Notes in Impurity/Uncleanness

I decided to wait on the posts about “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, Three Years Later” until Sunday or Monday.

No point opening up such an important topic when everybody is partying and not in a theology frame of mind. I’m sure everyone will be more serious by Monday after all the partying.

These are some notes I wrote to explain the Biblical laws of purity and impurity. They are, of course, only a summary, but I think you might enjoy thinking about them . . .
It is no sin to be unclean. A woman who has a baby becomes unclean. A son who cares for his father’s dead body becomes unclean. Sometimes it is a sin not to become unclean. Yet God taught Israel that certain things made them unclean and gave them procedures to cleanse themselves. He said it was a sin not to cleanse themselves (Lev. 15:31; Num. 19:13), but he never said it was a sin to be unclean.

What, then, does it mean to be unclean? Every cause of uncleanness is symbolic of either death or loss of life. (Note: I discovered these truths from the commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor series by Jacob Milgrom.)

Lev. 12: Childbirth. Loss of blood is a loss of life.
Lev. 13: Skin Disease. Causes a person to look like a corpse (whitened skin).
Lev. 14: 33ff. Mildew. Mildew grows on dead things.
Lev. 15: Semen, Menstruation, and other genital discharges. Loss of semen or blood is loss of life.
Num. 19: Touching a corpse. A corpse is death itself and touching a corpse makes one unclean for seven days.
Lev. 11: Eating any meat other than the allowed animals. Restricted death to a handful of species in Israel, so that the land would not be a land of death.

Symbolic impurities, that represented death, polluted God’s sanctuary along with sins of the people. God’s does not desire for his presence to dwell in the midst of sin and death.

Death was God’s punishment for our sin in the Garden. God originally created us for life. Sin is what causes death, and is repugnant to God.

Uncleanness, if not cleansed, polluted God’s Temple (Lev. 15:31; Num. 19:13).

When a woman in the northernmost part of Israel gave birth to a child, her loss of blood symbolically caused pollution at the sanctuary. When a man in the southern regions of Israel cheated his neighbor on a sale, the sanctuary was polluted. It required a cleansing. If the sanctuary was not cleansed often, then God’s presence would have to withdraw from the sanctuary and from Israel. That is exactly what happened in the end, in 586 B.C.E., when the sin of Israel hit the breaking point and God abandoned the temple. After that, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and sent the people into exile.


About Derek Leman

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

4 Responses to Notes in Impurity/Uncleanness

  1. Peter says:


    i am not sure i understand your distinction between sinful and unclean. on the one hand you say they are different, but then you say that uncleanness cannot remain without being sin.

    so where is the line drawn?


  2. Peter:

    It is not a sin to become unclean. It is a sin to fail to follow God’s purification procedures for uncleanness (Num. 19:13; Lev. 15:31).

    For example, it is not a sin for a woman to menstruate. But it is a sin for the woman not to purify herself as Leviticus 15 dictates.

    Uncleanness is purely a symbolic system teaching God’s separation from death.


  3. dorla says:

    Mildew? Am I looking for this exact word in Lev 14? or is mildew considered “something like a mark of leprosy? (I don’t have my regular Bible with me so I do not know if I am missing something with NASB translation).

    I am in Costa Rica right now at my parents home. The country is so humid and especially now during the rainy season, that mildew grows on the clothes in your closet after 1 or 2 weeks.

    So, it is not a sin that mildew is everywhere in your home, but it would be a sin to not regularly clean it, especially knowing that it is there… right?

  4. Dorla:

    You have hit on a great point and I’m glad you did. This is an important principle in interpreting the Torah. The laws of clean and unclean are for the land of Israel. Applying them outside of the land requires interpretation.

    The laws about mildew work well in a semi-arid country like Israel. They wouldn’t work here in Georgia where I live and certainly not in Costa Rica.

    Would it be fair to say that the laws of impurity apply only in the land? Jewish tradition says no. Some of the laws apply everywhere, such as the law of purification after menstruation.


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