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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Usage
1. Flawless The primary Hebrew root word for pure ( thr ) often refers to pure or flawless gold: (1 Kings 10:21; Job 28:19; Psalm 12:6 ). Thr and other Hebrew words for “pure” are used to describe other objects such as salt ( Exodus 30:35 ), oil (Exodus 27:20 ), and incense (Exodus 37:29 ). Thus, a basic Old Testament meaning is that of “refined, purified, without flaw, perfect, clean.” Note Lamentations 4:7 .
2. Ritual Purity. To be ritually pure means to be free of some flaw or uncleanness which would bar one from contact with holy objects or places, especially from contact with the holy presence of God in worship. God is the ideal of purity, and those who are to come in contact with God's presence are also to be pure. Habakkuk 1:13 indicates that God's eyes are too pure to look upon evil.
The altar for sacrifice was purified so that it would be prepared for worship (Leviticus 8:15; Ezekiel 43:26 ). The objects of gold used in the tabernacle and Temple were also pure in this sense; this would be true of the incense in Exodus 37:29 . The Levites were to purify themselves for service in the tabernacle (Numbers 8:21 ). When that which was unclean or impure came into contact with that which was holy, danger resulted and could even lead to death. This is probably the background for the preparation made for the theophany, a manifestation of God's presence, in Exodus 19:1 and for the death of Uzzah when he was unprepared (not purified) to touch the ark of the covenant, a most holy object ( 2 Samuel 6:1-11 ). Malachi 1:11-12 contrasts the pure offerings of Gentiles with blemished offerings given by God's people; such a state necessitated purification ( Malachi 3:3-4 ).
Purity qualified one to participate in worship, an activity central to the life of ancient Israel. Breaking that purity was a serious matter. Ritual impurity came as a result of bodily emissions (Leviticus 15:1 ), by way of disease or menstrual flow, or discharge of semen. This chapter also shows that such impurity could be spread by contact, for anything coming into contact with the unclean person had to be purified. Leviticus 12:1 also discusses impurity associated with childbirth, probably because of the discharge of blood. Blood related to the mysterious power of life, and any loss of blood called for purification. Ritual impurity also came as a result of contact with a corpse since death was an enemy of God ( Numbers 19:1 ). Participation in war could thus cause impurity. Impurity, finally, was brought on by contact with foreign gods. This was probably the background of the need for purification when the people returned from Exile in Babylon. The priests and Levites purified themselves first and then the people and then the city gates and wall (Isaiah 52:11; Ezra 6:20; Nehemiah 12:30 ). This also prepared them for worship.
3. Ethical Purity Thought and behavior befitting the people of God are pure (Psalm 24:4; Psalm 73:1; Proverbs 15:26; Proverbs 22:11; Proverbs 30:12 ). Such purity of thought is to result in conduct which is appropriate for people (Psalm 119:9; Proverbs 16:2; Proverbs 20:9 ,Proverbs 20:9,20:11; Proverbs 21:8 ). Notice also the pure prayer of Job 16:17 .
Since Psalm 15:1 and Psalm 24:1 speak of qualifications for worship in terms of ethical purity, it is important not to distinguish sharply between ritual and ethical purity in the Old Testament. God expects ethical purity, and sin results in uncleanness. Thus sin and ritual uncleanness stand together in the Old Testament as unacceptable to the Lord. Their counterparts—ethical and ritual purity—also stand together.
Purification Rituals Since the Old Testament assumes that the people would encounter sin and unhycleanness, it provides a way to return to cleanness.
The purification ritual usually started with a waiting period beginning when the cause of the impurity stopped. Less serious causes brought a waiting period of one day. Contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:11 ,Numbers 19:11,19:14 ), birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:2 ), the cure of leprosy (Leviticus 14:8-9 ), and other discharges (Leviticus 15:13 ,Leviticus 15:13,15:19 ,Leviticus 15:19,15:28 ), brought about a waiting period of seven days. The waiting period after the birth of a girl was fourteen days (Leviticus 12:5 ). The same period applied to the quarantine of a suspected leper (Leviticus 13:4-6 ).
A cleansing agent was required: water, blood, or fire (Numbers 31:23 ). Water, the most common purifying agent, symbolized cleansing and was used in the rituals related to a waiting period. The person was to wash the clothes and bathe the body (Leviticus 15:7 ). Blood was used to cleanse the altar and the holy place (Leviticus 16:14-19 ). It was mixed with other ingredients for cleansing from leprosy (Leviticus 14:1 ) and contact with the dead (Numbers 19:1 ).
The final element of the ritual of purification is sacrifice. Purification from discharges required two pigeons or turtledoves, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering (Leviticus 15:14-15 ,Leviticus 15:14-15,15:29-30 ). A lamb and pigeon or turtledove were offered after childbirth (Leviticus 12:6 ). Sacrifice in the purification ritual for lepers was quite complicated, indicating the seriousness of leprosy as a cause of impurity (Leviticus 14:1 ). The priest also touched the person's extremities with blood from the offering and with oil, cleansing and life-renewing agents. The poor were allowed to substitute less valuable animals for use in their sacrifices.
New Testament Usage Most New Testament uses of words for purity relate to cleanness of some type. Old Testament meanings are often reflected. Perfection is the meaning in Mark 14:3; this is mixed with religious purity in Hebrews 10:22; 1 John 3:3 .
Ethical purity dominates in the New Testament. The person who is in right relationship with God is to live a life of purity (2 Timothy 2:21-22; Titus 1:15 and references to a pure heart— Matthew 5:8; 1 Timothy 1:5; Hebrews 9:14; James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22 ). Purity is also listed among virtues (2 Corinthians 6:6; Philippians 4:8; 1 Timothy 4:12; compare Mark 7:15 ).
Purification through sacrifice is also mentioned in the New Testament and applied to the death of Christ, a purification which does not need repeating and thus is on a higher level than Old Testament sacrifices (Hebrews 9:13-14 ). The sacrifice of Christ brings purification; Christ cleansed as a part of the work of the high priest and His blood cleanses from sin (1 John 1:7 ). See Holiness; Levite; Priest; Sacrifice; Atonement; Ethics;
W. H. Bellinger Jr.
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 'Purity-Purification'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/purity-purification.html. 1991.