Holiness On God’s Terms

1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean. And this is the law of his uncleanness for a discharge: whether his body runs with his discharge, or his body is blocked up by his discharge, it is his uncleanness. Every bed on which the one with the discharge lies shall be unclean, and everything on which he sits shall be unclean. And anyone who touches his bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever sits on anything on which the one with the discharge has sat shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches the body of the one with the discharge shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And if the one with the discharge spits on someone who is clean, then he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And any saddle on which the one with the discharge rides shall be unclean. 10 And whoever touches anything that was under him shall be unclean until the evening. And whoever carries such things shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 11 Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 12 And an earthenware vessel that the one with the discharge touches shall be broken, and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.

13 “And when the one with a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, then he shall count for himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes. And he shall bathe his body in fresh water and shall be clean. 14 And on the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the Lord to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest. 15 And the priest shall use them, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord for his discharge.

16 “If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. 17 And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. 18 If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:1-18 ESV

Most Christians avoid this chapter like the plague (no pun intended). In any attempt to read through the Bible, the book of Leviticus is the first place where most people bog down and renege on their commitment. But if they’re persistent enough to make it this far in the book, chapter 15 usually ends up acting as a dead-end sign, causing them to slam on the brakes altogether and abandon their quest.

This chapter’s rather awkward subject matter makes us uncomfortable. The topic of bodily emissions and secretions seems inappropriate and overly personal for inclusion in the Holy Scriptures. These aren’t subjects one talks about in polite society, and no one expects to read about them in the Spirit-inspired Word of God. Yet, immediately after wrapping up His list of laws concerning the remediation of mold and mildew in a home, God turns His attention to bodily discharges.

Once again, God’s emphasis is on the issue of uncleanness, and He uses a variation of the term 35 times in 33 verses. Everything in these verses deals with the human body but in a very specific way. God has already addressed the topic of skin diseases. These ailments or conditions were abnormalities that were readily apparent to everyone. They represented a lack of wholeness or health in the life of the one infected. But the conditions addressed in chapter 15 are more private and personal in nature.

While it may be difficult to discern, God is continuing to deal with all those things in human life that are incompatible with His holiness. The sensitive subject matter in these verses is intended to reveal that even normal human bodily functions can end up separating God’s people from their Creator. Every aspect of human life was being put under the gaze of God’s divine microscope and examined for any role it might play in rendering His people unclean and unacceptable in His sight.

Much of what is addressed in these verses has to do with normal bodily functions such as a man’s seminal emissions or the discharges associated with a woman giving birth. Why would these normal and highly natural aspects of human bodily functionality render the people of God unclean? What was it about these seemingly healthy characteristics of human sexuality that rendered a person unclean?

The main issue has to do with the difference between the holy and the common. When God ordained the two sons of Aaron to serve as priests in the place of their deceased brothers, he warned them… “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:10 ESV).

In the very next chapter, God warned the people, “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 11:47 BSB). There were certain animals that were to be considered off-limits and unfit for human consumption. But this prohibition was only placed upon the people of Israel. These dietary restrictions were intended to set them apart from all the other nations. And the priests were to help them understand that all the laws God had given them were meant to differentiate them from their unbelieving neighbors. The Israelites were to consider themselves to be holy or set apart by God. They were no longer “common” or ordinary. They were God’s treasured possession and, as such, they were expected to conduct their lives in keeping with His laws and regulations. In doing so, they would distinguish themselves as holy (qōḏeš), a Hebrew word that conveys the idea of separateness or apartness.

The only thing that would distinguish the Hebrews from the rest of the world was their commitment to keeping God’s laws and living according to His will. Their belief was to show up in their behavior. And God applied His law to every area of their lives, including that of human sexuality. For the rest of the world, bodily secretions were viewed as normal and natural. But for God’s people, they were to be viewed as either holy or common, clean or unclean. What was right and acceptable for other nations was to be closely examined by God’s people to determine whether it helped or hindered one’s status as a holy person.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in the city of Thessalonica and reminded them about God’s expectation of holiness, and he directly associated it with the misuse of God’s gift of procreation.

For it is God’s will that you should be holy: You must abstain from sexual immorality… – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 BSB

And Paul went on to describe the danger of ignoring God’s laws concerning not only sex but the sacredness of marriage.

…each of you must know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God; and no one should ever violate or exploit his brother in this regard, because the Lord will avenge all such acts, as we have already told you and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us to impurity, but to holiness. Anyone, then, who rejects this command does not reject man but God, the very One who gives you His Holy Spirit. – 1 Thessalonians 4:4-8 BSB

In essence, Paul was calling his audience to distinguish between that which is holy and that which is to be considered common. What was right and acceptable to unbelievers was off-limits for them. Their old lifestyles were no longer permissible because they were unacceptable to God. Promiscuity, adultery, lust, and impurity of any kind were to be considered common and unworthy of those who had been set apart by God.

So, these laws concerning bodily emissions deal with a wide range of issues common to all men and women. Some are normal and natural, but they still represent the things of this earth.

“To be sure, these things were all earthy and physical, and so they could never be included in the category of holy – they were in the category of common or profane. On that basis alone they were not compatible with holy places.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

It is vital to remember that all of the laws in Leviticus are directly tied to the newly constructed Tabernacle, the house of God. It was there, in that sacred place, that God had promised to place His glorious presence. He had set apart that dwelling as His earthly dwelling place. But everything about it was common and ordinary, having been built by human hands and constructed from “earthy” materials. But God had consecrated it for His use through an elaborate series of sacrifices that purified and prepared it for His presence. God had taken what was ordinary and common and transformed it into a suitable and acceptable place for His glory to dwell.

And, in a sense, that is what these laws concerning bodily discharges and emissions were meant to do. Some of what is described in these verses is natural and normal; in other words, quite common. But there are also aberrations or abnormalities listed that involve chronic or unhealthy aspects of the human body. Any and all of these things were to be looked at from the basis of the holy versus the common and the clean versus the unclean. And it should not be overlooked that so much of the pagan practice of worship was associated with human sexual activity. When the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan, they would find that the occupants of that land had integrated sex into the worship of their gods. A gift given by Yahweh was being used to satisfy human lust and glorify non-existent gods that were nothing more than deified versions of fallen men.

“It is important to remember that sexual activity was so prominent in the religions of the ancient world, especially in the land of Canaan, that it was part of the ritual services of fertility in the temples and shrines. This world into which the Israelites were moving had to have some significance to these laws. God was saying very clearly that sex, any aspect of sex, any bodily functions connected with sex, had to be help completely apart from the holy place. He was not saying that sex and bodily functions were dirty or sinful, as some see in this passage. God created male and female and sexuality. Fertility came from God through creation, not through ritual sexual acts asin a sanctuary. The law was simply restricting sexual acts from the sanctuary, keeping the boundaries between the physical and the holy.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

The list of potential problem areas in this chapter is long and difficult to read, and the laws requiring purification are quite detailed. As always, God leaves nothing to the imagination. He doesn’t allow for any grey areas for the Israelites to decide for themselves. The goal was holiness. But for that objective to be achieved, the Israelites had to know the difference between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. And the criteria for each had been established by God, not men. What the rest of the world deemed acceptable and even holy was not to be the standard for God’s people.

As the apostle Paul made clear, God’s will was that His people be holy and only He had the right to determine both the definition and expression of holiness.

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.

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