The Purity Laws and Resurrection, Part 2

Two weeks ago I started something I have yet to finish. I started a short series on the Purity Laws of the Torah. That is, I started a series about the things that Torah says make a person unclean. Many people would regard these regulations as primitive, a holdover from a time of superstition and inferior worship. I suggest that the Purity Laws of the Torah are among the most sublime of all of God’s revelation. I spoke about “Purity and Sacrifice in the Age to Come.” Jesus will return and reinstitute these laws. I began the topic “The Purity Laws and the Resurrection.” So far, I only covered Part 1. Now I am going to finish the series in Part 2 and tomorrow Part 3.

Let me preview what is ahead in this post. First, I will describe what the purity laws are and what might be the rationale for them. This may seem a boring topic, but stick with it. The best theology sometimes takes a little work. God is not a simple preacher, but an immense mind of great thoughts all true and vital for life. The Purity Laws are in the Bible, so let’s get rid of any idea that they are inferior or primitive. Read through this and the pay-off will come tomorrow:

What are the Purity Laws?
Certain things are said in the Bible to make a person impure. These things are not sins necessarily. In fact, one of them, childbirth, is a good deed. Yet it renders the mother impure. Many Bible readers don’t know what to do with these ideas. How can God call things that are good or neutral impure?

Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus: Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, pp.986-999), has helpfully ordered the twelve kinds of impurity and placed them in order of severity. To determine which impurities are more severe, he created a mathematical formula (with help from a mathematics grad student) to place values on things like the duration of the impurity, the costliness of the cleansing measures, and the value of additional measures such as bathing or shaving. He found that Leviticus and Numbers list twelve categories of impurity. The six severest forms require a sacrifice, usually a sin offering (purification offering). The six least severe require no sacrifice, but only waiting until evening and laundering and bathing:

1. Scale-diseased person (a.k.a. leper) — duration of sickness plus 7 days, shaving, sprinkling, laundering, bathing, second shaving, laundering, and bathing, plus multiple sacrifices and daubing with blood twice.
2. Woman after childbirth — 41 or 81 days impure total, laundering and bathing, sacrifices.
3. Person with genital discharge (gonnorhea) — Duration plus 7 days, laundering and bathing, sacrifices.
4. Corpse-contaminated priest (a priest who touched a dead person) — 14 days, sprinkling twice, laundering and bathing, sacrifice.
5. Corpse-contaminated Nazirite (a Nazirite who touched a dead person) — 7 days, sprinkling twice, shaving, laundering and bathing, multiple sacrifices.
6. A person who accidentally neglects purification (Lev. 5:1-13) — Duration plus 1 day, bathing, sacrifice plus grain offering.
7. Corpse-contaminated lay-person (an Israelite who touched a dead person) — 7 days, sprinkling twice, laundering and bathing.
8. Menstruant — 7 days, laundering and bathing.
9. Handler of red heifer, scapegoat, or sin offering — 1 day, laundering and bathing.
10. Man after semen is emitted (after sexual intercourse or any other ejaculation) — 1 day, laundering and bathing.
11. Person after touching carcass of unclean animal — 1 day, laundering and bathing.
12. Person secondarily contaminated (they got impurity by touching someone impure) (Lev 15; 22:4-7; Num 19) — 1 day, laundering and bathing.

The Rationale Behind the Impurity Laws
How did God pick these particular things and call them unclean? While scholars have proposed various theories (sin, aesthetics, fear of demons, holiness of the sanctuary, separation of Israel, health, magic, arbitrary priestly power), none of them explains all of the types of impurity so well as the theory of Jacob Milgrom, the premier scholar of Leviticus. As Milgrom says:

The bodily impurities enumerated in [Torah] . . . focus on four phenomena: death, blood, semen, and scale disease. Their common denominator is death. (p. 1002).

Loss of blood or semen is loss of life. Scale disease makes a person look like a corpse and is a form of rot or spreading death. Even the dietary restrictions of Leviticus 11 can be explained as limiting death to certain species (that is, if Israelites can only eat certain animals, they won’t kill as many animals).

The message of God’s purity laws is simple: he is the God of life, not death. This theology has its roots in Genesis, where God declares death the penalty for human sin. Sin is man’s choice, not God’s. Thus, death is not part of the perfect world God intended and will one day bring to completion.

Milgrom adds a twist: whereas other cultures feared demons and magic, God taught Israel a different theology of sacrifice and worship. The battle is not between demonic forces and human, but between life and death. Death was set loose by man’s rebellion against God’s commandment (p. 1003).

Next time: How do these Purity laws point to the resurrection?Is there a connection to Paul’s saying about Baptism for the Dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29?


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish, Resurrection, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Purity Laws and Resurrection, Part 2

  1. Carl says:

    Derek, you wrote that “These things are not sins necessarily.” But one could make a case they are clearly not sins and, at most, some of them are sins only if done with intentional disobedience (that is, not in obedience to a higher law, such as a priest handling an unclaimed body). If so, then purity/impurity is a polarity unrelated to sin (except insofar as all Torah stands in relationship to all other Torah). In fact, in most instances, there is no command to become pure — that is, apart from becoming eligible to enter the tabernacle/temple precincts.

  2. Carl:

    Actually, there is a command to become pure. Leviticus 15:31:

    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.

    Purity is not limited to entry to the tabernacle. Impurity that is left uncleansed pollutes the tabernacle even from a distance. This is central to Jacob Milgrom’s thinking about the Purity system.


  3. jon cline says:

    Hey Derek,

    Thanks for the light hearted introduction. Another Shabbat started well. I think I will try and get a copy of that lighthearted long book… What is that big picture on the home page anyway?


  4. Jon:

    The big picture at the top is of me and my son in Israel, December 2006. We were at Beth Shean, on top of the acropolis. We thought it would be funny to look like we were falling off.


  5. Pingback: Resurrection in the Torah; or, On Trusting Jesus to be a Good Exegete « City of God

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