It seems strange to me for Christians to have a negative view of the law that God gave to ancient Israel. One of the claims that Jesus makes is that he came, not to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it. To claim that Jesus came to fulfill it must indicate that it is somehow necessary that it be fulfilled. If it must be fulfilled it must have a necessary place in God’s plan of salvation. This post will touch on one aspect of that law that had to be “fulfilled” in Jesus.
The law contained in what Christians call the “Old Testament” has regulations about many things that we modern people find strange, obscure or downright primitive. One concept that can be difficult for us to get a handle on is the idea of the “unclean.” It is a wide-ranging concept that can apply to everything from bodily discharges, clothing and building materials to food.
As a general rule, people who come into contact with “unclean” items become ritually defiled, which means they could not participate in rituals at the Tabernacle or Temple grounds. In some extreme cases, they must even stay away from other people or even leave the main camp of the Israelites.
One of the extreme examples is the disease usually translated as “leprosy” in the Bible. Years ago I read an article by a Christian physician who suggests that the symptoms are different from what we currently call leprosy. He suggests that it was probably a highly infectious disease like smallpox that produces the symptoms described in Leviticus 13. Notice what the sufferer is supposed to do to protect others in Lev. 13:45-46.
Lev. 13:45 Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
The requirement to warn people away and keep their mouths covered is consistent with the idea of a public health measure to prevent the spread of an infectious disease. If that was the intent, this is a law that was well ahead of its time.
Leviticus 15 details a somewhat less serious way to become ritually defiled involved bodily discharges, including blood. Coming into contact with blood usually involved a need to bathe and remaining unclean for community worship until the sun goes down. (In Israel, the day officially ended and the next one began when it got dark.)
People with weeping sores or bloody discharges were considered unclean until they were healed of the condition and went through a ritual involving an examination by a priest and an offering. Anything the person with the discharge sat on or came into contact with also became unclean and had to be washed. This was also likely, at least in part, a public health measure, but with the added element that blood was considered to carry the life of the person. The spilling of blood is seen as a very negative thing.
For the latter reason, Israelites needed to avoid worship at the Tabernacle when defiled by blood. The section on blood and bodily discharges ends with the following warning.
Lev. 15:31 ‘Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness when they defile My tabernacle that is among them.
There were other ways to become too defiled or unclean to worship at the Tabernacle or Temple, as listed in Leviticus 21.
Lev. 21:1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None shall defile himself for the dead among his people, 2 except for his relatives who are nearest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; 3 also his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband, for her he may defile himself. 4 Otherwise he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself… 10 ‘He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; 11 nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother;
Lev. 22: 1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel, and that they do not profane My holy name by what they dedicate to Me: I am the Lord. 3 Say to them: ‘Whoever of all your descendants throughout your generations, who goes near the holy things which the children of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has uncleanness upon him, that person shall be cut off from My presence: I am the Lord.
Priests bore a heavy responsibility in service before God. The high priest was required to abstain from touching any corpse, even those of the closest family members. Other priests were allowed to touch only the corpses of immediate family in mourning. Of course that prevented them from doing their priestly duties until they had washed and the sun had gone down. Because the high priest was always “on call” for God, he could not afford even that luxury.
There were, of course, other ways beyond these three to become “unclean” for purposes of gathered worship at the appointed place. I chose these three to illustrate how Jesus’ interactions with the “unclean” can radically transform our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. In order to do that we need to become familiar with the principles of what happens when holy, clean and unclean interact in the scheme God built into Israel’s worship. There is a passage by the prophet Haggai that illustrates these principles.
Haggai 2: 10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Now, ask the priests concerning the law, saying, 12 If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?” ‘ ” Then the priests answered and said, “No.” 13 And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.” 14 Then Haggai answered and said, ” ‘So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. [NKJV]
Of course, the main point of the passage is to tell the remnant who had returned to Judea that their works were not pleasing to God, but that God would work with them anyway and eventually redeem them for his supreme purpose.
Notice, however, what happens when the holy touches the ordinary or “clean.” Basically nothing. The holy doesn’t become ordinary and the ordinary doesn’t become holy. What happens when the “unclean” touches the clean is that the clean becomes unclean.
The lesson is that “uncleanness” is contagious. It spreads by contact. By analogy, a person or people contaminated by sin is considered “unclean” by God. Unfortunately, they cannot clean themselves up on their own.
Old Testament scholars that I have read speculate that for the unclean to directly contact the holy would produce a catastrophic reaction analogous to mixing matter and antimatter, which is why Leviticus warns the “unclean” to stay away from the Tabernacle in Lev. 15:31, lest they be destroyed as a people.
By the time Jesus appears on the scene about 400 years after Haggai, not much has changed spiritually among that people. They are still as “unclean” in God’s eyes as when Haggai spoke. Gospel writers Luke and Mark record many instances of Jesus interacting with those who had become “unclean” according to the laws above. Three of those interactions are listed below. Some implications of those interactions will follow.
Luke 17: 12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. 13 And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. 15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. 17 So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18 Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
Mark 5: 22 And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name. And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet 23 and begged Him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live.” 24 So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him. 25 Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. 28 For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.” 29 Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction. 30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My clothes?” 31 But His disciples said to Him, “You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, Who touched Me?’ ” 32 And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. 33 But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” 35 While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not be afraid; only believe.” 37 And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James. 38 Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly. 39 When He came in, He said to them, “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” 40 And they ridiculed Him. But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying. 41 Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, “Talitha, cumi,” which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age. And they were overcome with great amazement. 43 But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said that something should be given her to eat.
We are not told whether Jesus has physical contact with the ten lepers, but they walk away from the encounter healed of their leprosy. ”Jesus is touched by the woman with a flow of blood, and she is healed. He touches the dead girl’s body, and she comes back to life.
Is he unclean? A prominent New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop whose work I admire greatly believes that it does make him so, for purposes of substitutionary atonement.
As much as I believe in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and as much as I admire this Bishop’s writings, I suspect that the results suggest something else.
The answer has to do with who Jesus is. Jesus is not an ordinary man. He is, somehow, able to reverse uncleanness. In Jesus, the holy has united with the ordinary as “God in the flesh.” As mortal, he can come directly into contact with the unclean without catastrophic consequences. As God, his holiness can “rub off” on the unclean and make them whole again.
Not only is his cleansing of the unclean a clue as to Jesus’ identity as God-in-the-flesh. It is also a clue to his mission: restoration of humanity into a proper relationship with God. Just as Israel’s remnant was considered “unclean” by God because of their sinful nature and actions, so are all of us before God forgives us. We also need to be cured of the desire to sin, or forgiveness will not help much.
Jesus heals the cause of the uncleanness, whether it is illness or loss of life. When it comes to the uncleanness of sin, he can cure the cause of that, too.