Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Cleanliness, like purity and holiness, is an important subject in the Bible, yet it can be confusing for modern readers—like me. Maybe you too? What does it mean to be unclean? Why were some things or people unclean? Some of the rules seem archaic and obscure. How did a person follow all the rules in everyday life and in varied situations?
For thousands of years, right up to the modern-day, rabbis have been carefully studying and debating exactly how the books of biblical law are to be applied to daily life.
In Jesus' day, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees were the main teachers of how to follow the law. Their “traditions of the elders” built fences around the law to keep people from transgressing and angering God—and they often held these traditions level with the law. (Matthew 14:3) Jesus throws these man-made traditions back in their faces time and time again in the gospels, taking them back to the heart of the law. (Check out all the “you have heard that...but I say to you...” statements in Matthew 5:21-48, and the eight woes in Matthew 23:13-33, for example.)
Do the teachings on being unclean matter to Christians?
Many Christians avoid all the confusing bits of Mosaic law by saying, “it doesn't really apply to us, so why should we worry about it?” I thought that way as well, citing verses like Romans 6:15 as my excuse for being ignorant of the law.
Yet, Jesus grew up under this law. He understood, practiced, and praised the law. (Matthew 5:17-19) Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was the fulfillment of a promise and a plan set in motion from the very beginnings of the Bible. By ignoring the Old Testament are we kicking out the legs from under our understanding of the Christian hope?
For my purposes as a writer, understanding how cleanliness functioned in the first-century world is vital to giving a historically accurate portrayal of how men and women kept pure before God in their daily lives. I long to immerse myself in the world of Jesus, to see the humor, the heartbreak, and the scandals as they would have seen them. This desire makes learning about obscure laws fun for me because it makes the Bible come alive!
So, what does it mean to be clean or unclean?
In the biblical context, cleanliness has nothing to do with being physically dirty. Many people have looked at the lists of things to be avoided and claimed that God was doing this for the people's physical well being. For example, if not cooked properly, pork can make you very ill. However logical these assertions may be, physical health is not the reason given in the scriptures.
The instructions given in the Bible for cleanliness are laid out in the aftermath of Nadab and Abihu and their disregard for following the practices laid out for proper worship. As a result of their arrogant disobedience, these two men are consumed by fire in Leviticus 10:1-7. (It's a shocking story!) God doesn't want this repeated. He warns Aaron about the proper way to approach the tent of meeting so that they will not die,
“and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” - Leviticus 10:10
After instructing about clean and unclean animals, God again tells them why:
“For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.” - Leviticus 11:35
After giving laws on cleanliness among people, God says,
“Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanliness, so that they will not die in their uncleanliness by defiling my tabernacle that is among them.” - Leviticus 15:31
Cleanliness, like purity and holiness, is about being in a proper state before God so that we can approach Him. Just as God had the priests consecrate the articles and the tabernacle in Exodus 40:9 so they would be holy (which means set apart for God's use), so the people are to be made holy.
So what things were considered unclean?
Foods could be unclean.
You can read a list of the unclean animals in Leviticus 11. It includes various mammals, fish, birds, and insects. The people must not eat them or even touch their carcasses. Whoever touches the carcass of an unclean animal must wash their clothes and they are unclean until evening. (Leviticus 11:28, 17:15)
Anything that the carcass falls on is also unclean and must be put in water. The item remains unclean until evening, including wooden articles, clothes, skins, or sacks. Ovens or stoves must be broken. If the dead unclean animal falls into an earthenware vessel, it must be smashed. If it falls on seeds for sowing that has water on them, that seed is unclean. (So watch where you swat that fly!)
If an animal that is raised for food dies, the carcass becomes unclean until evening, and the one who picks up the carcass or eats it must wash their clothes and be unclean until evening.
Leprosy was unclean.
The disease we call leprosy today is very specific. In the Bible, leprosy referred to many kinds of skin problems. If a person had a “swelling, or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons.” (Leviticus 13:2) The priests would examine the mark and decide if it warranted quarantine, and would make follow up checks.
If a person was leprous and not getting better, he had to keep himself apart from the people until he was healed, living outside the camp. It sounds like a grim life. Their clothes must be torn, they had to cover their head and face and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45-46)
Garments with a mark of leprosy on it were also shown to the priest. The article was quarantined, examined again, and either washed or burned. (Leviticus 13:47-59)
Houses with a mark of leprosy on it were vacated, examined by a priest, quarantined, and then either stones and plaster were removed and thrown away in an unclean place, or the house itself was destroyed. People going into the house had to be quarantined as well. (Leviticus 14:33-48)
For both people and houses that were declared by a priest to be cured of their leprosy, the practice of cleansing was the same, involving two live clean birds, cedarwood, a scarlet string, and hyssop. (Leviticus 14:4-7, 48-53) A leprous person also shaved all their hair, washed their clothes, and bathed in water. They can then go back into the camp, but not into their tent for another seven days. Then they had to shave again, including their head, beard, and eyebrows, wash their clothes and bathe again, and then offer specific sacrifices at the tent of meeting. (Leviticus 14:8-32)
Side note, after reading all about leprosy, I was feeling rather queasy. If I had to guess, leprosy diagnosis was probably not a favorite pastime of the priests!
Bodily discharges were unclean.
A man's discharge is unclean according to Leviticus 15:2. Any bed the man lies on, or anywhere he sits becomes unclean. Whoever touches his bed, his person, or his spit needs to wash their clothes and bathe in water and they are unclean until evening. The person with the discharge must rinse their hands with water before touching anyone else, or that person must wash their clothes, bathe, and be unclean until evening. Any pottery the man touches must be broken, and every wooden vessel washed in water.
Once he is healthy again, the man must count off seven days, then wash his clothes and bathe his body in running water, and he will become clean. Then on the eighth day, he must sacrifice at the tent of meeting.
If the man has a seminal emission, he must bathe his body and be unclean until evening. Garments with seminal emission must be washed and are unclean until evening. If he lies with a woman and has seminal emission, they both need to bathe in water and be unclean until evening.
A woman's discharge of blood is treated similarly. She continues in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and anyone who touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything on which she lies or sits is unclean, and anyone who touches anything she has sat or laid on must bathe and be unclean until evening.
If a man lies with her so that her menstrual impurity is on him, he is impure for seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean. There is no requirement for sacrifice after menstruation.
If she has a discharge of blood that is not menstruation, she is treated the same as a man with a discharge. When her discharge is finished, she also counts off seven days, and on the eighth day brings a sacrifice to the tent of meeting.
After childbirth, a woman was unclean, as in the days of her menstruation. For a male child, she was unclean for 7 days, then after his circumcision on the eighth day, she remained in the blood of her purification for 33 days and could not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her days of purification were completed. For a female child, she was unclean for 14 days and then remained in the blood of her purification for 66 days. (The reasons for the difference in days are not given.) After her purification days were completed, she offered a sacrifice at the temple and was cleansed from the flow of her blood. (Leviticus 12:1-13)
(My further thoughts on women's uncleanliness in the Bible will come in another post!)
Human corpses were unclean.
Touching human corpses, bones, and graves made a person unclean for 7 days. A person was required to wash on the 3rd and 7th day with purification water made from the ashes of a special sacrifice of a red heifer. The tent in which a person died was unclean for seven days, as were the people inside and any open vessels. They had to be sprinkled with purification water by a clean person on the third and seventh day, and then bathe and wash their clothes. (Numbers 19:9-19)
It is good to note, that uncleanliness does not mean sinfulness.
I previously thought that being unclean always meant sinful. (You can be both sinful and unclean, but not always.) There is nothing sinful about burying the dead, for example. Being clean and prepared for worship was about being in a state of wholeness. Though not called unclean, there were also restrictions on eunuchs and illegitimate children worshiping in the temple. (Deuteronomy 23:1-2) Priests couldn't serve if they were maimed or disfigured. (Leviticus 21:16-23) The reasons for these restrictions are still debated today, but it was the standard set for worship at the tabernacle, and the people were required to abide by it. It is also worth noting that nowhere does it indicate that those in a state of uncleanliness could be treated badly.
What does cleanliness in the Old Testament have to do with modern Christians?
Learning about the laws of cleanliness gives me a greater understanding of Jesus' ministry. We can see that washing in water is a big component of purification from uncleanliness. (I wonder if Old Testament people heard this with some dismay—after all, they were standing in a desert wilderness!)
The use of water for purification shows up in the baptisms we see in the New Testament. We see it in the Pharisees' insistence on handwashing before eating. (Matthew 15:2) Hand washing was not commanded in the scriptures. It was a tradition of the elders given as a rule to the people, to go above and beyond the law's requirements so that the people would not accidentally transgress the law. We see it in Jesus' mockery of washing the outside of a dish but not the inside. (Matthew 23:25-26)
We see further run-ins with cleanliness when Jesus comes into contact with lepers (Matthew 8:3), a hemorrhaging woman (Matthew 9:20), and the dead (Matthew 9:25). But instead of becoming unclean by touching them, he instead imparts his cleanliness to them!
Jesus and his disciples interacted with Gentiles (Matthew 8:5-13, 15:21-28), who were considered unclean because they ate unclean foods and did not observe the rules for cleansing themselves after touching the dead or bodily discharges. Jewish people would generally not want to touch anything an unclean Gentile had touched, even avoiding any person who might have had contact with a Gentile, such as a tax collector. Jesus, we see, ate meals with “tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 9:11)
Viewing Jesus' ministry through the eyes of people who structured their lives around remaining clean and set apart, we understand a little better why they were so insulted by Jesus. The Pharisees, in particular, saw him trampling all over their dearly loved traditions that they had built on a foundation of wanting to remain clean and spiritually pure. Their good moral intentions blinded them to the higher callings of compassion and mercy—and ultimately to the messiah. (Matthew 9:13)
So, where do we stand today in regards to how we deal with uncleanliness?
The early church had the same questions. They struggled as Jews and Gentiles were brought together under the glory of the cross. We see this tension as we read about how Peter is summoned to speak with Cornelius' Gentile household.
“And he said to them, “You yourself know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” - Acts 10:28
Acts 11:1-18 talks about how those in Jerusalem took issue with Peter eating with uncircumcised men. Peter tells them the whole story, including a vision from God, and how the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles. He concludes with,
“Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?”
When Paul comes under fire for not insisting the Gentile believers be circumcised and follow the law of Moses he says,
“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why do you put God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” - Acts 15:8-11
As Christians, we understand Jesus was our sacrifice for sin, once for all. (Hebrews 10:10) We do not need to bring sacrifices over and over again for atonement from sins. In the same way, Jesus has cleansed us from uncleanliness once for all. (Hebrews 9:13-14, 10:22)
The idea of being forgiven and clean forevermore would have been stunning to first-century men and women who were accustomed to needing to sacrifice and cleanse themselves repeatedly. They had a system for purity and forgiveness, but even they would admit that it never seemed to stick. They had to keep repeating all the sacrifices and rites.
So, if cleanliness isn't an issue anymore, why learn about it?
Taking the time to dig into the laws of cleanliness helps me read the New Testament in context, but even more importantly, it makes me appreciate what Jesus has done for me. Learning about seemingly obscure and archaic laws has become about more than curiosity, it is uncovering the foundation for the glorious message of the cross and exactly what Jesus accomplished for us there.
The same way that learning about the struggles of pioneers makes me grateful for modern conveniences, sometimes I need to slow down and realize how blessed I am to live in a world where Jesus has dealt with sin and death and washed away my impurity, so that I may approach the throne of God with confidence! (Hebrews 4:14-16)
How about you? Does learning about these laws help you understand more about Jesus' ministry and purpose?