Therefore, we’re going to get our bearings first in relation to the rest of the “algebra” of the Mosaic Law. There is a detail in Leviticus 10 that has prepared us for this new section of the law. It takes place after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu for offering unacceptable fire before Yahweh. Here for the only time in the entire book of Leviticus, Yahweh speaks directly and exclusively to Aaron; this underlines the importance of what He is about to say (Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, Eerdmans, 1979). It says, “And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. 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 10:8-11).
That is, one of the principle functions of the priests, besides serving as mediators for the people before Yahweh’s Presence, is teaching them to discern between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean, in their daily lives. This way the people will be prepared to live in holiness so that they don’t fall into the same kind of judgment as happened to Nadab and Abihu.
And that leads us into this next section of the Mosaic Law, the laws concerning cleanliness and uncleanliness, that appear in Leviticus 11 – 16.
In today’s reading we see two very different topics. In Leviticus 11, all the animals, sea creatures, insects and reptiles native to the region are categorized as clean or unclean. Leviticus 12 describes uncleanliness related to childbirth.
As you read Leviticus 11, keep these observations in mind:
1. Notice that the unclean animals, sea creatures, insects and reptiles are not somehow “evil”. Yahweh created them, He saw that it was good, and He blessed them all on the fifth and sixth days of creation in Genesis 1. Their identification as unclean in Leviticus 11 is not an issue of good and evil, nor does it concern sin, but ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness. Someone who touches them becomes temporarily and ritually unclean, not guilty of sin. They must wash its contamination and wait until evening, but they do not have to bring a sacrifice to the tabernacle and shed the blood of a substitute to seek forgiveness.
2. Notice that this constant evaluation of all living creatures that the Israelites will come into contact with is intended to awaken a sensitive conscience toward the issues of ritual cleanliness or uncleanness. They cannot approach other cultures for friendship or to share a meal without first closely evaluating what they are going to eat. Every relationship with their environment and their neighbors must be examined cautiously to discern its impact on their relationship with Yahweh, the most important relationship of all.
3. As these laws limit the contact that Israel will have with its neighbors, they should testify to them about Yahweh. The news will spread among their neighbors, “Look; there are some Israelites. They don’t eat this; they won’t touch that…” And it is hoped that they can say afterwards, “They don’t do it because they’re devoted to their holy God who doesn’t tolerate impurity.”
4. And this observation leads us to the main point of all these laws regarding ritual purity: they teach us about Yahweh’s holiness. Notice how everything in Leviticus 11 that is permitted is complete, whole and perfect while everything prohibited is incomplete, partial or associated with death. Obedience to these laws should communicate to the Israelites: Yahweh is complete, whole and perfect; His glory is not incomplete, partial nor associated with death.
Or to summarize it in one word: Yahweh is holy: “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore by holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45).
Keep these observations in mind, too, as you read Leviticus 12:
1. Human reproduction is not “bad” or “sinful”. With a blessing, God commanded us to reproduce and created us with the ability to do so (Genesis 1:28).
2. The woman’s uncleanness is not for having reproduced but for the flow of blood in giving birth, a flow that will continue to some degree for the days and months after giving birth (therefore the mother is considered unclean but the children she gave birth to are not). The flow of blood is not associated with Yahweh’s holiness because He defines and emanates life, while the flow of blood represents loss of life, or sickness or weakness. Therefore the flow of bodily fluids here and in the following chapters contaminates, and the Israelite who comes in contact with them must wash himself and wait until he can approach the holiness of Yahweh’s presence in the tabernacle again. In the case of a woman who has given birth, since her contamination was over a long period of time, she must present sacrifices that are more effective toward removing prolonged impurity.
3. Notice the purpose of these sacrifices in the last verses of the chapter. It doesn’t say, “She shall be forgiven”, as we read several times in Leviticus 4 regarding the sin offering. Here it says, “She shall be clean” (Leviticus 12:8).
A valid question is: Do we Christians follow the same laws today? It is an excellent question, one that deserves a detailed response because it touches an essential topic on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, but for lack of time, I’ll answer briefly: No. While the characteristics of Yahweh’s holiness (complete, whole, perfect, healthy, life-giving, unrelated to death nor sickness nor impurity) are eternal, the laws through which we recognize His holiness have changed. For example, Jesus declared that all foods are clean (Mark 7:19). That was confirmed in Peter’s vision in Acts 10:11-16. Ephesians 2:14-18 teaches that Jesus Christ through His cross broke down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile to unite them into one new man in Him. And at the same time, we are commanded, “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16, quoting Leviticus 11). Therefore we live in a holy manner, with a conscience sensitive to the topic of purity and impurity, not according to the laws that we are reading today in Leviticus 11 and 12, but according to what we will read in the New Testament.
But that doesn’t mean the laws of Leviticus 11 and 12 are useless. On the contrary, as we just saw: they teach us about the eternal characteristics of Yahweh’s holiness. Also, as an important secondary teaching, they are very instructive in knowing other cultures. When we interact with people from other cultures to testify of the good news of Jesus Christ, we want to know them well. What do they consider clean, and what do they consider impure? What interactions do they allow between men and women? How do they treat the sick and the weak? What laws govern their sense of identity and separation from others? These are considerations of great importance if we want to communicate clearly and effectively the love, redemption and holiness of God through Jesus Christ.