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Leviticus 15:1-33

After two Lord’s Days away from Leviticus, let me remind you where we are. Chapters 12-15 detail various ways in which Israelites could become ritually impure and the various steps necessary to be taken to remove the impurity. We have considered the impurity a woman contracts through childbirth (chapter 12), the impurity of both men and women who suffer from skin diseases of various kinds (chapter 13), a kind of impurity that can also attach to clothing and to the walls of homes, and, finally (in chapter 14) the tabernacle rituals necessary to the removal of the impurity caused by skin diseases and the on-site washing and ritual necessary to remove similar impurity from a home. We come tonight to the last of these sections devoted to ritual   impurity and cleansing from it.

Let me remind you of some general observations we have made as we worked our way through this material, strange as it strikes the modern reader.

  1. The forms of impurity so far considered typically resulted from visible, public conditions of life: childbirth, visible skin conditions, and so on.
  2. Such forms were only a sampling of life. Most conditions and circumstances of life, even of like kind, such as ill health, did not produce impurity.  Most Israelites would have only rarely if ever become impure from the conditions so far stipulated.
  3. The idea of certain states or conditions producing ritual impurity was not unique to Israel. This was part of the shared religious environment of the ancient world. What Yahweh did was to invest in these common customs a new significance; to adapt them to a new and altogether more serious purpose.
  4. The impure states were identified by some simple principle that would have been understood and accepted by all, even if the origin of that principle lay in the distant past and was unknown: the presence of blood outside the body in the case of childbirth, perhaps the appearance of death in the case of skin diseases. That is, these regulations served to reinforce certain fundamental perspectives on life: for example, that Yahweh was life itself, that health and wholeness were the proper conditions of the people of God, and so on.
  5. Ceremonial impurity was clearly emblematic of the more significant moral impurity caused by sin. This system of ceremonial regulation, of impurity and cleansing, was an educative and sacramental system. In this way Israelites were reminded at every turn of their obligation to be holy because they were a people of a holy God. The gods of the ancient near east were not holy, certainly not in any moral sense. No one would ever have attributed to them holiness in the sense in which we understand that principle. But in Israel everything was related to the holiness of God.
  6. The removal of impurity was, in general, uncomplicated, never more expensive in time or money than God’s people could easily afford, and often had side benefits. Women were given rest and time for recuperation after childbirth and the community was protected against the spread of infectious diseases.
  7. The defiled or impure person was not for that reason a sinner, nor was he or she ever called a sinner for being impure. Again the system is educative and sacramental — it teaches and points to moral issues, but does not itself deal with behavior that is judged sinful. [Ross, 307]
  8. Finally, there seems to be at work in all of these distinctions between clean and unclean, pure and impure, some ideal of physical perfection. When that ideal was violated, by animals that failed to conform to the ideal, by contact with a dead animal or human being, by human bodies whose exterior was disfigured by disease, or whose orifices ran with blood or pus or issued some other excretion, ritual impurity was the result. When such ideas were applied to behavior, they served to enforce morality in Israelite life as morality was defined in the Law of Moses. For example, the rules we are about to read about impurity contracted through sexual intercourse eliminated at a stroke all the fertility rites and cult prostitution that were such a common feature of ancient near eastern paganism. Prostitution was a fact of life in Israel as well, as we know from elsewhere in the Bible, but these laws rendered the profession unrespectable, which it was not in nearby cultures. [Wenham, 223] These laws would have been particularly important as Israel was poised to enter the Promised Land where Canaanite fertility worship was the norm, involving ritual sex at their sanctuaries. These rules forbade sex anywhere near the sanctuary! [Ross, 307-308] Remember how seriously Yahweh took the sin of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, who had sex with women at the sanctuary (1 Sam. 2:22). [Levine, 96]

Text Comment

Chapter 15 deals with ritually defiling bodily fluids, as did chapter 12. The structure of the entire section from chapter 12 to chapter 15 is chiastic, with skin diseases placed between two sections dealing with the issue of bodily fluids. As before no explanation is provided as to why such discharges were ritually defiling. It assumes that fact and discusses only how the defilement is to be removed. While chapter 12 addressed only one sort of bodily discharge (blood loss at childbirth), chapter 15 addresses four, again arranged chiastically to which are added a brief introduction and a brief conclusion.

  1. Abnormal male discharges
  2. Normal male discharges
  3. Normal female discharges
  4. Abnormal female discharges [cf. Sklar, 198-199]

The chiastic structure draws attention to “the unity of mankind in two sexes.” That unity is most profoundly expressed in sexual intercourse and, predictably, this is discussed in v. 18, the mid-point of the chiasmus. [Wenham, 217] What are involved, again, as in the case of skin conditions, is both long-term and transient discharges. Different discharges produced different levels of impurity but all of them could be spread through physical contact and thus threatened the purity of the people as a whole and so the purity of God’s sanctuary.

v.3       What is described is a discharge due to some infection, whether gonorrhea or some non-sexually transmitted infection. Obviously such an infection might not be obvious to others, so in this case, the individual is on his honor to deal with it in the proper way for the sake of the purity of the people and the glory of God.

v.10     Contact with the man himself or with anything he sat or lay on renders another person unclean. That is going to be characteristic of the regulations of this chapter and it clearly suggests that this form of impurity is more potent than that of the skin diseases dealt with in chapters 13-14. There one had to have contact with the person himself and the impure did not render impure what he touched or sat on, an impurity that then could spread to someone else who had never had contact with the impure person himself or herself. The impurity in this case could spread from point to point to point and could eventually be found quite far removed from the individual who had been impure himself. On the other hand, the steps taken to remove the impurity once the man or woman was healed were simpler than those required of those who had skin diseases, so, though perhaps more potent, the impurity was not considered as serious. [Wenham, 219]

Spittle from the infected person, a fluid coming out of him, also rendered another person unclean as touching the person would. “Say it, don’t spray it,” we used to say as children, thinking ourselves exceedingly funny!

As before, simple contact was less defiling than more extensive handling of an item that was unclean.

v.11     “The fifth scenario infers that the man with the discharge could have minimal contact with others, provided he first rinsed his hands with water. This did not make the man totally pure, but was considered sufficient to prevent him from defiling others by touch.” [Sklar, 200]

v.12     Again, as in previous regulations, purity was regained by washing and waiting, cheap earthenware vessels had to be destroyed (as the impurity could, as it were, soak into them) but other vessels, more expensive, had simply to be washed. Again, the regulations regularly were designed so as to avoid either great inconvenience or great expense.

v.15     When the man was healed, he had to wait seven days, wash his clothes and bathe. Then he could come to bring his sacrifices to the sanctuary, a sin or purification offering and a burnt offering of the least expensive kind. The man himself needed atonement but not those who became impure by coming into contact with him. The fact that no animals of the flock or herd were required for sacrifice suggests that this impurity was less serious.

v.17     The first discharge of semen is the result of a nocturnal emission or some other emission not the result of sexual intercourse, as that is covered in v. 18. Again, as a lesser impurity, all that is required is washing the affected bedclothes and waiting until evening.

v.18     That the emission of semen during intercourse caused ritual pollution was a commonplace in the thinking of the ancient world. The idea is attested in materials from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It was an impurity very simply removed. But the practical effect of this regulation was that when a man had religious duties to perform, either in worship or by participation in one of Israel’s holy wars, sexual intercourse was not permitted. Remember how Uriah refused to have relations with his wife, Bathsheba, when tempted to do so by David in hopes of covering up his adultery with Uriah’s wife.

Verses 19-24 concern ritual impurity resulting from a woman’s menstruation. The more elaborate regulations for the removal of impurity result from the fact that in this case, as with discharges after childbirth, the issue is blood loss, blood being a more defiling substance.

One commentator observes that menstruation would have been less common among Israelite women than women today because women married much younger, weaned children longer, and were pregnant more often during the years of their fertility. The women most likely to be affected by the law of Leviticus 15:19-24 would be unmarried teenage girls. But the contagiousness of impurity contracted from physical contact with a menstruating young woman, about whose menstruation you would not necessarily be aware, would have made any God-fearing young man wary of getting too intimate a young woman. It must have promoted a significant measure of restraint in relations between the sexes given the dire consequences threatened against those who failed to observe these regulations and then went to worship at God’s sanctuary. We will read of those consequences at the end of the chapter. [Wenham, 224]

v.19     Again, ritual defilement from menstruation was a belief shared widely in the ancient world. The evidence suggests that the seven days were counted from the beginning of her period, not the end of it. [Levine, 97]

v.20     Remember how Rachel hid her father’s household gods in her camel’s saddle and then sat on it and prevented Laban from looking there because she told him that she was having her period (Gen. 31:34-35). This idea of ritual impurity through contact with a bleeding woman goes way back, obviously.

v.24     The assumption is that in this case as well at the end of the seven days she would be required to bathe and to wash whatever garments or bedclothes had become impure from her contact with them. As menstruation was a normal process, no sacrifices were required to be offered in the temple.

Once again, there is no thought that there was any sin in touching a woman during her period, so long as the impurity were dealt with properly. And, again, this regulation was probably a great boon to women in an age before the invention of medicines or feminine hygiene products, a justification for them to withdraw from their normal routine during that time of the month.

Sex during menstruation was forbidden in Israel, but it could certainly happen by accident and, if it did, the man was as impure as the woman. Such was the defiling power of blood.

v.25     Now we are dealing with abnormal discharges, not that of her monthly period, what nowadays are referred to as a class as dysfunctional uterine bleeding and can result from a number of conditions. Remember the woman in the gospels who had such a condition from which she was healed by touching the Lord’s clothing (Luke 8:43). But it was still blood that was being lost and so the process of purification or cleansing was the same.

v.30     The woman with the abnormal discharge, once healed of it, had to perform the same rituals of cleansing as had the man in vv. 13-15.

v.31     The whole point of this is to preserve the Lord’s presence among his people. Once again, looming over all of this is the holiness of Yahweh, whose presence was concentrated in the sanctuary. The people of God must not defile his sanctuary and to prevent that they were to keep short accounts with all forms of ritual defilement. The punishment for carelessness or indifference in this regard was severe! If you remember, at Sinai, as we read in Exodus 19 (vv. 10-21), the people finding themselves in the presence of Yahweh, were told to wash and to refrain from sexual intercourse on pain of death because they were to come into the presence of the Lord.

This entire system bore powerful, eloquent, and constant witness to the absolute necessity of God’s people living with an eye wide open to his holiness and to their calling to be holy as his people!

We have a similar mindset expressed by Jude in the New Testament, but now in a different social context. “…have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” [vv. 22-23] That phrase comes from Leviticus 15.

Most of the chapter we just read is a continuation of what we have already encountered. States of ritual impurity were created by blood loss, by the disfigurement of skin, and now by discharges from the sexual organs, either as a result of disease or sexual activity. This sounds very strange to the modern ear, but, remember, these were a mere sampling of life conditions — most disease did not render a person unclean — and the regulations imposed were not particularly burdensome, in many cases they were hardly even inconvenient. What is more, they probably made life easier for women in particular. In any case, they were designed to enforce upon the Israelite consciousness the reality that they were Yahweh’s people and so had to reflect his holiness in the way they lived their lives. That is not the reason why these things were done in the rest of the ancient world. When we read in the New Testament that we are to do everything, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, to the glory of God; or when we read that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and must be kept pure and clean for him, the point is precisely the same. We are to be holy because God is holy.

So it should surprise no one that the sexual life is now brought under these regulations concerning impurity and cleansing from it. Indeed, we still make what is to us a very natural connection between sex and purity or impurity. We talk about sexual abstinence before marriage in terms of purity, of sexual misbehavior in terms of impurity. Here too, perhaps especially here, we today realize that we are to be holy because God is holy.

But what are we to do with Lev. 15:18 sitting there in the exact center of this chapter, which Gordon Wenham, one of our very best commentators on Leviticus, calls “one of the most puzzling [verses] in the OT. It seems, he says, to run counter to the whole tenor of biblical morality.” [G.J. Wenham, “Why does Sexual Intercourse defile (Lev. 15:18)?” Zeitschrift fűr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 95 (1983) 432]

Marital sexual union is commanded in the Bible from beginning to end. The first command given to Adam and Eve was “be fruitful and multiply.” The pleasure of sexual love is celebrated in Proverbs and the Song of Songs and its issue in children is declared to be a matter of God’s blessing throughout the Bible. So why should the very act of sexual intercourse defile a couple or render both the husband and the wife ritually impure? They are doing what God has commanded them to do. They are celebrating this gift that God has given. Why in the world would that render them impure? Isn’t the physical issue of semen in the act of love-making what is supposed to happen in marriage? Isn’t that the means by which all manner of wonderful and precious things come? There is no blood, there is no disease, there is no disfigurement in this case, so how does this violate some ideal?

Well, the Bible never says and we are left to speculate. But before we take up the question, a few observations.

  1. Notice here as elsewhere that the Bible is not prudish. It deals with the circumstances of human life frankly, if always chastely. In some ways it is inevitable that the sexual life would be included in Israel’s system of cultic or ritual purity, fundamental as that dimension of life is, both to human happiness and to human sin and misery.
  2. As in the case of childbirth, an act that is good in itself, could produce ritual impurity. In that case it was the issue of blood which caused defilement. Here it is another substance discharged from the body. It is not the act of sexual love itself but the discharge that creates the impurity for whatever reason. The entire chapter is about discharges, not about love-making or child-bearing.
  3. And don’t forget that the impurity created was very easily removed. A wash and a short wait was all that was required. So we are not talking about much in the way of inconvenience and we are not talking about any expense. Indeed, bathing after sex may be as much a part of our life today as it was in those days, though people will not attach the same moral significance to it as devout Israelites did. Is that necessarily progress?
  4. Finally, the regulations of Leviticus 15 are alluded to in the New Testament and form the background to several memorable episodes in the ministry of the Lord Jesus.In the first case, the incident of the woman who had suffered from bleeding for twelve years, under these laws in Leviticus 15 her touching of the Lord would have rendered him unclean; indeed, just as jostling with people in the crowd would have rendered all she touched unclean. That was why she so feared exposure! Her condition, for that reason, would have caused her to live an isolated life. But the Lord was not concerned that he had been touched by a bleeding woman and told her in the hearing of everyone else, “Daughter, your faith has healed [or saved you]; go in peace.” [Mark 5:34] In a way characteristic of so many of his healing miracles, the Lord connected this woman’s illness to her need for salvation, granted both healing and salvation in response to the woman’s trust and confidence in him. When the issues of eternal life were in play the Lord paid no attention to the ceremonial regulations.  The Lord was always touching people who by the rules of Leviticus 12-15 were unclean — for example, lepers and, on several occasions, dead bodies — and doing so without scruple, much as he obviously revered and observed the Law of Moses. These laws of ritual purity had a purpose but that purpose could be served in other ways just as well. Indeed, once the church moved out from the homogenous Jewish society in which everyone understood and accepted the rules of ritual purity, it was impossible to observe them any longer and they fell away. Moral exhortation (which was, by the way, also a much more important feature of Israel’s religious teaching) took their place.The other incident was when he was criticized for not washing his hands (literally for not baptizing himself) before eating a meal. The Jews had extrapolated from Lev. 15:11 a rule that a man should wash his hands all the time, every day, especially before communal meals lest he pass on any uncleanness to others. “Pass the salt please,” could mean impurity moving from one person to the next to the next unless, of course, the man had washed his hands. By washing on every occasion they thought to avoid any inadvertent violation. This is what the Pharisees called “fencing” the law. But Jesus refused to go along and made a point in his response of saying that purity or impurity was far more a matter of the heart and of behavior than of the condition of the body. In this way he taught them what the true point and principle of these regulations had been, a point largely lost on first century Judaism. [Wenham, 224-225]

But having said all of that, let’s think a bit further about Lev. 15:18, there sitting in the middle of the chiasmus about uncleanness being produced from the sexual organs. Here in this chapter we encounter issues and episodes of life that are highly personal, even private. [Ross, 304] And certainly nothing is more personal or private than a husband and wife’s sexual relationship. And what part of life causes more problems or deeper pain than the sexual dimension of life, outside of marriage, of course, but, sadly, within it as well. Perhaps nothing in human experience or Christian experience is so regularly the cause of shame, one of the most potent and painful of all human experiences.

The sexual differences between men and women, both physiologically and psychologically, are the cause of unending misunderstanding, disappointment, frustration, confusion, and resentment. Expectations so often go unfulfilled, a sense of failure, even of humiliation is hardly uncommon in this part of a marriage. But, at the same time, the power of sexual passion is like no other. Who can deny this in our day of the triumph of pornography and promiscuity? It is highly interesting to me now that we’ve had both for half or more a generation that there is an increasing number of voices now being raised in our culture — non-Christian voices — that are warning of the dangers of pornography in particular; not the danger of God’s wrath, of course, but of its dehumanizing effects. I would suggest that all of you who have not yet done so listen to the TED talk on Youtube given by Ran Gavrieli, a professor at Tel Aviv University. It is entitled, “Why I Stopped Watching Porn.” Nothing in the talk concerns religious faith; certainly nothing is informed by a loyalty to biblical teaching. Prof. Gavrieli is not concerned with moral purity before God such as these regulations in Leviticus 15 are. But he pulls no punches in describing what pornography does to men — what it did to him — to their souls and to their view of women. Watching porn is, he says, dehumanizing in the deepest and truest sense of that term.

So great a mind as Augustine saw evil in the power of the sexual passion itself, even when expressed and experienced in a Christian marriage. Men struggling with sexual desire understand the terrible power of this passion. They know very well why so many good men come to think of sexual desire as if it were a giant with his foot on their neck. But that unholy passion is almost always in such cases directed toward illicit sexual activity or the imagination of the same. But nowadays we tend to dismiss rather easily Augustine’s idea that even sex in marriage had an unholy element, a defiling element if you will. While I am quite sure that he is wrong that there remains something sinful about passionate sex between husband and wife. [cf. G. Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo, 374-377], I don’t dismiss his thinking so quickly as others do. What Augustine did understand, to a degree I think that we are perhaps only now coming to understand, is that the passions are almost never entirely under the control of a holy will, that holy desires are almost always mixed with carnal appetites, and that this is true even in the marriage bed. Of course, the Bible celebrates such sexual passion of the husband and the wife, so the answer is not celibacy but sanctification, the subjection of our passions to the rule of married love and love for God.

But what all of this illustrates is that there is hardly any dimension of life that is more in need of true holiness and Christ-likeness than this dimension of sexual expression. So, for whatever reason marital sex produced defilement — and it probably was something as simple as its involving a discharge — it should not surprise us at all that in this way the sexual organs and the sexual life were submitted to the demands of God’s holiness. If the food we eat, if giving birth to a child, if death itself supplied opportunity for the demands of holiness to be imposed on the life of God’s people, we should hardly be surprised if the same were true for the sexual life. What did these regulations for Israel amount to but this?

“He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, [We have been concerned in Lev. 15 about the purity of God’s sanctuary. You are God’s sanctuary. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit] who you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” [1 Cor. 6:17-20]

The great concern in Israel was the purity of the sanctuary because that was where the presence of God with his people was embodied. Well, the same thought applies in the New Testament, though the embodiment of God’s presence has shifted in the Gentile age from the temple in Jerusalem to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and then still further to the individual believer himself or herself. Now obviously you can find many texts in the O.T. to remind us that that was true in the O.T. as well. The people of God were God’s sanctuary and so was the individual believer. Nevertheless in the new age they are the only embodiments of God’s presence. Give glory to God in your body! It is a difficult thing to do, to give glory to God with your body, as it has always been, but from the beginning it has been something God’s people have been taught to do. It is something I think we immediately and intuitively understand we ought to do. As in everything else in your life, so in your sexual life, respect God’s holiness, revere it, and act with an eye open to it. Behave as the holy God would have you behave; behave in the way that reflects his purity, his goodness, and his love. At bottom that is precisely what Leviticus 15 was intended to teach the people of God.

And, as the chiasmus makes clear and as the fact that both husband and wife were equally made impure by making love, in this part of Christian holiness, as in so many others, it takes two to tango!