You probably don’t use the word defiled in everyday conversation. But if the synonyms dirty or unclean come to mind, you’re on your way to understanding the key Old Testament theme of defilement. It’s just that in Scripture, defilement isn’t limited to physical uncleanness. Often it’s ceremonial and symbolic, and the symbolism points to the most serious kind of uncleanness—moral and spiritual uncleanness.
Yahweh structured the nation Israel with a complex network of symbols designed to teach his people fundamental lessons about his character and ways and especially his plan of salvation. Many of these symbols centered on the theology of access to the presence of God. The concept of defilement or uncleanness relates to this issue of access.
2 biblical polarities
Two pairs of opposite categories come into view here: holy vs. common and clean vs. unclean (Lev 10:10). Richard Averbeck helpfully notes that the first of these distinctions concerned the status of people and things in Yahweh’s arrangements for Israel, while the second distinction concerned the condition of people and things.1
Holy (Hebrew root qdš) described that which was separated or dedicated to a special Godward purpose. Examples include the Sabbath (Exod 20:11), the tabernacle incense (Exod 30:35), and the religious convocations of Israel (Num 28:18). Holiness admitted of degrees: Yahweh set apart all the Israelites as holy and called them to a holy lifestyle (Exod 19:6; Lev 11:44–45); yet Israel’s priests were holy in a more technical sense and with higher expectations (Lev 21:1ff). Likewise, the tabernacle consisted of the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (Exod 26:33–34).
The opposite of holy is common (Hebrew root ḥll). This category could involve the irreverence that may come to mind with the translation profane. But in essence, “common” just means “ordinary.” It encompassed whatever and whomever had not been set apart for some particular divine service. Additionally, what was holy could be made common by violating the stipulations mandated for its use. Even Yahweh’s holy name could be made common by the sins of his people (Lev 20:2).
Within the status categories of holy and common, the ceremonial condition of people and things could be either clean (Hebrew root ṭhr) or unclean/defiled (Hebrew root ṭm’). TheOld Testament law placed all manner of items in the “unclean” category.
Leviticus 11–15 is the key passage here. Yahweh identified an array of animals as unclean and therefore prohibited the Israelites from eating them (11:1–23). Even touching the carcass of an unclean animal made one unclean (11:24–47). Childbirth made a woman unclean (ch. 12). Skin diseases and mildew were unclean (chs. 13–14), as were various bodily discharges (ch. 15). Numbers 19 concentrates on another source of uncleanness: touching a human corpse. In sum, a host of material things without and within an Israelite could make him or her ceremonially unclean.
Why all the defilement laws?
Even after we sort through the dizzying details of the clean/unclean laws in the Mosaic code, they still sound strange to our twenty-first-century ears. What’s the point of them all?
Scholars have long wrestled with that question and have proposed a variety of theories. Some have proposed, for example, that the unclean elements were unhygienic or unhealthy. Or possibly, they were anomalous as compared to other elements in their class and therefore violated God’s insistence on wholeness. Or perhaps, some have argued, they were associated with the idolatrous worship of the Ancient Near East. Leviticus 20 does connect Israel’s separateness from unclean animals with its separateness from pagan nations (vv. 22–26).
A likely overriding explanation is that the unclean elements were associated in some way with the loss of life or death. And since death came into the world because of sin, the unclean elements, though not sinful in themselves, symbolized sin and its polluting effect.2
Yet even if we can’t be entirely sure about the specific rationale for the uncleanness of individual elements, the general idea stands out clearly: the complex of clean and unclean things relates to the ultimate blessing of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. In the words of Leviticus 26:11–12,
I will make my dwelling among you,
and my soul shall not abhor you.
And I will walk among you and will be your God,
and you shall be my people. (Lev 26:11–12 ESV3)
God intended to dwell among the Israelites in the tabernacle, and those who entered the tabernacle needed to conform to the character of the One who dwelt there.
More specifically, the Lord manifested his presence in a physical form; namely, the pillar of cloud and fire that displayed his glory in the tabernacle (Exod 40:34–38). This physical dimension necessitated that those entering God’s dwelling be characterized by physical cleanness as defined by God. That’s what ceremonial cleanness means. It had to do with approaching God in a way that even physically corresponded with the purity of his character.
Additionally, uncleanness separated an individual from others in the covenant community. The extreme example was skin disease, which required the unclean person to live outside the Israelite camp (Lev 13:45–46).
The consequences of violating Yahweh’s cleanness/uncleanness regulations were drastic:
Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. (Lev 15:31)
This was no empty threat. Right before the cleanness laws in Leviticus 11–15, we read that Yahweh executed priests Nadab and Abihu for offering unauthorized fire (10:1–3). That tragic incident led directly into the injunction to the remaining priests:
You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses. (Lev 10:10–12)
Yahweh did not want his people to suffer a fate like Nadab and Abihu’s. They had to be clean if they were going to enter the special presence of God.
Cleansing from defilement
Though the Lord’s intent was benevolent, his law seemingly put the Israelites in an impossible situation. Given the multiple elements of life that could make them unclean, how could they ever be allowed into Yahweh’s presence? After all, even normal experiences and activities such as menstruation and sex brought about uncleanness (Lev 15:18ff).
The Lord displayed further grace by making provision for ceremonial cleansing. The required cleansing ritual depended on the type of uncleanness. For example, waiting until evening was sufficient to cleanse someone who had touched a dead, unclean insect (Lev 11:24). If, however, someone touched the bed on which a man with a discharge had lain, that person needed to wash his clothes and bathe as well as wait until evening (15:5). Yet the man with the discharge had to wait seven days, wash his clothes, bathe, and present a sin (purification) offering and a burnt offering (15:13–15).
Some cleansing rituals were even more elaborate. Examples include the two-bird ceremony for cleansing someone with a skin disease (Lev 14) and the red-heifer ceremony for cleansing from contact with a corpse (Num 19).
Following up on Leviticus 11–15, the annual two-goat Day of Atonement ritual (ch. 16) brings to a climax the laws on cleanness and uncleanness.
Thus he [Aaron] shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (Lev 16:16)
This dramatic ceremony cleansed the tabernacle after it had symbolically “absorbed” Israel’s sins through a year of sacrifices and also took away any ceremonial uncleanness that had not been adequately dealt with.
Developing the symbolism
As the Old Testament unfolds, it develops the symbolism of the clean/unclean laws. Positively, Psalm 24 uses synonyms of ṭhr (“clean”) to describe moral/spiritual qualities required for acceptable worship: “He who has clean [naqi] hands and a pure [bar] heart” (v. 4).
Negatively, the prophets use uncleanness language for the sin that ceremonial uncleanness symbolizes. Isaiah is overwhelmed by the uncleanness of his lips and his peoples’ lips when he beholds the holy God (Isa 6:5). The Judeans as a whole are unclean; even their alleged righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag (64:6 NET [Heb. 5]). Israel’s idols defile Yahweh’s temple (Jer 7:30; Ezek 5:11). Ezekiel 14:11 and 39:24 parallel defilement (ṭm’) with transgression or rebellion (peša‘).
Thankfully, the Old Testament also applies Levitical cleansing language to Yahweh’s forgiveness of sins. David prayed, “Purge me with hyssop [cf. Lev 14:4ff], and I shall be clean [ṭhr]; wash me [kbs, e.g., Lev 11:25], and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:7). Isaiah 1:16 describes repentance and forgiveness with another term Leviticus uses for the bathing involved in ceremonial cleansing: “Wash yourselves [rḥṣ; Lev 14:8]; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil.” The result?
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isa 1:18)
In the eschaton such cleansing will be the experience of God’s people generally:
On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness. (Zech 13:1–2)
Into the New Testament
The New Testament takes up the cleanness/uncleanness theme in various ways. By emphasizing the internal origin of sin, Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:18–19). And Peter had to learn the implication of this abrogation of Old Testament food laws: the gospel should go out to the Gentiles (Acts 10). In this regard, as DeRouchie puts it, “Bacon is victory food!”4
Most significant is the teaching of Hebrews. Chapter 9 presents an irrefutable lesser-to-greater argument. The Old Testament cleansing rituals successfully accomplished ceremonial physical cleansing (v. 13). “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (v. 14).
One should also note that obeying the Levitical laws required the Israelites to apply divinely stipulated criteria and distinguish (bdl) between the clean and the unclean (Lev 10:10; 11:46–47; 20:24–26). This principle carries over into the church in the New Testament’s teaching on the need for Christians to exercise discernment (e.g., Heb 5:14).5
More broadly, the New Testament upholds the spiritual truth symbolized by the physical cleanness/uncleanness laws: fellowship with God requires purity.
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people [Lev 26:12]. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor 6:16–7:1; emphasis added)
Christ’s atonement has cleansed us positionally. Now, as the temples of the Holy Spirit, we must pursue experiential purity (1 Cor 6:19–20). Indeed, a Septuagint gloss for ceremonial uncleanness (akatharsia; Lev 16:16 et al.) surfaces in the New Testament as a description of sexual immorality (e.g., 1 Thess 4:7). Thus, even the puzzling cleanness/uncleanness laws are profitable for our sanctification (2 Tim 3:16–17).
- Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2022), 207–10.
- See L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 157–62. The first OT usages of uncleanness vocabulary suggest the conceptual connection between symbolic uncleanness and actual sin. Genesis 34 describes Shechem’s rape of Dinah as a defiling (ṭm’) of her (vv. 5, 13, 27).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
- Jason S. DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 459. Emphasis original.
- See Rhett Powell Dodson, “Discerning Truths of Holiness: The Theology and Message of Leviticus 11–15,” PhD diss., Bob Jones University, 1998.