What does Clean, Unclean mean in the Bible?


Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology - Clean, Unclean
The Old Testament. How Uncleanness Was Contracted and Treated . In Old Testament times the ordinary state of most things was "cleanness, " but a person or thing could contract ritual "uncleanness" (or "impurity") in a variety of ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead (Numbers 5:2 ), or eating unclean foods (Leviticus 11 ; Deuteronomy 14 ).
An unclean person in general had to avoid that which was holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a "dangerous" condition under threat of divine retribution, even death (Leviticus 15:31 ), if the person approached the sanctuary. Uncleanness could lead to expulsion of the land's inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25 ) and its peril lingered upon those who did not undergo purification (Leviticus 17:16 ; Numbers 19:12-13 ).
Priests were to avoid becoming ritually defiled (Leviticus 21:1-4,11-12 ), and if defiled, had to abstain from sacred duties. An unclean layperson could neither eat nor tithe consecrated food (Leviticus 7:20-21 ; Deuteronomy 26:14 ), had to celebrate the Passover with a month's delay (Numbers 9:6-13 ), and had to stay far away from God's tabernacle (Numbers 5:3 ).
Purification varied with the severity of the uncleanness. The most serious to least serious cases in descending order were: skin disease (Leviticus 13-14 ), childbirth (Leviticus 12 ), genital discharges (Leviticus 15:3-15,28-30 ), the corpse-contaminated priest (Ezekiel 44:26-27 ), the corpse-contaminated Nazirite (Numbers 6:9-12 ), one whose impurity is prolonged (Leviticus 5:1-13 ), the corpse-contaminated layperson (Numbers 5:2-4 ; 19:1-20 ), the menstruating woman (Leviticus 15:19-24 ), the handling of the ashes of the red cow or the Day of Atonement offerings (Levv 16:26,28; Numbers 19:7-10 ), emission of semen (Leviticus 15:16-18 ), contamination by a carcass (Levv 11:24-40; 22:5), and secondary contamination (Leviticus 15 ; 22:4-7 ; Numbers 19:21-22 ).
Purification always involved waiting a period of time (until evening for minor cases, eighty days for the birth of a daughter), and could also involve ritual washings symbolizing cleansing, atoning sacrifices, and priestly rituals. "Unclean" objects required purification by water (wood, cloth, hide, sackcloth) or fire (metals), or were destroyed (clay pots, ovens), depending on the material (Leviticus 11:32-35 ; Numbers 31:21-23 ).
The Rationale of the Purity Laws . The central lesson conveyed by this system is that God is holy but human beings are contaminated . Everyone by biology inevitably contracted uncleanness from time to time; therefore, everyone in this fallen world must be purified to approach a holy God. Although "uncleanness" cannot be equated with "sin, " since factors beyond human control could cause a person to be unclean, nonetheless, there is a strong analogy between "uncleanness" and "sin." The "sin offering" (better, "purification offering") served to cleanse both sin and ritual impurity (Leviticus 5:1-5 ; 16:16-22 ). Moreover, the language of ritual impurity is used dozens of times metaphorically of various ethical sins. Human beings are "unclean" or "sinful" by nature and cannot approach a holy God. Just as uncleanness can come from within (natural bodily functions) or from without (contaminating things), so sin comes both from perverse human nature within and temptations without. The prohibition of eating the fat of sacrificial animals and the blood of any animal reminded Israel that blood sacrifice reconciles sinful/unclean people with a holy God (Leviticus 7:22-27 ; 17:11 ).
The clean/unclean system divided animals, people, and land into three categories to teach separation from the Gentiles. Animals that could be sacrificed were "holy"; wild game and fish that could be eaten but not sacrificed were "clean"; and animals that could be neither eaten nor sacrificed were "unclean." This separation parallels that of people (cf. Leviticus 21:18-21 ; 22:20-24 , ; where the same defects disqualify both priests and animals): priests (holy), ordinary Israelites (clean), and Gentiles (unclean). With space, there is the tabernacle (holy), the land (clean), and the nations (unclean). Thus the food laws symbolically reinforced teaching elsewhere that Israel was a "holy nation" (Exodus 19:6 ) set apart from all others, and promoted practical holiness by discouraging table fellowship with the Canaanites whose diet would ordinarily include the pig and other "unclean" foods (Leviticus 20:25-26 ), as modern kosher laws have helped maintain the Jewish race as a separate people. Other laws, by creating distinctive customs (even where such customs were without any inherent moral value, as in Leviticus 18:19 ), nonetheless inculcated Israel with the concept of "holiness" and served as "object lessons, " creating in Israel a sense of self-identity as a "separated" people.
Some laws of purity express ethical lessons. Even arbitrary rules cultivate the virtue of self-control, a step toward the attainment of holiness. Eating meat torn by wild beasts not only defiled ritually, but dehumanized, reducing people to the level of scavenger dogs (Exodus 22:31 ). Cooking a kid-goat in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19 ; 34:26 ; Deuteronomy 14:21 ) was a perverse act. Leaving a corpse of an executed man exposed on a tree overnight was barbaric (Deuteronomy 21:23 ). That those involved in the slaughter of war (Numbers 31:19-24 ) even at the command of God nonetheless became unclean hints at the moral impurity of war. Laws concerning sexual emissions encouraged restraint and sexual self-control (e.g., avoiding sex during menstruation) and would rightly stigmatize violators (such as prostitutes) as social outcasts.
The command not to eat the flesh with the blood inculcates respect for all animal life. Animal slaughter was limited: only for food, only certain species, only if certain procedures were followed. Moreover, ritual pouring of the blood back to God symbolically acknowledged that only by divine permission could any animal be killed (Genesis 9:2-5 ). If killing animals is not trivial, how much weightier it is to shed human blood.
The laws of purity prohibited connecting worship with sexuality. Since sexual Acts made one unclean, Israel could not follow the practice of sacred prostitution where a god's giving of fertility was symbolized by sex Acts in the cult. This further separated Israel from her pagan neighbors.
The purity system conveys in a symbolic way that Yahweh was the God of life and was separated from death. Most of the unclean animals were either predators/scavengers or lived in caves (e.g., rock badgers). The pig, moreover, was associated with the worship of Near Eastern chthonic deities. Leprosy made a person waste away like a corpse (Numbers 12:12 ). Bodily discharges (blood for women, semen for men) represented a temporary loss of strength and life and movement toward death. Because decaying corpses discharged, so natural bodily discharges were reminders of sin and death. Physical imperfections representing a movement from "life" toward "death" moved a person ritually away from God who was associated with life. Purification rituals symbolized movement from death toward life and accordingly involved blood, the color red, and spring (lit. "living") water, all symbols of life. This symbolism excluded necromancy (Leviticus 19:31 ).
Israel was not to cook a goat in its mother's milk not because it was a pagan practice, but because it was inappropriate to combine that which was a symbol of life (mother's milk) with the death of that for which it was meant to give life, especially in the context of the Festival of Tabernacles (so the context of Exodus 23:19 ) celebrating the life-giving power of Yahweh.
There is an incidental contribution made by the laws of purity/impurity to hygiene. Certainly the exclusion from the camp of those with possible symptoms of leprosy (Leviticus 13-14 ) and gonorrhea (Leviticus 15:2-15 ) in effect quarantined these dangerous diseases and contributed to public health. The avoidance of carcasses or contact with human sputum and discharges would do the same. The ritual baths associated with purification would also contribute to hygiene. Certain unclean animals are known to transfer diseases to humans: the pig bears trichinosis; the hare, tularemia; carrion-eating birds, various diseases. Eating animal suet is now known to lead to heart disease.
Hygiene, however, is at most a secondary explanation. Some excluded animals such as the camel, which have no association with disease when ingested. Most unhealthy foods (e.g., poisonous plants) and infectious diseases are not mentioned, surprisingly, if hygiene were the purpose. Moreover, why would Christ abolish the food laws meant for hygiene? Absolution took place after healing, whereas were hygiene the purpose it should have occurred before. Symbolism rather than hygiene must be the primary purpose of these laws.
The New Testament . The New Testament usually uses "unclean" in the moral rather than ritual sense, but it also testifies to the fact that the Jewish people practiced the biblical laws of ritual purity, as well as rabbinic elaborations thereupon. (The Mishnah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archeological remains of ritual baths, miqvaot, provide further evidence.) The New Testament refers to purification rites for birth (Luke 2:22-27 ), ritual washings (Mark 7:3-4 ; John 2:6 ), and disputes over ceremonial washings (John 3:25 ). Jesus allowed "unclean" or "evil" spirits (in the New Testament "unclean" is twenty-two times connected with demons) to enter swine, perhaps in part because it was fitting for one unclean thing to enter another (Matthew 8:28-34 ; Mark 5:1-16 ; Luke 8:29-33 ). Jews seeking Jesus' death refused to enter the palace of Pilate to avoid contracting ceremonial uncleanness during Passover (John 18:28 ).
Jesus condemned those who placed ritual above ethics. He rebuked those who, for ceremonial purity, cleanse the outside of the cup but do not practice inward moral purity or charity (Matthew 23:25-26 ; Luke 11:39-41 ). He implicitly condemned the priest and Levite who placed concern for ritual purity-they would be barred from temple service if they touched a corpse-over concern for human life (Luke 10:25-37 ).
Jesus did not allow the laws of purity to keep him from touching lepers (Matthew 8:1-4 ; Mark 1:40-45 ; Luke 17:11-17 ), and he deliberately touched rather than healed by his word to show compassion and to anticipate by his action the coming change in law under the new covenant. Nonetheless, in the age of transition he required cleansed lepers to show themselves to the priest in accord with Mosaic law (Luke 17:11-17 ). Jesus did not hesitate to touch the dead (Matthew 9:25 ; Mark 5:41 ; Luke 8:54 ), and allowed a sinful woman (e.g., a prostitute) to touch him (Luke 7:36-38 ), despite her ritual (as well as moral) uncleanness. In such cases, and that of a woman with a flow of blood (Matthew 9:20-22 ; Mark 5:27 ), Jesus is not defiled (he went through no ceremonial purification), but those are cleansed and healed. This speaks theologically of Christ's impeccable person.
Jesus turned water, in jars for ritual purification, into wine (John 2:6-9 ) to symbolize the replacement of ceremonial law with something better. He did not follow the ritual washing, going beyond Mosaic law practiced by rabbinic Judaism (Mark 7:3,5 ), and implicitly declared all foods "clean" (Mark 7:19 ; cf. Romans 14:14 ; "food is unclean in itself"). A new age had dawned with the coming of Christ and the ceremonial laws of purity were passing away. Typologically, the ashes of the red heifer (for corpse contamination), the sin offering, and the ritual baths foreshadowed the power of Jesus' blood to cleanse the conscience (Hebrews 9:13-14 ; 10:22 ; 1 John 1:7 ; Revelation 7:14 ).
Although the apostolic council (Acts 15:29 ) encouraged Gentile Christians to avoid "unclean" foods ("food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals [1]") to facilitate table fellowship with Jewish Christians, the matter is presented as advice rather than law. There was nothing morally wrong with Jewish Christians observing the old rituals, and, accordingly, Paul did (Acts 21:20-26 , ; purification after a Nazirite vow), but Old Testament laws of purity, and all ceremonial laws, are optional, and even strangely out of place under the new covenant.
The abolition of the food laws conveys deep theological significance. The division of animals into clean and unclean symbolized the separation between Israelites and Gentiles. The abolition of the kosher laws then symbolizes a breaking down of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. As is seen in God's lesson to Peter in Acts 10-11 , God now declares the Gentiles "clean." In the new messianic age the principle that God's people are to be separate (holy) from the world remains, but the lines drawn are no longer ethnic in character.
Joe M. Sprinkle
See also Offerings and Sacrifices
Bibliography . G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, TDOT, 5:287-96,330-42; H. C. Brichto, HUCA 47 (1976): 19-55; M. Douglas, Purity and Danger ; J. E. Hartley, ISBE, 1:718-23; J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 ; idem, Religion and Law ; idem, Semeia 45 (1989): 103-9; J. M. Sprinkle, "A Literary Approach to Biblical Law: Exodus 20:22-23:19 "; G. J. Wenham, Numbers ; idem, Christ the Lord ; S. Westerholm, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels .
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament - Clean, Unclean, Common
‘Common’ (κοινός, communis) is an honourable word in classical Greek = ‘shared by the people.’ In Hellenistic Greek, it has sometimes this same meaning (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32, Titus 1:4, Judges 1:3), but sometimes a less honourable one (= Lat. vulgaris). This depreciation arose out of the transcendence of religion to the Eastern mind. What was ‘shared by the people’ had become profaned for the god (cf. the English word ‘worldly,’ meaning first secular, then unspiritual). We see the process with κοινός in Hebrews 10:29 -‘counted the blood of the covenant a common [1] thing.’ In Revelation 21:27 we go a step further, and ‘anything common’ means the worldly, the unspiritual (cf. Jos. Ant. xii. ii. 14, xiii. i. 1). Elsewhere ‘common’ corresponds to positive, active uncleanness (Acts 10:14; Acts 10:28; Acts 11:8, Romans 14:14, 1 Maccabees 1:47; 1 Maccabees 1:62, Jos. Ant. XI. viii. 7; the verb is found in Acts 21:28, Hebrews 9:13).
The distinction, ‘clean’ (καθαρός) and ‘unclean’ (ἀκάθαρτος), refers in the OT and primitive religions to definite departments of life, such as food, sanitation, contact with the dead, and marriage (Leviticus 11-15). In the OT it is mainly a common-sense distinction, made, however, from religious motives, and becoming part of the ritual of the Hebrews. It was thus a practical differentiation between them and surrounding peoples. It arose out of a good idea, but when separated from this idea grew into a proud national badge. Such national and religious customs, so long held, seem stronger than they are. One push of a new movement will often destroy, almost in a moment, the habits of centuries. We find this process to-day in the East. In the NT it may be seen in the case of Simon Peter; he combined Christian beliefs and Jewish distinctions without at first being willing to perceive their variance. His vision (Acts 10) woke him, and, though he relapsed for an instant (Galatians 2:9), the work was done; and when that generation passed away, the religious nature of these distinctions had gone from Christianity; cleanliness, instead of being godliness, was next to godliness. These details of conduct were left to the reason and the conscience. The transition stage, where some cling to the old laws and others obey the new spirit, with its problems of faith and charity, is treated in Romans 14.
There is another ground for this ceremonial distinction of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean,’ i.e. contact with idolatry, which in the OT makes unclean (Deuteronomy 7:25). St. Paul allows (1 Corinthians 8) that an idol is nothing and cannot affect meats offered to it. But idolatry is something-its atmosphere, its offerings, its gatherings into temples. It becomes the embodiment of demons (1 Corinthians 10:20); there is a ‘table’ of demons, an agreement with hell, and no man can with impunity associate with even the outward forms which this agreement takes, or frequent the places where it is moat generally made. The Apostle treats marriage (q.v. [2] ) in a similar way. He would place restrictions on the marriage of believers with unbelievers. It is as if a Christian were participating in idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:18-20, 2 Corinthians 6:14-16), or trying to mingle the communion of God with the communion of devils. If, however, they are already married, the principle of faith triumphs over all forms. The believing partner sanctifies the unbelieving one, and their children are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). St. Paul recognizes the value of forms for the human spirit, but he subordinates them to the conscience. Many of the old tabus on food, marriage, travel, the Sabbath, were rooted in fact. They were based on laws of health, decency, human nature; but they were not deeper than that. They were not religious principles to be obeyed without thought and absolutely guaranteeing purity.
Men are always tending to revert to forms, and there was yet another movement in later NT times, which felt after this old distinction. It adopted that of matter and spirit, in which spirit is clean, matter unclean. It had ordinances like ‘Touch not, taste not, handle not’ (Colossians 2:21), it tried to refine in all manner of ways, it forbade men to eat meat and to marry (1 Timothy 4:3). St. Paul answers in Titus 1:15 : All the external refinements in the world will not avail to give purity; purity of heart, the will to be pure, alone secures it in body and spirit.
Literature.-Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Unclean’; W. R. Smith, RS [3] 2, 1894, Additional Note B; F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity, 1894, chs. 6, 7; J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon3, 1879, pp. 83ff., 408-414; R. C. Trench, NT Synonyms8, 1876, p. 308.
Sherwin Smith.

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