Ritually clean and unclean: Ready for worship!

by K.W. Leslie, 16 June

It’s not literal cleanliness. It just happens to look like it.

From time to time the scriptures talk about tahór/“clean” and tamé/“unclean.” Sometimes it’s meant literally, like when the bible refers to pure gold or silver, or refer to a dirty person or animal.

But most of the time the scriptures use these terms not literally, but ritually—what the LORD defined as “clean” or “unclean” for the purposes of worship. “Clean” things could be used for worship; “clean” people were free to worship. “Unclean” things and people couldn’t. If you were clean, you could go to temple—and the Pharisees would let you go to synagogue. If not, not.

And if unclean things were used for worship anyway, or unclean people worshiped without first purifying themselves, there were dire consequences.

Leviticus 10.1-11 KWL
1 Aaron’s sons Nadáv and Avihú: Each man took his incense-burner, lit it, placed incense in it,
and brought it into the LORD’s presence—weird fire, which God didn’t permit them.
2 So fire came out of the LORD’s presence and consumed them.
They died before the LORD’s presence.
3 Moses told Aaron, “Here’s what the LORD says to those who come near him: ‘I’m holy.
I must be glorified in the presence of all people.’” Aaron said nothing.
4 Moses called Mišahél and Elchafán, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziél, and told them, “Come in.
Carry your family out of the sanctuary. Take them outside the camp.”
5 They came in, and carried them outside the camp in their tunics, as Moses said.
6 Moses told Aaron and his sons Eleazár and Itamár, “Don’t uncover your heads.
Don’t tear your clothes. Don’t die: Anger will come on the congregation!
Your brothers, and Israel’s house, will weep over the burning the LORD burned.
7 Don’t go out the Meeting Tent door, or you’ll die: The LORD’s anointing oil is on you.”
They followed Moses’s word. 8 The LORD told Aaron, 9 “You and your sons with you:
Drink no wine nor liquor when you come to the Meeting Tent. Don’t die.
This is a rule for every generation. 10 Distinguish between holy and secular, between clean and unclean.
11 Show Israel’s sons all the rules the LORD told them by Moses’s hand.”

The reason the LORD brought up being drunk on the job, is likely ’cause Nadáv and Avihú were drunk on the job. The LORD wanted it crystal clear this behavior wasn’t acceptable. Pagan gods regularly had drunk priests—getting farshnickert was often part of their worship. But the LORD God doesn’t just accept any behavior we categorize as “worship” just because we’re earnest, or we took all the right steps, or followed the right rituals, or said the right words, or feel really good about it. Think about the last time you got a really inappropriate Christmas gift. “A jar of back-pimple cream?” “A rhinestone collar and a leash? But I don’t have a dog.” “A gift card to a steakhouse? But I’m vegan.” And the gifter tried to shrug it off with, “Well, it’s the thought that counts”—when clearly no thought went into it, and they’re either trying to unload something by regifting it, or trying to passive-aggressively give you what they feel is best.

Well, that’s what jerks we’ve become when we try to foist our preferences upon the LORD, but have never bothered to find out—or don’t really care—what he wants. Eating ham on Easter would be an obvious example. Y’ever read God’s views on pork?

The LORD has standards. Expectations. If we really love him, meet them. Otherwise don’t waste his time, or insult him with rotten substitutes. He’s holy.

Some of us Christians get this, try to find out what God legitimately wants, and strive to bring him that. Other Christians… well, they do whatever popular Christian culture figures is holy. And since those folks don’t know the difference between holiness and solemnity, they figure what God wants is old-timey music, old-timey prayers, old-timey bibles, and Christians who wear fine-looking clothes to church. They never stop and think about whether these are clean clothes—literally or ritually. It’s about looking good for others, not what God wants. You know, the hypocrites’ old problem.

Well, here’s a pointer in the correct direction: What does God consider ritually clean?

Again, not literally clean.

Once they became ritually unclean, the ancient Hebrews had to get ritually clean. How they did this was simple: They had to wash. Literally wash. Lv 14.8-9, 15.10, 27, 17.15 Not because they were literally dirty. It’s a sacrament, a ritual which is connected to spiritual realities in a way we don’t understand—but don’t confuse the ritual with the spiritual thing. The washing didn’t make anyone clean. God made ’em clean. Ek 37.23

Fr’instance a clean animal was called clean. Lv 2.25 But it wasn’t literally clean; it still needed to be washed as part of the temple ritual. Lv 1.9, 13 And it also needed to be inspected lest it have any blemishes which rendered it unfit for sacrifice. Ex 12.5, Lv 1.3, 3.1, 4.32 Either way, cleanliness was about whether it was the correct species of animal, not whether it’d been bathed recently.

Likewise you could be literally clean: You just bathed, you put on clean clothes, you were walking to temple all spotless… and you unintentionally touch something an unclean person just touched. Nu 19.22 Poof, there went all your ritual cleanliness. Doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you used.

God’s rules for ritual cleanliness were pretty strict. So much so, your chances of being ritually unclean were better than average.

  • Have sex? Unclean. Lv 15.18
  • Give birth? Unclean. Lv 12.2, 5
  • It’s your time of the month? Unclean; you and everyone who touches you and your stuff. Lv 15.19
  • Touch a corpse, or be in the home where someone died? Unclean. Lv 19.11-19
  • Touch vermin? Unclean, and you gotta be rid of anything the vermin touched. Lv 11.31-35, 43-44
  • Touch a dead animal, even a dead clean animal? Unclean. Lv 11.39

And I haven’t even got to leprosy and the kosher rules yet.

Unless the Law declared you unclean for multiple days, or you had to have a priest declare you clean, the usual way to get clean was to wash yourself and your clothes, and wait till sundown. Hence by Jesus’s day, Pharisees washed themselves daily. Pharisees believed they needed to live a life of worship (and they’re right), but to do so, they had to stay as ritually clean as priests working in temple. So they had a whole ritual to it: Put on your clothes, go to a place with running water deep enough so you could stand up in it and be fully immersed, and then you were clean. In Christianity, this became water baptism.

The kosher rules.

In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, the LORD gave the Hebrews kashrút/“instructions” as to which animals they could eat, and which they couldn’t. Pharisees and rabbis have since added plenty of details to the customs. American Jews tend to call ’em by their Yiddish words, kosher/“straight,” meaning clean; and treyf/“prey,” meaning unclean. (The Hebrew words, which Messianic Jews sometimes use, are kashér and trefá.)

In summary, here’s the rules.

  • Eat: Ruminants (cud-chewers) with split hooves, like an antelope, cow, deer, ibex, goat, or sheep. Don’t eat: Animals which lack either feature— ruminants without split hooves, like a camel or rabbit; split-hooved animals which aren’t ruminants, like a boar or pig; non-ruminant, single-hooved animals, like a horse or zebra. Lv 11.2-8
  • Eat: Sea creatures with fins and scales. Don’t eat: Sea creatures which lack either feature. Shellfish lack both. Marine mammals, mollusks (i.e. octopus and squid), crustaceans, and catfish lack scales. Lv 11.9-12 Yep, lobster and clam chowder are out.
  • Eat: Birds. Don’t eat: Specific exceptions, which vary by translation: No eating a bustard, buzzard, cormorant, dayyah, eagle, falcon, hawk, heron, hoopoe, jackdaw, kite, osprey, ostrich, owl, pelican, raven, seagull, stork, nor vulture. And (as a reminder the bible’s not a science textbook) no bats. Lv 11.13-19
  • Don’t eat: Insects. Eat: Four exceptions: Crickets, grasshoppers, katydids (or “bald locusts”), and locusts. Lv 11.20-23
  • Don’t eat: Certain specific animals, again varying by translation: No eating a chameleon, crocodile, ferret, gecko, lizard, mouse, mole, rat, skink, snail, tortoise, or weasel. Lv 11.29-30
  • Don’t eat: Anything with paws (i.e. cats and dogs). Anything which crawls on its belly (i.e. snakes and worms). Anything with many legs (i.e. caterpillars and centipedes). Avoid even touching the vermin on the ground. Lv 11.41-42
  • Don’t eat: Anything which died from natural causes, or which you’ve found dead. Dt 14.21 No roadkill!
  • Never eat: Blood. Ge 9.4 Always drain the blood from meat before eating it.
  • Don’t boil a goat kid in its mother’s milk. Ex 23.19 The rabbis have expanded this commandment into the whole separation of meat and dairy you find in Orthodox Jewish households. Separate plates, utensils, even refrigerators, for meat and dairy. And no cheeseburgers. If meat touches a plate meant for dairy, you gotta break the plate and bury it out back. No I’m not kidding.

“Oh, I have no problem with the kosher rules,” I’ve heard certain Jews claim, “because I’m vegan.” Um… there are such things as non-kosher fruits and vegetables. If farmers violated God’s commands in the way they grew or harvested them, they’re unclean. If you grew multiple species in a field, Lv 19.19 or harvested fruit from trees planted less than four years ago, Lk 19.23 that food’s forbidden.

Since these particular commands are directed primarily to farmers, not the consumers, you’re fine if you don’t knowingly buy and eat such vegetables and fruits. Although certain rabbis will definitely disagree.

And speaking of the rabbis: In the interest of making really, really sure nobody breaks the rules, Orthodox rabbis expanded these commands greatly. I already mentioned the customs about meat and dairy: It goes further. Much further.

Fr’instance, certain rabbis require one of them to inspect all food animals, just to be sure they’re raised and butchered according to custom. The animals must be kosher, in good health—can’t be sick, injured, or dying, so the butcher is simply killing them before they die on their own. They must be ritually killed (called shekhíta) in a way which effectively drains all blood, and in a way which doesn’t “tear” the meat.

Exceptions are made for certain animal proteins. Supposedly eggs aren’t meat. Supposedly kosher gelatin has been so heavily rendered, the rabbis are pretty sure it no longer resembles meat anymore. (Of course, you still can’t make kosher gelatin out of horse hooves.)

The rabbis get pretty particular about how close the plants grow in a vegetable garden. Can’t have the tomatoes too close to the cucumbers. And since it’s forbidden to crossbreed animals, Lv 19.19 some rabbis expand this to include plants, and rule certain crossbred or genetically modified plants are treyf. So no tangelos, no pluots, no corn with DNA taken from other plants.

Back in bible times, if you killed an animal for ritual sacrifice, certain parts of the animal would be burned up, and other parts would go to the priests. Certain rabbis teach this should be done in the case of every animal: Entrails would usually be burned, so they’re off-limits. Certain cuts of meat should be given to the nearest available Levite—any descendant of Levi who goes to your synagogue. Since butchering and sacrificing are two different things, this sounds mighty iffy to me—especially when those rabbis threaten to kick you out of the synagogue if you won’t.

As a Christian, the kosher rules are optional (I’ll explain why in a bit), and I myself have taken that option. I don’t worry about the rabbis’ rulings, ’cause Jesus is my rabbi. So it pretty much comes down to avoiding pork and shellfish. A cheeseburger involves neither a goat nor its mother, so I’ll eat ’em and enjoy them thoroughly. Conservative or Orthodox rabbis may not consider me kosher, but other Jews would, and certainly Christians would.

Is uncleanliness sin?

Some Christians like to point to the cleanliness rules in the Law, and point out how utterly impossible it is to keep these rules. ’Cause it is impossible. The only way you could live a life without ritual uncleanliness is if you somehow had your genitals removed at birth without getting a drop of blood anywhere, then spent the rest of your life in a hermetically sealed bubble, tended to only by people who were themselves ritually clean. Good luck that ever happening.

Thing is, what are the consequences God decrees for uncleanness? Well… you can’t worship. Not till you’re clean. That’s it.

If you never bother to get clean—if you give up on ritual cleanliness altogether, and live like a pagan, that’s a sin. That’d get a Hebrew banished. Nu 19.20 But if you do bother to clean up on a regular basis, and do worship the LORD consistently… there are no punishments. No penalties. No judgments. It’s like you didn’t sin.

Because you didn’t.

Case in point: Christ Jesus. He never sinned, y’know. 1Jn 3.5 Yet how’d he do as far as ritual cleanliness? Well, when he was born, his mother was ritually unclean for a week. Lv 12.2 It’s a fair bet she touched him many, many times that week. So he was unclean. Was that his fault? Nah; lots of times uncleanliness isn’t. Heck, in the course of following the Law, like burying the dead, Dt 21.23 you’re gonna make yourself unclean. It’s unavoidable.

As an adult, Jesus was in the habit of touching people to heal them, including unclean people. He touched lepers. Mk 1.40-41 He touched corpses. Mk 5.41 He ate with sinners, who were likely unclean too. He let one of those sinners touch his feet, y’know. Lk 7.37-39 He was touched by a bleeding woman, Lk 8.43-46 also rendering him unclean. His own bleeding, when he was beaten, flogged, and killed, rendered him unclean. And of course the Roman soldiers who crucified him likely hadn’t done a ritually clean thing in their lives.

Now, various Christians claim because Jesus’s touch healed people, they didn’t transfer uncleanness to him; he transferred cleanness to them. And yeah, he totally cleansed ’em. But regardless of what he made them, regardless of anyone’s noble intentions or compassion or power to heal, the Law states touching all these people renders you ritually unclean. Still gotta wash before temple or synagogue.

To say the Law didn’t count when it came to Jesus, implies he technically did sin but lives under a special dispensation. But that’s not what the scriptures teach. Jesus lived under the Law, Ga 4.4 and obeyed it, and didn’t sin. Even though he was sometimes, unavoidably, ritually unclean.

Do Christians need to follow these commands?

Historically, Christians have ignored the cleanliness laws.

Not always for the best of reasons. Dispensationalists claim the Law doesn’t count anymore, ’cause Jesus abolished it, so they don’t worry about any of the commands… except the ones they like. (Namely the Ten Commandments, and sometimes the anti-gay ones.)

The rest of us correctly recognize we don’t need them anymore. Ritual cleanliness is so people could go to temple. Okay, so where do we go to temple? Well actually, we are the temple. 2Co 6.16-18, Ep 2.19-22 The Holy Spirit lives in us. Permanently. His presence, not our actions, makes us ritually clean.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should immediately rush out, roll around in feces, and start eating weird animals. Paul still taught, “Touch nothing unclean.” 2Co 6.17 We don’t need to follow the cleanliness laws, but God spelled ’em out because that’s his preference for his people. A life of cleanliness. A proper response to God’s grace.

’Cause it’s still unsanitary to ignore them. Wash yourselves! Watch out for bodily fluids. Don’t leave dead and dirty things around. Keep mildew and vermin out of the house. Don’t let infectious diseases go without treatment. Certain animals aren’t good for you. Science has often confirmed the wisdom behind a lot of these commands; it’s just plain dumb to dismiss them. Medieval Christians did, and it significantly shortened their lifespans. Plus, plague nearly wiped ’em out more than once.

Christians tend to ignore the kosher rules because we enjoy those foods. Again, it’s not sin to break them; bacon is not rebellion against God. But is it wise? Bacon’s hardly a health food. But I leave the kosher issue between you and God: Don’t take his approval for granted, but talk to him about it. And if he personally instructs you to live kosher, never prioritize your stomach over him.