Bodily and moral impurity in Leviticus: an integrated purification system

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The article engages with the debate on the difference between bodily or ritual impurity on the one hand and moral impurity on the other. The first part of the article provides an overview of the occurrence of Hebrew terms such as the adjectives clean (טָהֹר) and unclean (טָמֵא), but also the other manifestations of the roots טהר and טמא as nouns and verbs. The purpose of this overview is to show how the meaning of these terms changed between Leviticus 1–16 and 17–26; the distinction made in this article between bodily and moral impurity is based on this observation.

The smaller collection of Leviticus 11–15 on clean and unclean is the part of Leviticus where the language of impurity is the most prevalent. Leviticus 11 is the most complicated chapter, though, since the usage of the language of impurity in this chapter does not fit so neatly into the two different categories of impurity. The chapter provides a list of animals in verses 1–8 which are described as unclean (טָמֵא) and may be eaten. This is followed by lists of water animals (vv. 9–12), birds (vv. 13–19) and flying insects (vv. 20–23) which are not supposed to be eaten and are described as detestable (שֶׁ֥קֶץ). From verse 24 onwards the chapter is more interested in the touching of animals. If a person carries the carcass of an animal he is unclean until the evening and should also wash his clothes. Laundering and waiting are thus the first cleansing ritual described in Leviticus 11–15 (see 11:25). The problem with the kind of uncleanness described in Leviticus 11 is that it is different from the other kinds of impurities described in chapters 12 to 15 in the sense that all the others are natural occurrences where one does not have much of a choice, but you can choose whether you eat of a forbidden animal or carry around the carcass of an animal. 

Thus Leviticus 12 describes the cleansing rituals a woman should follow when she has given birth, entailing two different time periods depending on whether the child was a boy or a girl. After waiting out the prescribed period, two sacrifices have to be made, namely a burnt offering and a purification offering. Leviticus 13 describes the conditions under which a priest will declare a person or house unclean when צָרַעַת is found. Leviticus 14 prescribes the rituals needed when a person or a house recovers from צָרַעַת. These cleansing rituals are the most elaborate and involve three phases which include a lot of washing, shaving and laundering, elaborate rituals involving birds, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson yarn, and finally a ritual involving a grain offering, guilt offering, burnt offering and a purification offering. Throughout these chapters the priest is often the subject of the verbs טמא and טהר (always in the Piel) when he declares a person unclean or clean (after the correct rituals). Leviticus 15 is concerned with bodily fluids, including exchange of bodily fluids during sexual intercourse, with cleansing rituals entailing washing, laundering and waiting. Towards the end of this collection Leviticus 15:31 starkly reminds the addressees that not abiding by these rules would lead to death, since the tabernacle would be made unclean.

The article then moves to consider clean and unclean in the Holiness Code. The author of this article accepts the view that Leviticus 17–26 was written later than most of Leviticus 1–16 (excluding chapter 10 and a few other scattered texts). The language of holiness appears for the first time in 19:2, with chapter 19 being the literary flagship of the Holiness Code where holiness is portrayed as a lifestyle which includes both ethical acts and respect for the cult. The language of impurity manifests in three different ways in the Holiness Code. First one finds references to impurity which are similar to most of the cases in Leviticus 12–15. Thus Leviticus 17:15 refers to a person who eats of the carcass of an animal that died naturally and who then must wash himself, launder his clothes and wait until the evening. This kind of impurity where a ritual solution is at hand is often described as ritual impurity. 

The second category takes us to another kind of impurity, which is then often described as moral impurity. In Leviticus 18:20 and 23 one reads that having sex with your neighbour’s wife makes you unclean, and the same applies to having intercourse with an animal. Leviticus 19:31 says that turning to mediums and spirits would also make one unclean, whereas 20:3 states that a person who gives his children to Molech makes the sanctuary unclean. In these texts specific moral lapses are prohibited with reference to the language of purity.

The third category is similar, but much more general. This category is found in the parenetic frame of the Holiness Code and now claims that disobedience regarding any of the listed prohibitions would lead to transgressors’ becoming unclean. Examples of the third category include Leviticus 18:25, 30 and 20:25. The threat in these verses is clear, namely that this kind of impurity will lead to the loss of land. These second and third categories are examples of what one could describe as “moral impurities”. 

The distinction between ritual and moral impurity is the subject of a fairly old debate, but has recently been put forward again in the work of Klawans (2000). For him there are five clear differences between ritual and moral impurity: (1) Ritual impurity is not sin, but moral impurity is. (2) Ritual impurity is mostly the result of contact and there are ritual solutions, but no ritual solutions are provided for moral impurity. (3) Ritual pollution leads to temporary impurity, but moral pollution causes long-term damage. (4) Ritual impurities are controlled by ritual solutions, but for moral impurity punishment follows and no ritual solutions are provided. (5) With regard to terminology the root טמא is always used for ritual impurity, but for moral impurity other terms are also used, for example, תֹּועֵבָה as in Leviticus 18.

Following the criticism by Boda (2009) and Nihan (2013) of Klawans, I prefer to use the term bodily impurity instead of ritual impurity, since the source of this kind of impurity is usually the human body. The article engages with the critique offered by Nihan that there were attempts in Leviticus to integrate the two systems of impurity into a single system. For Nihan Leviticus 16:16 casts doubt on Klawans’s two systems, since the verse clearly states that atonement is made for uncleanness, transgressions and all their sins. The article then considers a text such as Leviticus 16:30. Many scholars agree that from a diachronic perspective this verse is part of Leviticus 16 which was added by the authors of the Holiness Code. The strange thing about this verse is that it talks about cleansing (Pi of טהר) the addressees of their sins. In Leviticus 11 to 15 this verb in the Piel is used only with the priest as subject in cases where he declares somebody clean after the appropriate cleansing rituals, but now the verb is used to describe getting rid of sin. This verse thus prompts further questions about Klawans’s view that we have two different systems of bodily and moral impurity. These verses seem to be a clear attempt to integrate the two kinds into one system. Thus, in the light of this verse, the rituals of Leviticus 16 ultimately eliminate both categories of impurity. 

Finally the article shows that although the priestly authors attempted to protect the future from another catastrophe such as the exile by creating this elaborate system of rituals, there seems to be a tension within the final text of Leviticus which shows that the authors did not think that this system was foolproof. In this regard Leviticus 26:40 is contrasted with Leviticus 16:21. In both cases one reads of confession of sins with similar vocabulary used, but in 16:21 it is used for one of the rituals which takes place on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 26:40 seems to speak from the experience of the exile, but also projects a future where the sacrificial cult does not protect the addressees from future calamity. The text seems to anticipate a time when no cult would be in existence and the addressees would depend on confession and a gracious God to be redeemed from their own iniquities. 

Keywords: bodily impurity; cleansing rituals; Holiness Code; impurity/pollution; Leviticus; moral impurity


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