The first problem with uncleanness is that it made someone unfit to be in the presence of a holy God. The second problem is that it defiled others in the camp so that they would be unfit to be in the presence of a holy God. The final problem is that it defiled the camp itself and thus ran the risk of the camp being abandoned by God’s presence and then destroyed.
The people were commanded to remove uncleanness from the camp. If there was uncleanness in a house, the bricks with the uncleanness were taken out of the house and out of the camp. If the uncleanness persisted after a week of quarantine, the entire house was destroyed and discarded outside of the camp (Leviticus 14:33-53).
Leprous people and those who had touched dead bodies were forced to be outside of the camp because their very presence defiled the camp. Their uncleanness was contagious. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did” (Numbers 5:1-4).
Keeping the camp clean and the tabernacle holy by properly distinguishing between the clean and unclean was of paramount importance. After the many explanations on how to distinguish the clean from the unclean in Leviticus 11-15, God said to Moses and Aaron, “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” (Leviticus 15:31). This was a real danger. Uncleanness was normal and unavoidable (as seen before), but if not properly addressed normal uncleanness could lead to death.
There was a remedy for uncleanness, but one had to avail himself of this remedy. The Lord spoke to Moses concerning the one who failed to wash after being unclean, “Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut of from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him” (Numbers 19:13). It was not being unclean that was dangerous, it was either approaching the sacred while unclean or failing to do anything about one’s uncleanness that was dangerous.1 In this case the unclean person defiled the tabernacle of the Lord and the result was being cut off from Israel. It was, in essence, a death sentence, for in being cut off from Israel he was being cut off from the source of life and purity. If one failed to wash after becoming unclean, his iniquity remained, “But if he does not wash [his clothes] or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity” (Leviticus 17:16).
If the whole camp was defiled and thus the whole land, the entire nation could be cut off. This is what had happened to the nations who had lived in Canaan before Israel. They had made themselves unclean through horrible sins and thereby “the land became unclean” (Leviticus 18:25). This is why God punished them and “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). If Israel was not careful to follow God and keep his commandments they too would defile the land and be vomited out by the land (Leviticus 18:28).
1 “These pollutions are contagious, but they are not dangerous . . . the only misfortune associated with the condition is isolation from the people and alienation from all things holy. The condition of impurity becomes actively dangerous to the individual only when it comes into contact with the sacred” (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman. Edited by C. L. Meyers and M. O’Connor (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983], 403).
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