CLEAN. Various terms are employed to express the meaning of cleanness. Mosaic law puts a special emphasis upon ritual cleanness but the moral aspect is equally present. The terminology is less important than the context (טָהֵר, H3197, in Leviticus 12:7 is used in a cultic way, but in Psalm 51:7 it is essentially moral). It is therefore not the etymology but the context which is decisive. In the NT cleanness carries an inward and moral connotation, but even here clean and unclean is more than a matter of ethics. In the Bible clean frequently implies holiness and in the NT it involves the holiness which is conferred upon believers in Jesus Christ.

The OT concept of clean

In primitive societies

generally the concept of tabu is a determinative factor. Tabu is a word of Polynesian origin and means “forbidden” or “excluded” (tambu, tapu). A related concept is mana, which though supernatural, expresses the more friendly powers behind the universe. In order to cope with persons or objects under tabu, incantations and rites are performed. In this manner primitive man tried to cope with intruding spirits and neutralize their effect. J. G. Frazer maintains that in primitive society the distinction between holy and common was yet unknown. The numinous forces were beyond good and evil. Therefore all unseen powers constituted a threat which could be dealt with only by the application of magic.

The question has been raised by rationalist writers whether Levitical concepts of clean and unclean are only variations of the primitive notion of tabu. In this connection the following observations are pertinent:

Levitical purity.

Levitical purity is always related to Yahweh who is never conceived as a merely numinous force.

It aims at uncompromising and complete separation from idol worship (cf. Lev 19:5). (Zech 13:2 is an interesting case in point; RSV tr. “unclean spirit,” but ר֥וּחַ הַטֻּמְאָ֖ה, lit. “the spirit of uncleanness,” is a clear reference to idolatry, as is evident from the context.)

Cultic cleanness.

Cultic cleanness derives from a sense of God’s holy Presence (cf. Lev 15:31).

Levitical requirements.

The Levitical requirements are never far removed from the demand of moral rectitude (cf. Lev 19:9-18), but the two elements are always involved with each other.

Clean and unclean.

“Clean” and “unclean” are terms seldom related to mere questions of hygiene, but are mainly religious concepts. As such the principle of “cleanness” affects almost every aspect of life, for the dichotomy between spiritual and material is foreign to the Bible, esp. to the OT. For this reason a distinction between Levitical cleanness and moral rectitude is scarcely to be found in the Mosaic law. The Bible moves in a totally religious culture which covers every aspect of life.

Levitical purity.

In the Code of Holiness (Lev 17-26) and elsewhere, clean and unclean attaches to persons, animals, and inanimate objects alike.

Leprosy was regarded as a most serious cause of pollution not only because of the physical deadliness of the disease itself, but also because it was considered a mark of divine disfavor. For this reason the purificatory rites required additional sin and burnt offerings (Lev 14:13).

Levitical impurity could also be contracted from one’s own person as in the case of nocturnal emission of semen (Lev 15:16; cf. Deut 23:10).

Uncleanness in a more numinous sense was contracted by contact with hallowed things such as the ashes of the red heifer, and therefore it required purificatory rites (Num 19:7f.).

b. Animals. The distinction between clean and unclean animals is a very ancient one. Some writers maintain that originally the prohibition of certain animals for human consumption was connected with the practice of totemism. In the Mosaic code itself, it is quite clear that the prohibition was chiefly connected with the avoidance of idolatrous practices. It is known that some animals were regarded in pagan circles as sacred: fish, for example, was tabu in Egypt and Syria; pigs were considered holy animals in Crete and Babylon. This was esp. the case in the Eleusinian mysteries and the worship of Demeter in ancient Greece. To the blood of pigs was ascribed purificatory potency (cf. G. E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries [1961], 249). Hence the Levitical code lays down the rule: “you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you” (Lev 20:23), and forbids conforming to any of these idolatrous practices.

The differentiation between clean and unclean animals, i.e. between those allowed for consumption and those prohibited was established in the Pentateuch on the following principles:

1. Hygienic considerations. All scavengers and birds of prey were prohibited, since they fed upon rotting carrion.

2. Animals in pagan cults. Animals used in pagan cults or associated with witchcraft were automatically excluded such as swine, dogs, mice, serpents, hares, insects like beetles, etc.

3. Animals which evoked repulsion. These animals are sometimes described as “swarming creatures” (Lev 11:41), and were doubtless prohibited for aesthetic reasons.

4. Local or ethnic custom. This was another factor: exotic or unknown animals were felt to be strange and therefore unclean.

The law lays down rules for distinguishing between allowed and disallowed animals: whatever has a cloven hoof and chews the cud may be eaten (Lev 11:3; Deut 14:3ff.). All other animals are forbidden even though they may fulfill part of the requirements. In regard to fish, fins and scales were both necessary; any creature lacking either of these was an abomination (Lev 11:9f.). The law prohibited eating winged creatures which were quadrupeds, but six-legged locusts, crickets, grasshoppers were allowed (11:20-23).

In some way these prohibitions were connected to the command against the eating of blood (cf. Lev 3:17; 17:10-14; Deut 12:16, 23-25; 15:23) and the pagan practice of tearing a limb from a living animal as a result of religious frenzy. Blood was regarded as the very essence of life and therefore God’s exclusive property (cf. Jacob Milgrom, INT [July, 1963], 289).

c. Objects. The qualities of cleanness and uncleanness applied to objects as well as to persons and animals. Objects might contract uncleanness by contact with an unclean source, whether man or beast. In the case of leprosy, houses and walls seemed to be credited with the disease on their own accord (cf. Lev 14:33ff.).

A person Levitically unclean transmitted his condition to everything he touched: seat, bed, saddle, garments, earthen vessels, etc. Anyone touching these objects acquired uncleanness to a secondary degree. First degree uncleanness required purificatory rites lasting seven days (15:13), whereas secondary uncleanness lasted only till the evening and was removed by washing (15:6f.).

Cultic objects were also liable to uncleanness and required cleansing. Atonement was to be made for the holy place (16:16, 20), for the altar (vv. 18f.), for the mercy seat (v. 15), and for the veil of the sanctuary (4:6). Purificatory rites were also required for those who handled the ashes of the heifer (Num 19:10) and the water for impurity (v. 20).

Moral cleanness.

The distinction between holy and profane, clean and unclean (Lev 10:10) is never entirely separate from the moral injunctions of the law. Bloodguiltiness is as much a pollution as it is a Levitical defilement (Num 35:33f.). Because the shedding of innocent blood touches upon the life of the community, responsibility for justice falls upon it (cf. Deut 19:10, 13; 21:8f.; 22:8). It is to be noted that the commandment to love the neighbor is embedded in the Levitical code (Lev 19:18) and so is the commandment to treat the stranger on an equal footing with the native (19:33f.).

Adultery is regarded as defilement (18:20) and requires the penalty of death by stoning (Deut 22:22; cf. Lev 20:10f.). Unnatural sex acts are an abomination (תּוֹעֵבָה, H9359) which only the death of the guilty can remove (20:13).

The OT equates purity with uprightness: “even a child makes himself known by his acts, whether what he does is pure (זַכְ, H2341) and righteous” (יָשָׁר, H3838) (Prov 20:11). Another typical Heb. parallelism of the adjectives zak and yashar appears in Job 8:6 with the implication: what is pure is upright and what is upright is pure.

Purificatory rites.

The priestly cultus evolved a complicated system of purificatory rites. The Law makes careful provision for every form of pollution both cultic and moral. It is based upon the principle that uncleanness is the cause of separation from God who is holy. To remove the offense and restore the relationship expiatory rites are prescribed. These rites take the form of cathartic ceremonies:

b. Sacrificial blood. The purpose of the cult was to provide expiation. This required the shedding of sacrificial blood (cf. Heb 9:22). The altar sacrifices served a cathartic purpose to restore by purification the broken relationship between the worshiper and God. Aaron and his sons were anointed to the priesthood with sacrificial blood (Lev 8:23f.). Such blood was used also for the cleansing of leprosy (14:4f.); similarly the blood of the sin offering accomplished atonement (16:11ff.).

c. Ashes. To the ashes of the sacrificial victim were ascribed purging properties (Num 19:17). This was especially so in the case of the red heifer which was used exclusively for purificatory purposes (Num 19:1-13).

d. Cedarwood. Together with scarlet (possibly a scarlet thread used as an apotropaic remedy, cf. Shabb 9:3; Yoma 4:2) and hyssop, cedarwood was prescribed as a means of purification (Lev 14:4, 5, 51f.). Hyssop is an herb which was credited with special cathartic potency as a means of sprinkling holy water (cf. Ps 51:7).

e. Fire. The most radical means of purification was by means of fire. Metal vessels were purged in this way (Num 31:22f.). To prevent pollution the remains of the Paschal sacrifice was ordered to be burned (Exod 12:10). Other sacrifices were treated in the same manner (Lev 7:17). The sin offering was totally burned, and then the ashes had to be removed from the camp (Lev 4:12).

In extreme cases of moral lapse such as incest, punishment of persons was by burning (20:14; 21:9); yet this can hardly be regarded as remedial purification.

Idols were to be destroyed by burning. This Moses did with the golden calf in the wilderness (Exod 32:20; Deut 9:21). A city which became idolatrous was to be razed and burnt by fire with everything in it (13:12ff.). It was never to be rebuilt.

The NT concepts of clean

Another term which occurs in the NT is ἁγνισμός, G50. In the Levitical sense it occurs in connection with the Nazirite vow (Acts 21:26; cf. Num 6:5) and in relation to Passover (John 11:55); otherwise it carries moral and spiritual connotations.

It is noteworthy that Paul avoids the term καθαρίσμός, which carries Levitical overtones and substitutes ἁγιασμός, G40, which connotes sanctification through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 6:19; 1 Cor 1:30; 1 Thess 4:3, 7).

Clean and unclean according to the teaching of Jesus.

In the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees the question of ceremonial cleanness is an important issue. The sixth division of the Mishnah deals with matters of ṭohoroth (lit. “cleannesses”—used euphemistically, for its concern is with every possible aspect of Levitical uncleanness; cf. H. Danby, The Mishnah [1933], 714, n. 3). It defines in great detail the circumstances causing ceremonial impurity. One tractate is devoted to matters concerning the washing of hands, another is concerned with vessels, etc. The material illuminates the underlying issues between Jesus and His opponents. An example: A seller of pots has to leave his ware unattended in the market place. On the assumption that someone Levitically unclean touched his goods in his absence, the outside of all his pots are to be treated as unclean (Ṭohoroth 7:1). Again, objects of wood, leather, bone or glass do not contract uncleanness, provided these cannot be made into receptacles but the smallest sherd, if large enough to stand by itself without support, contracts uncleanness (Kelim 2:1f.). Uncleanness can be contracted by victuals, liquids, vessels and persons. Not only Gentiles, but Jews who neglect strict Pharisaic rules, convey uncleanness (cf. Tohoroth 4:5; 7:1f., 4f.; 8:1-3). Uncleanness can be conveyed by chain reaction several times removed from the original source (Hag 2:13; cf. Danby 604 n. 2).

Such concern for the letter of the law inevitably led to the neglect of “weightier matters” (Matt 23:23). Jesus accused the Pharisees of myopia: while concerned with the outside of cups and plates, they overlooked what was inside, namely extortion and rapacity (Matt 23:25f.). He demanded that the cleansing process start from within (Luke 11:41; there is a difficulty about this text which may have arisen from a misreading of an Aram. play of words; cf. J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the NT [1918], 196). By the “inside” Jesus means the heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). The same issue recurs in the matter of the washing of hands (7:2-8).

The outward aspect of Levitical purity is changed by Jesus into an inward condition of the heart which comes about as a result of μετάνοια, G3567, (Mark 1:4, 15, etc.). The cathartic process is not the result of psychological reorientation but of yielding to the challenge of the kingdom of God. The process of cleansing is inseparable from the Person of Jesus Christ (cf. John 13:10; 15:3).

Clean and unclean according to the teaching of the apostles.

The change of direction from the outward to the inward found in the gospels, dominates the rest of the NT.

The Levitical use of water.

This is retained in the rite of baptism. But baptism signifies now not the removal of physical uncleanness but a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3:21). It stands for the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5) and serves as an outward sign of God’s life-giving Word which sanctifies the believer (Eph 5:26; cf. John 3:5).

Sacrificial blood.

This blood is transferred from the altar to the cross; from the sacrificial animal to the Messiah (Heb 10:4). It is the blood of Jesus which cleanses from all sin (1 John 1:7, 9). The Messiah’s sacrifice effects forgiveness of sins, the assurance of faith, the cleansing (ῥαντισμός, G4823—sprinkling) of the heart from an evil conscience (Heb 9:13f.; 10:12-22).

Purificatory functions.

Clean, as in the OT, carries the meaning of holy or sanctified.

In marriage, the believing partner sanctifies the unbelieving, therefore their children are not unclean (ἀκάθαρτα) but holy (ἅγνια 1 Cor 7:14). This is not sanctification by proxy but the effect of faith and prayer. Similarly, food consecrated by God’s Word and prayer is not common but holy (1 Tim 4:3f.). What God has created is to be regarded clean (Acts 10:14).

At the same time it is his duty to keep himself pure (1 Tim 5:22) and lead a chaste (ἁγνός, ἁγνή) life (Titus 2:5).

In all these cases purity is an inward state and is both a gift and a demand.


G. F. Oehler, Theology of the OT (1883), 319ff.; C. G. Montefiore, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1892), 447ff., 501; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Pt. II, Taboo (1911), ch. V; J. Döller, Die Reinheitsund Speisegesetze des ATs in religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung (1917); Lucian (Loeb Lib., vol. IV) The Goddesse of Surrye (Eng. by A. M. Harmon); W. Eichrodt, Theology of OT, I (1960); TWNT, III s.v.; INT (July, 1963), 280ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Rendering four Hebrew roots: bar, etc., "purify," "select," "make shining"; zakh, etc., "bright," "clean" "pure"; naqi, "free from," "exempt"; Taher, "clean," "pure," "empty," "bright" (?) the principal root, rendered "clean" 80 times (the King James Version); occurring in all its forms in various renderings about 200 times; also one Greek root, katharos, etc., akin to castus, "chaste," "free from admixture or adhesion of anything that soils, adulterates, corrupts" (Thayer’s Lexicon). The physical, ritual, ethical, spiritual, figurative uses continually overlap, especially the last four.

1. Physical:

The physical use is infrequent: "Wash .... with snow water, and make my hands never so clean" (zakhakh, Job 9:30; figurative also); "clean provender" (hamits, the Revised Version (British and American) "savory"; the Revised Version, margin "salted"); "Cleanse .... inside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside thereof may become clean also" (katharos, Mt 23:26); "arrayed in fine linen, clean (katharon) and white" (Re 19:8; the American Standard Revised Version "bright and pure").

2. Ceremonial:

3. Ethical or Spiritual:


Clean.--Adverb (in one case adjective): "utterly," "wholly"; usually rendering an intensive use of the Hebrew verb as Joe 1:7: "He hath made it clean bare" (lit. "stripping he will strip"); Zec 11:17: "Arm .... clean dried up"; Isa 24:19 the King James Version :"Earth is clean dissolved." Twice it renders a principal verb: Jos 3:17: "Passed clean over the Jordan" (literally, "finished with regard to J."); Le 23:22 King James Version: "Shall not make a clean riddance" (literally, "shall not finish the corners"; the American Standard Revised Version "shalt not wholly reap"). Once it renders a noun: Ps 77:8: "Is his lovingkindness clean gone for ever?" ("end," he-’aphec, "has his lovingkindness come to an end?"); and once an adverb "clean (ontos, "actually," "really") escaped" (2Pe 2:18); but the American Standard Revised Version, following the reading "oligos," "a little," "scarcely," renders "just escaping."

Philip Wendell Crannell