Understanding the Cleanliness Laws

                One of the more obscure sections of the Law, at least from a modern Western perspective, is the cleanliness laws of Leviticus 11-15. This idea of cleanliness, which is also referenced frequently throughout the rest of Leviticus as well as Numbers and Deuteronomy, is a crucial concept to understanding the entirety of the Law and the statutes concerning the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). When we use the word clean today, we are often referring to external hygiene; if one has taken a shower or bath, they are clean. If someone has gotten dirty or sweaty, they are unclean. The process of removing uncleanness for us is using water to remove it. Indeed, that idea even shows up in Biblical imagery: the idea of baptism “washing away our sins” is a prevalent one in the New Testament. The idea of clean in the Old Testament, however, is more complicated than simply washing away physical impurities. While Leviticus 11-15 is sometimes awkward for us to read about because of cultural taboos (let’s be honest, no one really likes discussing semen, menstruation, and skin diseases!), these passages help us to understand how God defines the ideas of clean and unclean; that might seem like mere historical knowledge of a past ritual experience, but the reality is that it also reveals an important facet of God’s character as well!

                The foundation for our understanding the idea of this ritual cleanliness is Leviticus 10:3: after Nadab and Abihu are killed for violating the holy sanctuary of the Tabernacle, it is recorded that “Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’” It is after this episode of the priests violating the holiness of God that the cleanliness laws are given in Leviticus, and that helps us to understand the purpose of these laws. They are not concerned with just the physical state of being dirty or clean, but about being holy before the Lord and honoring His presence amongst Israel by not profaning the Tabernacle. With this in mind, we can better understand what the Law’s definition of clean is: it’s being in a state of spiritual purity so that one can approach the presence of God. As God repeatedly states in Leviticus, “[Israel] shall be holy, for I am holy.”

                The Law makes it clear that being unclean is not the same as being sinful, although sometimes the two categories did overlap. There were multiple things that could make a person unclean that were normal parts of life, such as the burial of a relative or a woman undergoing a menstrual cycle, and even things that were considered good and holy like the sexual relations between a husband and wife. The laws in Leviticus 11-15 were designed not only to identify what would make a person unclean, but also how to bring them from a state on uncleanness back to being clean; uncleanness was almost always a temporary state, typically only lasting a week or so. Once a person had been made clean, they could come and offer their sacrifices in the Tabernacle again without violating the presence of God.

So why would the things listed in Leviticus 11-15 make a person unclean? The first category of things discussed is clean and unclean animals, with only clean animals being acceptable to the Israelites for consumption. The qualifier for a land animal being clean is given as “whatever divides a hoof, thus making split hoofs, and chews the cud, among the animals,” while any sea creatures that “have fins and scales, those in the water, in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat.” There are also restrictions on eating insects, outside of insects with jointed legs (e.g. grasshoppers), and most forms of birds. While there’s been many discussions and theories offered about exactly why particular animals were clean or unclean, the reality is that there’s no answer found to date that fully explains everything. One scholar, Mary Douglas, offers a convincing argument that certain animals were unclean because they were emblematic of confusion, chaos, and blurred boundaries. A consistent theme of the Law was that Israel was to be pure and not mix with the other nations; this was expressed through even minor actions like avoiding garments of mixed materials and sowing fields with multiple kinds of seeds. In everything they did, Israel was to be reminded of their service to the One God. Similarly, the land animals that are forbidden are those that do not adhere to the qualification God has given: a split hoof and chewing the cud. If an animal only had one or the other, they are a “mixture” and symbolic of confusion or disorder (ex. Pigs and camels). Sea creatures that did not have both fins and scales would fall in this same concept, while insects that had jointed legs bound forward in orderly fashion instead of the “swarming” or “jerking” insects that were chaotic and, thus, unclean. Even if Douglas’ argument of unclean animals being symbolic of chaos and disorder is not taken, however, the clean/unclean division of the animals does seem to be consistent on forbidding animals associated with scavenging carcasses, which is an important thing to note for later in this article. It is also noted that touching the carcass of any of these animals, clean or unclean, was itself a cause of uncleanness. Thus, we see that death and uncleanness seem to be intimately related.

Leviticus 12 goes on to detail how childbirth would make a woman unclean, which further reinforces the notion that uncleanness and sin are not the same thing; certainly having a child, one of the key blessings of God, is not a sinful thing! Rather, the uncleanness seems to be related to the actual loss of blood. This is reinforced by Leviticus 15:19-24 discussing how menstruation makes a woman unclean, and we also note in Leviticus 15 that a man’s seminal emissions also render him unclean. These passages might again strike us as odd (and not just because of the cultural taboo of discussing such things!); why would sexual activity or menstruation be considered unclean? In order to understand this, we have to remember how the Bible views these particular fluids. God Himself tells the Israelites in Leviticus 17:15 that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” and even in Genesis 4 it was written that Abel’s blood cried out for justice from the ground after Cain’s murder. From the Biblical perspective, a loss of blood was a loss of life. From that perspective the blood lost during events such as menstruation and childbirth, while natural and even blessed things, is symbolic of a “lessening” of the life of the woman. Similarly, the “seed” (semen) of a man is considered a part of his life and the tool with which life is produced. When this seed is spilled, it is again symbolic of a lessening of the life of a man. So, with this in mind, there’s a theme of these passages that emerges; things associated with a lessening of life, or death, are what makes people unclean. This is reinforced by the discussion of leprosy in chapters 13-14 (a skin disease that literally makes you look like a corpse) as well as the non-sexual discharges in chapter 15. All of these conditions bear images of the lessening of life or outright death.

So, what’s the point of this? Why would these natural things cause someone to be unclean and, thus, unable to be in the presence of God? Remember, God IS life. He’s not just the Creator of life, He is the source and font of life itself. Death is not the opposite of life, it’s the absence of life. It’s a corruption and abomination of life that is not part of the creation, but a result of the rebellion of sin. Thus, it is a dishonor and abomination to bring death into the presence of God; the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) was not just a place of sacrifice and worship, it was the dwelling place of God. It was filled with Eden imagery because it was a reminder of how God’s presence was the home of life and abundance and blessing. To consciously bring these images of death, or to knowingly partake in these things, was to bring dishonor to God. Israel, being a nation that was designed for holiness in imitation of God, was going to naturally encounter these unclean images of death. It would be unavoidable to live in a world corrupted by death and not encounter it in some capacity. So, the laws of Leviticus 11-15 not only identify the causes of uncleanness but also give the solution to it so that Israel can be made clean once again. God wants to dwell amongst His people, and the Law is the tool to make His people holy and righteous like Him so that they can dwell with Him in their presence.

These laws of Leviticus 11-15 help us to understand that to dwell with God is to dwell with life, and we must be purified of dead things to dwell with Him. What’s the application for us today? If we are the modern temples of God (1 Corinthians 3:16), then we also need to be concerned about the purity and holiness of God’s dwelling place. We should not be partaking in things of death when we are supposed to be dwelling places of life. In particular, we must remove the trappings of the old man of sin; our old selves were crucified and put to death, and so we should remove the sins of that dead thing to avoid defiling our temple of life (Romans 6:6-11). While we might not follow the specific cleanliness rituals of Leviticus 11-15, we should most assuredly be concerned with the spiritual principles of purity and holiness. We serve the same God as these ancient Israelites, and we would do well to remember God’s admonition to Israel: “Be holy for I am holy!”