PURIFICATION. Although purification was common to many religions and regarded as primarily ceremonial in nature, it is apparent that for the Israelites it had both ceremonial and ethical significance. Most of the ceremonial purifications were also important for sanitary purposes.
Purification from uncleanness preceded the giving of the Mosaic law (Gen 35:2; Exod 19:14). With the establishment of Israel as God’s covenant people came the ceremonial law providing for cleansing and purification. Purification for the Israelite involved the ideas of expiation and disinfection. The ritual on the involved ceremonies of expiation and riddance, symbolizing purification of heart and annulment of guilt.
The word “unclean” commonly referred to things that were to be avoided by the Israelites. When this “uncleanness” was the result of personal contact, the purification process necessitated disinfection (cf. George F. More, Judaism, II , 55-78).
Generally, the concepts of clean and unclean can be given in four categories: food (esp. in the slaughter) and use of animals; sexual functions and issues of blood; leprosy (including a number of skin diseases); and contact with dead bodies, esp. for officiating priests.
Prohibitions in the Scriptures concerning these matters are frequently indefinite. In the course of time numerous interpretations were given in oral law that developed into legalistic systems. Many of these laws were of little concern to the common man unless he anticipated a visit to the Temple. Among those who professionally studied the law and its interpretations, there developed the legal system and legalism as a way of religious life.
The prophets devoted more emphasis to the matter of ethical purity than to the ceremonial practice. Frequently the people to whom they ministered were excessively absorbed in the fulfillment of the letter of the law in their ceremonies, but neglected to practice God’s requirements toward their fellow men in daily life.
The Pharisees in NT times reflected a fanatic rigidity in their interpretations of the ceremonial laws and the purification requirements. Jesus in His teaching and practice emphasized the need for purity of heart as the basic requirement for eternal life.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)