Leviticus, Impurity, and the Odor of Death

In the first part of this series, “Leviticus, Impurity, and Mouldering Self-Portraits,” I started with a comparison by Jacob Milgrom, the premier Leviticus scholar, on impurity in the Torah and a novel by Oscar Wilde. I also tried to look at the texts of Leviticus from the perspective of a mystified reader. What is this thing all about?

Modern readers of Leviticus have a hard time getting into the mind of ancients. We view things like death and the supernatural realm in ways colored by centuries of skeptical thinking.

For all of our “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” openness to supernatural things in this supposedly postmodern world, many modern readers remain under the heavy influence of naturalism. Matter and energy are all that exist. The human body is a complex machine and death is the end of the battery life of the machine. There is no other realm, where beings of non-material nature have powers.

I find this view of life, death, and the other realm deficient. But neither am I open to each and every “Buffy” world view either.

Still, to get into Leviticus, it helps to know a bit about the beliefs of the ancients. There was plenty of fear of demons and malevolent forces from the other realm. Death was regarded as a potential gateway between realms and a corpse was a threat to life and well-being. Rituals for handling death often had a lot to do with fear of the other realm.

The Torah of Israel should be seen as a polemic against deficient views of deity, magic, and the order of the universe. “In the day you eat of it,” said God, “you will surely die.” Death is not what the ancients thought it was. The cause of death is a divine judgment on human evil. The one in charge is God. No one causes death but God, in the ultimate sense, and when people kill this can only happen because God allows it (and he will not always allow it).

Jacob Milgrom makes a potent statement about the Biblical worldview:

It posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none With the demise of demons, only one creature remains with “demonic” power — the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society (Leviticus, Fortress, 2004), 9.

The fact that Milgrom denies the realm of demons entirely, an idea with which many will disagree, does not negate his point. The gospels in particular affirm the reality of demons (and, of course, the New Testament gospels are not part of Milgrom’s world view). Yet Milgrom’s point stands even for us who believe demons are real. The demonology of the ancients needed sharp correction. The concept of a magical and malevolent realm needed sharp correction. The superlative, transcendent, unable-to-be-exceeded power and authority of God needed to be affirmed and demonstrated.

Milgrom shows in more detail than I plan to get into here how the Torah downgrades the harmful effects of death, or corpses, of impurity.

But the essential point for moderns to get about the Torah’s purity system (clean and unclean, holy and common, sacrifice and sanctuary) is that all relates to life, death, and God’s supremacy.

In part one we asked some pointed questions every reader of Leviticus must face. How can something which is not wrong (e.g., marital intercourse) be impure/unclean? How can something which is a good deed (e.g., caring for the body of a deceased person) be impure/unclean? How can the giving of life (childbirth) be impure/unclean? How can something distinctly feminine and something a woman cannot control (menstruation) be impure/unclean? Why are some animals unclean but not others? How can any of this apply today or does it not apply anymore? How can impurity or sin defile the Temple? What does it all mean and why did God ask Israel to live by this system?

The system of impurities and cleansings that was the national life of Israel in the days of the Temple was, to say the least, an all-encompassing and rather inconvenient lifestyle. What was it all for?

Longstanding Christian prejudice would have it that this system was inferior and substandard compared to the more enlightening truth of Jesus and the New Testament. The truth is Yeshua (Jesus) assumed the truth of Leviticus and New Testament theology is built on Torah theology, so that without Leviticus there is no cross, no atonement, no redemption, and no ancient and consistent divine plan to counter death and bring resurrection.

The impurity system is about life and death. Every cause of impurity has to dow with death or loss of life:

(1) Contact with the carcass of unclean animals: Leviticus 11. LIMITED DEATH TO A SMALL NUMBER OF ANIMALS IN ISRAEL.


(3) Scale disease, lingering mold: Leviticus 13. SCALE DISEASE RESEMBLES DEATH.

(4) Genital emissions due to venereal disease: Leviticus 15:1-15. LOSS OF FLUID FROM THE GENITALS IS LOSS OF LIFE.

(5) Emission of semen, with or without intercourse: Leviticus 15:16-18. SEMEN IS LIFE.

(6) Menstruation: Leviticus 15:19-24. BLOOD IS LIFE.

(7) Irregular feminine bleeding: Leviticus 15:25-30. BLOOD IS LIFE.

(8) Exposure to or contact with a human corpse: Numbers 19. DEATH IS CLEARLY THE ISSUE HERE.

The impurity regulations in the daily life of Israel, which are mostly inoperative without a Temple, are about the God of life who abhors death. This is consistent with the life of Yeshua, who healed death when he saw it and who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus even though he knew the power to bring Lazarus back.

God says, ” I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19). He said this in words and he said it in a system of Temple, separation of life from death, cleansings, and periods of waiting for purity to return. Death is evil, but not because it signals the encroachment of demonic powers. It is evil because we humans are evil. It is evil because it has no place in God’s perfect world, which has yet to exist, but which will exist. It is evil and will be overturned by resurrection and the consummation of the world God intended from the beginning.

The odor of death is passing away and the joy of God’s life, light, and power are coming. Leviticus is a reminder, a reminder we truly need.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Judaism, Life to Come, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Sacrifices and Purity, Torah and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Leviticus, Impurity, and the Odor of Death

  1. ckinbar says:

    Great summary, Derek.

    I have two questions:

    1. How does the differing time of uncleanness between the birth of a boy and a girl fit in? I have an idea, but I’d like to hear yours (or Milgrom’s) first.

    2. For Jews, unncleaness temporarily hinders worship in tabernacle or temple. How does it affect Gentiles?

  2. ckinbar:


    1. Milgrom attributes the difference to ancient ideas from medical science (women bleed longer after having girls), for which he cites several ancient sources including a Hittite source, Hippocrates, and Galen. This is not something I want to affirm. I prefer the answer which locates the difference in the fact that bearing a girl is bearing a future menstruant (since the girl child will also menstruate, the impurity period is doubled).

    2. I am rather poorly informed about traditional halakha on matters of impurity in the diaspora and in the land today. My sense is that impurity is not really an issue in any sense as it was before the Temple destruction. The laws of niddah (menstrual impurity) today (I may be wrong) are not about the danger of bringing impurity into a holy place so much as avoiding abomination. I may be wrong and it could be that halakha has ruled some places / objects are holy and should be avoided by menstruants. Also, dietary law today is about the command not to eat, not about the danger of bringing impurity into a holy place. So, all that to say, I don’t see a direct application to a non-Jew in our modern context while the Temple is not standing. I want to think more about this, because by another perspective, the land of Israel is holy and those in the land (perhaps) should practice cleansings for purity. But I wonder what traditional halakha says about the matter.

  3. ckinbar says:

    The question of whether Gentiles are subject to the laws of defilement is taken up in a discussion about the Nazirite vow (Talmud Bavli Nazir 61a). Gentiles may not take the Nazirite vow because the laws of defilement do not apply to them. They don’t apply because Gentiles can not make the required offerings and because they cannot suffer at least some of the consequences of ritual defilement.

    The underlying rationale is that people are obligated to a mitzvah only where it is halakhically allowable for them to perform all mitzvot necessary to do the one.

    There may be other factors discussed elsewhere. But, following the logic above,the categories clean/unclean apply only to Jews. Gentiles can neither be ritually clean nor unclean. Where Jews are forbidden from certain kinds of contact with, or purchases from, Gentiles, this relates to the substance (e.g. food, wine) and not to the Gentiles themselves. The concern is that Gentiles do not follow kosher laws.

    It’s so important to avoid thinking of “unclean” as “sinful.” There could be sin involved in some kinds of ritual uncleanness, but a person unclean by most of the things on your list is not in a state of sin.

  4. Pingback: Why Are Dashmats So Extraordinary and Unique?

  5. If something is dedicated to G-d, how do I keep it clean from ritual impurity? Do I literally have to keep it in a special place other than my house? Something dedicated, I don’t want it to be touched by impurity because it makes me feel like it’s permanently contaminated and has to be destroyed forever. I am one who believes that earthly activities and human interests continue in the New Heavens and New Earth regardless of what happens to the old earth. That means creativity continues. I just feel like things that are defiled by impurity whether it be menstruation or death will cease to exist in the New Earth. I don’t want to see anything creative cease to exist. That is why I am wondering about these laws.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s