UNCLEAN, UNCLEANNESS (Heb. tūm’âh, uncleanness, defilement, niddâh, separation, impurity, ’erwâh, ’erwath dāvār, unclean things, tamē’, defiled unclean, tāmē’, to make or declare unclean, Gr. akatharsia, miasmos, pollution, akathartos, unclean, koinoō, to defile, mianō, to defile, molynō, to make filthy, spiloō, phtheirō, to corrupt). Sin arose very early in the history of mankind and brought about changes in both the physical and spiritual life of man. It has greatly affected the entire universe, making the terms “clean” and “unclean” very common in the thinking of the human race from the earliest times. These words have been factors in determining people’s diets, friends, and habits, in fact, their entire deportment. These words took on a new meaning when God began to call the nation of Israel into being. They fall largely into two main divisions: spiritual or moral uncleanness and ceremonial uncleanness.
Some have felt that there is a relation between the forbidden foods of other nations and those that the Lord forbade Israel to eat. This could be true, but it does not take away from the fact that the biblical laws on unclean foods came directly from God. All Israel’s restricted foods, unlike those of some other nations, involved the flesh of animals.
Certain kinds of uncleanness among the Israelites were connected with death. A dead person, regardless of the cause of death, made anyone who touched the body unclean (
Leprosy, being a type of sin, was looked on as unclean whether it was in people, houses, or clothing. God required the person pronounced leprous by the priest to identify himself in a prescribed manner and to separate himself from the rest of the people. Any time anyone drew near to him, he was to cry “Unclean, unclean.” Since this disease was also very contagious, detailed instructions were given for dealing with it (
Whatever the seminal fluid that issued from the body touched became unclean. This applied also to certain other kinds of issues (
In the NT one notes the cumbersome systems of defilement developed by the scribes and Pharisees, which Jesus condemned. Most of the OT regulations passed away with the passing of the Law, and when the matter was discussed at the Jerusalem Council, only four restrictions were placed on the new believers (
UNCLEANNESS (טָמֵא, H3237, טֻמְאָה, H3240, LXX, NT ἀκάθαρτος, ἀκαθαρσία, to be unclean, unclean, uncleanness). In addition, Heb. uses various analagous terms. Since the background is always religious, NT uses κοινόω, G3124, to make common, with the force of destroying holiness, and so making or counting as unclean.
The meaning of the concept.
Persons, foods, places, and objects could all be unclean. The uncleanness could be inherent or acquired by contamination. “In the minds of the ancients there was a close connection between the notion of purity or cleanness and the notion of being consecrated to God. There was a mysterious and frightening force inherent in things which were impure and in things which were sacred, and these two forces acted on everything with which they came into contact, placing the objects or persons which touched them under a kind of interdict. Both what was impure and what was consecrated were alike ‘untouchable’” (R. de Vaux). We are dealing with concepts going back into man’s infancy, which have been modified in the OT, where there is a wide area between the holy and the impure. In the NT this has been changed. Not that which goes into a man but what comes out of him is what defiles him (
Things that make unclean.
(a) Animals are either clean or unclean, the uncleanness being imparted by eating them or touching their dead bodies (
(b) All bodies which died of natural causes imparted impurity, whether the body was of a man (
(c) All forbidden sexual unions rendered those partaking impure (
(d) Virtually everything linked with sex could impart uncleanness. Passages like
(e) “Leprosy” (
Cleansing from uncleanness.
The spiritualizing of the concept.
In the prophets there is a deepening of the concept. It is expressed esp. in Isaiah’s cry, “I am a man of unclean lips” (
J. Pedersen, Israel III-IV (1940); R. de Vaux. Ancient Israel (1958-1960, Eng. tr. 1961).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. In the(Hebrew)
2. In the
3. In the Septuagint
II. POSSIBLE RELATION OF ISRAEL’s LAWS ON UNCLEANNESS WITH THE LAWS OF TABOO AMONG THE NATIONS
III. TEACHING AS TO UNCLEANNESS
1. In the Old Testament
2. In the Apocrypha
3. In the New Testament
1. In the Old Testament (Hebrew):
2. In the New Testament:
3. In the Septuagint:
Akatharsia, "uncleanness," occurs 59 times in Septuagint (including many instances in apocryphal books) (1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, etc.). Akathartos, "unclean," occurs 134 times in the Septuagint (including one example in 1 Maccabees). Koinos, "unclean," and koinoo, "to make unclean," occur in Esther, Proverbs, Wisdom, 1, 2, 3 and 4 Maccabees). Miaino, "to defile," occurs over 100 times. Moluno, "to make filthy," occurs 18 times (both in the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha).
II. Possible Relation of Israel’s Laws on Uncleanness with the Laws of Taboo among the Nations:
W. R. Smith (Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, 152-55) thinks there is a kinship between Israel’s laws of uncleanness and the heathen taboo. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, shows numerous examples of the taboo among various tribes and nations which present striking similarity to some of Israel’s laws on uncleanness. But does this diminish our respect for the Old Testament laws on uncleanness? Might not Yahweh use this natural religious perception of men as to an intrinsic distinction between clean and unclean in training Israel to a realization of a higher conception--the real difference between sin and holiness, i.e. between moral defilement and moral purification? The hand of Yahweh is visible even in the development of Israel’s rudimentary laws on ceremonial uncleanness. They are not explicable on purely naturalistic grounds, but Yahweh is training a people to be holy, and so He starts on the lower plane of ceremonial uncleanness and cleanness (see
III. Teaching as to Uncleanness.
1. In the Old Testament:
Each term above for uncleanness is used in two senses:
(a) to signify ceremonial uncleanness, which is the most usual significance of the term in the Old Testament;
(b) but, in the Prophets, to emphasize moral, rather than ceremonial, uncleanness. There are four principal spheres of uncleanness in the Old Testament:
(1) Uncleanness in the Matter of Food.
The law as to clean and unclean beasts is laid down in
(a) among quadrupeds, those that both chew the cud and part the hoof;
(b) among fishes, only those having both fins and scales;
(c) most birds or fowls, except, in the main, birds of prey and those noted for uncleanness of habits, are permitted;
(d) of insects those that have legs above the feet to leap withal (e.g. the cricket, the grasshopper, etc.), but those that go on all four, or have many feet, or go upon the belly (e.g. worms, snakes, lizards, etc.), are forbidden.
See, further, FOOD.
(2) Uncleanness Connected with the Functions of Reproduction (Leviticus 12 and 15).
(3) Uncleanness Connected with Leprosy.
See, further, LEPER, LEPROSY.
(4) Uncleanness Associated with Death.
According to Le 15:24-40, anyone who touched a dead beast, whether unclean or clean, was rendered unclean. According to
2. In the Apocrypha:
In Tobit 3:7-9; 6:13,14; 7:11; 8:1-3; 1 Macc 1:41-53, and in other books, we find the same laws on uncleanness recognized by the descendants of Abraham. It was regarded as abominable to sacrifice other animals (swine for instance) than those prescribed by Yahweh. There is a growing sense in Israel during this period, that all customs and all conduct of the heathen are unclean. Witness the resistance of the loyal Jews to the demands of(1 Macc 1; 2; 6; 7). The sense of ceremonial uncleanness was still a conspicuous element in the religious consciousness of the Jews in the inter-Biblical period. But the training of God in ceremonial purification and in the moral and spiritual teachings of the prophets had prepared the way for an advance in moral cleanness (both in thought and in practice).
3. In the New Testament:
By the days of Jesus the scribes and rabbis had wrought out a most cumbrous system of ceremonial uncleanness and purification. Nor did they claim that all their teachings on this subject were found in the Old Testament. See Tradition. This is fitly illustrated in the New Testament in the washing of hands. See Unwashen. When the Mishna (the collection of rabbinic teachings) was produced, the largest book was devoted to the laws of purification, 30 chapters being used to describe the purification of vessels alone.
Jesus utterly disregarded for Himself these laws of purification, though He orders the cleansed leper to return to the priest and secure his certificate of cleansing. He did not wash His hands before eating, and His disciples followed His example. Therefore, the Pharisees challenged Him to give an account of His course and that of His disciples (
Paul likewise regarded nothing as unclean of itself (
See also CRIMES; PUNISHMENTS.
W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (especially pp. 152-55, on taboo, and pp. 455, 456, on the uncleanness of sexual intercourse); Frazer, The Golden Bough (examples of taboo and similar laws and customs among various nations); Frazer, article "Taboo" in Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition; Benzinger, Hebrew Archaeology; Nowack, Hebrew Archaeology; Kellogg, commentary on "Leviticus" (Expositor’s Bible); Kalisch, Leviticus; Dillmann-Ryssel, Leviticus; Schultz, Dillmann, Smend, Marti, Davidson, in their Old Testament Theologies, give useful hints on this subject; article "Casuistry" (Hebrew) in ERE, III, is valuable.
Charles B. Williams