Ritual Purity Laws (Leviticus 11-15)

Part 3 of the overview of Leviticus with commentary. The Ritual Purity laws of chapters 11-15.

Leviticus Chapter 11:
God gives Moses rules on what foods the Israelites can eat. These rules separate clean from unclean animals. They are not allowed to eat unclean animals or even touch their carcasses, doing so will make a person unclean until evening. This rule can apply to clean animals if they died suddenly or are killed by wild animals.

Land animals:
They are not allowed to eat any creature that doesn’t have completely split hooves and chews cud (regurgitate grass and chew it again). The animal must have BOTH features to be considered clean. For example, camels, the hyraxes (rock badgers), and hares are unclean because while they do chew the cud, they don’t have split hooves. Likewise, pigs have split hooves but they don’t chew the cud.

Sea Creatures:
Sea creatures must have BOTH fins and scales to be considered clean. If it doesn’t have both fins and scales then it is unclean.

Flying Creatures:
Any creatures with traits like these creatures are unclean: eagles, vultures, ospreys, kites, buzzards, ravens, ostriches, screech-owls, seagulls, hawks, little owls, cormorant, great owls, horned owls, pelicans, barn owls, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats.

Flying bugs that walk on all four legs are unclean, but flying bugs that have jointed legs for jumping are clean. For example, locusts, bald locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are jumping creatures and thus considered clean.

Small currying creatures:
Small scurrying creatures including all animals that slither along on their bellies, and crawl with four legs or more are unclean to eat. Examples: weasels, mice, lizards, geckos, crocodiles, skinks, and chameleons.

More notes on Unclean Animals:
Touching the carcass of unclean animals makes a person unclean until the evening and they must wash their clothes. Unclean animals include those that have unevenly divided split hooves and don’t chew the cud, and this would include creatures that have paws. 

If an object like a wooden utensil, article of clothing, etc, comes in contact with an unclean creature’s carcass, then it must be put in water and it will be unclean until evening. If an unclean creature’s carcass falls into a clay pot then it must be shattered. Any liquid from a vessel that was made unclean will become unclean itself, and that liquid will make food or anything it touches unclean. If an object like an oven or stove has an unclean animal’s carcass on it, it must be destroyed. However, cisterns or springs with unclean animal carcasses on them are still clean. Seeds can become unclean if they are wet when they come in contact with an unclean animal carcass, but if they are dry they will remain clean.

Comment: There appears to be a pattern with Kosher food laws in Leviticus 11. It was about diet and anatomy. Flying creatures only have to be herbivores, and land creatures that were herbivores that chewed cud (regurgitated grass) and had split hooves were considered clean. It seems that land and air creatures that were omnivores, carnivores, and scavengers were all classified as unclean. This may have be connected to why humans are forbidden from consuming blood as moral sin in the bible (Genesis 9:4, Lev 7:25-26, Lev 17:10-14, Lev 19:26, Deut 12:16, Deut 12:22-25, Deut 15:23, Acts 15:20 & 29). What if animals that eat meat (who consume blood), are classified as sinful in a sense because they don’t drain the blood? Land creatures are even further distinguished by diet (cud-chewing herbivore) and anatomy (split hooves), which may clue into their digestion practices. For example, rabbits are cud chewers but they also eat their own dung, which is something that may be viewed as unclean. Sea creatures aren’t limited by diet because the focus is on anatomy. Sea creatures are only required to have both scales and fins to be kosher, and since fish with fins and scales can eat meat the blood issue must not be a problem here. This could be because the blood spills out and is diffused into the water and is not consumed as much. Also, fish scales limit the absorption of poisons and toxins in the water.

Another thing to notice is that in the Bible, sea creatures were never sacrificed. This is most likely because fish are not commodities, since they live in the water and can’t be farmed or held as investments. There also may be a spiritual aspect to it. A person doesn’t have to ‘kill’ a sea creature, it simply dies when you take it out of the water. So, I suspect that since the taking of life is not experienced like with an air-breathing animal, it doesn’t have the same effect of showcasing the darkness of sin through slaughter. From what I’ve read online, it seemed pretty rare that cultures sacrificed fish, I found that Buddhists and sometimes ancient Greeks sacrificed fish, but not much else.

When it comes to object defilement it seems earthenware like clay has to be destroyed meanwhile, wood and cloth materials can simply be washed. The clay pots for cooking the priest portion of sin offering were destroyed after their use in Lev 6:28, to prevent future defilement. In that same verse, it explains that metal vessels are washable like wood and cloth but they must be scoured when washed. The principle of earthenware seems to apply to seeds as well. The thought is that when seeds are wet they become more porous (earthenware is also porous), and that may explain why seeds only become defiled by a carcass when wet.

Leviticus Chapter 12:
When a woman gives birth to a child they are to give a burnt and sin offering. If a woman has a son, she has been unclean for seven days (just like mensuration). Then on the eighth day when the boy is circumcised, this begins the time of purification for her womb to heal after childbirth which lasts 33 days. If a woman has a daughter, she is unclean for 14 days (two weeks), and then she counts 66 days for her womb to heal. So a woman is unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy and 80 days after having a girl.

After the time of a mother’s birth uncleanness is up, she is to give a sacrifice of a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering, and a dove (or pigeon) for a sin offering. If she can’t afford a lamb she can use two doves (or two pigeons), one for each type of offering. The priest will sacrifice these animals for atonement and purification, making her ritually clean.

Comment: Science says that a woman’s womb takes around 6 weeks (42 days to heal). If a woman gives birth to a son, the mother is unclean for seven days just like in menstruation. Then she must wait for her womb to heal (be purified) from bleeding for 33 days, making a total of 40 days. It’s two weeks and 66 days (80 days) for a baby girl. One theory is that purification for girls is twice as long because it represents the fact that there are two womb carriers (or two females). Another theory is it was related to the circumcision of the males. Maybe somehow the male is purified by the circumcision so the timeframe is longer for girls. However, this would mean all uncircumcised boys would require 80 days and I don’t see any reference to that in the text. The other option is that since a baby girl has a womb and while it may not be bleeding, this extra time for purification represents her ability to give birth in the future. I lean towards the second one since it seems more consistent. There is a resource down below that goes further into this explanation of Leviticus chapters 12-15.

When the 40 or 80 days are over, the mother brings two offerings (sin and burnt offering) to the Tabernacle. Childbirth isn’t a sin, but we are all born with sin nature. It seems more likely that sin offering covers the sin nature of the child rather than any sin of the mother. This is why Jesus refers to salvation as being born again (John 3:1-15). We are all born in water in our natural birth, but the re-birth in the holy spirit (John 3:5-7) which is connected to the blood sacrifice of the messiah (Jesus) makes us born again when we believe in him. In Luke 2:21-24, baby Jesus is circumcised 8 days after he was born, and then 40 days after his birth Mary and Joseph gave a purification offering according to the law of Moses in Leviticus 12. This shows that Jesus’ parents helped Jesus fulfilled the law even as a child.

Leviticus Chapter 13:
If someone develops symptoms of a skin disease (typically Leprosy), then they must be examined by the priest. The symptoms may just be normal blemishes or scars, however, if the priest determines that it is a disease, then that person will be declared ritually impure (ceremonially unclean) and must live in isolation separated from the camp until healed. Symptoms on the skin to check include swelling, scabs, sores, bright spots, etc.

If a person has a sore, scab, or bright spot and the hair has turned white and the sore is deep, then it is a skin disease. If the sore is not that deep and the hair is not white then the person is to be quarantined for seven days. Then, on the seventh day, the priest is to examine them again. If nothing changes the priest is to keep examining them over and over every seven days until the sore either goes away or spreads. If it goes away or at least doesn’t spread, then it was just a normal scab or rash and they are declared clean and they should wash their clothes. However, if it spreads more after each examination then they are unclean. If a person suspects they have a skin disease, they must go to the priest, and if he finds swelling and white hair on the diseased area, and an opened sore, then it is a chronic disease and there is no need for the week-long quarantine or any more exams and that person is declared unclean immediately. If the disease has spread all over the body from head to toe and all of the person’s skin has turned white, then the person is clean since the disease has ended (or it was “false leprosy”). However, if there are any open sores, the patient will be declared unclean. As long as the skin is inflamed with sores a person is unclean, but if the inflamed skin turns white then that person is declared clean.

If a person has a boil that healed but then became inflamed (white swelling or reddish-white spots) they must be examined. If the hair in the area turned white and the inflammation is deep, then it will be declared unclean because a disease came from the boil. If the inflamed area is only skin deep and there are no white hairs then the priest will quarantine the patient for a week. If the area looks the same then the patient is clean, but if it has spread then they are unclean. The same is true for a burn injury. They are clean if it heals, but unclean if it has spread, and they must be quarantined for a week between examination times.

If a person has a scabby sore on their head or chin, and the priest finds a deep infection with thin yellow hairs then they are pronounced unclean. If it is only skin deep but there are no black hairs then they are to be quarantined for a week. If upon re-examination it has not spread, is only skin deep, and has no yellow hairs then their head is to be shaved around the scab area and they are quarantined for another week. If it hasn’t spread, has, and appears only skin deep then they are declared clean and they must bathe and wash their clothes. If the sore spreads after being declared clean there must be a re-examination, and no matter the hair color a spread is declared unclean. If it doesn’t spread then black hair should grow on it and the person is clean.

If a person has white patches on their skin and the priest sees that they are dull then the patient is clean, as it is only a rash. Male baldness is natural and not a form of uncleanness. Of course, if a bald man has swelling and inflammation on his head or forehead then he is unclean.

Those who are unclean with skin disease are to wear ragged clothing, have unkempt hair, wear a covering on their mouths and yell out “Unclean Unclean” to let everyone know they are unclean. This way people can avoid touching them and being made unclean. 

If there is mildew (greenish or reddish) on an article of clothing whether it is woolen, linen, leather, or any animal hide, it must be brought to the priest to be examined. The priest will isolate the garment for a week and check for a spread. If the contamination has not spread then he must have it washed and isolated for a week. If the stain has faded then he will have the stained area cut out, washed, and isolated for a week again and if there is no resurgence of the mildew then it is washed twice and declared cleaned. Otherwise, if the contamination has spread, or has not faded after being washed the first time, or spreads after the stained area is cut out, then it is rotten and needs to be burned.

Leviticus Chapter 14:
[Measurements are estimates from the NLT translation]

If a person who has been isolated outside the camp for skin disease (like leprosy) believes they are healed, then the priests are supposed to go examine them outside the camp. If the priest determines that they are healed, then the priest is to get two clean birds a cedar-wood stick, scarlet, yarn, and hyssop leaves. Then one of the birds is to be killed over a clay pot with fresh water from a flowing source. Then the priest is to take the live bird tether it to the hyssop branch and cedar stick with the yarn and dip it into the bloody water in the clay pot. The priest will shake the hyssop-cedar stick utensil and sprinkle the person with the blood seven times, and then set the blood-covered living bird free in an open field. The person who is now purified will wash their clothes, shave all their hair off, and take a bath. Then they are allowed back into the camp but they must be quarantined outside of their tent/home for a week. On the seventh day, they must shave all of their head hair including beards and eyebrows, as well as bathe and wash their clothes. 

On the eighth day, the person must come to the entrance of the Tabernacle with sacrificial animals for purification and atonement sacrifices. The person is to bring two male lambs and a one-year-old female lamb, as well as 6.6 liters of flour mixed with olive oil, and a cup of olive oil. The priest will wave the male lamb as a guilt offering along with the cup of olive oil and wave them before the Tabernacle. Then he will sacrifice the lamb in the same place as the sin and burnt offerings and a portion of the guilt offering will go to the priest just like the sin offering. The priest will take the guilt lamb’s blood and put it on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of the purified person. The priest then pours some of the olive oil into his left hand and dips his right finger and sprinkles it seven times before God’s presence. Then he pours more of it in his hand mixing it with the blood of the lamb and puts it on the right ear, thumb, and big toe of the purified person. Then he puts the rest of the oil in his hand and anoints the person’s head and that will make atonement for them. Then he sacrifices one of the other lambs as a sin offering and the last lamb as a burnt offering. Lastly, they burn the grain offering.

If the person can’t afford the preceding offering then they can bring a male lamb as a guilt offering, two birds (either two pigeons or two doves), one for the sin offering and one for the burnt offering, and 2.2 liters of flour mixed with olive oil for the grain offering and a cup of olive oil. The procedure is the same as before, the lamb is waved as a guilt offering alongside the grain offering, and the birds are the sin and burn offerings that are sacrificed at the end.

When the Israelites get to the promised land in Canaan some of the houses may have mildew, and the following rules are how to deal with it. If a person’s house has mold in it then the priest must come to inspect it. The house must be emptied before inspection so that everything in the house won’t be made unclean. He inspects the house for greenish or reddish depressions that seem to go in deeper than the surface of the wall. He then will seal the house for a week, then examine it again on the 7th day to see if it has spread. The contaminated stones will be removed and the plaster inside the house will be scraped off and both will be discarded in an unclean place outside of the city. Then the old stones will be replaced by new ones. If the house stays clean then the priest will declare it clean. If it gets contaminated afterward, then the priest will declare it unclean and have it broken down and all of the materials will be removed from the city. Moreover, anyone who enters a house while it is sealed up will be unclean until evening, and if they lie down or eat in the house they must wash their clothes. If there is no spread after stone replacement then the hose will be declared clean. To purify the house, the priest will use a cedar stick, scarlet yarn, a hyssop branch, and two birds (two pigeons or two doves), and repeat the steps for purification of a person cured of skin disease. He will slaughter one of the birds over a clay pot under running water, then dip the live bird tethered to the hyssop branch and cedar stick with the yarn, in the dead bird’s blood and sprinkle the house seven times with it. This will purify the house, and the blood-covered live bird is to be set free outside the city in an open field.

Comment: Leprosy comes from the Greek word λέπος (lépos) which means scales. This is related to the Greek words lepis (λεπίς) which means fish scale and lepó (λέπω) which means to peel. So Leprosy means scaliness and is usually in reference to scaley scared skin caused by a disease, which is today known as Hansen’s Disease. The Septuagint (Greek old testament) translates this from the Hebrew word Tzara’ath (צָרַעַת) which means ‘smiting’. The term is generally applied to any form of surface corruption, which includes skin diseases like, but not limited to, Leprosy. As well as mildew on clothing, and mold in buildings. So Leprosy is a form of Tzara’ath, but Tzara’ath is not exclusively Leprosy. The smiting is because it was believed that these things were caused by God usually as punishment for sin.

Leviticus Chapter 15:
Bodily discharges from illnesses in men or women, are considered unclean. Whether the discharge stops or is continuous, it is considered unclean. A person with discharges makes their bed and anything they sit on (including saddles) unclean. If anyone touches that bed or something that was sat on by an unclean person or makes physical contact with or is spit on by a person who is unclean (from discharge) then they need to wash their clothes and bathe, and they will be unclean until the evening. An unclean person has to wash their hands before touching another person, otherwise, they will make a clean person unclean. If an unclean person touches a clay pot it is to be broken, but if they touch something made of wood then it is to be washed. When a person’s discharge is healed they are to stay isolated for a week. On the eighth day, they will wash their clothes and bathe. Then they must sacrifice two doves (or two pigeons), one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering at the Tabernacle, and they will be made clean by atonement.

If a man has a seminal emission he must take a bath and he will be unclean until the evening. Any clothing or material with semen on it is to be washed and will be unclean until the evening. Likewise when a man or woman has sex, they each must bathe and wash their clothes are unclean until evening. If a woman is menstruating, she will be unclean for a week. Anything she touches (her bed and such) will be unclean. Anyone who has psychical contact with a menstruating woman or her bed or anything she sits on will be unclean until evening and must bathe and wash their clothes. If her husband has sex with her (unaware of her menstruation) and her menstrual fluid touches him, he will be unclean for a week along with her and anything he touches will be unclean.

If a woman has a discharge of blood that goes beyond or outside of the normal menstrual period, then she is unclean in the same way as menstruation until the bleeding stops. That means she and the things she touches will be unclean and will make a person who touches them unclean until the evening and they must wash their clothes and bathe. When the woman’s discharge is healed she is to stay isolated for a week. On the eighth day, they will wash their clothes and bathe. Then they must sacrifice two doves (or two pigeons), one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering at the Tabernacle, and she will be made clean by atonement.

In conclusion, contact with bodily fluids via intercourse, menstruation, or seminal emission made a person unclean. Their uncleanness will last until the next evening (in the case of sex, seminal emission, and other discharge), or for the whole week (in the case of menstrual fluid). If the discharge is abnormal (caused by disease), they must bring two birds for sacrifices (sin and burnt offerings) to atone.

Comment: The sin and burnt offerings are there to atone for sin, this implies that uncleanness that is the result of the disease is caused by sin. This is the case for any discharge that is not semen or normal menstruation. The same is true in the previous chapters concerning skin diseases like Leprosy. The ancient Israelites believed that the diseased were inflicted as punishment for sin. A reference for this belief can be found in Numbers 12:9-16 when Miriam was struck with a skin disease because she bad-mouthed Moses because of his wife’s ethnicity. The hemorrhaging woman healed by touching Jesus’ clothes in Mark 5:24-34 would have followed the purification procedure after being healed. Also, there is a reminder here that objects made from earthenware materials like clay pots can never be made clean and must be broken. However, objects made of wood or metal can be washed.

<–Part 2
Part 4–>