Attaining Holiness

Distinguishing Between Clean and Unclean

This lesson briefly reviews the various Laws concerning ritual purity and the procedures required to maintain that status and thus be allowed to come before God in worship.
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This chapter's subtitle (Distinguishing Between Clean and Unclean) factors into every aspect of the entire book of Leviticus. God stated that He was Himself the holy God and this required that His chosen people be holy as well. Holiness, as far as God was concerned, meant that He was/is transcendent (glorious, incomprehensible, inscrutable) just to use one word to try to describe Him. Every characteristic of God is so uniquely glorious that it cannot be fully measured or grasped.

This means, for example, that we learn from the Scriptures that God is loving (John 3:16), that He is even the embodiment of love (John 4:7 - "God is love"), but even with this knowledge we still cannot accurately plumb the depths and heights of his capacity to love just ourselves, let alone every human since Adam.

The Jews used the word QADASH which meant sanctified, consecrated, or separated – in God's case it referred to His 'otherness," His complete separateness from sinfulness and this sinful world. He was separate in kind and could not be measured – He would only be adored and obeyed, there was/is no other possible or acceptable reaction or interaction that one could have with a being whose name was, "The Always Present One." The Holy God chose for Himself and His divine purpose a people from one man (Abraham) which He formed into a nation and revealed His holy self to them and commanded that they become a holy nation.

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 11:45

Of course, the nation could not be holy in the same manner that God was holy (He was divine, they were human), however, they could reach an attitude and practice that would make them separate and consecrated when compared to other nations, not when compared to God. One way to reach this state of holiness (separateness, consecration, glory) was to differentiate between what was "clean" and what was "unclean" according to God's command, not human wisdom or desire. So, to put our study into context, holiness before God, or to be the holy people of God, the nation needed the following:

  1. A holy manner of approaching and interacting with God in order to thank Him, ask for forgiveness, praise Him – the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system were given as the Holy Place and holy manner that a people could approach a holy God.
  2. The individuals serving as intermediators between the people and God were also holy, having been consecrated and ordained as priests by God Himself through Moses.
  3. And now the people themselves were to strive to become holy by learning to differentiate between what the holy God considered clean as opposed to unclean in five areas of daily living experienced by all Jews.

Knowing the clean from the unclean in these five areas led to personal holiness because it would separate the Jewish nation from all the nations around it.

I. Holiness and Cleanness – Chapters 11-15

Chapters 11-15 provide the details concerning clean and unclean in the following areas. In broad terms:

A. Clean and Unclean Living Creatures

Here, God defines which animals were clean, thus defining what His people could and could not eat. In this section He also describes how His people could contract a state of uncleanness and what was to be done when such a thing happened.

In Leviticus 9:15-21, Aaron had offered sacrifice on behalf of the people to cleanse them of sin and the appearance of the glory of the Lord to the people confirmed that the sacrifice on their behalf was acceptable to God (just as the resurrection of Jesus proves that His sacrifice on our behalf was accepted by God).

The people were made holy by the sacrifice of the priest, the discerning of clean and unclean maintained that holiness and witnessed that holiness to the nations around them. The most obvious, visible witness was the food they ate and what they didn't eat. Because of time and space constraints, I will explain the divisions and reasons for various rituals which will enable you to read the details with a clearer understanding of their system.

If you want an in-depth explanation for each command and ritual, I encourage you to read the commentary which has nearly 600 pages filled with details. What we're doing here is summarizing a complex set of regulations regarding food and other human behaviors.

There were four categories of creatures that could or could not be eaten.

1) Animals – Leviticus 11:1-8 - For an animal to be considered "clean" and thus allowed to be eaten were:

  • It had a split hoof (divided into two toes)
  • Chews the cud – ruminates - Chewing the food to soften it and produce additional saliva to aid digestion.

Animals had to have both of these features in order to be classified as clean and thus edible. Having only one feature rendered the animal unclean. If a person touched a living unclean animal (i.e. camel) he was not affected but if he touched an unclean animal that was dead he became unclean and had to undergo a process in order to regain his clean status (meaning his ceremonially clean status = able to participate in worship) once again.

2) Fish – Leviticus 11:9-12 - Fish also had to have both fins and scales to be considered clean.

3) Birds – Leviticus 11:13-19 - For birds, God simply listed 20 kinds of birds that were considered unclean leaving the remaining type as clean and edible. The common feature of unclean birds was that they were meat eaters (many of which were scavengers or birds that ate rodents – i.e. squirrels, mice, etc.).

4) Winged Insects – Leviticus 20-23 - Insects in general were considered unclean. The exceptions were various types of locusts and crickets (which had a long and ancient history of food among Middle Eastern people). There was no penalty for eating unclean food, but if one did, he had to follow the procedure to remove this uncleanness from his soul.

B. Contracting and Dealing with Uncleanness – Leviticus 11:24-40

The various rules and procedures for ridding oneself of the uncleanness due to contract with unclean things or creatures that were dead or clean creatures that had died, could be summarized in three statements:

  1. Touching the carcass of a dead, unclean animal made them unclean.
  2. The remedy for uncleanness was washing with water and allowing a certain time to pass.
  3. Dead animals contaminated things and those things had to be cleaned to be decontaminated. If that was not possible, the unclean items were destroyed.

Waiting until evening when a new day began. Unclean things touching working vessels required them to be washed (clothing, wooden objects, skin, or sacks), however, contact with an earthen vessel (bowl or cup) required the vessel to be destroyed (because of its porous nature).

C. Reason for Clean/Unclean Requirements – Leviticus 11:41-47

God reveals the reasoning behind these laws:

  1. He, Himself was holy.
  2. Because He was holy, He insisted that His people be holy.
  3. Following these laws about clean/unclean would help them remain holy – meaning ritually clean so they could approach Him at the Tabernacle/Temple to worship and fellowship with Him.

Contact with unclean creatures did not make them sinful, but unclean for purposes of worship (no sacrifices were necessary to remove uncleanness) only washing and waiting, along with a denied entry to the place of worship. Some scholars have offered other reasons for the clean and unclean laws:

  • Helped avoid practices connected to idolatry (i.e. eating of blood).
  • To distinguish Jews from other nations that had no food restrictions at all.
  • To promote general health and welfare (i.e. eating carcasses or certain insects, birds, or marine life that would lead to illnesses (unknown at the time).

D. Uncleanness and Childbirth – Leviticus 12:1-8

In this chapter the focus is on the clean/unclean status of the mother after giving birth and the procedure to becoming clean (ceremonially) again.

1) Giving birth to a male child:

  • She, not the child, was unclean (loss of blood) for 7 days.
  • Anyone who touched her or anything she sat on would be unclean (need to be washed).
  • She would have the baby circumcised on the 8th day.
  • The 8th day would also begin her final 33 days of restricted uncleanness (would not contaminate others or things touched) but still not allowed to enter the Temple.

2) Giving birth to a female child. Same procedures except the time of uncleanness was doubled to 14 days and 66 days restricted from entering the Tabernacle or Temple to offer sacrifice.

3) After the period of the mother's ritual uncleanness was over the woman could come and offer sacrifice to remove her ritual uncleanness caused by the flow of blood connected to the birth process. Scholars suggest that the isolation of the mother with her baby, because of her ritual uncleanness, worked to her advantage.

  • Lowered risk of infection and contamination by exposure to people and things.
  • Provided a time of rest from daily chores and opportunity to bond with new baby.
  • Protected her from premature return to conjugal life and duties.
  • Double time for girls because they were believed to be more fragile and required more time to strengthen and stabilize.

We know, however, that if the rules were commands from God, they ultimately had the best interests of the mother and child at heart.

E. The Uncleanness of Leprosy – Leviticus 13:1-14:57

Chapters 13 and 14 deal with the diagnosing of the skin disease commonly known as leprosy and the response by the priests to the one who had this illness. Some background on the leprosy of that time:

a) The Hebrew word TZARAATH translated into the English word "leprosy" did not exclusively refer to what we know as Hanson's disease where people lose feeling in their extremities and become deformed as they lose body parts, which is highly contagious and was, until recently, incurable. The Hebrew word meant a lesion, plague, glow, itch, eczema. Like the word "cancer" it described a variety of ailments that had similar symptoms but degrees of severeness from benign lesions to chronic incurable leprosy.

b) God provided various ways to diagnose the different skin diseases and charged the priests with this responsibility – they were the first physicians of the Jewish nation, responsible for three tasks:

  1. They diagnosed the illness (they didn't treat or dispense medicine to heal).
  2. They quarantined people suspected of having a contagious illness.
  3. They reexamined those in quarantine to determine if they could rejoin society or return to quarantine in order to protect the camp from infection.

1. General Instructions – Leviticus 13:1-8

The chapter begins with instructions for the priests when someone was brought to them suspecting that they might have leprosy. It was the priest's prerogative to determine what was clean or unclean since a person with a temporary or non-malignant sore or condition either remained clean or went through a cleansing process after he healed. A person, however, found to have leprosy remained unclean for the rest of his life.

2. Examples Given – Leviticus 13:9-44

Several real-life cases are described:

  • Vs. 9-17 – A swelling in the skin
  • Vs. 18-23 – A boil on the skin
  • Vs. 24-28 – A burn on the skin
  • Vs. 29-37 – Infection on the head or chin
  • Vs. 38-39 – Bright spots
  • Vs. 40-44 – Infection on a bald head

3. Consequences of Leprosy – Leviticus 13:45-46

The consequences for the one infected was separation from the people and worship at the Tabernacle. Reinstatement was possible if the illness left the person, and he was verified by the priests (this is why Jesus sent the leper He healed to go show himself to the priests – Matthew 8:4).

4. Garments with Leprosy – Leviticus 13:47-59

Obviously, a piece of clothing could not contract a human disease but destructive mildew, fungus, or mold affected clothing as leprosy or other ailments affected the skin. The approach was the same in that the priests examined the garment and decided if it was simply to be washed, quarantined, and then re-examined or burned. Seeing that the Israelites did not have many changes of clothing, to destroy a piece of clothing was a significant loss. The detailed guidelines, however, enabled the priests to judge if a particular piece of clothing was clean or unclean.

We need to remember that clean and unclean in the context of skin diseases or clothing infected with mold or other rot were not determinations of sinfulness, but rather pertained to ritual cleanness for the purpose of approaching God in worship.

5. Cleansing Process for a Former Leper – Leviticus 14:1-20

A. Required Rituals – Leviticus 14:1-9

The priests would inspect the leper to render him free from illness. The ceremony of cleansing involved:

  1. A cleansing ritual by the priest involving two birds.
  2. Washing, shaving, entering the camp but not one's tent for seven days.
  3. On the seventh day, he was to shave off all his hair, bathe his body, wash his clothes – then he was clean, and his cleansing was public knowledge.
  4. Sacrifices had to be offered to complete the process (Leviticus 14:10-20). This was done on the eighth day of the process in order to purge his pollution from the sanctuary and give thanks to God for his healing.
  5. Once certified as cleansed he was then required to make a guilt, sin, and burnt offering with a grain offering.

6. Provision for the Poor – Leviticus 14:21-32

God also instructed that a poor person could make a lesser offering but attain the same result – cleanness. The idea was that one who was financially disadvantaged was not to be spiritually disadvantaged. Poor people could still please the Lord.

7. Houses with Leprosy – Leviticus 14:33-53

These instructions are really meant for the future when the people will have entered and settled in the Promised Land and living in houses they will build or capture from the people they will displace (Canaanites, etc.). The laws are similar to those for cleansing garments from mold or mildew and referred to as leprosy.

  • At first sign, the priest was called in to determine if the house was to be cleansed, stripped down and replastered or completely destroyed. This was based on the degree of infection and if it would be removed permanently.
  • If a house could be repaired and restored without infection then the priest would perform a cleansing ceremony to render the house clean and thus its residents ritually clean, as well – so long as the house was unclean, so were the people who lived in it.
54This is the law for any mark of leprosy—even for a scale, 55and for the leprous garment or house, 56and for a swelling, and for a scab, and for a bright spot— 57to teach when they are unclean and when they are clean. This is the law of leprosy.
- Leviticus 14:54-57

God confirms that these rules and regulations are His commands in dealing with leprosy on the body, clothing, and in their houses. This is how to discern and deal with the command to be holy by discerning between clean and unclean in the matter of leprosy.

F. Uncleanness by Bodily Discharges – Leviticus 15:1-33

This chapter reviews ritual purity (clean and unclean) and those regulations related to human sexuality – to uncleanness caused by bodily secretions from both male and female sexual organs and the process of restoring ritual purity. The chapter is divided into five parts:

1. The uncleanness brought by a man's abnormal discharges – Leviticus 15:1-15

This would refer to a disease like gonorrhea, which would produce the continual loss of whitish fluid over time. This would render a man unclean and anything he came in contact with was also defiled. This impurity was removed by washing and a day's quarantine until sundown. Once he was healed (infection and discharge stopped) he would:

  • Quarantine for seven days.
  • Wash his clothes and body.
  • Offer two birds – one as a sin, and the other as a burnt offering by the priest.

He and the camp would then be ritually clean.

2. The uncleanness caused by a man's normal discharge.

16'Now if a man has a seminal emission, he shall bathe all his body in water and be unclean until evening. 17As for any garment or any leather on which there is seminal emission, it shall be washed with water and be unclean until evening. 18If a man lies with a woman so that there is a seminal emission, they shall both bathe in water and be unclean until evening.
- Leviticus 15:16-18

These instructions refer to involuntary nocturnal emissions, as well as normal intercourse with a woman (wife). The emission of seminal fluid rendered a man ritually impure and required that both he and his wife bathe before they could resume religious activity.

3. Uncleanness caused by a woman's discharge lasting many days – Leviticus 15:25-30

A woman was considered ritually unclean for seven days after the start of her periods. Anything she touched, anyone who touched her, or where she sat became impure. If she had sexual relations with her husband the both of them were considered unclean for seven days. At the end of her cycle, she was considered clean again since her menstrual flow stopped, no need for special offerings since this was a natural, monthly occurrence.

4. Uncleanness caused by a woman's discharge lasting many days – Leviticus 15:25-30

The reason (on-going discharge) for women to be unclean was the same as men. In a woman's case it was usually a problem with her cycle or some other illness whose symptom was a discharge of some kind. To return to ritual purity was also the same as for men. Once the flow stopped:

  • Quarantine for seven days.
  • Wash clothes and body.
  • Offer two birds at the Tabernacle.

This offering would signal her ritual purity and her thanksgiving and recommitment to God.


To finish this chapter, section and topic, which I have compressed into a single lesson, I quote Leviticus 15:31-33:

31"Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them." 32This is the law for the one with a discharge, and for the man who has a seminal emission so that he is unclean by it, 33and for the woman who is ill because of menstrual impurity, and for the one who has a discharge, whether a male or a female, or a man who lies with an unclean woman.
- Leviticus 15:31-33

This explains the reasons that these laws were given:

  1. Preserve the holiness of the Tabernacle.
  2. Prevent anyone who was ritually impure from even approaching the Tabernacle.
  3. Avoid the serious consequences for the impure to approach God.
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