Click here to get started today!
Holman Bible Dictionary
The Hebrew term rachatz is the everyday word for washing with water, rinsing, or bathing ( Genesis 18:4; Exodus 2:5; Ruth 3:3 ). The Greek word louein is similar (Acts 9:37; Acts 16:33; 2 Peter 2:22 ).
Old Testament Ablutions were performed for cleansing from the impurity of an inferior or undesirable condition to prepare the person for initiation into a higher, more desirable condition. Aaron and his sons were washed before they were clothed with the priestly robes and anointed with oil (Exodus 29:4; Exodus 30:19-21; Leviticus 8:6 ). Such washings prepared people to participate in special acts of religious service. For this purpose a large basin of water always stood in readiness.
When a person became unclean (Leviticus 11-15 ), becoming clean involved ablution practices. Washing could symbolize a person's claim to be pure, innocent of sin in a particular case (Deuteronomy 21:1-9 ).
At times ablutions involved a general washing or bathing as when the Hebrews bathed their bodies and washed their clothes (Leviticus 14:8; Leviticus 15:5; Numbers 19:7-8 ). Such washing occurred in various places—running water (Leviticus 15:13 ), a fountain (John 9:7 ), in a river (2 Kings 5:10 ), or in a courtyard of a home (2Samuel 11:2,2 Samuel 11:4 ).
In some parts of the Hebrew tradition, the ritual importance of washing became a central part of religious practice with minute descriptions of how a person was supposed to wash before various activities. Some of the stricter groups would not enter a house without ablutions. They said one hand had to be washed first so it could be purified and could wash the second hand.
Old Testament teachings do not give such importance and detail to ablutions. Rather, inward, spiritual purity is the goal. Outward washing is only a symbol (Psalm 24:4; Psalm 51:7; Psalm 73:13; Proverbs 30:12; Isaiah 1:16; Isaiah 4:4; Jeremiah 2:22; Jeremiah 4:14; Ezekiel 16:4-9; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Zechariah 13:1 ).
New Testament In Hebrews 6:2 the writer bid Christians to progress beyond discussion of basic matters, among which he lists “instruction about washings” (NAS). He may be describing discussions about the differences between Christian baptism and other ablutions. Hebrews 9:10 refers to “various washings” (NAS) practiced by the Hebrews under the law but no longer necessary because Christ “was once offered to bear the sins of many” ( Hebrews 9:28 ).
Mark 7:4 mentions that among the traditions observed by the Pharisees was the “washing of cups and pots.” They “wash their hands oft” ( Mark 7:3 ) before meals. They did this to hold “the tradition of the elders.” Jesus called this the “tradition of men” which meant “laying aside the commandment of God” (Mark 7:8 ). He cited Isaiah to call for purity of heart rather than strictness of rules (Mark 7:6 ).
Examples of Jewish practice in Jesus' day have been illustrated by archaeologists in their excavations at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scroll community of the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect. Excavations revealed a vast network of ritual basins and baths used in ablutions.
For the New Testament the only washing commanded was that of baptism (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11 ). Ephesians 5:26 shows that the washing of baptism is not effective as a ritual in itself but only as it shows the working of God's Word in the life of the one baptized. Inward cleansing must accompany the outward washing ( Hebrews 10:22 ).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ablutions'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/ablutions.html. 1991.