Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Rationale of the Laws of Clean and Unclean in the Old Testament

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Rationale of the Laws of Clean and Unclean in the Old Testament

Article excerpt

Ritual cleanness and uncleanness (associated with the Heb. roots tahir and tamed represents a major theme of the Pentateuch. Purity rules describe the rituals, varying according to the "severity" of the impurity contracted, for ceremonial uncleanness due to skin disease, bodily discharges, touching unclean things, and eating unclean foods. The rationale for these laws is never clearly spelled out, but several explanations probably have some validity, including hygiene, the need to dissociate oneself from disgusting or pagan things, various other ethical lessons, the association of Yahweh with life and wholeness rather than death or disorder, the separation of worship from expressions of sexuality, and the need for Israel to be separated from the Gentiles. However, this paper argues that the most important message conveyed by these laws is that God is holy, and man, conversely, is contaminated and unfit, in and of himself, to approach a holy God. All this, in turn, served to inculcate in the mind of the ancient Israelite the sacredness of the tabernacle/temple space within the conceptual "cultic topography" produced by the clean and unclean system.


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 are found in Num 5:2: Anyone with a skin disease, or having a discharge of bodily fluids, or touching something unclean such as a dead body was unclean. The other broad category has to do with unclean animals and foods. These categories will now be discussed in greater detail.

1. Skin disease. Anyone with a scale-like skin disease (saru(caroted)) was regarded as unclean (cf. Leviticus 13-14). The term sara'at 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.1 A garment or leather object in a household or the house itself that contracts mold or fungus that looks like scale disease were likewise deemed unclean (Lev 13:47-59; 14:33-57).

2. Discharge of bodily fluids. Bodily discharge refers primarily to natural and unnatural genital flows, but not 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, eighty days for a female child (Lev 12:1-8). Onset of menstruation rendered a woman unclean for seven days (15:19-24; cf. Ezek 36:17) 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 until evening (15:18; cf. Exod 19:15), while inadvertent intercourse with a menstruating woman rendered the man unclean for seven days (Lev 15:24), and deliberate intercourse with such a woman, a practice Ezekiel lists as a sin (Ezek 18:6; 22:10), made both subject to divine "cutting off" (Lev 20:18).

Given that a case of intercourse with a menstruating woman is difficult to detect and prosecute in a human court, "cutting off from their people" in Lev 20:18 likely denotes neither banishment nor human execution but death and extirpation of descendants by divine intervention. Milgrom believes "cutting off from one's people" may also involve separation from the relatives in the afterlife, a view that explains why some cases involved both "execution" and divine "cutting off" (Lev 20:2-3; Exod 31:14).3 Alternatively, Levine understands such verses to imply that "if the community failed to punish the offender or failed to uncover the offense, God would mete out punishment in his own way and in his own good time."4 In any case "cutting off" reflects punishments at the hand of God.

Ejaculation of sperm outside of intercourse (wet dreams, etc. …

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