Clean and unclean: God’s weird rules

Photo by  Ian Espinosa

Photo by Ian Espinosa

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron: For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed.
— Leviticus 21:16-18

In my last post I talked about uncleanness and periods. However, Leviticus spends a lot of time creating distinctions between what is clean and unclean in all areas of life. And it’s not just the period regulations that make me uncomfortable. That’s why I wanted to write this second post, talking about the issue as a whole.

Look again at the verses above. The list here goes on, including those born with dwarfism, seeing impairments, or mobility issues. No one in the line of priesthood who has any kind of physical abnormality can approach God's altar to offer food.

For one, this seems cruel and unfair. People have no control over these conditions. Why do they get cut off from a certain part of serving God? As with periods and childbirth being considered unclean—separations like these seem harsh and misleading.

It seems as though certain people and animals, actions and people who commit those actions are labelled as unclean—largely through no fault or choice of their own. Making such separations seems like the perfect way to enable legalism and make it easier for people like the Pharisees to rule over others, as we see happening when Jesus was on earth.

What was the point? Especially if all of this was abolished with Christ's death!

Jesus overturns the division between clean and unclean in the New Testament. He didn’t have a problem interacting with people whom the Jews of the time considered unclean. He broke social norms by hanging out with disreputable people, teaching women and “working” on the Sabbath.

After he died and rose again, Christ told Peter in a dream to eat unclean meat (Acts 10:9-16). In the vision, the Lord says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter realizes that the dream represents Christ’s offer of forgiveness being extended beyond Israel to include all other nations as well (Acts 10:27-35).

So, if Jesus readily overturned the Old Testament approach to impurity, why does the Lord seemingly create this problem in the first place?

Well, God says multiple times throughout the Levitical laws that he is the one who makes Israel holy (for example, Leviticus 20:7-8).

  • NOTE: The Hebrew word for holy is qodesh, which means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness.”

This means that while God gives his people commands to follow, it is not those commands that make them holy. He alone makes them sacred and set apart. This same idea is confirmed later on, when God tells the Israelites not to follow the customs of the people around them (Leviticus 20:22-26). He says, “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

The ceremonial laws the Lord gave to the Israelites were not just idle, random rules given to make them feel set apart. Instead, God established a deep, physical understanding within the Israelite community of what it meant to be holy—set apart for him.

There are many theories on the reasoning for why God labelled certain things clean or unclean, especially when it comes to food. However, they can be quite inconsistent or problematic.

I’m sure there are more ideas out there, but the point is, it’s difficult to come up with a clear-cut solution. I think God did this intentionally. The Israelites could not be holy, or clean, on their own. Even if they hacked the system and figured out exactly why certain acts were clean or unclean, they could never save themselves through the law. Instead, they learned how desperately they needed God to save them from their sin.

I’d like to propose a distinction here. It was not being clean or unclean that was holy. It was following these rituals that set the nation of Israel apart from the peoples surrounding them. Obeying God’s commands about uncleanness and cleanness was what equated holiness, or being set apart, not the individual state of being clean or unclean.

Through this, the Israelites learned that following God should be a visible act. They learned to trust in his ways, even when the customs of the cultures surrounding them seemed appealing.

The same applies to Christians today.

We need only read how Israel stood apart from everyone around them to be reminded that our lifestyles should be visible because historically, following God has always meant a visibly different way of life. If our lives look like everyone else’s then we are doing something wrong.

By integrating spiritual rituals into the most mundane situations like skin blemishes, God clearly established that there is no division between the sacred and the secular. We can’t tuck church into one corner of life and work into another. Following God is a 24/7, all in kind of deal. If we believe that God gave his life for us and is worthy of all we have to offer, then we need to follow his will—even if that means we’ll be unpopular and never truly fit in.

There is still more to the idea of cleanness and uncleanness, though.

We see a gradual shift throughout the Old Testament where being “clean” becomes not so much an external concept, but an internal one. David says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” (Psalm 51:10). The prophets reference God making his people clean, something the sacrificial system could not do (Ezekiel 36:24-26). Jesus refers to this when he calls the Pharisees out for focusing on the outward appearance of cleanness without cultivating genuine love for God and others (Luke 11:39-41; Mark 7:1-23).

Slowly, over time, the Israelites began to realize that the divisions between what is clean and unclean had more to do with they way their hearts were focused on honouring God and adopting his desires than it had to do with the outward symbols themselves.


If you want to dig deeper, this article gives more detail on this topic. The Clean and Unclean

Ilana ReimerComment