Ritual purity is mentioned so often in the Bible that it is almost impossible to avoid, and yet many Christians fail to understand the concepts at all. I hope in this article to give a brief overview of purity, in a way that is easily understandable and practical for helping illuminate the Bible.
We often reduce Biblical commands to saying that something is “good” or “bad” – we want everything to be easily divisible into right or wrong. So when we see words like “profane” and “sinful”, we see these as being synonyms; likewise, we consider “holy” and “righteous” to be the same. In fact, these are not the case! It is a bit more complicated than that.
In most cultures and ancient religions, you see, there are two different ‘axes’ upon which one may be judged: their purity or righteousness (which I shall call their “cleanliness axis”) and their holiness or commonness (which I shall call their “relational” axis). Let’s look at these one at a time.
First is the relational axis. This can be viewed as a measurement of how closely one is related to God. Someone or something is “holy” if it is set apart for God’s purpose and thus is relationally very close to Him; something is “common” or “profane” if it is not specially set apart for God’s purpose.
Note the predestination-ish aspect of the relational axis—we don’t have anything to do with where we sit upon this axis. As with most people, I am born down at the bottom of the axis, among the common Gentiles. Whether you are born Jew or Gentile, man or woman, priest or non-priest, is due to no choice of yours. You were either set apart at birth, or you were not.
But it isn’t just people who sit on the relational axis; certain places and times are set apart as special to God, as well. So being in the Holy of Holies was to directly stand on hallowed ground with God; to be in Jerusalem at a Feast Day (which were ‘holy’, or ‘set apart’ days) was particularly holy. To be sitting in Rome on a normal Thursday afternoon was a ‘common’ day.
So you see, your holiness had really nothing to do with what you do, but was based upon who you are. You were either set apart, or you were not.
Next, we come to the cleanliness axis. These are the actions that we do, which make us either “pure” (i.e., able to come into the presence of God) or “impure/unclean”. We of course are the same way today. Imagine someone at your church with a large, puss-filled, sore that is oozing on Sunday morning. You might say that they should have stayed home. Or maybe someone who is sick, or someone who is oozing blood from a headwound. Some churches (sadly) go so far as to discourage people from bringing their children or disabled persons or unclean people or other ‘distractions’. Right or wrong, all of these are examples of the same concept – they are people who, because of a temporary state or due to an action, are considered “improper” to be in church.
This was the concept of cleanliness – and the Law describes hundreds of examples of cleanliness. Your sins make you unclean, but that is just one example. Other examples might include perfectly ‘allowable’ or natural events – having sex with your wife the night before, or having accidentally come into contact with a dead body, or having contracted a disease, or a woman during her menstruation cycle. Any of these events were considered “unclean” to come before God.
On the far left of this axis is uncleanliness – the worst example of which were “abominations”. Abominations were events which were considered so far out of the natural order that were so polluting to the individual that he/she could only be cleansed through a death sacrifice. The abominations of the Law were listed as: murder, incest, adultery, rape, bestiality, homosexuality, child sacrifice, and sorcery.
On the far right side of this axis is cleanliness – the perfect adherence to the Law, and its several hundred interpretative traditions.
In between these extremes were a variety of actions which, though polluting, could be overcome. If you ate the wrong thing, or had leprosy, or your menstruation, or had sex with your wife, then you were impure—unable to come into the people of God. However, these afflictions could all be overcome; there were paths that could make you pure. These often involved a mikvah, or bathing ritual.
So now, our situation looks something like this:
So let us start our first post on ritual purity with coming to the conclusion of where you stand. Those who go to heaven are those who are clean and holy. It’s a small crowd. Only Jesus can sit in the far upper-right of the graph. Most Jews are somewhere above the midline and spread from somewhat clean to somewhat polluted. Those of us who are Gentiles tend to be almost exclusively on the bottom-left.
This is what makes grace so amazing: God takes the profane and makes it holy; He takes the polluted and makes them clean. Christ’s death serves as a one-time sacrifice for all our pollution (past, present, and future) if we believe; it moves us from the ‘polluted’ to the ‘clean’. And the Scripture tells us that, for those who believe, God called us and set us apart—that is, He moved us from ‘common’ to ‘holy’.
This is why our righteousness is based upon faith, not works: nothing you can do will move you from ‘common’ to ‘holy’; and even the best of us can only move partway between ‘polluted’ and ‘clean’. But our faith in God’s calling makes us holy; Christ’s death cleanses us from all of our pollution.