Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 5: Ritual Impurity

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5 – Ritual Impurity

The previous four installments in this series are linked below. While when combined, they exceed 6500 words. This post provides another 2000 words. Once you are a little over halfway, I think the momentum of curiosity will carry you to the end, though I could be mistaken. Regardless, I would recommend that the series be read in order. There is a madness in the method, if I’m honest, though it’ll test our endurance.

1 – Prefatory Playfulness
2 – Love and Leviticus 
3 – Practice and Priorities
4 – Abominations

Some elements in this series will be seen as provocative. That is inevitable — even intentional, at times. So, without further delay, lets move on to some impure thoughts.


A volume that I’ve found helpful on the subject of Old Testament law is Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism by Jonathan Klawans, as well as his subsequent monograph, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supercessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism). Mind you, these are both scholarly monographs published by Oxford University Press. That means that they’ll come off as a valley of dry bones to all but the most determined of readers. (Confession: I really don’t believe this, as I have an inherent sense that if I appreciate something, everyone else will as well, even if secretly, or even if subconsciously. I’m sure you’ll agree. Wink.)

Here we will focus on the first chapter of Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, “Ritual and Moral Impurity in the Hebrew Bible,” pages 21-42. I’ll most often not bother with specific page references in the following summary and discussion. If you really want to bother with that, well, get your hands on a copy of the book at a seminary, or, if need be, through inter-library loan. Or, since everyone reading this naturally shares all my interests, you can get a copy from Amazon and enjoy it to your heart’s content.

Now for a strong opinion (which you’ll have a difficult time getting from me most of the time, though perhaps not while I’m asleep): Frankly, anyone seeking to get a grip on what Jesus is teaching in the gospels, or what the apostle Paul is doing with the law in his epistles, likely will miss the mark by a wide margin unless she takes into account material like that presented by Klawans. And I’m serious about that!

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that Klawans finally has unlocked the Bible so we can understand it. What I mean is that he has pointed up distinctions and features that are of such importance that, if unnoticed, one will only end in a muddle. In fact, I think that both Jesus and Paul were dealing with just such a muddle in the first century. And I think we face similar prospects in our own day. How is it that we suppose we can make sense of New Testament concerns — whether those of Jesus as found in the gospels, the transitional issues of Acts, or the polemics in the epistles — without a pretty thorough understanding of the Old Testament’s teaching regarding the law? I simply don’t think we can. So, lets see what Klawans has to offer. I think you’ll find it both interesting and enlightening. At least I hope you will.

Right Rites

Klawans notes that the terms “ritual” and “moral,” as distinctions, are not without their problems. Even so, he rightly holds that the distinction is useful, and will be illustrated as useful in his study. These need not be seen as competing concerns, as if one had to choose between either moral concerns or ritual concerns. A distinction need not imply a separation or an opposition. The distinction imply or be used to suppose some anti-ritual position or prejudice. So, there are two kinds of impurity within Old Testament law.

He draws our attention especially to Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 in a discussion of “ritual impurity,” noting that the impurity gained here affects the ritual status of the person(s).

Wait a minute!

You do have your Bible in hand, right? And you’re going to read those chapters before we proceed, right? And you do realize that if we’re going to actually make sense of this material, we’ll actually have to spend some time in the Bible, right?

So? So, go on. Go and read the chapters. You can return to this blog post later. It’ll still be here, Lord willing. 

Ritual Purification

Klawans draws our attention especially to Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 in a discussion of “ritual impurity,” noting that the impurity gained here affects the ritual status of the person(s). These ritually impure people may also affect the ritual status of people around them. And their ritual purity is regained, at least in part, by ritual means such as sacrifices and some kind of washing or sprinkling or bathing. These means of purification might not be sufficient in themselves; one also may have to wait until evening, or for seven days, or for a few weeks. The durations of impurity and the cleansing actions both vary. (Such rites sometimes play a part in obtaining moral purity as well, which we will discuss in a later post.)

Ritual impurity, or ritual defilement, arises from contact with a number of natural sources, including the following:

  • childbirth (Lev 12:1-8)
  • scale disease (Lev 13:1-14:32)
  • genital discharges (Lev 15:1-33)
  • carcasses of some unclean animals (Lev 11:1-47)
  • human corpses (Lev 19:10-22)
  • it also may come through certain purification rites themselves (see Lev 16:28; Num 19:8)

Klawans draws our attention to three very important attributes of ritual impurity. And don’t miss these!

(1) The sources of ritual impurity are generally natural and more or less unavoidable. (2) It is not sinful to contract these impurities. And (3) these impurities convey an impermanent contagion.

I do not think the importance of these observations can be taken too seriously. Without noting these distinctions, we’ll only fall into muddled marshes. Klawans develops each of these three points.

Natural, Unavoidable Impurity

(1) The sources of ritual impurity are generally natural and more or less unavoidable.

Writes Klawans: “birth, death, sex, disease, and discharge are all part of normal life. The only possible exception to this rule is the impurity that is generated by priests in the process of performing purificatory rituals (Lev. 16; Num. 19).” He notes that, nevertheless, these actions of the priests were part of normal life in Israel.

We may not know why these actions were defiling, but they did involve animals, blood, and death (again, all are natural). And these kinds of impurity are more or less unavoidable. One may be able to avoid certain kinds of ritually defiling animals (Lev 11:43), for instance, but one may not avoid all bodily discharges, diseases, and deaths.

In fact, some of these ritual impurities not only are unavoidable, they are obligatory: obligations to bury the dead (though see restrictions in Lev 21:1-4), obligations to reproduce (Gen 1:28; 9:7), and the priests obligations to perform certain sacrificial actions that defiled them.

Ritual Impurity Is Not Sinful 

(2) It is not a sin to contract these impurities.

Klawans agrees with other scholars in noting that “it would be impossible, if not absurd, to consider natural processes such as menstruation to be prohibited” as sins, even if some actions or associations that cause ritual impurity are discouraged. Ritually defiling actions that are not discouraged include such actions as permitted sexual relations, coming into physical contact with the mother of a newborn, being in contact with anyone who has had to deal with the dead. None of these contacts is prohibited as immoral.

Now, priests were to observe certain restrictions so as to limit their ritual impurity (see Lev 7:20-21; 21:1-4; 22:4-7). In order to tend to their duties in the holy precincts, the priests would need to be conscious of, and avoid, various sorts of normal and common defilements. Other Israelites were not similarly instructed — and that is an important distinction to keep in mind. “Israelites were obliged to remain aware of their ritual status at all times,” notes Klawans, “lest they accidentally come into contact with the sacred while in a state of ritual impurity (Lev 15:31).” Being ritually impure was not sinful; being ritually impure and entering the holy precincts was sinful. Do note the difference.

Now, while there are instances in which God afflicts people with ritually defiling disease (see Num 12; 2 Chron 26), this is no reason to generalize the experience and suppose that all who suffer from such diseases are being punished by God. (Though it is just this sort of false inference that leads to profoundly unjust judgments! See John 9:1ff.) A leper may be ritually impure, but leprosy is no indication that one is morally impure.

Klawans notes that there are ways that being ritually impure can lead to moral impurity. One is that one may refuse to tend to the ritual purifications, thus neglecting the commands of God (see Num 19:13, 20). But this sin here is in the intentional neglect of God’s instructions, not in the ritual impurity itself. Another is entering the sacred precincts while ritually impure (see Lev 7:20-21; 15:31; 22:3-7; see also Num 5:1-4). Accidental violations can be addressed, mind you (see Lev 5:1-13), and I imagine there were any number of accidental or unwitting violations. Again, the sin is in the refusal to observe divine instructions, the willful neglect, not the ritual defilement itself.

Being ritually defiled is a normal experience, but not a morally sinful one. In some circumstances, it is unavoidable. Sometimes ritual defilement actually is obligatory. Most often it simply is natural and normal and commonplace. One was to tend to this ritual defilement with sacrifices and washings of various sorts, and with time. Refusal to do so could betray a heart of disobedience, and that is what would be immoral.

Impermanent Contagion

(3) The third characteristic of ritual impurity is that it conveys to persons an impermanent contagion.

Welcome to the world of scholarese, the use of potentially obscuring language in the service of knowledge. Sorry about this. So, the term “contagion” sounds like a disease. I know. An alternative would be communicable, but that isn’t much of an improvement. Well, actually it is in the sense that contagion sound to my ear as if it relates to an airborne virus while communicable sounds a bit more touchy feely. And this latter point is what should be in our minds here. Ritual impurity can be transferred to others by touch or proximity. But it is not permanent, as Klawans explains in the following terms.

The impermanence of this condition of ritual impurity can be seen in such text as Leviticus 15:5, 21, where we find a time condition (or limit) — sundown — for the impurity. In another instance the probation is one week (Num 19), and the ritual implications of birth can last thirty-three or sixty-six days (Lev 12). Purification procedures (e.g., washings) also suggest the impermanence of the defilement. You can see the various limits of the ritually impure state in other texts such as Leviticus 13 and 14. (You are referencing these in your Bible, right? Even reading them, right?) Eventual attainment of ritual purity and full ritual and social inclusion is expected. Klawans sums this up in the following way:

In the final analysis, we hear of no form of ritual impurity that does not have purificatory procedures, from waiting until sundown, to bathing bodies, washing clothes, and performing sacrificial rites. Even when long-lasting, the status of ritual defilement is an impermanent one.

It would be a good investment of time to return to the top of this post and read it through again. This is worth getting a firm grip on these things as we continue this series. In a future post we’ll move ahead in Klawans study to look at what he says about moral impurity. We’ve covered quite enough here.

Until next time.


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