Question: What are the underlying principles behind the regulations about ceremonial or ritual uncleanness outlined in the book of Leviticus? Was Jesus ever ceremonially unclean? It is often said that "sex isn't dirty," but judging from the biblical laws about uncleanness, sex certainly seems to be "unclean." Why?

Answer: According to Lev. 11-15 a number of things could make an Israelite ritually unclean, including serious skin diseases; contact with a human corpse or animal carcass; childbirth, menstruation or seminal emission; and in general, contact with an unclean thing or person. Because there were so many ways to become unclean in the course of day-to-day living, every Israelite spent some time in a state of ceremonial uncleanness. People were separated from the community for the duration of their uncleanness and could not participate in worship at the tabernacle or temple (Num. 5:1-4).


The Bible does not explicitly state the reasons for the ritual purity laws, so we are left to infer those reasons from more indirect clues. In an excellent discussion of the subject [3], Dr. Joe M. Sprinkle identifies one such clue in the placement of the instructions on uncleanness within the book of Leviticus. These instructions begin in Lev. 11, right after the account of the death of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu for improperly approaching the sanctuary, and continue through Lev. 15. Then comes a reminder about what had happened to Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 16:1), followed by the details of a cleansing ceremony for the sanctuary and the people that took place annually on the Day of Atonement.


Another clue to the meaning of uncleanness is the way in which the language of ritual purity and impurity is used in the Bible. Since the sources of uncleanness included natural bodily functions and various factors beyond human control, uncleanness was not in itself sinful, but uncleanness and sin are closely linked in the Scriptures. In particular, the language of ritual purity and impurity is often used to picture moral purity and impurity. (See [3], pp. 653-654.) One familiar example occurs in Psalm 51:7, where David uses the imagery of cleansing from leprosy (Lev. 14) in asking for forgiveness of his sins of adultery and murder.


Based on such clues, Sprinkle and other theologians have concluded that the purity laws were primarily designed to teach lessons about the holiness of God and the corruption of man. God's presence in the midst of his people could not be taken for granted and was to be carefully safeguarded. Human beings, living in a sin-tainted world, are not automatically qualified to come into God's presence and "must prepare themselves both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God" ([3], p. 653). Uncleanness, like sin, could arise from many sources, both inside and outside a person, and one had to exercise diligence in order to avoid it.


With this background in mind, let's consider the question of why sexual activity results in uncleanness (Lev. 15:18). We should remember first that sex is an integral part of God's good creation (Gen. 1:27, 31). It is the God-ordained means by which we carry out the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28) and is not inherently sinful.


But like the rest of creation, sex has been adversely affected by sin, and Lev. 15:18 may have been intended as a reminder of that reality. This commandment carries the message that sexual activity, like all other human activity, occurs under God's watchful eye and is governed by God's commandments. God's people are to strive for holiness in every area of life.


Such a message is important in light of the human tendency to glorify and idolize sexuality. The purity regulations involving sex served to completely separate sex from worship, thus encouraging Israel to worship the Creator rather than the creation and to avoid the kinds of perverse worship (cultic prostitution, for example) typical of its pagan neighbors.


Jesus and Uncleanness

Did Jesus ever become unclean during his time on earth? Certainly Jesus never sinned (Heb. 4:15), but there is no scriptural or theological reason to rule out his having been unclean occasionally. In fact, Jesus sometimes seems to have deliberately invited uncleanness in the course of healing a leper (Mark 1:40-42) or bringing a dead person back to life (Mark 5:41-42).


Still, Christian exegetes differ on the question of whether Jesus ever contracted uncleanness. Some (e.g. D.A. Carson [1]) believe the Gospels imply that Jesus transcended or vanquished uncleanness and so was never actually unclean. Others, however, see uncleanness for Jesus as a part of his being truly human and as an aspect of his work as the Messiah. D.T. Lancaster ([2], pp. 72-73) connects Jesus' uncleanness with the prophecy of Isa. 53:4: "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases" (NRSV). Lancaster points out that some ancient rabbis saw the mention of "infirmities" in this verse as a specific reference to leprosy. On the basis of such a reading of Isa. 53:4, Talmudic passages (b. Sanhedrin 98a-b) predict that the Messiah would spend time with lepers and even refer to the Messiah as "the leper of the house of study."


Personally I favor the latter view and see Jesus' willingness to become unclean as an example of his love for us. In any case, we can rejoice in his sacrifice on our behalf. Because of that cleansing sacrifice, we can approach God "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. 10:22).



1.  Donald A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.

2.  D.T. Lancaster, Torah Club 4: B'sorat HaMashiach (The News of the Messiah), First Fruits of Zion, Littleton, Colorado, 2002.

3.  Joe M. Sprinkle, “The Rationale of the Laws of Clean and Unclean in the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 (2000), 637-657.


Issue 20


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