God’s demand for purity among his people was crucial to their survival. One of the main tasks of the priest was to make the life preserving distinction between clean and unclean. God made this clear to Aaron (the prophet Haroon, Sayid Musa’s brother) in the Tawrat, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). It is no small matter that this command comes in the same chapter as the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who offered strange fire before the Lord.1 The fatal flaw of Haroon’s sons’ offering was that they failed to make this distinction. They brought a strange fire that was not holy and perhaps not even clean. When they brought this fire into the presence of the Holy One, God’s holiness devoured them.
What Does It Mean to Be Unclean?
Before looking at what makes one unclean, it is essential that we understand what it means to be unclean. It is easy to understand unclean as sinful, so that when we read one is unclean we believe it means he is sinful or morally defective. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Certainly sin defiles and makes one unclean. However, we all come in contact with the unclean in our lives through no fault of our own. Uncleanness is a fact of this fallen world.
Being unclean most fundamentally means being ritually unfit to enter God’s presence. Certainly one can become unfit to enter God’s presence through sin. One can also be unfit through disease or through contact with death or bodily emissions. All of these make one unfit to enter the presence of a holy God. Something is ritually unfit to enter God’s presence when there is some abnormality that contradicts God’s created order.
English translations most often use “clean” in translating טָּהוֹר (ṭāhȏr, this word is closely related to the Arabic طاهر), and then give “unclean” as the translation for טָמֵא (ṭāmē’). Unfortunately for modern English speakers, we primarily associate unclean with dirty. Within the Old Testament something could be quite dirty and yet still be clean (the ground, for example). Something else could be quite clean (in modern English usage) and yet still be unclean (i.e. someone who wakes up with a seminal emission, takes a bath, but still remains unclean until evening [see Leviticus 15:16]).
Allen Ross, in his book Holiness to the Lord, gives a helpful chart in understanding the difference between these two words by showing a wider range of meaning:2
|טָּהוֹר ṭāhȏr||טָמֵא ṭāmē’|
|hale and hardy space||weak|
To be unclean is to be in some way unfit to enter God’s presence, whether through sin, impurity, disease, or abnormality. Certainly it is negative because we were created to be in God’s presence and that is the longing of our hearts, but not all uncleanness has the negative connotation of immoral. This does not mean, however, that uncleanness is not morally significant. God required the Israelites to perform the necessary purification so that their uncleanness did not defile the camp or the tabernacle.“In the routine of daily living, every Israelite became periodically unclean. No shame or harm attended becoming unclean for a brief period of time. The major danger in becoming unclean lay in coming into contact with the holy, for holiness is powerful, consuming all that is unclean.”3
1. See Leviticus 10:1-3. Nadab and Abihu were struck down before God because they failed to sanctify him.
2. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 245.
3. J. F. Hartley, “Holy and Holiness, Clean and Unclean” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 424 .
Other posts in this series
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 1: Introduction
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 2: The Danger of Defilement
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 3: Distinguishing between the Clean and Unclean
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 4: What Makes One Unclean?
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 5: Uncleanness is Contagious and Defiles the Camp
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 6: Defilement and Purity in the New Testament
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 7a: Jesus Christ Makes Us Clean
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 7b: Jesus Christ Makes Us Clean by His Baptism
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 7c: Jesus Christ Makes Us Clean by His Death and Resurrection
Cleansing from Defilement, Part 8: The Incarnation Was Necessary for Our Cleansing