Standards of Cleanliness (Lev 11-15)
Leviticus 11 concerns which animals are “clean” or “unclean.” God divided the animals Israel would come across. The “clean” animals were good to eat and/or interact with; the “unclean” animals were not. This was part of the Mosaic Law, given to Israel as they were entering into the Mosaic Covenant with God. “Cleanliness laws” were part of the larger context of Israel distancing itself from the world and being sanctified to God.
The cleanliness laws continue in chapters 12-15. Chapter 12 concerns childbirth. A woman was to be considered unclean for 40-80 days after delivery (depending on whether the child born was male or female [vv.2-5]). This was a time of purification, after which she would be pronounced clean (v.8). Chapters 13 and 14 concern leprosy. When an individual or house was suspected of contracting leprosy, the priests were to test for the disease. The proper way to cleanse one suspected of contracting leprosy is outlined in chapter 14. The person/house thought leprous was pronounced unclean until it could be determined otherwise. Chapter 15 deals with other issues of unhealthiness, mainly unusual discharges.
Our 21st century context is a difficult lense through which to understand such laws. Is this really part of being holy as God is holy (11:44-45)? The purpose of this article is not to address the interpretive process used when we New Covenant believers determine which Mosaic Laws should still be kept today – but suffice it to say that I do not believe these cleanliness laws are applicable to the church in this age (Ac 10-11). I believe that all of the other questions listed above can be addressed by answering this: why did God give the Israelites these cleanliness laws?
First, these laws kept them safe, serving as their own medical system for the prevention and spread of diseases. Certain animals in the Middle East at this time would have not been healthy for consumption or interaction (Lev 11:46-47). Child birth physically exhausting: the Law allowed for a time of rejuvenation and rebuilding of the immune system. Leprosy was deadly and could spread easily without caution, so the Law required proper standards that prevented such trouble (14:54-57). Unknown discharges and illnesses were especially troublesome because, as any medic knows, it is difficult to treat what you are unfamiliar with. The Law provided a system for preventing the spread of such illnesses (15:31).
Second, these laws were given to teach the Israelites that certain things on earth were clean and others unclean, and to live as God’s people meant to distinguish between the two and hold fast to the clean. In respect to the Mosaic Law, eating the right meat was paramount to establishing the cities of refuge (Deut 19). Cleansing oneself after childbirth was paramount to consecrating the priests for their duty (Lev 8). Abiding by the standards for suspected cases of leprosy was paramount to bringing before the Lord His prescribed form of offering and not “strange fire” (Lev 10). Following God’s Word concerning unhealthy discharges was paramount to keeping designated ranks in how Israel was to travel in the desert (Num 10:11-36). The laws of cleanliness were part of the Mosaic Law and therefore contributed to what it meant for the Israelites to be holy.
Further, these laws were theologically important in principle rather than in substance. For example, eating pork is not intrinsically something sinful, because the New Testament allows for it. However, it was sinful in the Old Testament. This is what we might consider a redemption law: a law whose purpose is to communicate something about the Gospel. Other laws (such as prohibitions of homosexuality) might be called creation laws: laws which prohibit an deed which is ontologically evil. (I credit Douglas Wilson with my understanding of redemption and creation laws).
Something “clean” was considered to be acceptable to engage with and still be in a sanctified relationship with God. Something “unclean” was associated with unholiness – an untouchable thing for one sanctified to God. Leviticus establishes a relationship between the terms “clean” and “holy.” This relationship is also seen in Psalm 24.
“The earth is the Lord’s” (v.1) because “He has founded it” (v.2). Creator God owns all things because He has made all things. In Hebrew poetry, a truth was often stated in one line and re-stated in the following. “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord” may be the equivalent of, “and who may stand in His holy place?” This “hill” that one may climb and “place” in which one may stand is the domain which is shut by the “ancient doors” (v.7). The place is the hill Zion: God’s holy place. The one who may hope to enter into this holy place must meet the requirements of verse 4: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.” He who is sinless, holy and righteous. The principle is no different than the Mosaic Law: he who desires to dwell with God must be holy like God.
Psalm 24 hits at two sides of a coin. On one hand, no one is truly holy before God. This is why God’s people need Christ’s righteousness to be credited to them – part of the blessing referred to in verse 5. Christ is the King of Glory (vv.7-10). Jesus truly lived a holy life and ascended God’s hill, where the ancient doors of glory opened to Him. He was the only one who could do this. Yet the one who is holy (v.4) will receive salvation (v.5). Why do you need salvation if you are holy? This is the other side of the coin. Through the work of Christ upon the cross, God’s people are righteous in His sight and in the power of His Spirit are called to live a holy life.
This Psalm refers to Christ in that He truly lived a holy life and ascended the hill of the Lord, but only after receiving a curse from God for our unholiness. This Psalm refers to us in that Christ lived a holy life for us and we now can ascend the hill of the Lord clothed in His merit, but only after receiving a blessing from God for His holiness. In light of this justification, he who repents of sin and follows Jesus will be credited the righteousness of Christ. God has decreed that a true striving for holiness on our part will be credited as true holiness on our behalf, won by Christ.
How do we see Christ in Leviticus 11-15? He is the one Who truly lived clean and sanctified to God. He judicially saves us in justification (the credit of holiness) and morally saves us in sanctification (the power unto holiness). Justification was accomplished on the cross, sanctification is being accomplished by the Spirit.
The Mosaic Law was salvifically insufficient. It served as a “schoolmaster” to lead people to depend on God for righteousness (Gal 3:24-25). The law showed the Israelites their uncleanliness. In light of such uncleanliness, those who then responded in faith to God received from God the most precious of blessings: Christ made them clean.
Christ is exalted in Leviticus 11-15 as the holiness of His people. He is the purifier of His bride. He is the one who labored for 33 years to win for us clean wedding garments (Matt 22:1-14) fitting to stand before the holy King. He is the one with clean hands who gathers the saints and carries them up the hill of Zion, through the ancient doors and into the holy presence of God (Ps 24; Rom 5:1-2). He is the perfectly clean High Priest who intercedes for His people with blood upon the mercy seat (Lev 16:15-16), serving faithfully as our Advocate in the courtroom of Heaven (1 Jn 2:1-2).
Praise God for our holy Advocate, our sufficient Substitute, our capable Savior, our righteous Ruler – Jesus Christ our Lord! May we strive for holiness in light of His most excellent grace.