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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Leviticus 15

 

 

Introduction

Clean and Unclean (Leviticus 11:1 to Leviticus 15:33).

The priesthood having been informed of their responsibility to discern between what was ritually clean and what was ritually unclean (Leviticus 10:10), five chapters now deal with the question in order to provide them with guidance (compare Ezekiel 22:26 for their later failure to do this). The question of clean and unclean brings out Israel’s world view, and stresses the difference between walking with God, and enjoying life and enjoying what is pure, in other words what is ‘clean’, and grovelling in what is ‘unclean’, with its connections with impurity and death, urging men to the former away from the latter.

In order to appreciate the significance of this we need first to recognise what precisely is involved. The purpose behind the idea of cleanness and uncleanness is not mainly hygiene or moral uncleanness. Rather it emphasises in a general way the holiness and perfection of God, and our need to escape from and avoid and rise above degradation and death. We have already seen that sacrifices and offerings are to be ‘perfect’ or ‘without blemish’. This is a pointer to the concept involved. In emphasising what is clean and unclean God seeks only what is totally ‘perfect’, what is wholly right, for Himself and for His people. What is clean is best. What is not clean is not best.

But we must not confuse holiness and ‘cleanness’. Holiness goes much further than cleanness. Things can be clean and not holy. And there are degrees of holiness within the area where all is ‘clean’. For holiness is to do with what God is, and what man’s attitude towards Him is, while cleanness has to do with what man is and with his attitude to his environment. This clearly impinges on holiness, but it is looking at it from a very different angle.

In order to be ‘holy’ enough to enter the tabernacle court men needed to be ritually ‘clean’, but being clean did not render them ‘most holy’. Yet the constant awareness of the need to avoid what was ‘unclean’ in God’s eyes did bring God’s Law very much into the daily lives of the common man. This included both its moral and its ritual requirements. It constantly made them think of what was for their good in accordance with God’s commands, what was ‘clean’, what was wholesome for those who were holy. But there can be no doubt that God also used these distinctions in order to keep them healthy, to let them see that in the uncleanness and decay of much of nature lay unknown dangers, to test their obedience, and to remind them constantly of His holiness.

There are also grounds for recognising that some of the living creatures which were unclean were seen as such because of their connections with various gods, although this may simply be because in their worship men regularly seek what is low. This would tie in with the general principle of perfection and wellbeing. While it is argued that in that case the bull ox would also have been unclean due to its prominence in the Baal religion, the answer to that might simply be that the bull ox had been recognised as clean for so long that it countered any other interpretation.

With, for example, the pig, which was revered and feared in religions elsewhere, the position was different. The black pig was taboo to worshippers of Horus in Egypt because Seth as a black pig had once blinded him. In certain Hittite rituals a pig was slaughtered in order to protect the sacrificers from evil curses. And pigs were associated with certain Syrian-Canaanite cults. This, even if not suggesting it, would certainly have helped to confirm the pig’s uncleanness. And ‘creeping things’ were undoubtedly connected with idolatry in Ezekiel 8:10. But nothing of this is even hinted at in either Leviticus or Deuteronomy so that we can only see it as of subsidiary significance.

The Law depicts Yahweh as supremely holy, that is uniquely ‘set apart’ as One Who is wholly good, wholly righteous, uniquely powerful, and then reveals grades of descent from God’s holiness and perfection into spheres of lesser and lesser holiness (‘set apartness’). This is because man could not fully cope with the full holiness of God.

On the one hand therefore the Law is very much designed to bring out God’s uniqueness and extreme holiness, together with the Priest’s and Israel’s special position before Him, but on the other it reveals intermediate levels of holiness until it comes down to where uncleanness intervenes and then goes on to the other extreme of ‘uncleanness’ which is to do with death and extreme impurity.

God is the living God, and, for Him, to be holy is to be supremely alive and pure. For man to become fully holy would be to become wholly alive and pure, and not only free from all the claims of death, but living positively to the full. For man to miss out on that, even by a fraction, would be to miss out on the very best. But man is far from that. He is weak and failing and that best is so far beyond him that it could only be a distant hope to be brought about by the grace of God. God therefore begins to lead him in ways that will enable him one day eventually, step by step, to understand that best, and this was indeed stated to be the purpose of the Law. It was that man might finally find true life (Leviticus 18:5).

This was to be revealed to him in two ways. Firstly by his coming to appreciate the full holiness of God, an awareness of God’s environment, and of His righteousness and purity (see Isaiah 57:15), and secondly by being made aware of what is wholly clean, what is best and most ‘perfect’ in man’s environment. Thus would his mind be turned towards God. With that in mind let us first consider the levels of holiness.

The Levels of Holiness.

1). There is what is supremely holy, the very ‘Holy of Holies’ (the Most Holy, the Holiest of All) itself, the throne room of the living God, remote from man in the tabernacle, inaccessible to any but the High Priest and he only once a year after complicated rituals of preparation which had made him especially holy. There God had at times revealed something of His glory.

It is the highest level attainable for those on earth, and then was only attainable by the High Priest once a year, and that only for a short while. But it is where Christ has now entered for us, and He has made a way open for us, so that we are so privileged that we may enter the Holiest in Him (Hebrews 10:19). This is the level which we should be enjoying in our fellowship with Him. It requires total commitment and full absorption in God, but for most it is only attained in its fullness at rare times. We may glibly speak of entry into the Holiest. But until we really become aware of the glory and holiness of God we have not really entered. Jesus Christ has made it possible, but like the children of Israel with Moses we ask that His face be veiled. For to see His face would take up too much of our lives.

2). Then there is the next level, what is extremely holy, the Holy Place and what is involved with it, so holy that nothing that pertains to it may remain in the camp outside the Holy Place, except temporarily. It has to be burned in a clean place outside the camp This includes the remains of the purification for sin offerings for priests and for the whole congregation, whose blood is brought into the Holy Place. Only the priests may enter or deal with such matters, and that only when they are ‘clean’ (a basic requirement), when on duty and properly attired, and having washed hands and feet with water to remove even the earthiness of the courtyard, and of things that they have touched. Any part of those offerings is extremely holy. Such extremely holy things must not remain within the Sanctuary precincts nor in the camp. What remains after making the offering must be burned with fire in a clean place outside the camp in order to go to God.

This is a slightly lower level of holiness from that of supreme holiness, enjoyed only by the priests, when they daily trimmed the lamps and offered incense on the altar of incense. But we being made priests in Christ have it opened up to us. It is enjoyed by those whose lives are genuinely fully committed, who walking before Him and in His sight trim the lamps of witness, testimony, and good works (Matthew 5:16), who offer the daily incense of praise and thanksgiving, but have not yet, or only at times, attained the higher level. But they do choose to live totally and completely as priests to God and on behalf of men, revealing it in witness, intercession, prayer, worship and thanksgiving, committing themselves to God as a living sacrifice, and seeking to be wholly acceptable to God. They live in the Holy Place.

3). Then there is what is ‘most holy’. It is not so holy that it is confined to the Holy Place, but it so holy that it must not leave the Sanctuary precincts or be touched by any but the priests. This includes all offerings and sacrifices, once offered, apart from the meat of peace/wellbeing sacrifices, but especially refers to the portions that the priests, and they alone may eat, meat from purification for sin offerings (Leviticus 6:29) and grain from grain offerings (Leviticus 2:10). If anyone apart from a priest touches them that person becomes ‘holy’ and thus subject to the restrictions of priests without actually attaining office (Leviticus 6:18; Leviticus 6:27).

In these days this lower level is attained by those who are set apart in Christ in holiness, who truly serve Him, but who have not yet reached the level of faith of living always in the presence of God. Their faith and dedication needs an upward lift.

4). Then there is what is ‘holy’, but is not so holy that it is not allowed to leave the Sanctuary precincts, for the camp also is holy, although not always fully clean. These holy things may be dealt with in a clean place within the camp. They include the priests’ portions of peace sacrifices, and the flesh of the peace sacrifices returned to the offerer, which must be eaten in a clean place and not by anyone while unclean. They are therefore more holy than the camp.

This is the level of the average Christian who walks with God, seeks to avoid uncleanness and the desires of the flesh, but whose commitment and dedication is not sufficiently full to enjoy the higher blessings.

Up to this point all this holiness has been free from any taint of uncleanness, for participation has only been allowed by those who are ‘clean’. In a sense the camp is the last stage of holiness and is the place where distinctions between clean and unclean begin to impinge. For this is where God’s holy people confront what is less than wholesome, what is less than ‘perfect’, what may come short in one way or another of contributing to their wellbeing.

5). The camp of Israel is holy (Deuteronomy 23:14), but it is of an even lesser holiness than the clean places within the camp, for those who are mildly unclean may remain in it in their tents, and the part in which they are is then unclean until they themselves are clean. And in the same way the nation of Israel, and all who join it within the covenant by circumcision, are holy (Exodus 19:6), for they are God’s covenant people, and yet they may be temporarily unclean. However because they are holy they must seek not to defile themselves by disobedience and by contact with what is unclean, and take whatever precautions are necessary to deal with uncleanness and prevent it affecting the holy. While unclean they are not so holy that they can come in direct contact with the holiness of God.

This is the level of the low level Christian who is satisfied to honour Christ but is also seeking to enjoy life in general and does not want to be too restricted. He wants to be allowed his periods of ‘uncleanness’. He is an ‘also ran’.

6). Then there is outside the camp of Israel. This is not holy, but it is more complicated for it is divided into the clean and the unclean. Firstly there are (undefined) ‘clean places’ (Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 6:11) where what is extremely holy may be burned and where the ashes from the altar of burnt offering may be deposited. Secondly there are places which cannot be unclean, for men can go there without becoming unclean, and clean animals rove there without becoming unclean. But as with the camp unclean things impinge there. Thirdly there are places which are unclean because unclean people, non-Israelites, live there who do not observe the rules of cleanness and uncleanness. Fourthly there are places which are unclean because they are the haunts of what is unclean. There there is much which is unclean, with which even indirect contact must be avoided. And fifthly there are unclean and defiled places (Leviticus 14:40-41; Leviticus 14:45) where death and uncleannesses must be put and must remain. Man’s excrement, for example, must be put in a designated special place outside the camp (Deuteronomy 23:13-14 compare Leviticus 5:3) and must be buried there, as must the building materials of buildings condemned for certain fungi and rotting (Leviticus 14:40; Leviticus 14:45). We are not given details of these places, only their function. It may be that they were simply designated areas for refuse.

On the whole the inhabited world outside ‘the camp’ and outside later ‘Israel’, was probably seen as unholy, and as largely ‘unclean’, except possibly for the land suitable for grazing, arable land and pasture in the wilderness (not, of course, too strictly defined), for even in generally unclean lands, these were presumably seen as mildly clean, otherwise clean wild animals would become unclean.

But the ground was cursed in Genesis 3:17, and the snake was cursed ‘above all cattle and above every beast of the field’, and sentenced to grovel in the dirt, to ‘eat the dust’ (Genesis 3:14), a phrase which at a minimum indicated something totally low, ignominious and unpleasant. And this ground would only yield man his food after great and laborious effort. He would have to restore it to usefulness. It had become his adversary. And the dust was what man would return to (Genesis 3:19), it was the dust of lifelessness and death above which man had been raised, but only for a time. He would return to it in death. Thus what lived in the dust of the ground was unclean.

This ties in with chapter 11 here for a separation was made in Genesis 1-3 along similar lines to here, between animals both wild and domestic, and the other land creatures, and creeping things which grovelled in the dust, which thus became unclean, together with the birds of the air and the fish of the sea (Genesis 1:20-21; Genesis 1:24-25; Genesis 1:29-30). The intention was that all would eat vegetation or ‘green herbs’ (Genesis 1:30). It would seem that that was seen as the ideal and that those that began to subsist on other things become ‘unclean’, although later man’s right to eat of animals is confirmed (Genesis 9:3), but he would be expected to use discernment.

In Genesis 2:19-20 it is only the cattle, the wild beasts and the birds which are seen as within man’s domain, and in Genesis 3:14 we come across ‘cattle’, ‘beasts of the countryside’ and a reptile, the latter despatched to lurk in the dust as a punishment. It should not therefore surprise us if animals which nuzzle in the dust, and reptiles and creatures that live in the dust and never rise above it are seen as especially unclean, and even more ‘creeping things’, for the dust is what man who dies will return to. It is the dust of death (Psalms 22:15; Psalms 22:29; Psalms 30:9; Psalms 104:29; Ecclesiastes 3:20; Daniel 12:2). To ‘cleave to the dust’ was considered to be the same as dying (Psalms 119:25). It was a world of death. And while the curse was partly relieved by God’s covenant with Noah as far as man was concerned (Genesis 9:21), which might explain why grazing land and arable land could be seen as ‘clean’, it certainly did not remove the whole curse. Thorns and thistles are still man’s bain. The earth is still man’s adversary and seeks ever to return to the wild or to desert. And all this was closely linked with death (Genesis 3:19; Genesis 5:5), which was the final sentence.

The same distinctions are mainly found in the story of the flood (Genesis 7:8; Genesis 7:14; Genesis 7:21; Genesis 7:23; Genesis 8:19), but there we are introduced to clean and unclean animals and birds, only the clean of which can be sacrificed (Leviticus 7:2; Leviticus 8:20).

It is possible that the ‘clean places’ as in Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 6:11 are those where it is considered that death does not usually take place and where man’s and animal’s uncleanness would not have reached, thus remote almost inaccessible spots, but they are never defined specifically, and it may be that they were places especially set aside and cleansed, (although if this is so it is never mentioned). But the fact that there could be these ‘clean places’ suggests that the created world was originally seen as fundamentally clean, (God saw that it was good), but as having been largely defiled by death and uncleanness, that which is related to opposition to God.

But in terms of living things only Israel, and those who worship Yahweh, are now holy and that because cleansed by God, while certain animal, birds and fish are ‘clean’, and can therefore be eaten, but they are not spoken of as holy. To be holy is to be in a relationship with God, or to be God’s special possession.

We could see ‘outside the camp’ as largely signifying the level of those who are not in Christ. Some are relatively ‘cleaner’ than others, but none are in the camp and holy to God.

Connected with these degrees of holiness that we have described therefore, and at the bottom end, we must fit in the ideas of what is ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. These things affect holiness but are not the same thing. They are to do with man’s contact with the world through his body. Nothing of this uncleanness is ever to be brought into contact with the tabernacle. To do so deliberately would be to warrant death. If discovered as occurring unwittingly it will require guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:2-3).

And while mild uncleanness is allowed in the camp, the camp too must be kept separate from it, and the aim is always to be rid of any such uncleanness as quickly as feasible. Meanwhile it must be contained within the tent, and by avoiding contact with others.

It should be noted that something can be clean but not holy. But it cannot be unclean and holy. This is especially so with regard to food. Food that is unclean must be abhorred by Israel. It will defile the holiness of any of the people involved with it. It will make them less whole and pure. Thus it is necessary to distinguish between clean and unclean foods. But certain animals are seen as ‘clean’ wherever they are, unless they have been defiled in some way. Thus to be ‘clean’ is not the same thing as to be holy. However the converse is true, what is ‘unclean’ is not holy, and at least to some extent defiles holiness.

And at the bottom end of uncleanness are things that defile the land, murder, adultery, idolatry and so on (Leviticus 18:6-27; Leviticus 20:2-22). These are the extremes of ‘uncleanness’. Those who do such things must be cut off. Their end is death, for death is the final end of uncleanness. So if their bodies are hung on a tree in order to disgrace them, they are not to stay there overnight, for it would render the land unclean because they are accursed by God. Thus they must be buried (Deuteronomy 21:23). It was for such uncleannesses that Israel would be finally expelled from the land (Leviticus 18:25).

So cleanness and uncleanness refer to men’s relationship to themselves and to the world, and how they react to the world, although they do also affect their position before God. And as will be seen there are certain basic rules regarding the cleanness of living things, and they have a certain logic to them. If fully followed out they would undoubtedly have contributed to human health, but that, at least humanly speaking, would not be seen as their main purpose, and it does not mean that all unclean things are always physically unhealthy for humans, only that they would be ill advised to partake of them because of how often they are. But the main reson why they must not eat of them is because God has not appointed them for men. Abstaining from them is a sign of being God’s men and women.

Men like Moses may well have learned certain basic medical rules from observation. But a detailed individual diet list giving individual ‘clean’ items would have been neither wise or practical, and would have been observed more in the breach than in the fulfilment, and one is not given. Nor was this the main purpose of establishing things as clean, although from a health point of view there is no doubt that avoiding unclean things would have contributed to good health.

The real significance of cleanness and uncleanness was with regard to ‘perfection’ and ‘imperfection’, to ‘wholeness’ and ‘unwholeness’, to making men ritually ‘without blemish’. The aim was to keep God’s people involved only with what was ‘perfect’, with what was pleasing to God, and this would result in their being ritually and morally clean as they lived to do His will, rising above what was most unpleasant in the world. It meant avoiding all that was unclean in any way, however seemingly desirable, and, when they fell short it, involved their going through the necessary process for the removal of that uncleanness. For what was unclean was in general harmful, and would remove them from the state of wholeness that should be theirs, so that if possible the situation had to be rectified. If it was not rectified they would be removed from the camp, for anything other than temporary uncleanness would defile the camp and make it unholy.

We have already observed the constant necessity for the removal of sin, and of all breaches of the covenant, which was a special kind of unholiness to do with ritual and moral failure. We now see the requirement also to be ‘clean’ in everything in relationship with creation.

To summarise we may consider the various levels of humanity (if we leave Moses out of account who was unique). There is first the High Priest, then the priests, then the blemished priests. The first can enter the Holy of Holies, the second the Holy Place and the third can partake of what is most holy, but cannot enter the Holy Place. These in descending order can deal with ‘most holy’ things as long as they are ‘clean’. Then come the people when clean, allowed into the tabernacle court, then the people when temporarily unclean, and not allowed,while unclean, in the tabernacle court, and then the people who are blemished who cannot enter the tabernacle court. But all these may remain in the camp. Then come the people unclean and excluded from the camp but kept within range, for whom worship can be conducted and offerings made. And then finally come outsiders not connected with the camp. All these described are as a whole split into clean and unclean. Any of these who are rendered unclean, even the High Priest, must not enter the Sanctuary precincts while unclean. None who are blemished may ever do so. Although they, and ‘strangers’, may offer sacrifices and offerings. They are not excluded from God (Numbers 15:14; Numbers 15:16). Only the High Priest and the unblemished priests may enter the Holy Place as long as they are ‘clean’. Only the ritually ‘clean’ may enter the tabernacle court. But in all cases, from highest to lowest, all approaches are only through offerings and sacrifices. To be clean was not to be sinless.

One important lesson we should learn from all this is that God is not to be approached lightly. Those who would know Him fully must recognise His purity and truth and come to Him in purity and truth, and must therefore recognise and acknowledge their need for cleansing, for atonement and forgiveness, and for cleanness of life from all that is unclean. The exclusion of the blemished (what is not perfect) is not intended as a slight on them, but as a reminder of the supremely perfect and unblemishes being of God.

As we go through the laws of uncleanness we will discover a pattern based on the first five chapters of Genesis. The tradition behind Genesis was Scripture for the people of Israel under Moses. It dealt with the roots of life, leading up to the promises given to Abraham. In Genesis 1 the world was created, and with it all living creatures. In Genesis 2 God prepared man’s dwelling place on earth, and set him over all cattle, wild beasts and birds. And he walked naked, authoritative and tall, and was not ashamed. But what crept on the ground was not said to be submissive to him. And in Genesis 3 this was evidenced when mankind fell into sin, deceived by the serpent, and the serpent was cursed and was sentenced to the dust, and the woman who first sinned was punished in the very thing that was dearest to her, the ability to conceive, and the ground which produced man’s food was cursed.

So we have in descending order, God, man, animals and birds, creeping things of the ground, the latter outside man’s control.

From now on man had to be clothed, and God made for him suitable clothing. Then man was sentenced to be cast from the Garden, excluded from the place where God had walked with him. He was unclean. He would no longer be ‘in the camp’, but was cast out, and the world would abundantly produce thorns and thistles to hinder his labours. This was when he was first introduced to clothing to hide his nakedness.

But then came a new beginning, when man triumphed and was restored into fellowship with God as Abel offered his ‘gifts’ to Him. Man could once more enjoy God’s blessing. But Cain slew Abel and then went away and built the first houses in his ‘city’, and his line was built up as a result of their sexual responses. Meanwhile godly man began to ‘call on the name of Yahweh’, and thus in chapter 5 we have the line of men who were born, and lived and died, again the result of sexual responses, both good and bad.

It is surely not a coincidence that the laws of uncleanness follow this pattern. Leviticus 11 connects with Genesis 1-3. Leviticus 12 connects with the punishment of the woman in Genesis 3:16. Leviticus 13:1-46 connects with the casting out of the man from the Garden in Genesis 3:17-19 with Genesis 3:23-24. Leviticus 13:47-59 connects with God’s provision of their first clothing in Genesis 3:21. Leviticus 14:1-32 connects with the restoration of fellowship and the new beginning in Genesis 4, and Leviticus 14:33-53 connects with ‘the building of a city’ on arrival in the land also as in Genesis 4:17. And finally Leviticus 15 deals with the means of reproduction and the organs of reproduction as illustrated in Genesis 4:18 and Genesis 5:1-32). We might then see Leviticus 16, with its emphasis on the great Day of Atonement, which gave Israel a new beginning every year, as reflected in the story of the Flood when God decided to make a new beginning, and enabled man to begin again, by sacrificing clean animals and birds on an altar. He gave them a new start, as He would now give Israel one, once a year.

So with all this in mind let us now consider this chapter, which deals with what food is clean and may therefore be freely enjoyed by the people, and will not make them unclean, and what is unclean and should be avoided for one reason or another. But one warning. The purpose of these restrictions was not in order to be a list of all harmless foods, although they certainly did prevent the eating of many harmful foods, nor was it in order to declare that what was unclean was necessarily bad in itself, it was in order to set apart His people from all others, and to lift them up from the squalor of the world and from the taint of death. It was to make them holy. It was in order to lift them above all that was degrading, and to keep them living before Him in purity, and in recognition that death and all connected with it is the very opposite of all that God is. It was to ensure their wellbeing and their wholesomeness. It was to keep them out of the dust of death (Psalms 22:15; Psalms 22:29; Psalms 30:9; Psalms 104:29; Ecclesiastes 3:20; Daniel 12:2).

Thus God’s aim is to keep His people from all that is unholy, that is, from all that is in general terms unlike Himself, all that was not created specifically for man’s benefit, and all that might be harmful either spiritually or physically, and it was especially to separate him from the taint of death.

In going into the world His people would inevitably occasionally become ‘unclean’, but provision was now made for the conscious removal of this uncleanness, and warnings given not to deliberately step beyond the bounds laid down. For disobedience is the ultimate uncleanness.

It will be noted in what follows that the creatures that are ‘clean’ are those that are (as seen by the Israelites) wholly grazing animals, still eaters of herbs (Genesis 1:30), and not predators (death-dealers) and blood-eaters; or are those that swim in the open water well away from the dirt and the mud; or are those that eat vegetation and leap and are not tied to crawl on the earth. Each keeps to its proper sphere. In no case therefore do they do lurk and crawl in dirt and filth, among the dust that the snake was to grovel in, and to which man, when he ceased to be man and became an empty shell with its breath withdrawn, would return. And to which the carcases of all beasts would return. That was the realm of death. This must be seen from a ‘common knowledge’ aspect, not as a naturalist. It is the basic ideas that are being conveyed.

There is an important lesson here for Christians. We too can enter the Holiest of All through the blood of Jesus. We too can gather together to worship in holiness, having a ‘rarified’ time. But we too cannot enter God’s presence until cleansed. We too have to go out into the world and must choose between what is wholesome and what is degraded, and must avoid what is degrading and choose the wholesome. This is all a warning to us to discern between what is spiritually clean and what is spiritually unclean (2 Corinthians 7:1), although not necessarily in the terms laid out in what follows. For as Jesus pointed out, it is what is in the heart of man that is really unclean (Mark 7:18-23). And for us too the depths of uncleanness is murder, adultery and idolatry.

Chapter 15 The Uncleanness Related To Sexual Activity and Sexual Flows.

This chapter concentrates on the fact that emissions from the sexual organs result in uncleanness. This meant that those who had in one way or another been in contact with or had emitted sexual flows were unable to approach God direct because they were unclean. They were also unable to enter the tabernacle court that day. This would be a complete answer to the Canaanite emphasis on sex as a religious exercise. To Yahweh sex and religion were unrelated, and sexual activity prevented the deepest level of religious experience from occurring on the same day as the sex was partaken of.

As far as Israel was concerned it is probable that they saw all male emissions from the sexual organs as life implanting, without recognising the difference between semen and the emissions from venereal and other diseases. It was God’s laws of uncleanness, in this case unique in the ancient world, which saved them from the worst results of such a belief by preventing excessive contact with infectious flows on the grounds that they would make a man ‘unclean’.

We have earlier suggested that Moses may well have in mind in this law of uncleanness a continuation of the Genesis theme. This may be so here with the emphasis here on Genesis 5 where there is the continual birth one after another of the patriarchs in the list, and of their sons and daughters. These were men and women born in the image of Adam (Leviticus 5:3), although there was still something of the image of God in them (Leviticus 9:6). Here was a triumphant picture of the continual birth of men and women after the fall, a flow of life, but counteracting it was the equally emphatic fact of final death for each one. The imperfection of their birth was the death sentence on them as soon as they were born. They were born, they bore children and they died. Their birth systems were ‘unclean’. They were not ‘perfect’.

And it is therefore reasonable to see there a reason why sexual emissions were seen as ‘unclean’, as not ‘perfect’. For while they did produce new life, it was always life that resulted in death. And this on top of the fact that in the Garden the woman’s reproduction had been rendered painful as a punishment.

Note in passing the careful structure of the passage.

1). A man’s unusual emissions.

2). A man’s usual emission.

3). A woman’s usual emission.

4). A woman’s unusual emissions.


Verse 1

This Is The Word Of Yahweh (Leviticus 15:1).

Leviticus 15:1

“And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,”

The variation between Yahweh speaking just to Moses and sometimes to both Moses and Aaron, is a sign of the authenticity of the narrative. It is unlikely that an inventor would have introduced such variation so spasmodically. Again it is emphasised that we have here Yahweh’s words, but here to both Moses and Aaron. Since Aaron’s advancement to High Priest Moses wanted him more involved, especially with matters related to the tabernacle.


Verses 2-15

The Uncleanness Resulting From Exceptional Emissions From The Male Sexual Organ (Leviticus 15:2-15).

Leviticus 15:2-3

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, “When any man has an issue out of his flesh, because of his issue he is unclean. And this shall be his uncleanness in his issue, whether his flesh run with his issue, or his flesh be stopped from his issue, it is his uncleanness.”

The ancients had their own way of disguising sexual language. Bald openness in such matters was seen as indecent. Thus here the reference to ‘flesh’ was a disguise for ‘penis’. What is being referred to is any emission from the penis. This could include the effect of venereal diseases as well as over exuberant sex glands. Any ‘lifegiving’ flow was to be seen as unclean, in the same way as for the woman birthflow was unclean. They lacked the perfection that God had intended for them. And they produced sinners fated to die.

There may also be the thought that in losing the discharge they were losing some of their life force and were therefore not ‘whole’.

Leviticus 15:4

“Every bed on which he who has the issue lies shall be unclean, and everything on which he sits shall be unclean.”

When a man has such an issue fairly constantly any bed he lies on is unclean and everything on which he sits is unclean. This would, of course, at first only be known to those who knew him well enough to be aware of it. But it would help to prevent his family, apart from his wife, from possibly catching the disease. However, no doubt he had to inform the priest and others in order to explain why he could not go into the court of the tabernacle and partake of peace offerings, and why he must not even be touched. Thus it would become gradually known.

Leviticus 15:5-7

“And whoever touches his bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And he who sits on anything on which he who has the issue sat shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And he who touches the flesh of him who has the issue shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

All who come in contact with anything that might have been affected by his sexual emission, whether his bed, his chair or his flesh (and here it probably means his body), become unclean and must wash their clothes and themselves and be unclean until the evening. Speaking medically the hope was that any discharge which was on their clothes would thus be removed without infecting them, and the same with the discharge which had actually touched their bodies. But the ritual reason was in order to remove the cause of uncleanness.

Leviticus 15:8-11

“And if he who has the issue spits on him who is clean, then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And whatever saddle he who has the issue rides on shall be unclean. And whoever touches anything that was under him shall be unclean until the evening. And he who bears those things shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And whomever he who has the issue touches, without having rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

Spitting was a way of conveying a deliberate insult (Numbers 12:14; Deuteronomy 25:9; Job 30:10; Isaiah 50:6; Matthew 26:67; Matthew 27:30, etc.). But if the man spits on someone who is clean that person must follow the usual cleansing procedures. This may especially have occurred when someone joked about his condition so that the spitting was a retaliation (such a possibility would therefore probably save him from many ribald and unkind comments, for he had a speedy way of riposte). It may also result from a man coughing accidentally and excessively.

Any saddle he rides on is unclean, and anyone who touches anything that has been under him will be unclean until the evening. And anyone who carries anything which has been in contact with him or who has been touched by him when he has not rinsed his hands in water, must wash their clothes, and themselves, and be unclean until the evening.

We note especially here the idea that the infection can be passed on through the spittle, and the fact that washing the hands helps to prevent the spread of the infection, both matters of only comparatively recent medical knowledge. Yet it is here, over three thousand years ago, specifically mentioned. It is true of course that an element of avoiding ‘uncleanness’ is involved, but it would not really seem necessary to have mentioned it for any other reason than hygiene, especially the washing of hands. This must be considered quite remarkable.

Leviticus 15:12

“And the earthen vessel, which he who has the issue touches, shall be broken; and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.”

Any earthenware vessel he touches shall be broken, and presumably seen as unclean, every wooden vessel has to be rinsed with water. Again the purpose is to stop the spread of uncleanness. The broken vessel will presumably be thrown out into the unclean place outside the camp.

It is quite clear from all this how ‘unclean’ the emission was seen to be. It was an emission that produced life which would result in death, and weakened the one from whom it came. To touch it was possibly especially unclean because it might be seen as partaking of someone else’s life force.

Leviticus 15:13

“And when he who has an issue is cleansed of his issue, then he shall number to himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes; and he shall bathe his flesh in running water, and shall be clean.”

When the disease has run its course, which may take some time, even years, and the man appears to be healed, then he must wait seven days, after which he must wash his clothes, and himself in running water, at which point he will be ‘clean’, that is no longer seen as ‘unclean’. He can now enter the tabernacle court to make his offerings.

The seven day wait is probably so as to ensure that his hope is not premature, although it may simply be a time of waiting on God in gratitude. The washing of his clothes will remove past stains (clothes were not necessarily washed all that often). Washing himself in running water will ensure that anything left on his flesh is removed, and that the water will not be touched by anyone else. After this he is no longer ‘unclean’. All traces of the uncleanness have been removed.

Leviticus 15:14-15

“And on the eighth day he shall take to him two turtle doves, or two young pigeons, and come before Yahweh to the door of the tent of meeting, and give them to the priest, and the priest shall offer them, the one for a purification for sin offering, and the other for a whole burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before Yahweh for his issue.”

The unusual nature of the emissions will have drawn attention to the fact that these were no ordinary emissions. They are thus recognised as being connected with sin and requiring spiritual purification. That is why he has to make a purification for sin offering, and a whole burnt offering, of two turtle doves or two young pigeons. He has to be fully atoned for, reconciled to God and purified.

But with all this it is noteworthy that the man is not excluded from the camp. While this probably indicated an infectious disease the purpose was to contain it, not to fully quarantine him.


Verses 16-18

The Uncleanness of A Man’s Natural Emission (Leviticus 15:16-18).

Leviticus 15:16-17

“And if any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall bathe all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the evening. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening.”

More remarkably a man’s natural emissions are seen as rendering the man unclean. For they too are seen as producing imperfect life, life which will die, and as reducing his strength and his ‘perfection’. There is no way here that a man’s sexual relationship with a woman can be seen as anything but secular. Far from connecting him with God, it is seen to keep him at a distance. He cannot enter the tabernacle court, nor can he partake of peace offerings on the same day as he engages in sexual relations. So whatever else it is sex is not an aid to spirituality. It is therefore significant that the angels in Heaven do not engage in it, they ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Matthew 22:30).

And as a result of his emission he must wash himself thoroughly and will be unclean until the evening. Note that as ever it is the passage of time that finally cleanses. The washing removed the earthiness and the semen, the passage of time makes clean. (Old Testament ritual washing never cleanses on its own).

Under special circumstances sexual relations have to be abstained from altogether by a man for they prevent his approach to God, and his effectiveness as a soldier of God. See Exodus 19:15; Leviticus 22:4; Deuteronomy 23:10; 1 Samuel 21:4-5; 2 Samuel 11:11. Indeed any time he would approach God in the tabernacle court or partake in peace offerings he must abstain from sexual relations that day..

This view of the semen as being polluted was a regular one outside Canaan, both in Babylon and Egypt and among certain Semites.

Leviticus 15:18

“The woman also with whom a man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

The same is true for the woman. Once she has had contact with the man’s semen she too is unclean until the evening.

It should, however, be noted that these things are not seen as especially unclean. The requirement for their removal is at the lower level, even in the case of the necessary offerings for the unusual emission. We should note here that no offerings are required in respect of normal emissions. They were not seen as sinful in themselves, only as a men and women losing something of their wholeness, and being connected with sin indirectly.


Verses 19-24

A Woman’s Menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-24).

The next aspect of uncleanness is a woman’s menstrual period. We can imagine how strange and even alarming this monthly flow of blood would have seemed to be in ancient times. But at least in Israel they could connect it with the fall of man. It would seem like a flowing out of life, and a period when the woman was losing some of her wholeness. It was thus a time of ‘uncleanness’, a coming short of God’s perfections. Furthermore to come in contact with the blood would be to come in contact with the woman’s life force, and God wanted it to be known that this was disapproved of. That is the second reason why the blood was therefore declared ‘unclean’.

Leviticus 15:19

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days: and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.”

When a woman is having her monthly period and blood flows she is to be seen as ‘in her impurity’ for seven days. Thus anyone who touches her becomes unclean until the evening. This would, at least to some extent, result in her not being pressed into work among others who might be affected by becoming unclean, and would protect her from the attentions of her husband. It would also assist with the problem of protecting herself against the problem of losing blood and how to cope with it.

Leviticus 15:20

“And everything that she lies on in her impurity shall be unclean. Everything also that she sits on shall be unclean.”

Whatever she lies on or sits on becomes unclean. It is feasible that this law may well be the carrying on of an old custom. Rachel may well have made use of it to ensure that Laban did not examine her saddle. If this was the custom then within the Terah tribes he would not want to be rendered ‘unclean’, See Genesis 31:34-45.

Leviticus 15:21-22

“And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything that she sits on shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

Thus anyone who touches her bed and anything she sits on becomes unclean. Those who touch either must wash their clothes, wash themselves thoroughly with water, and be unclean until the evening. The very nuisance of this would form an envelope of protection around the woman.

Leviticus 15:23

“And if it be on the bed, or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until the evening.”

Also to touch any blood that falls on the bed or on a seat will mean to be rendered ‘unclean’ until the evening.

Leviticus 15:24

“And if any man lie with her, and her impurity be on him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.”

To lie with a woman so that her blood comes on him will render a man unclean for seven days, and this will result in any bed on which he lies becoming unclean. This would seem to refer to a situation which is ‘unwitting’, for Leviticus 20:18 makes a deliberate lying with a menstruous woman a ground for being ‘cut off’, and Ezekiel lists it as a sin parallel to idolatry and adultery (Ezekiel 18:6; Ezekiel 22:10).


Verses 25-30

An Unusual Issue of Blood (Leviticus 15:25-30).

The final case deals with a woman’s unusual emissions of blood. These would indicate that she was ill, and could often lead to death.

Leviticus 15:25

“And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days not in the time of her impurity, or if she have an issue beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the issue of her uncleanness she shall be as in the days of her impurity. She is unclean.”

Whenever a woman’s blood is flowing for an unusual period she is to be unclean over the whole of that period. We note that they were not unaware of the difference between the time of her impurity and the unusual flow.

Leviticus 15:26-27

“Every bed on which she lies all the days of her issue shall be to her as the bed of her impurity, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her impurity. And whoever touches those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.”

The same rules apply as for her usual menstrual period. What she lies on and what she sits on becomes unclean, and anyone who touches these things must wash their clothes, wash themselves in water and be unclean until the evening. This would help to protect against any infection she might have. But the ritual purpose was the avoidance of contact with her life force, and the indication of a period of ‘imperfection’, which would be countered by the religious prescription.

Leviticus 15:28

“But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.”

Once the flow of blood permanently stops the woman can begin the period of restoration to ‘cleanness’. She must wait seven days, and then she will be clean.

It is interesting that in her case no washing is required, either of clothes or body. It may be that it is assumed.

Leviticus 15:29-30

“And on the eighth day she shall take to her two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting, and the priest shall offer the one for a purification for sin offering, and the other for a whole burnt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for her before Yahweh for the issue of her uncleanness.”

At that point she must make atonement, a necessity for restoration to normal worship. As in much else a sin element is seen in what has happened. As is common in the Old Testament her disease is related to sin. She needs to be purified from sin and rededicated to God. Suffering came into the world because of sin, and the disease of mankind as a whole is the result of the sin of mankind as a whole. But the disease and the sin are not necessarily present in the same proportions. Those who are most diseased are not always the most sinful. But all need atonement.

This atonement is again achieved by the offering of two turtle doves or two young pigeons. We are reminded in all this of the woman with the abnormal issue of blood who came up behind Jesus in the crowd and touched his robe (Mark 5:25-34). She should not have been in the crowd, far less have touched Jesus, but it would seem that she believed that His holiness would be sufficient to cancel out her uncleanness. She knew His power to heal and hoped that somehow it might help her. When power went out of Him and she was healed she was overjoyed. But her joy turned to fear when Jesus turned in the thronging, pressing crowd and asked who had touched Him. But she need not have feared. It was not in order to rebuke her but to commend her faith, for He recognised in her touch an acknowledgement by her of Who He was.


Verses 31-33

Final Summary (Leviticus 15:31-33).

Leviticus 15:31

“Thus shall you separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness, that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is in the midst of them.”

The purpose of these laws was in order to continually separate the people of Israel from their uncleanness. God wanted them to be as wholly clean as possible, given the limitations. They were also in order to prevent Israel defiling the tabernacle by anyone from the High Priest downwards entering its court in a ritually unclean state. Limited uncleanness was allowed in the holy camp, but not in the holy sanctuary precincts, for the sanctuary was of a superior holiness. This would result in the people regulating their lives in such a way that this was prevented. The whole camp would regulate matters so that men and women could avoid uncleanness as far as possible.

This would ‘incidentally’ prevent much spreading of disease, and ensure the respectful treatment of women at difficult times. It made men and women constantly in mind of the fall, and of their own sinfulness, and in mind that death, which the pouring out of blood pointed to, was ever at hand. But the possibility of restoration to cleanness, and the resulting worship of God that could result, was a reminder that in their sin God had provided a way back to Himself, and that they could be restored into His favour. For they were the people of His covenant.

There is no suggestion in all this that normal sex is sinful within the marriage relationship, only that it comes short of what man was intended to be in his ‘perfection’, in his wholeness as in the image of God There will be no sex in Heaven.

Leviticus 15:32-33

“This is the law of him who has an issue, and of him whose seed of copulation goes from him, so that he is unclean by it, and of her who is sick with her impurity, and of him who has an issue, of the man, and of the woman, and of him who lies with her who is unclean.”

Again we have what might well be a colophon to this record. It describes the content of the record, and what it is about for filing purposes.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 15:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/leviticus-15.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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