Ritual purity in Israel and ancient Near East (Leviticus 10)

Before entering the Lord’s presence priests were required to attain a state of ritual purity – they needed to be “clean”. In fact, if the “holy” were to come into contact with the “unclean”, the result would be devastating (Leviticus 10:8-11, 15:31). Uncleanness in a holy space (especially in the tabernacle, but by extension anywhere in the Holy Land) defiled that space and, if the situation were to have been left unresolved, would have constituted justification for God to withdraw His presence.

Israel’s purity laws (Leviticus 11-15), the details of which are unparalleled in any other ancient Near Eastern literature, reminded the Israelites of the gaping divide between themselves and their holy God (cf. Leviticus 10:3) and of God’s burning desire for them to become like Him in purity (11:44-45, 19:1-2, cf. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48). These laws also taught the Israelites that their uncleanness resulted not from demonic powers, as was widely believed in the broader world around them, but from disobedience to God’s law. Even more fundamentally, uncleanness or ritual impurity (the condition that barred an individual from God’s presence in the sanctuary) was a state that occurred in all people from time to time, simply by virtue of their human nature (cf. Leviticus 12, 15).

The major threat, then, was not uncleanness per se but protracted, disregarded uncleanness. God prescribed regual purification rituals through which uncleanness was removed, the threat of judgement lifted and entry into the Lord’s presence once again permitted. Essential to this process was the Lord’s acceptance of a blood sacrifice, especially the one offered annually by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16, cf. 17:11). Non-sacrificial regulations, such as washing with water, are also detailed in chapters 11-15. Even so, true holiness was not – and still is not – attainable without justice, love of neighbour and a heart wholly committed to the Lord and to His covenant (Leviticus 19:2, cf. Amos 5:21-23).

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