Learning to Love Leviticus 4 – Clean and Unclean (11:1 – 15:33)

So far in Leviticus, we have seen how sacrifices are able to help Israel be safe with God dwelling with them. Priests are required to perform these sacrifices and are set apart within Israel to be holy, and mediate between Israel and God so that Israel is safe. We have also seen in the first post from Exodus that the main question for Leviticus is, can Israel be in a safe relationship with God? Approaching Leviticus with this question, I hope we can see that Leviticus is a book that is also relevant for us as Christians, for we too need to safely dwell with God.

By the end of this post we will have completed half of Leviticus! This post we are looking at a section which concentrates upon the state of being clean (11:1-15:33). If you haven’t yet read this, try to read it now, and answer how does this help keep Israel safe? List all the good things and the bad things and use these to work out what is the same and what is different for us.

What is this section about?

This section covers a range of laws which broadly be defined as regarding what is clean and what is unclean. These rules apply to the physical state of a person and can be seen to be a temporary state. These rules are widely applied to many areas of life, including food, homes, health, birth etc.

Colouring: Good things for Israel are green headings and blue headings are bad for Israel.

Israel is told what to do to avoid being unclean

This section uses the words unclean and uncleanness exactly 100 times, and the word clean 34 times, if we add in cleansed, cleansing, etc. then the total count for words derived from clean is 157 (I am a scientist by trade and love a good bit of number crunching). In 5 chapters that is a lot, 2.8% of the section word count!

While it is not always good to just count the number of words, and then see which is the most frequent (although it is often helpful for identifying the theme of a passage), it is interesting to see that the word unclean is used three times as much as clean. Not all of these times are able to telling Israel how to prevent uncleanliness, but a large portion are.

You may find it tiresome to read about all the unclean animals, and what Israel can and cannot eat/touch, but the fact that we have a whole chapter dedicated to this shows how careful and meticulous God is about his instructions to Israel. They are left in no doubt about what to do to maintain their cleanliness, e.g.:

 Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. (Lev. 11:4, see also; well pretty much all of Chapter 11 so I won’t make a list)

This should tell us how important it is to God that his people are clean. The rules may seem to us arbitrary and random, but underneath all that, we can also see that God really doesn’t want them to accidentally become unclean, for it affects their relationship with Him:

43 You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. 44 For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11: 43-45)

Their holiness is a reflection of God and their relationship with him, so marring that holiness through being unclean will affect their relationship.

Israel is told to keep a safe distance from God if they are unclean

We can see from the passage above that uncleanness makes a person defiled. However, uncleanliness is not the same as sinning. Many of the Laws surrounding being clean are associated with things that cannot be changed (eg. disease, giving birth and bodily discharges):

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. (Lev. 12:2; see also 2:5)

And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean. (Lev. 13:3; see also 13:8; 13:11; 13:14-15; 13:20; 13:22; 13:25; 13:27, 13:30; 13:36; 13:44-46)

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean. And this is the law of his uncleanness for a discharge: whether his body runs with his discharge, or his body is blocked up by his discharge, it is his uncleanness. (Lev. 15:2-3; see also 15:15-16; 15:19; 15:25)

Being unclean, in itself, is not a sin, what would be wrong was the Israelites entering God’s presence unclean. It may seem harsh, but if they approach God unclean, and therefore unconsecrated and unholy, they will die. Staying outside the camp or away for the tabernacle is far safer:

31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (Lev. 15:31)

God is doing a loving thing by warning them and again enabling them to be safe while he dwells with them.

Israel is told how to become clean again when they become unclean

Being unclean clearly cuts Israel off from God, but it is not a permanent state. God tells them how to become clean again, so that they can reenter His presence. Some of the rules are simple:

Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening, 25 and whoever carries any part of their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. (Lev. 11:24-25; see also Lev. 11:27-28; 11;39-40; 15:16-23; 15:27)

Other times a more complex process is required:

13 “And when the one with a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, then he shall count for himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes. And he shall bathe his body in fresh water and shall be clean. 14 And on the eighth day he shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons and come before the Lord to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest. 15 And the priest shall use them, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord for his discharge. (Lev 15:13-15; see also 12:2-7; Chap. 14; 15:28-30)

All of the cleansing and purifying remind Israel of the holiness of God, and their holiness as through their relationship with Him. It is purposeful.

Personally, I think this is why offerings are sometimes required for purification. Israel is to remember that God is pure and clean and untainted, but things are unclean and impure through human sin and rebellion (particularly at the fall). Many of things pronounced unclean can also be seen to be associated with the curses at the fall, like childbirth and death (through touching carcasses and disease). It is interesting that the times when the person is more closely tied to these curses, i.e. having a disease or giving birth to a child themselves, an offering is required. If the uncleanliness is associated with another creature/object, washing is merely required. However you may disagree with me, the fall is not explicitly stated so I could be entirely wrong.

Can Israel really stay clean?

It all sounds great, there doesn’t seem to be any problems: do this to stay clean; if something out of your control makes you unclean, then stay away until you have been made clean again. However after 5 chapters, you think, is there any time that Israel is actually clean? For instance, if any eats permitted meat they are unclean:

“And if any animal which you may eat dies, whoever touches its carcass shall be unclean until the evening, 40 and whoever eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. And whoever carries the carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. (Lev. 11:39-40)

They are also unclean if they are diseased, or on their period, or having sex, or touching things that someone unclean has touched. The list goes on, it seems mighty hard to be clean. I can only imagine that when they were clean, it would have required a constant obsession with everything to stay clean, which sounds really difficult and restrictive to daily life. However, I think we can assume that quite a lot of their time they must have been unclean, and so unholy and required to stay away from God. This seems to be a problem, for all of the instructions still don’t seem sufficient to allow a permanent close relationship with God.

What about us? Are Christians clean?

The great news is, we have been washed so that we are permanently clean:

 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10: 19-22)

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5: 25-27)

This means that we can always be in close relationship with God. It is really important for the Holy Spirit dwells within us.

You may ask why are we clean when we still have disease and birth etc., or eat the wrong food? Jesus says:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. …

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honours me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” …

..14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7: 1-2, 5-8, 14-23)

The unclean things described in Leviticus are to help Israel understand that their hearts are unclean and defiled (which is also why I think the symbols in Leviticus of uncleanliness are linked to the fall curses, in order to remind of their state and rebellious nature) and that they need to be purified. We have been purified and washed of all things that defile us (past tense!):

 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)

This is a great thing to praise God for! I thank God that my state of cleanliness is permanent and dependent upon His actions, not mine. I am thankful I don’t need to stay away but am consecrated and holy, and can have a full and intimate relationship with Him. I am no longer a living reminder of the fall but a living representation of God’s power to save and redeem.

Before Next Post

We shall take a look at Chapter 16. This is the centre and focal point of the book and describes the Day of Atonement. As it is only one chapter, why not read it and write down your thoughts about it before the next post. You can use the guide I wrote on Friday, if you want some direction (Leviticus Extra: How can we read Leviticus so that we understand it better?).

(Scripture quoted from English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)


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