Leviticus – part eight

On Monday we started to read through the purity regulations in Leviticus 11-15. For the rest of this week we’re looking at the various theories scholars have come up with to provide a rationale for the laws. Because I think each suggested explanation gives us a different insight on the laws. And from each we can learn something about God and something about being his holy people.

We look at the reasons three and four today.

Separation from pagan religions

Some have suggested that the laws are all about ensuring Israel remains separate from the nations around; separate from pagan religions. They’re all about prohibiting practices which occur in the worship of other gods. That’s why certain animals were declared unclean, and therefore unfit for sacrificing to God – the animals used in pagan sacrifice.

The trouble is, this doesn’t explain all the purity laws. And one of the most popular animals to be used in pagan sacrifices was the bull – which is not only a clean animal according to Leviticus, but you might recall from last week was the prescribed sacrifice of atonement for the wealthy.

Some of the laws surrounding sexual behaviour make more sense when viewed against pagan practices. When you read that sexual intercourse makes you ceremonially unclean for the day, you might think that Leviticus believes sex to be a bit ‘dirty’. Yet that ignores the other places in the bible where sex is viewed very highly – most famously, in Song of Songs. Is Leviticus at odds with the rest of the bible?

To understand this, we need to realise that being ‘ceremonially unclean’ wasn’t a sin. A lot of the time you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The sin was to enter God’s presence – to go into the tabernacle to worship him – while you were unclean. So the regulations about sex, menstruation, and childbirth making you unclean – they were designed to separate sex and reproduction from the worship of God.


Because pagan religions put the two together. They worshipped gods and goddesses of fertility, mostly by performing sex acts with temple prostitutes. Goddesses like Asherah were associated with the female reproductive system, so that childbirth and menstruation became a spiritual experience.

So you can see why God wanted the Israelites to go to the opposite extreme: to guard against any association with sex and worship, so that Israel wouldn’t be seduced by pagan gods and their practices.

By declaring that sexual acts made you ‘ceremonially unclean’, Leviticus actually upholds a high view of sex – ensuring that God’s people didn’t demean sex by engaging in ritual prostitution.

Association of God with life and wholeness

The next explanation we’re looking at is the first one that seems to take into account all the laws, not just some. It sees the purity laws as reflecting the character of God – specifically, he is a God of life, not death; a God of wholeness, not brokenness; of order, not disorder.

For example, some laws associate God with life, not death – most obviously the laws about not touching dead bodies. And most of the unclean animals are somehow associated with death – either being predators or scavengers (animals with paws, not hooves) or living in tomb-like caves (such as the rock badger, or “coney” in some translations). Pigs were not only scavengers, but in Egypt and Mesopotamia were associated with the worship of the gods of the underworld.

Blood and semen are associated with life – and therefore bodily discharges are symbolic of a loss of life. Skin diseases and mildew are about disease and decay.

Other laws are more about wholeness and order, in contrast with brokenness & disorder. Things that depart from the normal order of things are the ones deemed to be unclean. A disease is abnormal, therefore unclean; a discharge of fluids normally kept inside the body is abnormal, therefore unclean; mould in your house is abnormal (allegedly) and is therefore unclean.

A sea-creature that swims abnormally – wriggling rather than swimming with fins – is unclean. An insect that crawls abnormally is unclean. Do you see the pattern? God is a God of order and wholeness. Anything (however ‘natural’) that departs from that order is therefore unclean.

It becomes a little clearer when you see the duration of the person’s uncleanness – times of 7 days, and 40 days. These numbers symbolise completeness: the time it takes to be made whole again.

And this is why it makes sense that Jesus could abolish these laws. We read this in Mark 7:

Mark 7:18-19 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

One reason Jesus could abolish these food laws is that he had come to restore life and wholeness to everything. He cured people with those same skin conditions; he healed a woman who was ceremonially unclean for 12 years because of uncontrolled bleeding; he raised the dead; ultimately he brought  eternal wholeness, eternal  life. That’s one reason there is no longer a need for this distinction between clean and unclean. God has demonstrated in a far greater way that he is the God of life, wholeness, and order. Who needs laws when God himself turned up?

To think about

We tend not to have ritual prostitution in pagan temples down the road – but are there any other practices that we might be tempted to pick up from the culture around us and blend with the worship of God?

Think of as many stories from the Gospels as you can in which Jesus illustrates the life-giving character of God.

Read Leviticus 13:29-14:32 today, if you’re planning to read all of Lev 11-15 this week in conjunction with these notes. 

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