Published: 11 July 2018

Clean and Unclean?

The Bible talks a great deal about purity laws; the idea of being clean or unclean. This concept is not very familiar to us today and it raises a number of questions. What exactly did it mean to be clean or unclean? What caused a person to be unclean? How did a person get clean again? What was the downside of being unclean? Was it a sin to be unclean?

What the Bible means by clean and unclean

The terms clean and unclean aren’t referring to how clean or dirty a person or thing is. Rather, it is a concept related to a person’s (or object’s) fitness or suitability for engaging in Tabernacle/Temple activities.

Simply put, to be in a clean or pure state meant you could enter the area of the temple. In the case of a clean animal, it was one fit for sacrifice. If referring to a clean object it was one that could be used in the temple service.

What kinds of things made a person unclean?

  • Touching the carcass of an unclean animal – Lev 5:2
  • Eating unclean food – Lev 11:8
  • Touching the carcass of a clean animal that has died on its own – Lev 11:39
  • Childbirth – Lev 12:1-5
  • Skin conditions/diseases – Lev 13
  • Going into a house that has uncontrollable mold – Lev 14:46
  • A discharge from a man’s body – Lev 15:2-3
  • Anyone who touches a man with a discharge or touches anything that man has touched – Lev 15:4-10
  • An emission of semen – Lev 15:16
  • Sexual relations – Lev 15:18
  • A discharge from a woman’s body – Lev 15:19
  • Anyone who touches a woman with a discharge or touches anything that woman has touched – Lev 15:20-23
  • A woman with a discharge of blood – Lev 15:25
  • Eating anything that died naturally or was killed by other animals – Lev 17:15

This is not a complete list, but should serve to point out that a lot of things could violate the purity laws causing a person to become unclean and therefore unfit to enter the temple area.

It should also be pointed out that being unclean was not necessarily the result of sin. Some of the causes of impurity were the result of normal bodily functions. There is no sin in giving birth to a child. It is not a sin to have a moldy house, it’s just unfortunate. Skin conditions were beyond one’s control and therefore not sinful. As a matter of fact, it was possible to become unclean and not realize it until later (Lev 5:3). We should not confuse being unclean with willful sin.

The driving concern of these purity laws was to avoid defiling the environment in which God dwelt.

…so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them. (Num. 5:3 NIV)

Consequences of being unclean

It has already been mentioned that the Israelites were forbidden from defiling the temple by entering it in an unclean state (Lev 12:4, 15:31, 22:3). One could not go near the “holy things” (which were in the tabernacle in the presence of God – i.e. go into God’s presence) in an unclean condition. This wasn’t the only consequence.

Those who were unclean had to separate themselves to avoid touching others and also making them unclean (Lev 15:4-10). Those with skin diseases were quarantined (Lev 13:4). Objects which couldn’t be cleansed were burned (Lev. 13:52, 55, 57), broken (Lev. 11:33, 35) or demolished (Lev. 14:40-41, 45). In short, an unclean person was to be cleansed or risk becoming an outcast. An object was either purified or destroyed. That which was unclean was not allowed to remain in their vicinity.

God used the unclean things to illustrate sin

The things that God selected to be unclean are all pretty gross. Dead bodies are disgusting, pigs and other unclean animals eat and do nasty things, bodily discharges are unpleasant, childbirth is messy. These are all things that people universally find to be gross. God is trying to teach us that when we sin, it is revolting and disgusting in His sight.

God used the unclean things to illustrate sin. When someone touches an unclean thing, they become unclean. Uncleanness spreads easily just like sin does. Sin defiles everyone it touches. It breaks our relationship with each other and with God. Like things that are unclean, it makes us disgusting and vile compared to God who is completely pure and clean.

Sin not only defiled the Israelites, it defiled the tabernacle/temple as well (Lev 16:19). This defilement makes God want to leave. If you came home and found your house had been trashed with garbage with graffiti on the walls, you’d want to leave also. This is why the holy space had to be purified. Some sacrifices weren’t for the people, but to purify the Tabernacle/Temple from the defilement caused by the people’s sins!

How did unclean people get clean again?

God used the purity laws to drive home the concept of uncleanness and illustrate the nature of sin. He also gave them a means of being purified from their unclean condition. This was accomplished by washing in water (Num 19:12) and for some types of uncleanness, offering a sacrifice (Lev 15:13-15).

The means of purifying the people foreshadowed the cleansing which Jesus’ sacrifice would bring to those with faith in Him. Like the ancient Israelites, to be purified from our unclean condition we are washed in the waters of baptism (Heb 10:22), which vividly illustrates the cleansing of our hearts which Jesus’ sacrifice makes possible (Rom 3:24-26).