Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism

By Tikva Frymer-Kensky | Go to book overview

23 / Pollution, Purification, and
Purgation in Biblical Israel

1983


MAJOR AND MINOR POLLUTIONS

The ideas of pollution, purity, and purification were fundamental concepts of biblical Israel. The desire for purity was so intense that a major social class, the priesthood, was entrusted with the task of determining and giving instruction about purity and impurity. Pollution, the lack of purity, could affect individuals, the Temple, the collectivity of Israel, and the land of Israel itself. Some forms of pollution could be eradicated by rituals; the performance of these purifications and expiations was a major function of the priesthood. The pollution caused by the performance of certain deeds, however, could not be eradicated by rituals; Israel believed that the person intentionally committing these acts would suffer catastrophic retribution. Wrongful acts could cause the pollution of the nation and of the land of Israel, which could also not be “cured” by ritual. There was therefore an ultimate expectation of catastrophicresults for the whole people, the “purging” of the land by destruction and exile. Pollution was thus thought to be one of the determinants of Israel's history, and the concepts of pollution and purgation provided a paradigm by which Israel could understand and survive the destruction of the Temple. The idea of pollution was such an important part of Israel's worldview that its primeval history, its story of origins, was also seen as a story of cosmic pollution and purgation.

The simplest type of impurity is the impure state of the Levitical laws.1 If an individual comes in to contact with a polluting substance, that person becomes impure for seven days or more, in the case of major pollutions, or until evening, for minor pollutions. During the period of his impurity, the polluted individual is highly contagious. He must avoid

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