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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [1]

Since Israel’s God was holy, Israel as a nation had to be holy ( Leviticus 11:44-45). (For the biblical meaning of ‘holy’ see Holiness .) Laws of cleanliness applied this holiness to every part of the people’s lives, including their daily food and bodily cleanliness. A person who broke one of these laws was considered defiled, or unclean, and had to be ceremonially cleansed before joining again in the religious activities of God’s covenant people ( Exodus 19:10-15;  Numbers 19:20-22;  John 11:55).

One duty of the priests was to teach the people to distinguish between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean ( Leviticus 10:10;  Ezekiel 44:23). The system of ritual defilement reminded the people that the results of sin were widespread and could not be ignored ( Leviticus 20:22-26). It also helped to keep the people physically healthy, by preventing them from eating harmful foods, encouraging personal hygiene and limiting the spread of disease.

Uncleanness of animals and things

Israel’s laws concerning animals suitable for food were particularly useful in an age of little scientific knowledge. A few simple rules enabled people to recognize forbidden animals, even though they may not have known that meat from those animals could be harmful ( Leviticus 11:1-23;  Leviticus 11:46-47). The laws were not intended to govern the lives of people in other countries and eras ( Acts 10:13-15;  Romans 14:14;  Romans 14:20;  1 Corinthians 10:31;  1 Timothy 4:4).

Articles could become defiled through misuse or accidents. If washing could guarantee cleansing, as in the case of clothing, the articles were to be washed. If washing could not guarantee cleansing, as in the case of earthenware pots, the articles had to be destroyed ( Leviticus 11:29-40;  Leviticus 15:8-11).

Uncleanness of persons

Contact with a dead body made people unclean and required them to stay outside the community till they had bathed themselves and washed their clothes. The isolation period was one day for handling the carcass of an animal, but a week for handling a human corpse. In the latter case, ritual sprinkling was also required ( Leviticus 11:24-25;  Numbers 19:11-19). There was a special cleansing ritual for restored lepers (Leviticus 14; see Leprosy ). If people unknowingly ate meat from which the blood had not been properly drained, they had to carry out a cleansing ritual ( Exodus 22:31;  Leviticus 17:14-16).

Ceremonial cleansing, including the offering of sacrifices, was necessary for a woman after childbirth. The ceremony was carried out forty days after the birth of a male child and eighty days after the birth of a female child (Leviticus 12; cf.  Luke 2:21-24). There were strict laws concerning any infection or abnormality relating to sexual organs, whether male or female ( Leviticus 15:1-15). Ceremonial uncleanness lasted one day after sexual intercourse, and seven days after normal menstruation. It was normally removed by bathing. Where a woman suffered lengthy or otherwise abnormal discharge, sacrifices also were required ( Leviticus 15:16-33).

A serious defilement was that which resulted from the unlawful shedding of blood. Murder made the land unclean, and the uncleanness could be removed only by the death of the murderer; or, if the murderer could not be found, by the ritual slaughter of an animal instead ( Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Worship of idols also made the land unclean, and the uncleanness could be removed only by the removal of the people themselves from the land ( Ezra 9:10-14;  Jeremiah 2:7;  Jeremiah 16:18;  Ezekiel 14:11; cf.  2 Kings 17:16-18;  2 Kings 21:11-15).

Practices of New Testament times

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a far more detailed system of ritual cleansing. The hand-washing ritual of the Pharisees, for instance, required the pouring of water over their hands to cleanse them from the defilement of people and things they had touched in the Gentile world ( Mark 7:1-4;  John 2:6;  John 3:25;  John 18:28).

Jesus pointed out that such traditions caused misunderstandings of the law and prevented people from doing the more important things that the law required ( Mark 7:5-9; see Tradition ). The laws of ceremonial cleansing pointed to a much deeper problem, the problem of sin, which affects every part of people’s lives. Real defilement comes not from what people eat or how they eat it, but from sinful thoughts, words and actions. People are made unclean in God’s sight by the evil that comes out of them, not by the food that goes into them ( Mark 7:14-23;  Titus 1:15;  James 4:8).

This uncleanness can be removed only through the blood of Jesus Christ. His sacrificial death, by dealing with the root problem of sin, does what all the Israelite rituals were unable to do ( Hebrews 9:13-14;  Hebrews 10:22; see Blood ; Sacrifice ).

Smith's Bible Dictionary [2]

Uncleanness. The distinctive idea attached to ceremonial uncleanness among the Hebrews was that it cut a person off for the time from social privileges, and left his citizenship among God's people for the while in abeyance. There is an intense reality in the fact of the divine law taking hold of a man by the ordinary infirmities of flesh, and setting its stamp, as it were, in the lowest clay of which he is moulded.

The sacredness attached to the human body is parallel to that which invested the Ark of the Covenant itself. It is as though Jehovah , thereby, would teach men that the "very hairs of their head were all numbered" before him and that "in his book were all their members written."

Thus, was inculcated, so to speak, a bodily holiness. Nor were the Israelites to be only "separated from other people," but they were to be "holy to God,"  Leviticus 20:24;  Leviticus 20:26, "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." The importance to physical well-being of the injunctions which required frequent ablution, under whatever special pretexts, can be but feebly appreciated in our cooler and damper climate. Uncleanness, as referred to men, may be arranged in three degrees:

1. That which defiled merely "until even," and was removed by bathing and washing the clothes at the end of it; such were all contacts with dead animals.

2. That graver sort which defiled for seven days, and was removed by the use of the "water of separation;" such were all defilements connected with the human corpse.

3. Uncleanness from the morbid perpetual or menstrual state, lasting as long as that morbid state lasted; and in the case of leprosy, lasting often for life. As the human person was itself the seat of a covenant token, so male and female had each their ceremonial obligations in proportion to their sexual differences.

There is an emphatic reminder of human weakness in the fact of birth and death - man's passage alike into and out of his mortal state - being marked with a stated pollution. The corpse bequeathed a defilement of seven days to all who handled it, to the "tent" or chamber of death, and to sundry things within it. Nay, contact with one slain in the field of battle or with even a human bone or grave, was no less effectual to pollute than that with a corpse dead by the course of nature.  Numbers 19:11-18. This shows that the source of pollution lay in the mere fact of death.

The duration of defilement caused by the birth of a female infant being double that due to a male, extending respectively to eighty and forty days in all,  Leviticus 12:2-5, may perhaps represent the woman's heavier share in the first sin and first curse.  Genesis 3:16;  1 Timothy 2:14. Among causes of defilement, should be noticed the fact that the ashes of the red heifer burnt whole which were mixed with water and became the standing resource for purifying uncleanness in the second degree, themselves became a source of defilement to all who were clean, even as of purification to the unclean, and so the water.

Somewhat similarly, the scapegoat, who bore away the sins of the people, defiled him who led him into the wilderness, and the bringing forth aid burning the sacrifice on the Great Day of Atonement had a similar power. This lightest form of uncleanness was expiated by bathing the body and washing the clothes. Besides the water of purification made as afore said, men and women, in their "issues," were, after seven days, reckoned from the cessation of the disorder, to bring two turtle-doves or young pigeons to be killed by the priests.

All these kinds of uncleanness disqualified for holy functions: as the layman so affected might not approach the congregation and the sanctuary, so any priest who incurred defilement must abstain from holy things.  Leviticus 22:2-8. See Leper . The religion of the Persians shows a singularly close correspondence with the Levitical code.

King James Dictionary [3]


1. Foulness dirtiness filthiness.

Be not troublesome to thyself or to others by uncleanness.

2. Want of ritual or ceremonial purity.  Leviticus 15 . 3. Moral impurity defilement by sin sinfulness.

I will save you from all your uncleanness.  Ezekiel 36 .

4. Lewdness incontinence.  Colossians 3 .  2 Peter 2 .

Morrish Bible Dictionary [4]

Ceremonial uncleanness had a large place in the Jewish ritual.  Leviticus 5:3 . It demanded separation from the camp for a time, and in many cases an offering must be brought before there could be restoration. It is typical of the moral uncleanness that separates from communion with God and the assembly.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [5]

See Unclean Clean

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [6]

UNCLEANNESS. —See Purification.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [7]

(chiefly טֻמְאָה , used in the almost technical sense of Levitical defilement) is the term by which, in the law of Moses, is indicated that condition which caused the temporary suspension of a Hebrew man or woman from religious and social privileges as a subject of the Theocracy.

1. About seventy specific cases of possible uncleanness are described, and others implied. Various modes of classifying them have been resorted to. The old Jewish writers made two classes, according to the length of the ceremonial suspension. The lighter class embraced the instances of uncleanness for the day; the heavier class, those of a longer period ( Pesictha, in Ugol. 15:1148; Maimonides, Constitutiones, in Ugol. 8:58; where the contaminated of the lighter class is called טבול יו , De Die Lavandus; comp. Lightfoot, altarm. of O.T. [Works by Pitman, 2, 122]; although he gives four classes, according to time). Other writers (see Cornelius a Lapide on  Leviticus 15:22) make also two classes, but on a different principle: "Duplex fuit immundities Hebr. Una erat peccatum, quia prsecepto Dei vetita, talis erat comedere carnes immundas. Talis etiam erat pati lepram, etc. Altera non erat vetita, sed solum indicata et statuta, talis erat tangere leprosum, etc. Haec non erant peccata, sed tantum inducebant irregularitatem quandam." Modern Jews profess to be bound only by the former of these classes. The threefold classification, however, which is indicated in the law of Moses itself seems to be most convenient, and is most commonly adopted (a) "Every leper;" (b) "Every one that hath an issue;" (c) "Whosoever is defiled by the dead" (see  Numbers 5:2). The lawgiver, no doubt, here refers to his own enactments in Leviticus and under the three generic phrases includes all the instances of uncleanness.

(1.) He begins with leprosy, the gravest of all instances. A minute diagnosis of this terrible malady in its ceremonial character, and the purification which the law prescribed, are given in Leviticus 13. (See Leprosy).

(2.) Under the second head, of uncleanness from "issues," are included all those physical emanations or bodily discharges to which either sex is liable. They are described in their several details in the following passages:

[1.] The woman's periodical issues in  Leviticus 15:19-24, and irregular issues in  Leviticus 15:25-27. These were alike unclean in themselves (the former for seven days, the latter during the irregularity), and communicated uncleanness during the day alike to "whosoever touched her," "her bed," or "anything that she sat on;" from which uncleanness they escaped "at even" by washing their clothes and bathing. Any man who so far forgot decency as to lie with her and be stained with her menstrual taint incurred an equally long defilement as the woman herself, and like her communicated uncleanness to the bed whereon he lay. On the day after the cessation of her issue (the eighth) the woman, for her purification, was to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering, to the priest, who was to make atonement for her before the Lord.

[2.] The issues of males, two sorts of which are mentioned in  Leviticus 15:3, produced uncleanness with effects precisely similar to those of women (see  Leviticus 15:4-12). This is not the place to discuss the nature of these male fluxes; Michaelis adduces strong reasons for disputing the general opinion, which denies that the Gonorrhea virulenta is referred to in the passage before us (Laws of Moses [Smith's transl.], art. 212). (See Issue). The purification prescribed for men under this defilement is identical with that for women ( Leviticus 15:13-15).

[3.] Sexual copulation, including conjugal intercourse, caused to both man and woman uncleanness "until the even," from which they were to cleanse themselves and their garments by bathing and washing ( Leviticus 15:16-18).

[4.] The final result of the sexual act in childbirth produced a still more marked defilement (see Leviticus 12). The mother's uncleanness in this her puerperal state, on the birth of a boy, was identical in duration with that of her menstrual issues. Seven days was she unclean ( Leviticus 12:2); on the eighth the child was circumcised ( Leviticus 12:3); after which the other remained in private, excluded from the sanctuary, during thirty-three days more ( Leviticus 12:4). This period of forty days defilement was doubled in the case of the birth of a maid child ( Leviticus 12:5). The purification rites of the mother, however, were the same, whether observed at the end of the forty or of the eighty days. She brought a yearling lamb for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon or turtle-dove for a sin-offering, unto the priest, that he might make atonement for her before the Lord, and she might be cleansed. In case of inability to bring the lamb, the substitution of another young pigeon or turtle-dove by the mother was allowed ( Leviticus 12:6-8; comp. the Virgin Mary's humbler offering in her "low estate," Luke 2, 22-24). Ins our general article on the LAW OF Moses we had occasion to remark on the probable substratum' of moral and religious mystery which underlies much of the ceremonial enactments. The havoc made by sin on our human race seems most strongly indicated by the fact that the normal and inevitable conditions of our natural life are affected with uncleanness. The gradations of pollution from conception to parturition, and their remarkable culmination in the birth of the female child, are wonderfully significant of the original transgression," and of woman's first and heavier share in it ( 1 Timothy 2:14; comp. with  Genesis 3:6;  Genesis 3:16-17).

The two periods in the mother's purification are; however, different in character. "For seven days immediately after she is brought to bed, she lies טומאתה בדמי , in the blood of her uncleanness;' but the three-and-thirty following, בדמי טהרה , in the blood of her purifying.' Although the privacy continued to the mother, she was after the seven days released from the ban of uncleanness and did not communicate defilement to others, as in the previous period of her perfect isolation and disability. The old Jewish authorities are as usual very dogmatic on the point: In Pesictha, Colossians 4, it is written, בדמי טהרה "in the blood of her purifying:" אפילו שופעת דם כנהר טהורה , though she issue blood like a flood, yet is she clean." Nor doth she defile anything by touching it but what is holy" (Lightfoot, Exercit. On St. Luke Led. Pitmaun], 12:37).

(3.) Equally noticeable, as might be expected, are the traces of this havoc as displayed in the various uncleannesses of Death the third and last of our chapters of classification; and herein we recognize the deeper implication of our human race in the ruin, above all other living beings. "By the law of Moses," says Lightfoot, "nothing was unclean to be touched while it was alive, but only man; a man in leprosy was unclean to be touched, and a woman in her separation) but dogs, swine, worms, etc., were not unclean to be touched till they were dead; and there were also different degrees herein; while touching a dead beast brought uncleanness for a day, touching a dead man produced the uncleanness of a week," etc. ( Harm. Of O.T. as above). This gradation of defilement from contact with death is described ( A ) In  Leviticus 11:8;  Leviticus 11:11;  Leviticus 11:24;  Leviticus 11:26-27;  Leviticus 11:31-35;  Leviticus 11:39-40;  Leviticus 17:15. ( B ) In  Leviticus 22:4-8. ( C ) In  Numbers 19:11;  Numbers 19:14;  Numbers 19:16. ( D ) In  Numbers 6:9. In the first of these four sections, the uncleanness arises from the dead bodies of animals, fishes, birds, and reptiles. It was the shortest in duration, lasting in every case only "until even;" and it was to be terminated uniformly By the washing of the clothes. The last statute,  Leviticus 17:15, prescribed ablution of the person also for "every soul that eateth that which died of itself, or that which was torn with beasts." In the second section, the same defilement is described as incidental to the priests, no less than to the laity, from which they must free themselves by ablution. So much for the minor uncleannesses from the dead. Our third and fourth sections contain the instances where the major disability of seven days is occasioned by contact with human dead. "Whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man. or a grave, shall be unclean seven days." As the defilement was deeper, so was the mode of purification more elaborate and solemn. For the details of the ceremony the sacrifice of the red heifer without the camp; the sevenfold sprinkling of her blood before the tabernacle; the utter consumption by fire of the slain animal; the cedar- wood, hyssop, and scarlet cast into the burning mass; the gathering-up of the ashes; their mixture in running water for "the water of separation;" the sprinkling of this water over the unclean person, on the third and the last of the seven days; his own washing of his clothes and bathing of his person, and his final cleansing on the evening of the seventh day-the reader will consult the 19th chapter of Numbers. Our fourth section describes the interruption of the Nazarite's vow by any sudden death happening in his presence. This mortality "lost him" all the days of his vow which had transpired, and required for its own expiation also the usual hebdomad, on the last day of which he was to shave his head, and on the morrow bring two young pigeons or two turtles to the priest, that he might present them as a sin-offering and a burnt-offering as an atonement for the polluted. (See Purification).

2. A few stray instances remain of a peculiar kind, which we proceed to class in a supplementary notice.

(1.) We have then under this head, first, the cases of what may be called official uncleanness.

[a.] The priest who superintended the holocaust of the red heifer was rendered unclean until evening by the part he took in the sacred rite; from this defilement he purified himself by the washing of his clothes and the ablution of his person ( Numbers 19:7). This uncleanness was the more remarkable from the precautionary character of the law, which in other cases seemed strongly to aim at preserving the priests, as far as might be, from the incidence. of ceremonial pollution (see  Leviticus 21:1-4).

[b.] The man that burned the heifer was involved in the same defilement as. the priest, from which he was also extricated by a similar purification ( Numbers 19:8).

[c.] So, again, the man who gathered the ashes of the consumed heifer was unclean until evening; but from this disability he was released by the lesser ceremony of simply washing his clothes ( Numbers 19:10). Similar instances of uncleanness, arising out of official routine, occur in the ordinances of the Day of Atonement.

[d.] The man who dismissed the scape-goat was: to wash his clothes and bathe himself before returning to the camp ( Leviticus 16:26), and a like purification was required of him who burned the bullock and the goat of the sin-offering ( Leviticus 16:28). [e.] Under this head of official uncleanness, we may perhaps place the abnormal case of the Israelitish soldiers who slew the Midianites at the command of Moses ( Numbers 31:17). They were to remain outside the camp seven days; purify themselves on the third And on the seventh day; cleanse their raiment, etc., with either fire or the water of separation, as the case might require, and on the last day wash their clothes ( Numbers 31:19-20;  Numbers 31:23-24).

(2.) Besides these cases of official uncleanness, we find one instance Sui Generis occurring in  Deuteronomy 23:10-11, which, with its purification, is thus described: "If there be among you any man that is not clean by reason of uncleanness that chanceth him by night, then shall he go abroad out of the camp but when evening cometh he shall wash himself with water, and when the sun is down, he shall come into the camp again." It may be observed that this case is not designated by the usual term טֻמְאִה ; the phrase merely denotes its accidental character, לאֹאּטָהוֹר מַקְּרֵהאּלָיְלָה .

(3.) Our enumeration, to be complete, should include the aggregate uncleanness of the priest and his household, and the nation (Leviticus 16); this was expiated by the grand ritual of the great Day of Atonement, for the imposing details of which ceremony we must refer the reader to our article on that subject.

3. Some few historical instances of uncleanness, and more of purification, are mentioned both in the Old Test. and the New Test. As being, however, applications only of some of the statutes which we have given above, we shall refrain from adducing them here, except one case, which is important because it led to the enactment of a proviso in the law. "There were certain men, who were defiled by the dead body of a man, that they could not keep the Passover on that day." They stated their difficulty to Moses and Aaron, the former of whom referred it to the Lord, and obtained from him a statute allowing a supplemental celebration. of the Passover for' such as were incapacitated in the manner in question or on a distant journey ( Numbers 9:6-12). (See Passover).

In contrast with this relief was the inflexible penalty threatened against all willful neglect of the various rites of purification prescribed in the law. The fullest formula of this penalty occurs in  Numbers 19:20 : "The man that shall be unclean and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation [or, as it runs in  Numbers 19:13, from Israel'], because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord." That this excision meant death is evident from  Leviticus 15:31;  Leviticus 20:9 (see Michaelis, Laws Of Moses [Smith's transl.], 4:43, and Keil On  Genesis 17:14). Jehovah, the theocratic king and holy God, who had his own ways of "cutting off" the disobedient, is pleased to include in his sentence of excision the reason for its infliction "because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord." This is in direct accordance with the principle by which the Divine Legislator repeatedly sanctions his laws: "Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" ( Leviticus 19:2, and frequently elsewhere), and it was the recognition of these saintly duties which always characterized the pious Israelite. "God" (says the psalmist,  Psalms 89:7) "is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints [ קְדשַים , which is likewise the word used in the formula of Leviticus; the phrase בַּקְהִל קְדשַים also, which occurs in  Psalms 89:5 of this psalm, is the frequent designation of the political organization of the Israelites], and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him."

The Mosaic ritual on uncleanness illustrates much of the phraseology of the Psalms and the prophets, and (what is more) many statements in the New Test., not only in obvious comparisons, as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but in oblique phrases, such as in  Ephesians 5:26-27, where the apostle, "speaking of Christ's washing the Church, that he might present it to himself without spot or wrinkle, etc., seemeth to allude to the Jews exceeding great curiousness in their washings for purification" (Lightfoot, who quotes Maimonides in Mikvaoth, III, 3, 297).

In conclusion, we must refer to the notices of purification which occur in the New Test. These are of three kinds (a) the legitimate instances, such as that of the virgin Mary (Luke 2, 22), the leper ( Mark 1:44), the Nazarite ( Acts 21:23-24), all of which make express reference to the law; ( B ) the Unauthorized cases, such as the traditional and Pharisaical washings of the hands ( Matthew 15:2), and of tables, cups, and platters ( Mark 7:4), all which the Lord condemned in strong terms as superstitious encroachments on the divine law; (c) the Doubtful cases, such as the case of those who came to Jerusalem to purify themselves before the Passover ( John 11:55), and the discussion mentioned in  John 3:25. "Their controversy," says Lightfoot "was partly about the pre-eminence of the Judaical washings and the evangelical baptism-and here the Jews and John's disciples were at opposition, and partly about the preeminence of John's baptism and Christ's and here the Jews would hiss them on in the contestation" (Works [ed. Pitman, 5, 67).

4. Our object in this article has been to collect the Scriptural laws on unclealiness and purification, we have avoided the Jewish traditional doctrines. These may be discovered by the curious on such subjects )y a careful use of the indexes to the works of Lightfoot, Sch Ö ttgen ( Horae Hob, Et Talmud. ), and Surelhusius (Mishna ) . Dr. Wotton, in his work on the Mishna (i, 160-170), has analyzed the Seder Taharoth, or Order Of Purifications, which contains the authorized tradition on the subject of our article." In this order," says Wotton, "more than in any of the rest, the true Pharisaical spirit which our blessed Lord so severely reprehends in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 is plainly and fully seen." We subjoin the names of the chief "titles" or sections of this order:

1. Kelim, vessels;

2. Ohaloth, tents treating of pollutions from the dead;

3. Aefaimi plagues of leprosy;

4. Parah, the red heifer;

5. Taharoth, purifications relating to lesser uncleannesses which last but a day;

6. Mikvaoth, collections of water for the cleansing baths, etc.;

7. Niddah, menstrual pollutions;

9. Zabim, men that have seminal uncleannesses;

10. Tibbul Yom, washed by day (see above); and

11. Yadaim, hands the constitutions in which title have no foundation in the written law. (See Talmud).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [8]

un - klēn´nes  :

I. Terms

1. In the Old Testament (Hebrew)

2. In the New Testament

3. In the Septuagint

II. Possible Relation Of Israel 'S Laws On Uncleanness With The Laws Of Tab OO Among The Nations

III. Teaching As To Uncleanness

1. In the Old Testament

2. In the Apocrypha

3. In the New Testament


I. Terms.

1. In the Old Testament (Hebrew):

טמאה , ṭum'āh , "uncleanness," "defilement," occurs 26 times (  Leviticus 7:20 ,  Leviticus 7:21;  Leviticus 14:19;  Leviticus 15:3 ,  Leviticus 15:15 ,  Leviticus 15:26 ,  Leviticus 15:30 ,  Leviticus 15:31 , etc.). נדּה , nı̄ddāh , "separation," "impurity," occurs in  Leviticus 20:21;  Ezra 9:11;  Zechariah 13:1 . ערוה , ‛erwāh , occurs in  Deuteronomy 23:14 . דּבר ערות , ‛erwath dābhār , "unclean thing" ( Deuteronomy 24:1 ) is translated "uncleanness" in the King James Version. The adjective טמא , ṭamē' , "defiled," "unclean," occurs 72 times (over half in Leviticus), but is never translated "uncleanness," but always "unclean." The verb טמא brev , ṭāmē' , "to make" or "declare unclean," occurs often. Other Hebrew verbs "to defile" are גּאל , gā'al , חלל , ḥālal , חנף , ḥānēph , טנף , ṭānaph , עלל , ‛ālal , ענה , ‛ānāh .

2. In the New Testament:

The Greek word for "uncleanness" is ἀκαθαρσία , akatharsı́a , which occurs 10 times (  Matthew 23:27;  Romans 1:24;  Romans 6:19;  2 Corinthians 12:21 , etc.). μιασμός , miasmós , "pollution," occurs only in  2 Peter 2:10 . The adjective ἀκάθαρτος , akáthartos , "unclean," occurs 31 times, 23 times in reference to unclean spirits (Luke once using the expression "unclean demon,"  Luke 4:33 ), 4 times to ceremonial uncleanness (thee by Peter and one by John the revelator), and 4 times to moral uncleanness (three by Paul and one by John the revelator). Κοινός , Koinós , "common," "unclean," occurs 8 times in the sense of "unclean" ( Mark 7:2 ,  Mark 7:5;  Acts 10:14 ,  Acts 10:28;  Acts 11:8;  Romans 14:14;  Revelation 21:27 ). The verb κοινόω , koinóō , "to defile," occurs 11 times ( Matthew 15:11 ,  Matthew 15:18 ,  Matthew 15:20;  Mark 7:15 , etc.). μιαίνω , miaı́nō , "to defile," occurs 5 times ( John 18:28;  Titus 1:15;  Hebrews 12:15;  Judges 1:8 ). μολύνω , molúnō , "to make filthy," occurs 3 times ( 1 Corinthians 8:7;  Revelation 3:4;  Revelation 14:4 ). σπιλόω , spilóō , occurs twice ( James 3:6;  Judges 1:23 ) and φθείρω , phtheı́rō , "to corrupt," occurs 7 times in Greek, once in English Versions of the Bible ( 1 Corinthians 3:17 ).

3. In the Septuagint:

Akatharsia , "uncleanness," occurs 59 times in Septuagint (including many instances in apocryphal books) (1,2 Esdras, Tobit, 1,2 Maccabees, etc.). Akathartos , "unclean," occurs 134 times in the Septuagint (including one example in 1 Maccabees). Koinos , "unclean," and koinoō , "to make unclean," occur in Esther, Proverbs, Wisdom, 1,2, 3,4 Maccabees). Miainō , "to defile," occurs over 100 times. Molunō , "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   Leviticus 11:44 as to the purpose of Yahweh in establishing these laws respecting clean and unclean animals).

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  Leviticus 11:1-23 . Notice that the law does not extend to vegetable foods, as does a similar law in the Egyptian religion. Four kinds of beasts are named as fit for food: ( a ) among quadrupeds, those that both chew the cud and part the hoof; ( b ) among fishes, only those having both fins and scales; ( 100 ) 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 12:1-8 and 15).

In  Leviticus 15:2-18 , we find the laws applied to issues of men; in  Leviticus 15:19 ff, to the issues of women. Not only is the man or woman unclean because of the issue, whether normal or abnormal, but the bed on which they lie, or whatever or whoever is touched by them while they are in this state, is unclean. The uncleanness lasts seven days from the cessation of the issue. To become clean men must wash their clothes and batheir bodies (though this requirement is not made of women), and both men and women must offer through the priest a pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons (Lev 15). According to Lev 13, the woman who conceives and bears a child is unclean. This uncleanness lasts seven days if the child born is a male, but 14 days if the child is a female. However, there is a partial uncleanness of the mother that continues 40 days from the birth of a male, 80 days from the birth of a female, at the end of which period she is purified by offering a lamb and a young pigeon (or turtle-dove), or if too poor to offer a lamb she may substitute one of the birds for the lamb.

(3) Uncleanness Connected with Leprosy.

According to  Leviticus 14,15 , the leper was regarded as under the stroke of God, and so was deemed unclean. The leper (so adjudged by the priest) must separate himself from others, with torn clothes, disheveled hair, and crying with covered lips, "Unclean! Unclean!" That is, he was regarded as a dead man, and therefore unclean and so must live secluded from others. See, further, Leper , Leprosy .

(4) Uncleanness Associated with Death.

According to  Leviticus 15:24 -40, anyone who touched a dead beast, whether unclean or clean, was rendered unclean. According to   Numbers 19:11-22 , anyone touching the corpse of a human being is unclean. Likewise, everyone in the tent, or who enters the tent, where lies a dead man, is unclean seven days. Even the open vessels in the tent with a dead person are unclean seven days. Whoever, furthermore, touched a dead man's bone or grave was unclean seven days. Purification, in all these cases of uncleanness as related to death, was secured by sprinkling the ashes of a red heifer with living water upon the unclean person, or object, on the 3rd and 7th days. See Purification .

2. In the Apocrypha:

In  Tobit 3:7-9;  6:13,14;  7:11;  8:1-3;  1 Maccabees 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 Antiochus Epiphanes ( 1 Maccabees 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.

See  John 2:1-11 , and note how the Jews had six stone waterpots for purification at the wedding in Cana. See  John 3:25 as to the controversy on purification between John's disciples and the Jews. This question of cleanness and uncleanness was a tremendous issue with every Jew. He must keep himself ceremonially clean if he would be righteous and win the approval of God.

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 ( Matthew 15:3-20 =   Mark 7:6-23 ). Jesus then enunciated the great principle that there is no ceremonial, but only moral and spiritual, uncleanness. Not what goes into a man from hands that touch unclean things defiles the man, but the things that come out of his heart, evil thoughts, hatred, adultery, murder, etc., these defile the man.

Paul likewise regarded nothing as unclean of itself ( Romans 14:14 ,  Romans 14:20;  Titus 1:15 ), yet no man should violate the scruples of his own conscience or that of his brother (and thus put a stumblingblock in his way). Love, not ceremonialism is the supreme law of the Christian. Paul, in submitting to the vow of purification in Jerusalem, set an example of this principle ( Acts 21:26 ). 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.