The Rationale Of The Laws Of Clean And Unclean In The Old Testament -- By: Joe M. Sprinkle

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 43:4 (Dec 2000)
Article: The Rationale Of The Laws Of Clean And Unclean In The Old Testament
Author: Joe M. Sprinkle


The Rationale Of The Laws Of Clean And Unclean
In The Old Testament

Joe M. Sprinklea

Ritual cleanness and uncleanness (associated with the Heb. roots ṭāher and ṭāmeʾ) represents a major theme of the Pentateuch. Purity rules describe the rituals, varying according to the “severity” of the impurity contracted, for ceremonial uncleanness due to skin disease, bodily discharges, touching unclean things, and eating unclean foods. The rationale for these laws is never clearly spelled out, but several explanations probably have some validity, including hygiene, the need to dissociate oneself from disgusting or pagan things, various other ethical lessons, the association of Yahweh with life and wholeness rather than death or disorder, the separation of worship from expressions of sexuality, and the need for Israel to be separated from the Gentiles. However, this paper argues that the most important message conveyed by these laws is that God is holy, and man, conversely, is contaminated and unfit, in and of himself, to approach a holy God. All this, in turn, served to inculcate in the mind of the ancient Israelite the sacredness of the tabernacle/temple space within the conceptual “cultic topography” produced by the clean and unclean system.

I. How Uncleanness Was Contracted

According to the laws of the Pentateuch, the Israelite was to regard most things as “clean,” but a person or thing could contract uncleanness in a variety of ways. Several broad categories are found in Num 5:2: Anyone with a skin disease, or having a discharge of bodily fluids, or touching something unclean such as a dead body was unclean. The other broad category has to do with unclean animals and foods. These categories will now be discussed in greater detail.

1. Skin disease. Anyone with a scale-like skin disease (ṣārûʿ) was regarded as unclean (cf. Leviticus 13–14). The term ṣāraʿat has been traditionally translated “leprosy,” but the consensus of scholars is that the term is not limited to modern clinical leprosy (Hansen’s disease); instead, this term covers a variety of skin diseases. 1 A garment or leather object in a household

or the house itself that contracts mold or fungus that looks like scale disease were likewise deemed unclean (Lev 13:47–59;

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