Cleanliness

Chapters 11-15 deal with the sensitive area of cleanliness. In our culture we do not easily discuss some of the areas that come into view here. The Hebrews looked at them in a more uninhibited way. Food, personal hygiene, physical contact, clothing, housing, defilement - all are dealt with from the standpoint of ritual cleansing under the Levitical Law. Despite our natural reserve, there are underlying basic principles which we would do well to consider.

These matters were referred to the people as a whole, 11. 2 etc. We should remember that Christians too have held to the belief that cleanliness complements godliness, hence the old axiom that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.

It is probably no accident that in these days of spiritual decline there is an increasing disregard for good standards of hygiene and dress. Sad to say, some believers have not been unaffected by this drift. There would therefore appear to be a need for us to discern from these chapters standards which God would have us uphold in our day.

We cannot, of course, in our age apply to ourselves the legal prescriptions of of the Levitical Law. For those under law, it was a matter of discipline; for us, it is a way of life worked out in believers by the Spirit of God - a natural outflowing of the new birth. For us the determinative principle is simply, ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’, 1 John 1. 5. Purity and cleanliness are part of that light.

Even under the Levitical Law people did not gain cleansing by rite and ritual; they were an indication of the worshippers’ heart condition before God. Hence David’s words, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise’, Ps. 51. 17. As there was to be a difference in the animal realm between what was clean and unclean, 11. 47, so there was to be a ‘division’ (Newberry) between the people of God and the surrounding nations. The purity of God was to be portrayed by the cleanliness of His people. It was to be a continuing part of the priestly function to make these standards known to the people, ‘They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane (common, Newberry), and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean’. Ezek. 44. 23. This was to be evident in their way of life as in their religious observances, ‘Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them’. 15. 31.

In this quick review of these chapters we shall touch very lightly on detail. It is our purpose to highlight those aspects which are appropriate to our situation today.

Food, 11. 1-47

Among land animals, fish and sea creatures, and birds and insects there were some to be regarded as being clean, others unclean. There was also instruction for dealing with dead carcases. Together with Deuteronomy 14. 3-21, this passage gives most of the Law’s dietary instructions. In some cases there were hygienic reasons for the distinction made. But, as already stated, the main purpose was to distinguish the Jews from those around them. They were a people separated to God. They were a ‘holy’ or ‘peculiar’ people, 11. 44, 45; Deut. 14. 1, 2.

They were to eat what was clean and abstain from what was unclean. Even to touch dead bodies (except animals sacrificed in the tabernacle), as well as certain animals and articles, brought defilement.

In this age we are not subject to such dietary regulations, yet we ought to be careful to eat only what is good for us. We too are ‘a holy nation, a peculiar people’, and it is our mission to ‘show forth the praises of Him who hath called (us) out of darkness into his marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9.

In the world we are to provide a continuing reminder of the holiness of God by being separate from all that defiles.

Personal Hygiene, 12. 1-8

This passage deals specifically with purification after childbirth. Actual birth was not unclean, yet in a sense there was in the postnatal discharge a physical reminder that every child of Adam was born in sin and in need of cleansing, Ps. 58. 3; cf. Gen. 3. 16. The mother remained unclean for seven days after giving birth to a boy, twice as long for a girl, 12. 2, 5. Apart from any spiritual connotation, there was a physical reason for this period during which the mother, freed from normal duties, would be regaining I strength. The boy was then circumcised as a mark of his separation to God, Gen. 1 7. 12-14, after which there was a period of semi-quarantine, 33 (66) days of light duties, during which the woman did not attend the sanctuary.

While we cannot be sure why the distinction was made between the quarantine period for the birth of boys and girls, perhaps there are shades of subsequent Pauline teaching concerning a woman’s position, 2 Cor. 11. 3; 1 Tim. 2. 12-15?

The time of purification came to an end with the offering of a lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering - two birds in the case of the poor.

Physical Contact, 13. 1-46

This passage relates to various kinds of skin disease which need not | concern us particularly. ‘Leprosy’ in the AV is not what we generally understand it to be in our day. The word in the Greek translation included infectious and contagious diseases. While medication was not available (as far as we know), quarantine was required - sound medical practice.

The cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’, kept others away from the infected person, II during which time he or she could not enter the camp where the Lord dwelt among His people.

The continuing spiritual message here is clear enough: we cannot have fellowship with God while we are unclean because of sin, cf. Ps. 66. 18; Isa. 1. 15.

Clothing, 13. 47-59

Garments, too, could be unclean. If they were affected by mildew or mould they were to be treated as such. Three examples are given. We should note that the word for ‘rot’, ‘mould’ or ‘mildew’ is the same as that rendered ‘leprosy’ in the previous section. Obviously, therefore, the AV rendering in verses 47, 49, 51, 52 and 59 is inappropriate and should be ‘mould’ (or similar).

Quarantine was in the camp but outside the tent in question. The person who had worn the garment or garments was washed and shaved before sacrificing a trespass offering, 14. 12, sin offering, 14. 13, and burnt offering, 14. 19-20. The mould was, again, typical of sin; when it was ritually dealt with, the wearer was restored. Again, special provision was made for the poor.

In this way the Israelites were, again, being reminded of their special position, a holy nation, yet continually in need of ceremonial cleansing by blood and washing. So today we are God’s ‘holy nation’, cleansed by the precious blood of Christ, 1 Pet. 1. 18, and sanctified and cleansed by the washing of water by the word, Eph. 5. 26.

Housing, 14. 33-57

Now, pointing forward to the more settled life they would live in Canaan, the Lord gives directions for the mildew and mould which would find their way into the houses they would build. In this case the ritual required that they be emptied and examined by the priest. If the mould was seen to be spreading the affected stones were to be replaced, or at least scraped down, and plastered over. If the house remained clear, it was to be pronounced clean. Otherwise, it was to be destroyed. Sacrifices were offered only where the house was purified, vv. 48-53; cf. vv. 3-7.

The central message in regard to sin and cleansing was as before. Notice that there was no sacrifice for the building as such. We should never regard our homes or assembly buildings as sacred in themselves. God’s dwelling place is His people, Eph. 2. 19-22.

Defilement, 15. 1-33

References to discharges in this chapter mainly refer to what is not part of the body’s natural processes - venereal diseases, diarrhoea from, say, cholera etc. However menstrual discharges and male emissions were also included. We are not to construe from this that sexual relations are unclean. Quite the contrary, Heb. 13. 4. The underlying principle is once more to remind the people that while all of life for them was to be ‘holiness to the Lord’, they were in constant need of cleansing from the spiritual ‘discharge’ of sin. Notice that natural hygiene had a place in what the Israelites were taught, vv. 21, 22.

The purpose here is clearly stated, ‘Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them’, v. 31. And for us, every part of life requires the cleansing that can only be provided by the precious blood of Christ.

C.H. Mackintosh says of Leviticus 15, ‘True, all scripture teaches us the holiness of God, the vileness of nature, the efficacy of the blood, the value of the word; but (this chapter) presents these great truths to our notice, and presses them upon our hearts, in a manner quite peculiar to itself’. Indeed, that could be said of chapters 11-15 as a whole which we have treated under the general heading of ‘Cleanliness’.

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