Clean and Unclean – Leviticus 11

To be clean or unclean is the theme of Chapters 11 to 15 of Leviticus. But they are some of the most obscure parts of the Old Testament. The whole Bible is inspired, but it’s not all equally inspiring.

Why do all these normal things make someone unclean? Do any of these laws still apply? If they don’t, why should a Christian spend time looking at them? If they do, which ones?

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You can find the rest of the series in our Sermon Index.

Socially distanced from God

It turns out that social distancing wasn’t invented in 2020. It was very much a part of life in Old Testament Israel – and the cause wasn’t Covid it was uncleanness.

Chapters 11 to 15 of Leviticus give the laws to do with being clean or unclean. The laws are here because Aaron the High Priest had just been told by God, “You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the Lord has given them through Moses”  (Leviticus 10:10-11). So here we get chapters on clean/unclean. After chapter 16 we get laws on sacred (holy) / common.

Glancing across the chapters you can see reasons for unclean:

  • 11 Clean and unclean animals; touching dead animals
  • 12 After childbirth (different for if it’s a boy or a girl)
  • 13-14 Loads of things about skin problems and houses
  • 15 All sorts of bodily discharges of all kinds of fluids

They’re not the most gripping chapters. They tend to leave us with loads of questions, the most basic being why are so many normal things ‘unclean’? And why some things and not others? We’ll look at why “this” and not “that” next time.

Not a moral issue

For now, notice something really important: These are normal things, not things to be forgiven.

  • After the sacrifices for sin in earlier chapters, we read Through this process the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the LORD, and you will be forgiven. (e.g. Leviticus 5:10)
  • But in chapters 11-15, these things aren’t forgiven because they’re not actually sinful. So, for example, The priest will sacrifice them to purify her, and she will be ceremonially clean – not forgiven (Leviticus 12:8). Forgiveness isn’t required where there’s no sin.

“…they would die, for their impurity would defile my Tabernacle…”

Leviticus 15:31

So uncleanliness isn’t a moral issue. So what is it? At the end of chapter 15, God summarises these laws: 31 “This is how you will guard the people of Israel from ceremonial uncleanness. Otherwise they would die, for their impurity would defile my Tabernacle that stands among them.”

The uncleanness of people could defile the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle where God dwelt on the earth with his people. So it was really important that everyone in Israel was clean. And if you were unclean, it was necessary for you to go withdraw from the community, away from the Tabernacle.

  • For people with infectious skin disease, that meant actually leaving the camp.
  • For other unclean people, you’d have to self-isolate so that you didn’t make anyone or anything else unclean.
  • You’d be forbidden from approaching the Tabernacle and making any offerings of any kind until you were clean again – sometimes a delay, or a wash with water.

Not a fixed state

Chapters 11-15 describe the various things that made you unclean, but it’s not a fixed state. The same chapters also give you laws for cleansing.

  • Restoration to the community.
  • Restoration to cleanness, and therefore able to bring offerings to God again.

Because God will dwell on the earth with his people. That’s the basis for the whole Bible. And he makes it possible to come. You are more unclean than you realise; God is more pure and holy than you can imagine; he makes it possible for us to be cleansed and approach him as his holy people:

God’s holy nation

So far we’ve learnt that being “unclean” doesn’t necessarily mean “sinful” – and yet it is something that keeps you out of God’s community, and away from God. So what’s it all about? We’ll look at why some things are unclean next week. Today we’re thinking about why it matters.

Aaron was told to teach the people to distinguish sacred/holy from common, and clean from unclean.

  • God is holy. Anything in the Tabernacle was to be sanctified (made holy) – the Tabernacle, the priests, the items in the Tabernacle.
  • Everything not holy is “common” – and common things can be clean or unclean.
  • Sin and sin’s pollution drives you towards uncleanness – excluded from the community, unable to approach God
  • Sacrifice and cleansing drives you towards cleanness – towards the community, able to approach God.

Cleanness – the normal state

So the normal state of Israel as a whole was to be “clean” – fit to approach God with appropriate sacrifice in his Tabernacle. Picture it as circles: Holy, clean, and unclean. God dwells in the centre in perfect holiness. In the Most Holy Place. Holiness must never, ever be contaminated by uncleanness. Cleanness is “readiness to approach the Presence of God by sacrifice”. So if you’re in the community of God in Israel, your highest privilege is that despite your sin you can approach God.

Cleanness is “readiness to approach the Presence of God by sacrifice”

  • The word of God told you how to be separate from the uncleanness of the world, and how to be clean
  • You were part of a community that would strive to keep one another clean.
  • You could bring sacrifices for sin for forgiveness
  • Forgiven your sin, you could bring sacrifices of approach to God
  • You could bring a peace offering and enjoy a meal in the very presence of God at his Tabernacle.
  • None of these privileges were available to Gentiles simply because they were unclean, outside the community, unable to approach God.
  • In a sense, Israel were a kind of expanding Eden – with Gentiles still very much barred.

Holiness – the goal state

But while Israel were to be “clean” as their “normal state” the goal was actually that they be “holy”! When God first called Israel together and called them a nation, he said some amazing things: Exodus 19:4-6 ‘Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’

All the nations belong to God – even those who deny him. Israel were chosen by grace; they were nothing special. Chosen to be holy; to be the place where God would again dwell on the earth with his people.

  • Had God abandoned the other nations? No! This was how he was to come to the world!
  • His holy Presence was in the Tabernacle. His people clean, in permanent readiness to approach by sacrifice.
  • God’s holy people separated to him and for him.
  • His kingdom of priests who would teach all the nations about this holy Creator of all who could now be approached here on the earth.

Grace for Granted

But it went wrong. Israel lost their way.

  • They thought they were special and invincible and that God would protect them come what may.
  • By Jesus’ day, it was clear that people had lost sight of what these things were actually about. They served the laws more than the law-maker. So Jesus spoke about it!
    • Care for your parents is a moral matter; to neglect them is sin. But the Pharisees were more bothered about cleanliness laws than moral ones.
    • The clean/unclean laws are almost entirely physical (eating, bleeding, skin, etc). Jesus berated the Pharisees for worrying more about them than about the heart – your sinful desire is more of a problem than what you eat.
    • The parable of the Good Samaritan first has two Israelite men who would have been worried about becoming unclean – more worried about that than having compassion on someone lying at the side of the road (worried about Temple Test & Trace!)

Thinking about where Israel went wrong helps us think rightly.

Draw near to God in Christ

The New Testament says little about clean/unclean laws. What it does say is basically to dismantle that system:

  • In Mark 7:9 Jesus declares all food “clean”.
  • In Acts 10, when Peter goes to the house of the Gentile Cornelius, it is made clear that Gentiles are no longer to be avoided and classified unclean. Jewish ethnicity doesn’t define clean/unclean any more.

We’re all Gentiles, so this is good news. The Leviticus laws on clean and unclean don’t draw a boundary line around God’s people any more. Now, the question is whether or not you are “in Christ”.

If you’ve never repented of your sin, asked for forgiveness, cried out to God, then you’re not in Christ. You’re not part of his church, his community. You’re excluded from God’s presence. Don’t entertain for a moment the thought of heaven.

But if you’re a Christian, the language of the New Testament is that you are in Christ and he is in you. You thought you were far off from God. But not so in Christ.

Gentiles brought near

“Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.”

Ephesians 2:22

Read Ephesians 2:11-22.

What about the cleansing? What about the sacrifices? Ephesians 5:25-26 Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. A bride bathed and ready for her wedding. Cleansed. Even more, sanctified. Christ is in us as his church and in you as a believer. You’re a walking, talking Tabernacle of the living God. Unlike OT Israel, you – in Christ – have gone all the way into the presence of God! Through the heavenly curtain!

Every Christian is equally made holy by the presence of God in them!

  • Not about what church you go to or what Bible they use.
  • Not about whether you’re vegetarian or not. God doesn’t care if you do or don’t eat fish on Fridays.
  • Your ethnicity doesn’t make you more or less a Christian.
  • Cultural markers like how you dress, how you speak, or what music you like don’t affect your Christian status.
  • There’s no room for elitism or – worse – racism. 

If you’re not a Christian, no sense of “religious form” should keep you away. You don’t need to become like me or anyone else. You need to repent of your sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. And all may come. 

Kingdom of priests

Which means, as a church, we must be careful to be aware of our cultural biases and chop down barriers we put up.

  • But more, as a church we are part of Christ’s holy nation. We’re the kingdom of priests they sing about in heaven. You must teach others the way to God. It’s your job.
  • But even more, as a church we do that because we’re centred on Christ. He’s the centre of our circle.

And so growth as a Christian is growth in Christ. Israel were blessed to have God’s presence with them and they were to be holy, as he is holy. Growth as a Christian isn’t to be measured like the Pharisees did it – how many laws you can know and keep.

Growth is growing delight in Christ himself – the Christ who dwells in you, by the Holy Spirit. Read Ephesians 3:14-19.