Uncleanness In The Bible

Uncleanness is a condition created by God in the Old Testament which requires special religious instructions and regulations to separate oneself from. This distinct form of separation within the religious world also functioned as a sort of extended tabernacle for those who were categorized as unclean.

Uncleanness in the Bible is determined mainly by laws given by God. Leviticus lists unclean animals, foods, and abominations (Leviticus 11-18). The book of Numbers records Moses’ instructions for the cleansing of people and objects made unclean by contact with the dead (Numbers 19).  Some verses in Leviticus 18 that deal with sexual relations are often translated as “uncleanness”, but are understood as forbidding sex outside of marriage or when done for immoral reasons.

An unclean animal is one that is considered ritually unfit for sacrifice.  Sacrifices in the Bible are ritual offerings made to God. To be improper, an animal needed to have physical defects or disease. Animals were also considered unclean if their death was preceded by certain “unclean” occurrences, such as an animal being killed by a wild beast, or an animal dying of natural causes after giving birth or from a spirit possessing it.

Uncleanness In The Bible – The law of Moses has set out the regulations of what is clean and what is unclean in Leviticus 11-15. The law of Moses also declares people and things to be unclean in Deuteronomy 23:11-14. Uncleanness was determined by whether an object or a person touched a dead body. Uncleanness was also unclean as stated in Leviticus 11:44-45.

Uncleanness In The Bible

The distinctive idea attached to ceremonial uncleanness among the Hebrews was that it cut a person off for the time from social privileges, and left his citizenship among God’s people for the while in abeyance. There is an intense reality in the fact of the divine law taking hold of a man by the ordinary infirmities of flesh, and setting its stamp, as it were, in the lowest clay of which he is moulded.

The sacredness attached to the human body is parallel to that which invested the ark of the covenant itself. It is as though Jehovah thereby would teach men that the “very hairs of their head were all numbered” before him and that “in his book were all their members written.” Thus was inculcated so to speak a bodily holiness. Nor were the Israelites to be only “separated from other people,” but they were to be “holy to God,” (Leviticus 20:24,26) “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” The importance to physical well-being of the injunctions which required frequent ablution, under whatever special pretexts, can be but feebly appreciated in our cooler and damper climate. 

Uncleanness In The Bible

The Hebrew word translated “unclean” in Leviticus is used nearly one hundred times in this one book, clearly emphasizing “clean” status versus “unclean.” Animals, objects, food, clothing, and even people could be considered “unclean.”

Generally, the Mosaic Law spoke of something as “unclean” if it was unfit to use in worship to God. Being “clean” or “unclean” was a ceremonial designation governing the ritual of corporate worship. For example, there were certain animals, like pigs, considered unclean and therefore not to be used in sacrifices (Leviticus 5:2); and there were certain actions, like touching a dead body, that made a living person unclean and temporarily unable to participate in the worship ceremony (Leviticus 5:3).

Leviticus 10:10 taught, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (ESV). The parallel between “holy” and “clean” (and “common” and “unclean”) reveals that the command was related to one’s spiritual condition, though physical actions were often involved.

Certain foods were unclean for Jews and forbidden for them to eat, such as pork, certain fish, and certain birds. A skin infection could make a person unclean or unfit for presence at the tabernacle or even in the community (Leviticus 13:3). A house with certain kinds of mold was unclean. A woman was unclean for a period of time following childbirth. On holy days couples were restricted from engaging in sexual activity as the release of semen made them unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:18).

While a wide variety of circumstances could make a person, animal, or item unclean, the majority of the laws outlined activities disqualifying a person or animal in connection with the tabernacle offerings. An animal offered for sacrifice had to be without defect. The person who offered the sacrifice also had to be “clean” before the Law; i.e., the worshiper had to comply with the Law and approach God with reverence.

In the New Testament, Jesus used the idea of being “clean” to speak of being holy. In Luke 11:39–41 He says to the Pharisees, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you–be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

“Clean” and “unclean” were concepts very familiar to those under the Old Testament Law. God called His people to separate themselves from the impurities of the world. The principle of being clean crosses into the New Testament as well, with the idea of living spiritually pure (2 Corinthians 6:17) and seeking to be holy, living a life worthy of our calling (Colossians 1:10).

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