What Did it Mean to Be Unclean?

How an Old Testament Ritual Offers Hope to Today’s Problem

Thumbing through our Old Testament, we often come across references to people or objects being “unclean.” What in the world does that mean?

What Did it Mean to Be Unclean

(Photo by Photodune)

From our perspective, when we come across something unclean we toss it in the dishwasher, clothes washer, or garbage can. And if a person is unclean, they simply step in the tub and scrub away the grime.

Problem solved.

We hear “unclean” and we think of something as contaminated, tainted, or unhygienic. But in the Old Testament, “unclean” had a different meaning—one that affected one’s walk with God.

What did it mean to be unclean in the Old Testament? (And why we should care about it today?)

What Unclean Means—and Why it Mattered

When we think of something unclean in the Old Testament, we often equate it with something sinful. But an “unclean” status did not necessarily relate to sin. For example, giving birth, having a skin disease, or burying a dead relative all rendered a person “unclean.” Nothing sinful about any of that.

Still, the “non-normalness” of such conditions put one in a state that required purification—cleansing. Holiness in Israel was symbolized by being whole—or “normal,” as God defined it.

The purification offering solved the problem. The “purification offering” (sometimes translated “sin offering”—which is confusing) dealt with two issues: forgiveness from unintentional sins and cleansing from ceremonial uncleanness.

Man covered in Dead Sea mud

(Photo: Man covered in Dead Sea mud. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

For example, because diseases entered the world as a result of sin, they are symptoms of human alienation and separation from God—which is death. For this reason, a diseased Israelite stayed outside the camp and remained untouchable, much like a corpse, until he or she was clean.

The priest shall look at the mark on the skin of the body, and if . . . it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean. —Lev. 13:3

Again, holiness in Israel was symbolized by being whole—or “normal,” as God defined it. (This is a simple explanation of a more complete definition.)

  • Only flawless animals were sacrificed;
  • Only physically normal priests could serve;
  • Only people in normal conditions could worship;
  • Only normal clothing could be worn;
  • Only normal houses could be inhabited.

If any of these essentials were not normal—or were “unclean”—the situation required action. By principle, nothing has changed.

The Original Free Bird

Because God is holy, we must be like Him to be with Him (Matthew 5:48). But how? How can we who are stuck in an unclean, or non-normal, state become clean? A strange ritual illustrates how:

[The priest] shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slain. . . . He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the live bird go free over the open field. — Lev. 14:6–7

free bird

(Photo: By Juan Emilio from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, España. Uploaded by tm CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In this ritual, the two birds together represented the sick person and revealed that life is in God’s hands.

  • One bird’s death signified what would happen apart from God’s gracious intervention.
  • The other bird’s freedom symbolized healing from disease and a new life with God.

The opportunity is timeless. When Christ healed people during His ministry on earth, He gave a preview of what He will do for all who will enter His kingdom. Those who were unclean He cleansed, and those who were sick He healed.

A Preview of Normal-to-Come

Just as Christ’s resurrection offered a preview of all resurrections, so every healing and every physical recovery serves as a foretaste of what God will do on a cosmic scale for all believers before we enter heaven. We will be set free like a bird from all of our physical diseases and distresses—welcome to enter God’s presence forever.

As Christians, we have confidence that our physical impurities or non-normal conditions needn’t exclude us from fellowship with God. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God made a way for us to become clean and meet His standard (Titus 3:5).

Tell me what you think: What did you think “unclean” meant? To leave a comment, just click here.

Post adapted from Wayne Stiles, “Leviticus,” in Insight’s Bible Application Guide: Genesis–Deuteronomy (IFL Publishing House, 2015).

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