The Deadly Influence of Death

24 “And by these you shall become unclean. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening, 25 and whoever carries any part of their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. 26 Every animal that parts the hoof but is not cloven-footed or does not chew the cud is unclean to you. Everyone who touches them shall be unclean. 27 And all that walk on their paws, among the animals that go on all fours, are unclean to you. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening, 28 and he who carries their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening; they are unclean to you.

29 “And these are unclean to you among the swarming things that swarm on the ground: the mole rat, the mouse, the great lizard of any kind, 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. 31 These are unclean to you among all that swarm. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until the evening. 32 And anything on which any of them falls when they are dead shall be unclean, whether it is an article of wood or a garment or a skin or a sack, any article that is used for any purpose. It must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; then it shall be clean. 33 And if any of them falls into any earthenware vessel, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it. 34 Any food in it that could be eaten, on which water comes, shall be unclean. And all drink that could be drunk from every such vessel shall be unclean. 35 And everything on which any part of their carcass falls shall be unclean. Whether oven or stove, it shall be broken in pieces. They are unclean and shall remain unclean for you. 36 Nevertheless, a spring or a cistern holding water shall be clean, but whoever touches a carcass in them shall be unclean. 37 And if any part of their carcass falls upon any seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean, 38 but if water is put on the seed and any part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean to you.” – Leviticus 11:24-38 ESV

In these 15 verses, God uses the word “unclean” 22 times. His repetitive use of this word provides ample proof of just how seriously He took this matter. The Hebrew word is טָמֵא (ṭāmē’), and it refers to someone becoming ceremonially defiled or impure, rendering them unfit for participation in the household of God but, more importantly, making them unholy and incapable of coming into God’s presence. It was not that this “infection” involved actual contagion from harmful bacteria or disease but that the one deemed unclean had violated God’s ban.

All of these restrictions deal with an individual having contact with the dead bodies of particular creatures. The issue had less to do with the species of the animal than its lifelessness. Death was the mitigating factor in the prohibition. God makes it clear that touching the dead body of any of these creatures would render the individual defiled and in need of purification.

“The following creatures will make you ceremonially unclean. If any of you touch their carcasses, you will be defiled until evening. – Leviticus 11:24 NLT

That the defilement did not involve an actual life-threatening contagion is made clear by the temporary nature of the individual’s isolation. The defilement or uncleanness was ceremonial in nature. The point that God seems to be making is that death, while inevitable and unavoidable, was also antithetical to His nature. He is the God of life. Death entered His perfect creation as a result of mankind’s sin. In the beginning, God breathed life into the body of the man He created.

…then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. – Genesis 2:7 ESV

God is the creator and sustainer of all life. The book of Nehemiah records the people’s declaration of God’s role in giving life to all creatures, human and otherwise.

“You alone are the Lord.
You have made the heavens,
The heaven of heavens with all their host,
The earth and all that is on it,
The seas and all that is in them.
You give life to all of them
And the heavenly host bows down before You. – Nehemiah 9:6 NASB

Death was an anomaly, caused by the entrance of sin into God’s pristine and perfect creation. And the apostle Paul makes it clear that death was a byproduct of man’s rebellion against God.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. – Romans 5:12-14 NLT

Adam’s sin brought death into an atmosphere that had been marked by life and light. So death, like sin, was unacceptable to a holy and righteous God. And yet, death is not outside the sovereign will of God; it is the result of His justice and righteousness. God had told Adam that if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die (Genesis 2:17). Death would be the judgment for Adam’s disobedience to God’s command. As the apostle Paul points out, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 ESV). Death is the God-ordained penalty for sin. The very presence of death in God’s creation is a constant reminder of the reality and pervasive nature of sin. Without sin, there would be no death. And, ultimately, death is God’s curse on all creation due to mankind’s rebellion against Him.

“‘See now that I, even I, am he,
    and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound and I heal;
    and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. – Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV

The curse of death has infected all of creation. Animals, insects, birds, and plants all suffer eventual death. Even the universe itself is in a constant state of atrophy. And the apostle Paul describes this unavoidable process of decay and decline in stark terms.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

The apostle John states that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV). Death is a symbol of the darkness caused by sin. Death is a destroyer and the ultimate source of alienation from God. To die is not only to cease from living but to be separated from the God of life. So, God placed restrictions on His people that were intended to regulate and mitigate their contact with death while still living. The primary point is that death rendered one unholy and unworthy of entering God’s presence.

“The main point of Moses’ instructions was for the people to avoid touching corpses when possible because dead bodies conveyed ritual contagion through contact. This made the person or thing unfit to remain in the camp. Only after the proper ritual cleansing was the person or item reintegrated into the life of the community.” – Kenneth A. Matthew, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

Coming into contact with dead animals or people was inevitable. Death was an unavoidable part of life. But even mere contact with death would separate the Israelites from their life-giving God. Touching the carcass of a dead animal would render someone unclean before God. Even an ordinary object that came into contact with a dead animal was to be considered unholy and defiled until properly cleansed.

The repeated use of the word “unclean” also emphasizes the importance of cleanliness or purity. God expected His chosen people to understand their need for purity at all times. The slightest contact with death would deny them access to God and place them outside the community of faith.

Jesus Himself emphasized His Father’s life-giving nature. When confronted by a question from the Pharisees regarding the reality of the resurrection, Jesus alluded to the fact that even Moses believed in the resurrection because he described God as “the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37 ESV). Then Jesus went on to elaborate that His Father is the author of life, not death.

“Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” – Luke 20:38 ESV

This section of Leviticus is meant to emphasize the life-giving nature of Israel’s God. It emphasizes the reality of death and the inevitable and unvoidable impact it would have on the people of Israel. But God provided a means for mitigating its divisive and destructive nature. His people could receive cleansing and have their separation from God restored. But it was essential that they understand the seriousness of sin and the deadly influence it could have on their relationship with God. Every day would be filled with reminders of sin’s presence and their need for purification from its infectious influence. Yahweh was the God of life and death was a reminder of humanity’s sin and its need for His cleansing and forgiveness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.