Purity Matters to God

The Bible often uses the words defile and unclean. The Sigma Frame blog has made the argument that these represent different things. The two English words are the same ancient Hebrew word. Many words in languages have multiple definitions and uses, and Hebrew is no different. Words differ in the their contextual meaning.[1] I will show that while there are meaningful kinds (or grades) of defilement and uncleanness, they all share a unifying biblical truth: purity matters to God.

In the Bible there are two kinds of impurities. Ritual impurities lead to ceremonial uncleanness. These include touching certain body fluids, like blood or semen. Such temporary uncleanness is removed by cleansing rituals. Moral impurities lead to a uncleanness as well, but are much more serious and sometimes permanent. These include idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual immorality. The uncleanness from these often requires serious punishments, even the death penalty.

Pamela Eisenbaum in her book, “Paul was not a Christian”, notes that ritual impurities apply only to the Jews, those living under the original covenant with God. Their purpose is twofold: (1) to regulate the boundary between human and divine; and (2) to keep the boundaries between Israel and (Gentile) nations. It is not associated with sin. By contrast, moral impurities are sins and apply to everyone.[2]

The ancient Hebrew language is a highly context sensitive one. Many words have a wide range of meanings. The Hebrews loved wordplay, including puns, and the Bible is full of it. The words were written without vowels. Single consonants and vowels could be swapped out to create similar sounding, but different meaning words. Double meanings are common and don’t always show up in single explanation, literal translations. There are many examples.

English speakers tend to speak and write more concretely, without wordplay. Puns are not often used in serious settings. We unconsciously read our own expectations and bias into the Bible. If we only look for concrete, specific explanations on the cause and effect of impurities that lead to uncleanness and defilement, we will miss the general context. Sigma Frame gets close to this:

“Put simply, the mundanities of life are just not fitting nor dignified, and thereby spoil the joys of a formal experience.”

There is something about the formal experience of entering God’s presence that requires something special: purity. Distinctions between unclean and defile or ritual and moral are not required to understand the context of purity and impurity. God desires our purity. This is not merely a lack of sin, but a way of life and a state of being. We must be pure to fully enter into the holy presence of God. David, after defiling himself by committing adultery with Bathsheba, penned the following words:

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

David understood the importance of purity. He understood that God could make pure anything that was dirty. Though his soul could be cleaned, he could not avoid the consequences of sin. He still had to suffer for the taint caused by his actions: he was not permitted to build the temple, for he had shed blood.

Purity or impurity comes from the heart. The purpose of rituals is not the rituals themselves, but to make sure the heart stays pure and focused on God. Jesus said in Matthew 12:33-35:

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (NIV)

The Christian should maintain a holy lifestyle, not merely follow some set of rules. We can examine two hot-button issues in Christianity to see how this applies: homosexuality and abortion.

There are those who argue that the Bible is unclear on the topic of homosexuality because it is not explicit. Indeed, the NT references use language that is generic or unclear. This misses the importance of purity to God. God demands that we live a pure life. All non-marital sexuality is impure and stains the soul.[3] Attempting to get as close to the sin-line as possible without stepping over is the very essence of impurity.[4]

The abortion debate often hinges around when a human attains the right to life. Is it only when they are born? Is it only when the mother decides she wants the baby? Is when the fetus can feel pain? Is it at conception?[5] These questions miss the point. God takes life so seriously that the taking of human life was typically punishable by death. Human life is absolutely sacred. To take life, even justified, is to be impure: to go against God’s plan (e.g. David). Abortion is therefore impure, even if and when it can be justified.

We must flee impurity, to live pure and holy lives. This is what God desires.

[1] I will use the terms interchangeably and let context determine their meaning.

[2] For some reason, most Christians do not know this. This leads to confusion by those who think uncleanness and defilement are different things and only the latter applies to Christians. This is close, but incorrect. The Bible makes the distinction between the ritual and moral.

[3] After explaining that men and women were created with sex, marriage, and family as its goal, the Bible then dedicates page after page to condemning various deviations from this plan.

[4] See Matthew 5:27-28: impurity starts in the heart, before it even crosses the line into sin.

[5] Science answers this affirmatively. At conception, a human is created. That said, an argument can be made that preventing conception devalues life as well and that this too goes against God’s will. That is a topic for another day.

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