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Bible Dictionaries
Clean and Unclean

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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Introductory . The words ‘clean,’ ‘unclean,’ ‘purity,’ ‘purification,’ have acquired in the process of religious development a spiritual connotation which obscures their original meaning. Their primitive significance is wholly ceremonial; the conceptions they represent date back to a very early stage of religious practice, so early indeed that it may be called pre-religious, in so far as any useful delimitation can be established between the epoch in which spell and magic predominated, and that at which germs of a rudimentary religious consciousness can be detected. In a conspectus of primitive custom, one of the most wide-spread phenomena is the existence of ‘taboo.’ Anthropology has yet to say the last word about it, and its general characteristics can be differently summarized. But, broadly speaking, taboo springs from the religion of fear. The savage met with much which he could not understand, which was supra-normal to his experience. Such phenomena appeared to him charged with a potency which was secret and uncanny, and highly energetic. They were therefore to be avoided with great care; they were ‘taboo’ to him. It would be rash to dogmatize about the origin of this notion; it most probably dates back to days prior to any conscious animistic beliefs, and may even be traceable ultimately to instincts which mankind shares with the higher animals. No doubt in later times the idea was artificially exploited in deference to the exigencies of ambition and avarice on the part of chiefs and priests, to the distrust of innovations (cf. Exodus 20:25 , Deuteronomy 27:5-6 , Joshua 8:31 ), to the recommendations of elementary sanitation, etc. But originally the savage regarded as taboo certain persons, material substances, and bodily acts or states which be considered to possess a kind of transmissible electric energy with which it was very dangerous to meddle; and these taboos were jealously guarded by the sanctions of civil authority, and later of religious belief.

It seems probable that even at such an early epoch taboos could be viewed from two distinct points of view. A taboo might be either a blessing or a curse, according as it was handled by an expert or a layman. Thus blood produced defilement, but, properly treated, it might remove impurity. A chief or king was taboo, and to touch him produced the primitive equivalent of ‘king’s evil’; and yet his touch could remove the disease it created. The reasons for this twofold point of view are very obscure, and do not come within the scope of this article. But the differentiation seems to have existed in a confused way at the earliest era. Afterwards this notion crystallized into a very vital distinction. On the one hand we find the conception of holiness as expressing an official consecration and dedication to the Divine beings. A sanctuary, a season, a priest or chief, were set apart from common life and placed in a peculiar relation of intimacy to God or the gods; they were tabooed as holy. On the other hand, certain taboos were held to arise from the intrinsic repulsiveness of the object or condition, a repulsiveness which affected both God and man with dislike. Such taboos were due to the essential uncleanness of their object.

With the rise of animistic beliefs and practices this differentiation was reinforced by the dualism of benevolent and malignant spirits. Uncanny energy varied according as it arose from the one or the other class, and much care must be taken to propitiate the one and avert the power of the other. Thus on the one side we find sacrificial ritual, which has as its object to please the good demons, and on the other side we have a cathartic ritual, which aims at expelling evil demons from the vicinity (cf. Leviticus 16:1-34 , where the two notions are united in one ceremony). But even after the growth of such refinements, ideas and rules survived which can be explained only as relics of primitive and even primeval taboo customs. A still later stage is seen when rules of purity are attributed to the conscious command of God, and their motive is found in His own personal character ( Leviticus 11:44 ). The Jewish sacred books teem with references which demonstrate the survival of primitive taboos. Thus Frazer draws especial attention to the Nazirite vows ( Numbers 6:1-21 ), to the Sabbath regulations ( Exodus 35:2-3 ), to the views as to death ( Numbers 19:11 ff.), and childbirth ( Leviticus 12:1-8 ). Similarly the origin of the conception of holiness may be seen in the idea that it is transmissible by contact ( Exodus 29:37; Exodus 30:29 , Leviticus 6:27 , Ezekiel 44:19 ), or in the penalty for meddling with a holy object ( 1 Samuel 6:19 , 2 Samuel 6:7 ); whilst allusions to ritual uncleanness occur frequently in Ezekiel, and the legislation on the subject forms a large part of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In some cases these ideas may have arisen in protest against historical developments of Hebrew custom. Thus it has been supposed that the Nazirite vows originated in the desire for a return to primitive simplicity by way of contrast to the habits of Palestinian Canaanites. But many of the regulations about uncleanness can be explained only by a reference to primitive ritualism, with its conceptions of objects charged with a secret energy which the ordinary man does well to shun.

The word ‘clean,’ it may be remarked, conveyed originally no positive idea. A clean object was one which was not under a taboo, which had contracted no ceremonial taint. And so again ‘purification’ meant the removal of a ceremonial taint by ceremonial means, the unclean object being thus restored to a normal condition. Fire and liquids were the best media of purification. Similarly ‘ common ,’ the opposite of ‘holy,’ merely meant ‘undedicated to God,’ and expressed no ethical or spiritual notion. In fact, when the conceptions of holiness and uncleanness had been definitely differentiated, the rule would be that, though the holy must be clean, the clean need in no way be holy. Later thought, however, confused the two ideas (cf. Acts 10:14 ).

I. Uncleanness in the OT. The consequences of uncleanness and the methods of purification naturally differed in different races. But in the Jewish religion uncleanness was always held to disqualify a man for Divine worship and sacrifice. In practice a certain amount of laxity seems to have been tolerated (Ezekiel 22:26; Ezekiel 44:7 ), though this did not pass without protest ( Ezekiel 44:9 , Isaiah 52:1 ). But, strictly, an unclean man was debarred from religious offices ( Leviticus 7:19-20 ); and nobody could perform them in an unclean place, e.g. in any land but Palestine ( 2 Kings 5:17 , Hosea 9:3 ).

The Jewish rules about uncleanness can be roughly classified under five main heads: sexual impurity, uncleanness due to blood, uncleanness connected with food, with death, and with leprosy. This division is not scientific; some rules are equally in place in more than one class; but at present none but a rough classification is possible.

1. Sexual impurity . All primitive religions display great terror of any functions connected, however remotely, with the organs of reproduction. Sexual intercourse produced uncleanness; and later animism taught that demons watched over such periods and must be averted with scrupulous care. The time when marriage is consummated was especially dangerous, and this idea is clearly seen in Tob 8:1-3 , though this instance is unique in Jewish sacred literature. But, apart from this, the Jews considered all intercourse to defile till evening, and to necessitate a purificatory bath ( Leviticus 15:18 ). Under certain circumstances, when cleanness was especially important, complete abstinence from women was required ( Exodus 19:15 ). Thus, too, from 1 Samuel 21:5 it appears as if soldiers on a campaign came under this regulation; perhaps because war was a sacred function, duly opened with religious rites (cf. 2 Samuel 11:11 ), and this may also be the cause for a bridegroom’s exemption from military service for a year after marriage ( Deuteronomy 24:5 ).

Uncircumcision was regarded as unclean. The reason for this is not obvious; rites of circumcision were performed by many primitive nations at the time of puberty (whether for decorative purposes, or in order to prepare a young man or woman for marriage, or for some other reason), and it is possible that among the Jews this custom had been thrown back to an earlier period of life. Or it may be that they regarded circumcision as imposing a distinct tribe-mark on the infant. The condition of uncircumcision might be held as unclean because it implied foreign nationality. Taboos on strangers are very common in savage nations.

Seminal emission made a man unclean till the evening, and necessitated bathing and washing of clothes (Leviticus 15:16-17 ).

Childbirth was universally regarded as a special centre of impurity, though among the Jews we find no evidence that the new-born child was subject to it as well as the mother. The mother was completely unclean for seven days; after that she was in a condition of modified impurity for 33 days, disqualified from entering the sanctuary or touching any hallowed thing. (These periods were doubled when the baby was a girl.) After this, in order to complete her purification, she must offer a lamb of the first year and a pigeon or turtle dove, though poorer people might substitute another pigeon or dove for the lamb (Leviticus 12:1-8 , cf. Luke 2:24 ).

Analogous notions may perhaps be traced in the prohibition of any sexual impersonation (Deuteronomy 22:5 ), any mingling of different species ( Deuteronomy 22:9-11 , Leviticus 19:19 ), and in the disqualifications on eunuchs, bastards, and the Ammonites and Moabites, the offspring of an incestuous union ( Deuteronomy 23:1-6 ); though some of these rules look like the product of later refinement.

Human excreta were sources of uncleanness (Deuteronomy 23:12-14 ); but the directions on this subject very possibly date from the epoch of magical spells, and arose from the fear lest a man’s excrement might fall into an enemy’s hands and be used to work magic against him.

The prohibition to priests of woolen garments which caused sweat, is possibly an extension of a similar notion (Ezekiel 44:17-18 ). Finally, the abstinence from eating the sinew of the thigh, which in Genesis 32:32 is explained by a reference to the story of Jacob, may have originated in the idea that the thigh was the centre of the reproductive functions.

2. Uncleanness due to blood . The fear of blood dates back in all probability to the most primeval times, and may be in part instinctive. Among the Jews it was a most stringent taboo, and their aversion from it was reinforced by the theory that it was the seat of life ( Deuteronomy 12:23 ). A clear instance of the all-embracing nature of its polluting power is seen in Deuteronomy 22:8 . The same idea would probably cause the abstinence from eating beasts of prey, carrion birds, and animals which had died without being bled ( Ezekiel 4:14 , Exodus 22:31 , Leviticus 17:15; Leviticus 22:3 ). To break this rule caused defilement ( 1 Samuel 14:33 , Ezekiel 33:25 ). Such a taboo is so universal and ancient that it cannot reasonably be accounted for by the Jewish hatred for heathen offerings of blood.

The taboos on menstrual blood and abnormal issues must come under this category or that of sexual impurity. Menstruation was terribly feared. It was exceedingly dangerous for a man even to see the blood. The woman in such a condition was unclean for seven days, and her impurity was highly contagious (Leviticus 15:19-24 ). Similarly, abnormal issues produced contagious uncleanness for seven days after they had stopped. The purification required was the offering of two turtle doves and two young pigeons. A man bad also to bathe and wash his clothes, but we are not told that a woman was under the same necessity, though it is hardly credible that she was exempt ( Leviticus 15:2-15; Leviticus 15:25-30 ).

3. Uncleanness connected with food . Anthropology no longer explains all food taboos as survivals of totemism, though no doubt this explanation may account for some. It appears rather that ‘theriolatry’ was the more general phenomenon. For reasons which cannot even be conjectured in many cases, certain animals were treated as sacred, and tahooed accordingly; it might be that the animal was very useful or very dangerous or very strange; the savage had no consistent theory of taboo. Some animals may be cases of sympathetic taboo; they were not eaten from the fear lest their qualities should be imparted to the consumer. In later times some animals might be tabooed from more elaborate motives. But food taboos cover so wide a range, and appear in many cases so inexplicable, that no single derivation of them can be adequate.

The Jews themselves dated the distinction between clean and unclean animals from an early antiquity (cf. Genesis 7:2; Genesis 8:20 ); Genesis 9:3 , however, appears to embody a theory of antediluvian vegetarianism.

The lists of clean and unclean beasts are given in Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14:4 ff. It is impossible to give any certain explanation of the separate items. Clean animals are there classified as those which part the hoof, are cloven-footed, and chew the cud. But this looks like an attempt of later speculation to generalize regulations already existent. The criterion would exclude the ass, horse, dog, and beasts of prey, which are nowhere mentioned as unclean. The last class, as we have seen, would probably be so on different grounds. The horse and dog seem to have been connected with idolatrous rites ( 2 Kings 23:11 , Isaiah 66:3 ), and so perhaps were forbidden. But Judges 6:4 appears to treat the ass as an ordinary article of diet. (The circumstances in 2 Kings 6:25 are exceptional.) The rule that a kid must not be seethed in its mother’s milk ( Exodus 23:19; Exodus 34:26 , Deuteronomy 14:21 ) is difficult to account for. A magical conception appears to underlie the prohibition, and it has been suggested that some nations used to sprinkle the broth on the ground for some such purposes. In that case the taboo would be of great antiquity. But the matter is not at present satisfactorily explained. The taboo on the tree in Eden ( Genesis 3:3 ) hardly calls for discussion. So far as we know, it had no subsequent history; and the general colouring of the story makes it improbable that the prohibition had any origin in Jewish custom.

4. Uncleanness connected with death . Death, as well as birth, was a source of great terror to the savage. The animistic horror of ghosts and theories of a continued existence after death, gave a rationale for such terror; but it probably existed in pre-animistic days, and the precautions exercised with regard to dead bodies were derived partly from the intrinsic mysteriousness of death, partly from the value of a corpse for magical purposes. Among the Jews a corpse was regarded as exceptionally defiling ( Haggai 2:13 ). Even a bone or a grave caused infectious uncleanness, and graves were whitened in order to be easily recognizable. He who touched a corpse was unclean for seven days ( Numbers 19:11 ff.). Purification was necessary on the third and seventh days; and on the latter the unclean person also washed his clothes and bathed. A corpse defiled a tent and all open vessels in it. For similar reasons warriors needed purification after a battle ( Numbers 31:19-24 ); a murderer defiled the land and had to flee to a city of refuge, where he must remain till the death of the high priest ( Numbers 35:1-34 ). It has been suggested that this provision was due to the notion that the high priest, the temporary representative of Jahweh, was regarded as suffering from the defilement of murder as God suffered, and as the land suffered ( Deuteronomy 21:1 ). It is singular that apparently a person who was unclean from touching a corpse might yet eat the Passover ( Numbers 9:6-12 ).

The kinsmen of a dead man were usually also unclean; Hosea 9:4 points to a similar idea among the Jews. Indeed, mourning customs were in origin probably warnings of such impurity. Some of the most common are prohibited in Deuteronomy 14:1 and Leviticus 19:28 , perhaps because of their heathenish associations.

The ritual of purification from corpse-defilement, described in Numbers 19:1-22 , must be of high antiquity. The purifying medium was water, the blood and ashes of a red heifer, with cedar, hyssop, and scarlet. This was sprinkled over the unclean person on the third and seventh days, and the priest and attendants who performed the ceremony were themselves defiled by it till evening, and needed purification (cf. Deuteronomy 21:1-23 ). The ritual thus unites the three great cathartic media, fire, water, and aromatic woods and plants. The last, perhaps, were originally considered to be efficacious in expelling the death-demons by their scent.

5. Uncleanness connected with leprosy . Orientals considered leprosy the one specially unclean disease, which required not healing but cleansing (cf. Numbers 12:12 ). It appears to have been a kind of elephantiasis, and Leviticus 13:1-59 gives directions for its diagnosis. If pronounced unclean, the leper was excluded from the community (cf. 2 Kings 7:3 ). He could not attend a synagogue service in a walled town, though in open towns a special part of the synagogue was often reserved for lepers. If he was cured, he must undergo an elaborate process of purificatory ritual ( Leviticus 14:1-57 ), including ( a ) the sacrifice of one bird and the release of another, perhaps regarded as carrying away the demon; fragrant plants, water, and the blood of the dead bird were used at this stage; ( b ) the washing of clothes, shaving of the hair, and bathing of the body; then ( c ) after seven days’ interval this second process was repeated; and finally ( d ) on the eighth day sacrifices were offered, and the man ceremonially cleansed with the blood and oil of the sacrifice.

II. Uncleanness in the NT. Legal casnistry carried the cathartic ritual to a high pitch of complexity, and Jesus came into frequent conflict with the Jewish lawyers over the point (cf. Mark 7:1-5 ). He denounced it energetically ( Luke 11:38 , Matthew 15:10 ), and, by insisting on the supreme importance of moral purity, threw ceremonial ideas into a subordinate position. The full force of this teaching was not at once realized (cf. Acts 10:14 ). The decree in Acts 15:29 still recommends certain taboos. But St. Paul had no illusions on the subject (cf. Romans 14:14 , 1 Corinthians 6:13 , Colossians 2:16; Colossians 2:20-22 , Titus 1:15 ). In practice he made concessions to the scruples of others ( Acts 21:26 , Romans 14:20 ) as Jesus had done ( Mark 1:44 ); and it was recognized that a man who had scruples must not be encouraged to violate them. But it was inevitable that with the process of time and reflexion, ceremonial prohibitions and ritualistic notions of cleanness should disappear before the Christian insistence on the internal elements in religion. There are certain survivals of such notions even now, and ceremonialism is not extirpated. But its scope is very narrow, and it is the custom to explain such ritual regulations as survive, on grounds that accord better with the spirit of Christianity and the ideas of civilized society.

A. W. F. Blunt.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Clean and Unclean'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/clean-and-unclean.html. 1909.
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