was meant to give life,57 especially in the context of the festival of Tabernacles (so the context of Exodus 23:19), celebrating the life-giving power of Yahweh.58

Mary Douglas59 has shown the connection between cleanness/holiness and such concepts as “wholeness,” “physical perfection,” and “completeness”; hence, priests and animals with the same physical imperfections were ineligible for the sanctuary (Leviticus 21:17-21; 22:20-24). Physical imperfections, representing a movement from “life” towards “death,” moved a person ritually away from God, who is to be associated with life.

This symbolic system served to separate Yahweh worship from necromancy, spiritualism and ancestor veneration, since dealings with the dead rendered a person unclean (cf. Leviticus 19:31, where consulting spiritualists renders one “unclean” morally). Even sitting among the graves (Isaiah 65:4) is condemned.

(v) Separation of Holiness From Expressions of Sexuality. In certain pagan cults, sexual acts were performed as part of the worshiper’s devotion to deity. For example, there was in Corinth the famous brothel of Aphrodite, and according to Herodotus (1.199), though perhaps significantly not confirmed by cuneiform sources, every woman in Babylon (and similarly at Cyprus) was obligated to prostitute herself once at the temple of a goddess (Ishtar?). A once common but more recently challenged scholarly reconstruction is the hypothesized pagan practice of sacred prostitution in which fertility was conveyed to the land through ritualized sexual intercourse at the cultus in a form of sympathetic magic.60 For Israel, in contrast, all expressions of sexuality rendered a person unclean. Priests were to wear breeches and altars were to be made without stairs to avoid even the hint of sexual impropriety in worship (Exodus 28:42; 20:26). Since sexual acts rendered a person “unclean,” sacred prostitution for the observant Israelite would have been unthinkable.

Designating sexual activity as “unclean” does not mean that sex is inherently evil. However, it does clearly separate sexuality from the holy, relegating it to the sphere of the common, the earthly.61 It is therefore probably not coincidence that in the resurrection there is no marriage (Matthew 22:30). Moreover, making all sexual acts “unclean” may relate to the Fall which resulted in the perversion of human sexuality: sexual shame (fig leaves), multiplied pain in childbirth, the man’s lust for and domination of the woman (Genesis 3:7, 10-11, 16, 19).62

(vi) Separation From The Gentiles. One clear purpose of the laws of purity was to separate Israel from the Gentiles. The separation of sexuality from any form of worship just mentioned would have the effect of separating Israel from at least some of her pagan neighbors. More directly, the clean/unclean system divided animals, people and land into three categories. In the animal realm there are clean animals which could be sacrificed on an altar, clean animals (wild game, fish) which could be eaten but not sacrificed on an altar, and unclean animals which ritually defiled the eater and could not be sacrificed (and some among the unclean animals are further called shegets [“cultic abomination”] or to'ebah [“abomination, abhorrence”]: Leviticus 11:10-13, 20, 23, 41; Deuteronomy 14:3). This separation among animals parallels that of people (cf. Leviticus 21:18-21 and 22:20-24, where the symbolic parallelism is seen in that defects which bar a priest from service are the same defects which keep an animal from being offered to God): Priests were “holy” and separated from other Israelites for service in the sanctuary, ordinary Israelites were “clean” and separated from non-Israelites, leaving non-Israelites “unclean” (and some, such as Canaanites, with especially wicked idolatrous practices, were an abomination: Leviticus 18:26-30; Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 25-26; 20:17-18). There is a similar system of separation of space: the tabernacle (associated with priests) was holy; the land (associated with the Israelites) was clean; the rest of the world (associated with Gentiles) was unclean. Thus the purity system symbolically reinforced teaching elsewhere that Israel was a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), set apart from all others.63 In keeping the food laws, the Israelites thus acknowledged that God had chosen and saved them from the nations.

Moreover, the food laws discouraged table fellowship with the Canaanites whose diet would ordinarily include pork and other items condemned as “unclean.” These laws were thus a practical means of maintaining Israel as a holy people. This connection with the food laws and separation from the nations is stated explicitly:

You must therefore make a distinction between the clean and the unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourself by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Leviticus 20:25-26, author’s emphasis)

Thus these laws, like the kosher laws for modern Jews, helped maintain the Israelites as a separate and distinct people.

The other laws, by creating distinctive customs, even where such customs were arbitrary and without any inherent moral value (e.g., Leviticus 18:19, not wearing garment made of two types of material), 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.

The idea that the nations are unclean, not only ritually but also morally, finds expression in the historical books. In Joshua 22:19, the Transjordanian tribes were reproved by the other Israelites for building an altar in the Transjordan. The other Israelites reasoned that the Transjordan, being outside of the land of promise given to Abraham, was “unclean,” an idea also found in the prophets (see below). The book of Ezra describes the land of Canaan as “unclean” (niddah, “menstruating”) and full of impurity, using the imagery of ritual uncleanness for moral uncleanness, and describes how the returned exiles (priests and laymen) purified themselves from “the impurity of the nations” to re-institute the Passover (Ezra 9:11; 6:19-22). The Chronicler states that Israel’s following the abominations of the nations defiled the house of the Lord (2 Chronicles 36:14). To avoid such defilement, Nehemiah had “purified” (Piel of taher, that is, “eradicated”) everything foreign from the priests and Levites (Nehemiah 13:30).

Likewise, the prophets imply that foreign lands and foreign peoples are associated with “uncleanness.” The expression “the uncircumcised and the unclean” is used as a hendiadys for Gentiles whose invasions defiled the sanctuary; while the Jewish exiles go out of the midst of “her [Babylon’s] impurities” (Isaiah 52:1, 11). Amos explicitly calls the foreign lands to where Israel would be deported “unclean soil” (7:17). Hosea states that Israel in Assyrian exile would eat their food “unclean” among the Gentiles, implying ritual impurity is associated with living in exile outside the Promised Land (9:3-4). Ezekiel made a similar point. He was told by God to eat a barley cake baked over human dung—dung being a source of ritual defilement (cf. Deuteronomy 23:12-13)—whose impurity would be passed to the food cooked over it by contact of the smoke. This act symbolized that the Israelites would eat their bread/food unclean among the nations in the Babylonian exile. When Ezekiel complains to God that he had never before eaten ritually unclean food, God, in a concession to his prophet, allowed him to use the less defiling cow’s dung instead (4:9-17). Ironically, however, Ezekiel also affirms that Israel will have its uncleanness removed through the fiery judgment of the exile (22:15; 24:11, 13), and beyond the exile Israel will be sprinkled clean from idolatry (36:25, 29).

The abolition of the food laws in the New Testament (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15 with 11:9; Romans 14:14) conveys deep theological significance. As argued above, the division of animals into clean and unclean symbolized the separation between Israelites and Gentiles. Accordingly, the abolition of the kosher laws must symbolize a breaking down of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.64 That this is the correct understanding of the symbolism is seen in God’s lesson to Peter in Acts 10-11: God now declares the Gentiles “clean,” and Peter is not to continue to think of them as inherently unclean. 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.

(vii) Holiness of God/Contamination of Man. The most important explanation of the rules of purity is that they teach the concept of the holiness of God. The account that forms the preface to the laws of purity in Leviticus 11-15 is that of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who where struck dead for improperly approaching the sanctuary (Leviticus 10). God explains that through this incident “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified” (10:3, RSV). Likewise, at the end of the food laws, God comments that the Israelites were to be holy, and were to show that holiness by not eating unclean “swarming things” (11:44). God had brought them out of Egypt, so that “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (11:45). At the end of the purity laws comes the Day of Atonement ritual. In reference to the death of the two sons of Aaron, God warns against coming into the “most holy place” (Leviticus 16:1-2). This bracketing of the laws of clean and unclean with the death of Aaron’s two sons and the idea of the sanctuary’s holiness suggests that the most important lesson conveyed by this system is that God is holy (i.e. “set apart”).

Conversely, these laws suggest that people, in contrast with the holiness of God, are contaminated and corrupt; therefore, those who approach God must be sanctified or purified. The unclean are excluded from the tabernacle, the symbolic dwelling place of God (Numbers 5:3; Leviticus 15:31) and everyone by biology inevitably contracts uncleanness from time to time. Although the texts are notoriously sparse in explanations, when taken in conjunction with biblical teaching as a whole, this might be taken to imply that human beings, by nature of being part of this sin-cursed, fallen world, are “unclean” or “contaminated” and are not automatically eligible to approach God. In any case, the purity system, emphasizing the holiness of God and the impurity of man, teaches that humans must prepare themselves both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God.

Ceremonial “uncleanness/impurity” cannot be equated with “sin” since natural bodily functions and other factors beyond human control could (and periodically did) cause a person to be unclean. Nonetheless, there is a strong analogy between “uncleanness” and “sin.” Hence the “sin” or “purification” offering (chattath), including the special “sin offering” on the Day of Atonement, served to cleanse both sin and ritual impurity (Leviticus 5:1-5; 16:16-22). That uncleanness is also used metaphorically of deviations of morality hints at this symbolic connection. In the Pentateuch, rape (Genesis 34:5, 13, 27), adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Numbers 5:19), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23), all the various “sins” which led God to remove the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:24-26), remarriage to a first husband after divorce and remarriage to a second husband (Deuteronomy 24:4), consultation with mediums (19:31), sacrificing one’s children to Molech (20:3), and murder (Numbers 35:33-34) are all described using the language of “uncleanness” (tame’), showing the symbolic link between moral and ethical uncleanness.

Poetical and prophetic writers use the language of ritual purity for ethical purity, showing that they, too, recognized the symbolic connection. That the person with the skin disease is analogous to a sinner was evident in Psalm 51, in which the imagery associated with the purification of lepers is applied to cleansing from sins (Psalms 51:7 [cf. superscript]; similarly, Lamentations 4:13, 15). “Clean” and “unclean” can be used in the sense of “righteous” and “wicked,” as shown by the parallelism (Ecclesiastes 9:2; Job 17:11). Several acts are cited as producing ethical “impurity”: repudiation of parents (Proverbs 30:11-12), shedding the blood of the righteous (Lamentations 4:13-15), idolatry and child sacrifice (Psalm 106:36-39), as well as murder and adultery (Psalm 51:2, 7, 10; cf. superscript and 2 Samuel 11). The destruction of (or perhaps plundering of) the temple by the nations defiled it both ethically and ritually (Psalm 79:1). The poetical books moreover affirm the doctrine of the sinful nature of man; i.e., that human beings are (ethically) “unclean” by nature and cannot stand “pure” before a holy God (Proverbs 20:9; Job 4:17; 14:4). Since only one “who has (ethically) clean (nagi) hands and a pure (bar) heart (i.e., the “mind, inward self”; leb)” was eligible to ascend the temple mount to be in God’s presence (Psalm 24:3-4), moral cleansing of the heart like unto outward ritual purification was required for the sinner (Psalm 51:10-11a). The attitude of heart required to produce such “clean” or righteous acts is “the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 19:9).

Like the poetic books, various prophets (especially the priest Ezekiel) use the language of “clean” and “unclean” metaphorically in the ethical sense. Isaiah states that he and his people have “unclean lips,” that is, they are morally impure and unfit to speak for God or to be in His presence (Isaiah 6:5). However, in the Messianic age no one (morally) unclean will travel on God’s highway of holiness (Isaiah 35:8). Isaiah confesses that because of sin, all of his people have become “like one who is unclean” and that their righteous deeds were like a filthy garment (beged 'iddim, literally, “a menstrual cloth”; Isaiah 64:6 [Hebrews 5]). Sins such as bloodshed and falsehood (morally) defile (ga'al) and separate a people from God (Isaiah 59:2-3). Zephaniah (3:1-4) describes seventh-century Jerusalem as defiled (ga'al), hence unfit for the presence of God, by various sins—unteachability, unbelief, corrupt leaders (princes, judges, prophets, priests), causing her sanctuary to be profaned (root: chalal), making it unfit for God’s name to abide there.

Ezekiel states that transgressions defiled Israel (14:11) so that Israel is “unclean of name,” i.e., has a reputation for (ethical) impurity (22:5). Ezekiel moreover compares Israel’s wicked deeds with that of the uncleanness of a menstruating woman (36:17), and adds that the exile was due to Israel’s (moral) uncleanness and transgressions (Ezekiel 39:24). Various sins are said by various prophets to “defile” morally: adultery (Ezekiel 18:6, 11, 15; 33:26), incest (Ezekiel 22:11), idolatry [often under the metaphor of harlotry] (Isaiah 30:22; Jeremiah 2:23; 7:30; 32:34; Ezekiel 5:11; 20:7, 8, 18; 22:3-4, 23:7, 13, 30; 36:18, 25; 37:23; 43:8; Hosea 5:3; 6:10), child sacrifice (Ezekiel 20:26, 31), bloodshed (Ezekiel 22:3-4), political intrigues with foreign nations (Ezekiel 23:17), working on the Sabbath (Ezekiel 20:12-13, 21; 22:26), violations of laws and covenants (Isaiah 24:5) and miscellaneous evil deeds (Jeremiah 2:7; Ezekiel 20:43).

The post-exilic prophets use ritual purity to illustrate moral and religious points. Haggai 2:10-14 refers to Haggai’s conversation with the priests concerning the rules of conveying purity by touch. The passage is difficult, but the prophet probably uses their answer to make the following moral point:65 The people were involved in a holy task, the building of Zerubbabel’s temple (520-516 bc). But as the holiness of an offering does not rub off on “common” food, so the holiness of that task of temple building would not automatically rub off on the builders. On the contrary, if they were (spiritually) unclean of heart, that uncleanness would instead rub off on their sacrifices and make them and the temple itself unacceptable. It was imperative, then, not only that Zerubbabel’s temple be built (as Haggai had exhorted), but that the builders have the right attitude of heart (ethical purity).

Zechariah also uses ritual purity for symbolic purposes. The vision of Zech 3:1-5 (dated to February 15, 519 b.c., during the rebuilding of the temple) shows Joshua the high priest wearing “filthy” garments and being accused by Satan. However Satan’s accusation does not stand, for Joshua is given a ceremonially “clean” turban and his filthy garments are removed. This symbolizes that though the priesthood had been defiled before and during the exile among unclean nations, God had snatched Joshua and the priesthood from the fire of exile in order to purify and forgive His priesthood and make them once more fit for temple service. Zechariah also uses the purity/impurity system in predictive prophecy. Zechariah 13:1-2 affirms that in the eschatological age, when the Jewish nation looks upon God whom they have pierced (12:10), a fountain will be opened to remove “sin and uncleanness” from the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all idols and false prophets with “unclean spirits” will be eradicated from the land. “Sin and uncleanness” are closely connected. This seems to be associated with the purification of Israel in conjunction with the second coming of Christ (14:4), after which all the remnant of Israel will be holy to the Lord (14:20-21). Malachi refers to the (ethical) purification of Levi in the Messianic age (Malachi 3:3) so that they may offer acceptable offerings, in contrast with the ritually defiled offerings the priests were presenting to God in Malachi’s day (1:7-8, 12-14).

In sum, just as physical uncleanness can come from within (natural bodily functions) and from without (contaminating things), in an analogous way sin comes both from perverse human nature within and temptations without.

The prohibition against eating the fat of sheep, goats, and cattle reminded Israel that certain clean animals were set apart to God for sacrificial worship and for making blood atonement. Apart from blood sacrifice, sinful/unclean humanity is ineligible to approach a holy God. The requirement to pour out the blood of all slaughtered animals to God rather than “eating blood” reminded Israel that blood had a special place in their religion, for it had been consecrated on the altar for making atonement (Leviticus 17:11).66 Even the “well being” offering (zebach shelamim), which was primarily for food and fellowship with God rather than atonement, required the pouring out of the blood to God because of the importance of blood for the atoning sacrifices which reconcile unclean man with a holy God.

The Purity System and Sacred Space

From the foregoing, it may be deduced that the purity system is central to creating a sense of sacred space for ancient Israel. Houston67 points out that the whole system of purity is concerned with protection of the sanctuary, even where it is not immediately apparent (Leviticus 12:4; 15:31; Numbers 19:13, 20), for the sanctuary was God’s residence, was the source of holiness, blessing, and order, and was threatened on every side by the pollution that surrounded it. The special holiness of the tabernacle, being incompatible with uncleanness and idolatry, was a reminder of the sacredness of tabernacle space, setting it apart from Canaanite sanctuaries that were instead to be profaned. Hence the rules of clean and unclean impressed on the mind of every Israelite that a special holiness was associated with Yahweh’s sanctuary and no other. As Wright68 points out, the object of ritual cleansing with the purification offering’s blood is primarily the sanctuary and not so much the worshiper. That the sanctuary needs this constant cleansing from human impurities and sins shows the sanctuary to be set apart, sacred. Thus the holiness and sacredness of that sacred space is emphasized.

It was the sense of the sacredness of the tabernacle and temple space that made purification from moral and ritual impurity essential. Nehemiah showed the sense of sacred space when he evicted wicked Tobiah’s possessions from his chamber in the temple precincts that had been allowed by the priest Eliashib. He then ordered ritual purification (Piel of taher) of both the room and the priesthood which had been defiled (go’al) by the association of temple with “things foreign” (Nehemiah 13:7-9, 29-30). It was to protect the sacredness of tabernacle space that laymen, laymen-slaves of a priest and daughters of priests married to laymen could not eat of the sacred donations to the sanctuary (Leviticus 22:10-13).69

Wright observes,

. . . the Priestly writings’ concern [was] to put impurity in its proper place. When this corpus is studied further, one finds that there is a similar concern about the proper place for holiness and purity. The information about places of holiness, purity, and impurity, as a whole, reveals a larger system of what may be called “cultic topography.”70

This “cultic topography” serves to distinguish “sacred space” from non-sacred “common space” and defiled “unclean” space. It was because the tabernacle (and later temple) was the “Holy Place” that one needed to be so careful not to approach it in a condition of ceremonial impurity. The various rules of holy and clean and unclean raised in the consciousness of the Israelite worshiper the sense that the sanctuary was “sacred space.” Some activities must occur only in “a holy place” within the sanctuary precincts, including the consumption of the most holy purification, guilt/reparation and cereal offerings (Leviticus 6:9, 19, 20 [Hebrew]; 7:6; 10:12-14, 17; 14:13; 16:24; 24:9; Exodus 29:31), whereas the well-being (peace) offerings (zebach shelamim) though they could be eaten in the sanctuary, could also be consumed in a “pure place” outside the sanctuary (Leviticus 10:14).71 The carcass of the purification offering also had to be burned and disposed in a “pure place” (Leviticus 4:11-12, 21; 6:4, 23 [Hebrew]; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27; Exodus 29:14; Numbers 19:9), whereas building materials infected with the fungus that resembles scale disease were to be disposed in an “impure place” (Leviticus 14:40-41, 45).72 Thus these rules underscore three kinds of space: sacred, pure and impure.

In contrast with the sacredness of the tabernacle, biblical law demanded the desecration of pagan “sacred spaces.” Israel was commanded to destroy Canaanite sacred objects and places, placing them under the ban (cherem; Exodus 23:24; 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5). This represented a desacralization of the Canaanite cultic spaces. Idolatrous practices and objects are never labeled “unclean,” and no impurity ritual is prescribed even in places that foreign cult practices are mentioned in Leviticus where one might expect prescription of such rituals (e.g., Leviticus 19:4; 26:1-2); nonetheless, idolatrous things “defile” in the moral sense (rather than ritual) both Israelites and their sanctuary (Leviticus 18:24, 30; 20:3), implying idolatry is akin to uncleanness. Moreover, like the transmission of impurity, the status of being cherem [dedicated to destruction] was transferable from the idol to the idolater (Deuteronomy 7:25-26).73 For this reason Josiah “defiled” (Piel of tame’), that is “destroyed,” the ritually impure high places and altars of pagan gods which Manasseh his father had allowed to flourish in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:8-16; cf. Jeremiah 19:13, where “to defile” houses polluted by idolatry also means “to destroy” them).

In a sense, the whole land of Israel was somewhat sacred space, in contrast with the defiled space of Gentile lands. Nonetheless, Gentile sojourners (gerim) are allowed to share the semi-sacred space of land, even partaking holy things, such as the Passover meal (provided that they followed the law of circumcision) and the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 12:48; Deuteronomy 16:14). Like Israelites, they had to undergo ritual purification when they contracted carcass impurity (Leviticus 17:15).
All this is done, because the sanctuary, Israel’s sacred space, was holy.

* * * * *

As one approaches the New Covenant, in one sense the idea of sacred space has been abolished along with the purity laws. The temple, though still utilized in the book of Acts by the early Christians (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:21, etc.), was doomed to destruction (Matthew 24:2), a fact that anticipates a new day in which emphasis on that sacred space would by necessity be abolished. Similarly, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that what is essential for worship will henceforth not be a particular sacred space, but a sacred heart attitude, worshiping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24). Instead of a tabernacle dwelling in the wilderness, symbolizing God’s dwelling among His people, under the New Covenant Christ tabernacles among us (John 1:14), so wherever two or three gather in His name, there He is in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Whereas the purity/impurity laws symbolized both sacred space (land, temple) and sacred community (Israelites, priests), under the New Covenant sacred space has been supplanted by sacred community.74 The church is a new community in which the sharp division between “clean” Israelites and “unclean” Gentiles has broken down as symbolized by the breakdown, under the New Covenant, of the clean/unclean system for food, persons, and space that these laws had symbolized.

Nevertheless, arguably some principles of the purity laws and sacred space may still be applicable. Surely the “place” where two or more gather in Christ’s name becomes, by that fact, “holy ground,” and as holy ground, can be defiled, not by ceremonial impurity, but by ethical impurity. It remains true that those who would metaphorically ascend the hill of the Lord at the sacred places where believers gather, must have (ethically) “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4), lest that sacred time and place be defiled.

As one compares the linked concepts in Israel of the holiness of God and the sacredness of God’s sanctuary as taught by the purity laws with modern evangelical spirituality, the contrasts appear very stark. Instead of holiness and transcendence, our sanctuaries often emphasize casualness towards God and an almost irreverent informality where chitchat is more common than awe. One rarely feels in an evangelical church that this place is holy, even though we may give lip service to having gathered in Christ’s name and having His holy presence among us. Not often, at least in my own experience, are the members of an evangelical church exhorted to protect the sacredness of the sacred community gathered against defilements that might profane it.

Some difference in emphasis can be explained on the basis of the changes associated with the New Covenant that to a greater degree emphasizes the immanence of God as revealed in Jesus Christ who “rent the [temple’s] veil” of separation between God and man. On the other hand, was it for no abiding reason that God inculcated in Israel not only the truth of His presence as represented by the Dwelling Place or tabernacle in their midst, but also, through the purity laws (among others), the need for maintaining sacredness of the place where He so dwells? Though God cannot be confined to any space—“the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain him” as Solomon says in his prayer dedicating the temple (1 Kings 8:27)—the very fact that we build churches suggests that we, too, sense a need, psychologically and emotionally, for “sacred space” analogous to Israel’s sacred space—a place set aside for seeking God’s presence and blessing. But if, by analogy, we, like Israel of old, produce sacred spaces for our sacred communities to gather, ought we not, by that same analogy, guard the sacredness of such spaces from any or all defilements that could profane that space for worship? Perhaps the low level of “sacredness” associated with evangelical sanctuaries comes not so much from Christian liberty as our failure to reflect the ineffable, transcendent greatness of God through our worship. In this we can perhaps learn, not only from ancient Israel, but also from Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where the concept of sacred space, drawn heavily from that of ancient Israel, is far more vivid than it is for us.

1 Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 18-25.
2 Richard Whitekettle, “Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World,” Vetus Testamentum, 46 (1996), 377.
3 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, vol. 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 457-460.
4 R. L. Harris, “Leviticus,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, ed. F. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 586.
5 David P. Wright, The Disposal of Impurity, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 101 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1987), 129-146.
6 Jacob Milgrom in Numbers, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 160, 438-443, argues convincingly that Numbers 19:9 should be rendered, “It is a chattath [i.e., a purification offering]” (cf. NRSV, REB). Many English versions regularly render misleadingly “for removal of sin” or the like (e.g., RSV, NIV, NASB), but rendering the word “sin” is unacceptable since contamination by removing a corpse from a tent (Numbers 19:14) involves no “sin.” Rather, this is a purification offering for ceremonial uncleanness.
7 Walter Houston has written a monograph on this topic entitled Purity and Monotheism: Clean and Unclean Animals in Biblical Law, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (hereafter referred to as JSOTSup) 140 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
8 The precise translation of the various birds is uncertain. Houston, 44-45, gives a chart of ancient and modern proposals for some twenty terms.
9 Houston, 51.
10 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 427.
11 Richard E. Averbeck, “Clean and Unclean,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 480.
12 ”Burned” is ordinarily taken to mean cremated after execution, though I wonder if the penalty is not “branding” instead.
13 Jacob Milgrom, “Rationale for Cultic Law: The Case of Impurity,” Semeia 45 (1989): 104.
14 Although it does not precisely follow the prescribed procedure for Israelites healed from scale disease, Naaman the Syrian was told by Elisha to follow a ritual reminiscent of it: washing seven times in the Jordan after which his flesh was restored and he became ritually “clean” (2 Kings 5:10-14). In poetic justice, Gehazi the servant of Elisha contracted Naaman’s leprosy as punishment for his greed, showing again the close relationship between sin and uncleanness, and that impurity could be transferred (5:15-27).
15 Whitekettle, “Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle,” 381.
16 Ibid., 390.
17 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 131.
18 A. A. Bonar, A Commentary on Leviticus (London: Banner of Truth, 1966 [originally 19th century]), 229; Samuel Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1978 [originally 1899]), 229.
19 Harris, “Leviticus,” 574.
20 Ibid., 254; Bonar, Leviticus, 229.
21 Hartley, Leviticus, 168. [partial]
22 R. K. Harrison, Leviticus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1980), 135.
23 C. F. Keil, The Pentateuch (Commentary on the Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978 (19th century)]), 376, with citations affirming that the ancients believed a mother’s discharge to be greater after the birth of a girl. Physician D. I. Macht, in “A Scientific Appreciation of Leviticus 12:1-15,” Journal of Biblical Literature (hereafter referred to as JBL) 52 (1933), 253-60, shows that a somewhat longer discharge (not double) after the birth of a girl is a scientifically confirmed phenomenon. Jonathan Magonet, “ ‘But if it is a Girl She is Unclean for Twice Seven Days . . .’ The Riddle of Leviticus 12.5,” Reading Leviticus, JSOTSup 227; ed. J. F. A. Sawyer (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 144-152, points out that the withdrawal of maternal hormones at birth causes roughly one in ten female babies to experience vaginal bleeding, a fact that is regularly communicated to beginning midwives so they would not be overly concerned; hence, a double period of purification could be a result of not infrequently having two females (mother and baby) producing impurity through vaginal discharges, with the baby’s impurity being reckoned to the mother with whom she had been united.
24 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 18.
25 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 258-259; cf. N. Zohar, “Repentance and Purification: The Significance and Semantics of the Chattath in the Pentateuch,” JBL 107, 4 (Dec 1988): 609-618.
26 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 132-133. This view would fit well into Christian theology of how Christ, as High Priest, takes sin upon Himself.
27 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 758.
28 Gordon Wenham, “The Theology of Old Testament Sacrifice,” Sacrifice in the Bible, ed. Beckwith and M. Selman (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 82-83.
29 A popular version of the theory is presented by S. I. McMillen, None of these Diseases (Westwood: Revell, 1963).
30 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 719.
31 Hartley, Leviticus, 142.
32 Ibid.
33 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 963.
34 G. J. Wenham, “Christ’s Healing Ministry and His Attitude to the Law,” Christ the Lord, ed. H. H. Rowdon (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1982), 117; idem “The Theology of Unclean Food,” Evangelical Quarterly 53 (Jan./Mar 1981), 7.
35 J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 370.
36 Houston, 189-191. He notes that the LXX of 1 Kings 21:19 and 22:38 reads “pigs and dogs licked the blood of Naboth” and “pigs and dogs licked up the blood, and the prostitutes will wash in your blood.” The Masoretic text lacks “pigs” in both cases, but the LXX Vorlage’s reading may well be original.
37 Ibid., 76-78.
38 Wenham, “The Theology of Unclean Food,” 7.
39 R. Ratner and B. Zuckerman, “ ’A Kid in Milk’?: New Photographs of KTU 1.23, line 14,” Hebrew Union College Annual 57 (1986), 15-16; Peter C. Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 74-76; The Ugarit text is found in A. Herdner, ed., Corpus de Tablettes en Cuneiformes Alphabetiques, 23:14.
40 Wenham, “Christ’s Healing Ministry,” 118.
41 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, 131, 135. 145, 152f, 168, etc.; A. Noordtzij, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), passim.
42 See Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vol.; ed. R. Laird Harris, et. al. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 657-658 for other non-demonic views. The New Testament does refer to “unclean spirits,” but this does not seem relevant to these passages in the Pentateuch.
43 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 25.
44 Epstein, cited by Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 44.
45 Joe M. Sprinkle, ‘The Book of the Covenant’: A Literary Approach, JSOTSup 174 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 176.
46 Wenham, Leviticus, 184.
47 Sprinkle, `The Book of the Covenant,’ 195.
48 Wenham, Leviticus, 222-225.
49 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 154-155.
50 Jacob Milgrom, “Ethics and Ritual: The Biblical Foundations of the Dietary Laws” Religion and Law: Biblical, Jewish and Islamic Perspectives, ed. E. Firmage, et al. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 159-191.
51 David P. Wright, “Observations on the Ethical Foundations of the Biblical Dietary Laws,” Religion and Law: Biblical, Jewish and Islamic Perspectives ed. E. Firmage, et al. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 197.
52 Houston, 77.
53 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 651.
54 Ibid., 819.
55 Whitekettle, “Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle,” 376-391. He observes against Milgrom’s view that menstruation represents movement towards death that “no woman has ever menstruated to death” (p. 377), a generality that though it no doubt has exceptions, is nonetheless well taken.
56 Wenham, Leviticus, 188.
57 Cited by E. A. Knauf, “Zur Herhunft und Sozialgeschichte Israels,” Bib 69 (1988), 153-154.
58 Sprinkle, `Book of the Covenant,’ 194-195.
59 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), 51-57.
60 Deuteronomy 23:17f [Hebrews 18f] prohibits any female from being a qedawa (“holy one [fem.]”), seemingly defined in the next verse as a “prostitute” (zona), and any male from being a qadew (“holy one [masc.]”), seemingly defined as the “dog” of the next verse, and prohibits the wages of such personages from being given to the sanctuary. Thus male and female prostitutes appear to be in view. Why the male prostitute is called a “dog” is conjectural, as are the answers to other questions: Did he take the stance of a dog during sex? Is this some sort of title for a “faithful” cult official (a 4th Century b.c. inscription at Kition lists “dog” as a minor cult official; E. Goodfriend, Anchor Bible Dictionary [1992], V: 507)? Is it pejorative slang for male prostitutes? Did he service only men, or possibly women also? Directly germane to our discussion, did the qedawa and the qadew engage in sex with each other in a form of sympathetic magic to induce the gods to give fertility to the land? That “sacred prostitution” was part of a rite to give fertility to the land has been widely speculated, but no solid evidence supports it, and recent scholarship radically questions whether the Old Testament refers to “sacred prostitution” in that sense at all (Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy, JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996], 480-481; K. van der Toorn, Anchor Bible Dictionary, V: 510-512). Tamar becomes a qedawa (Genesis 38:21f), but she seems to be an ordinary harlot, not a cult prostitute. The basic idea of “holiness” (root qdw) has to do with the “separation,” and could refer to the qedawa-harlot in the sense that prostitutes are separated or alienated from the larger community (Elaine Goodfriend, “Could Keleb in Deuteronomy 23:19 Actually Refer to a Canine?” Pomegranates and Golden Bells [ed. David Wright, et. al.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1995], 385). Hosea 4:14 speaks of men offering sacrifice with the qedawa (parallel with zonah), which could be an part of sacred prostitution, but the offense could be that of bringing the ceremonially unclean (secular) prostitute into the sanctuary. On the other hand, in Kings the masculine qadew is regularly mentioned in conjunction with cultic offenses (1 Kings 14:23-24; 15:12; 2 Kings 23:6ff) and so the idea of cultic prostitution cannot be altogether ruled out.
61 Hartley, Leviticus, 214.
62 Payne, Theology of the Older Testament, 371.
63 Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 720-726.
64 Wenham, “Christ’s Healing Ministry,” 122; Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 726.
65 C. Peter Craigie, Twelve Prophets, vol. 2; DSB (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 147-150.
66 N. Kiuchi, The Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature, JSOTSup 56 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 101-109; contrast Jacob Milgrom in Religion and Law, 159-192, who takes a very different view of Leviticus 17:11.
67 Houston, 245.
68 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 18, 130.
69 Layman is the rendering of ger, usually of foreign sojourners, but contextually here of those not of priestly descent dwelling among the priests. See NRSV, NASB.
70 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 231.
71 Ibid., 232-236.
72 Ibid., 243.
73 Ibid., 283-285.
74 Richard Averbeck, “Sacred Space and Sacred Community in the Old Testament and the New Testament,” paper read at the Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, Danvers, MA, November 18, 1999.

Editorial: Hypocrisy- The Malpractice of Religious Leaders

The Laws of Clean and Unclean and Their Relationship with the Concept of Sacred Space, Joe M. Sprinkle

Does a Soul Have Wrinkles? Evangelism and Mature Adults, James A. Davies

The DNA Factor of Church Growth, Peter Hay

Constructing Contextual Theology in a Postmodern Asian Society, Paul Y. Siu

A Critique of Charles Nienkirchen's Book, A.B. Simpson and the Pentecostal Movement, Paul L. King

From Eden to the Christian Counselor's Couch: Humanity's Loss and Recovery of Wholeness, Craig W. Ellison

Nonverbal Communication and Spiritual Discernment, K. Neill Foster

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

Home > 2000

©2006 by K. Neill Foster