Moral Purity and Impurity
in the Old Testament
THE ANALYSIS will begin with an interpretive survey of moral purity and impurity among the ancient Hebrews as revealed by the admonitions and prohibitions in the Old Testament. The reasons for choosing the Old Testament are obvious. It is no exaggeration to call it the moral template of Western civilization, even if departures from its moral code were numerous during the time it received written form and subsequently.
Wherever the notion of moral purity occurs—in Robespierre, the Hindu caste system, or the Old Testament—it is defined in the Hegelian manner by what purity is not, namely, impurity or pollution. Thus a morally pure person is free from moral pollution. The nature and sources of pollution vary a great deal in time and place. 1 Because pollution isthe variable that defines purity, it becomes unavoidably the central subject of this study as a whole, not just the Old Testament.
The abundant sources of pollution reported in the Old Testament fall naturally into four distinguishable, if at some points overlapping, categories: (1) sexual prohibitions, (2) idolatry, (3) dietary restrictions, and (4) unclean objects, such as blood and corpses. Insofar as the violation of any prohibition in this series appears as a violation of the will of God (God's will being the only justification for the prohibition), it appears that for the ancient Hebrew religious authorities such acts were very serious moral failures. When one gets down to cases, this conclusion seems rather odd. Hence this aspect will require fuller discussion after examining the details. We shall take up each of the four forms of pollution, which frequently intertwine, in turn.