Since Israel’s God was holy, Israel as a nation had to be holy (Lev 11:44-45). (For the biblical meaning of ‘holy’ see HOLINESS.) Laws of cleanliness applied this holiness to every part of the people’s lives, including their daily food and bodily cleanliness. A person who broke one of these laws was considered defiled, or unclean, and had to be ceremonially cleansed before joining again in the religious activities of God’s covenant people (Exod 19:10-15; Num 19:20-22; John 11:55). One duty of the priests was to teach the people to distinguish between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Lev 10:10; Ezek 44:23). The system of ritual defilement reminded the people that the results of sin were widespread and could not be ignored (Lev 20:22-26). It also helped to keep the people physically healthy, by preventing them from eating harmful foods, encouraging personal hygiene and limiting the spread of disease.

Uncleanness of animals and things

Israel’s laws concerning animals suitable for food were particularly useful in an age of little scientific knowledge. A few simple rules enabled people to recognize forbidden animals, even though they may not have known that meat from those animals could be harmful (Lev 11:1-23,46-47). The laws were not intended to govern the lives of people in other countries and eras (Acts 10:13-15; Rom 14:14,20; 1 Cor 10:31; 1 Tim 4:4). Articles could become defiled through misuse or accidents. If washing could guarantee cleansing, as in the case of clothing, the articles were to be washed. If washing could not guarantee cleansing, as in the case of earthenware pots, the articles had to be destroyed (Lev 11:29-40; 15:8-11).

Uncleanness of persons

Contact with a dead body made people unclean and required them to stay outside the community till they had bathed themselves and washed their clothes. The isolation period was one day for handling the carcass of an animal, but a week for handling a human corpse. In the latter case, ritual sprinkling was also required (Lev 11:24-25; Num 19:11-19). There was a special cleansing ritual for restored lepers (Lev 14:1-57; see LEPROSY). If people unknowingly ate meat from which the blood had not been properly drained, they had to carry out a cleansing ritual (Exod 22:31; Lev 17:14-16).

Ceremonial cleansing, including the offering of sacrifices, was necessary for a woman after childbirth. The ceremony was carried out forty days after the birth of a male child and eighty days after the birth of a female child (Lev 12:1-8; cf. Luke 2:21-24). There were strict laws concerning any infection or abnormality relating to sexual organs, whether male or female (Lev 15:1-15). Ceremonial uncleanness lasted one day after sexual intercourse, and seven days after normal menstruation. It was normally removed by bathing. Where a woman suffered lengthy or otherwise abnormal discharge, sacrifices also were required (Lev 15:16-33). A serious defilement was that which resulted from the unlawful shedding of blood. Murder made the land unclean, and the uncleanness could be removed only by the death of the murderer; or, if the murderer could not be found, by the ritual slaughter of an animal instead (Deut 21:1-9). Worship of idols also made the land unclean, and the uncleanness could be removed only by the removal of the people themselves from the land (Ezra 9:10-14; Jer 2:7; 16:18; Ezek 14:11; cf. 2 Kings 17:16-18; 21:11-15).

Practices of New Testament times

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a far more detailed system of ritual cleansing. The hand-washing ritual of the Pharisees, for instance, required the pouring of water over their hands to cleanse them from the defilement of people and things they had touched in the Gentile world (Mark 7:1-4; John 2:6; 3:25; 18:28). Jesus pointed out that such traditions caused misunderstandings of the law and prevented people from doing the more important things that the law required (Mark 7:5-9; see TRADITION). The laws of ceremonial cleansing pointed to a much deeper problem, the problem of sin, which affects every part of people’s lives. Real defilement comes not from what people eat or how they eat it, but from sinful thoughts, words and actions. People are made unclean in God’s sight by the evil that comes out of them, not by the food that goes into them (Mark 7:14-23; Titus 1:15; James 4:8). This uncleanness can be removed only through the blood of Jesus Christ. His sacrificial death, by dealing with the root problem of sin, does what all the Israelite rituals were unable to do (Heb 9:13-14; 10:22; see BLOOD; SACRIFICE).

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