Transmission of Ritual Contamination

Leviticus 11 begins by describing the dietary laws (laws of kashrut):

  • Meat of animals that don’t chew the cud and/or those without split hooves are unclean.
  • Sea creatures without fins and scales are abominations.
  • Unclean birds are abominations.
  • Flying insects that do not have jointed legs and that creep on all four legs are abominations. 

Shortly after explaining the basic dietary laws for meat, fish, birds, and flying insects, Scripture discusses the transmission of tumah (ritual uncleanness).  Most people consider the idea that ritual uncleanness can be transmitted as being completely bogus but it’s not.  This should not surprise us because God’s people can contract various spiritual forms of uncleanness by associating with those who are wicked.  Let’s see how ritual contamination can really happen and what it represents.  Please remember not to cast aside the original commandments concerning literal situations and embrace only the spiritual application.

Leviticus 11:24-38 – Dead non-kosher creatures transmit contamination

“By these you shall become unclean; whoever touches the carcass of any of them shall be unclean until evening; 25 whoever carries part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening: 26 The carcass of any animal which divides the foot, but is not cloven-hoofed or does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Everyone who touches it shall be unclean. 27 And whatever goes on its paws, among all kinds of animals that go on all fours, those are unclean to you. Whoever touches any such carcass shall be unclean until evening. 28 Whoever carries any such carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. It is unclean to you. 29 ‘These also shall be unclean to you among the creeping things that creep on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and the large lizard after its kind; 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the sand reptile, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. 31 These are unclean to you among all that creep. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening. 32  Anything on which any of them falls, when they are dead shall be unclean, whether it is any item of wood or clothing or skin or sack, whatever item it is, in which any work is done, it must be put in water. And it shall be unclean until evening; then it shall be clean. 33 Any earthen vessel into which any of them falls you shall break; and whatever is in it shall be unclean: 34 in such a vessel, any edible food upon which water falls becomes unclean, and any drink that may be drunk from it becomes unclean.   35 And everything on which a part of any such carcass falls shall be unclean; whether it is an oven or cooking stove, it shall be broken down; for they are unclean, and shall be unclean to you. 36 Nevertheless a spring or a cistern, in which there is plenty of water, shall be clean, but whatever touches any such carcass becomes unclean. 37 And if a part of any such carcass falls on any planting seed which is to be sown, it remains clean. 38 But if water is put on the seed, and if a part of any such carcass falls on it, it becomes unclean to you.”

Basically, if you physically touch the dead carcass of any non-kosher creatures you will be unclean until evening.  You must wash your clothes and be unclean until evening.  Touching a living non-kosher creature does not transmit uncleanness.  Dead creeping things transmit contamination to things in which any work is done when they fall and come in contact with those things.  Uncleanness can be removed from work related items such as wood, clothing, skins, or sacks by washing them with water and waiting for evening to come.   

When God’s people are in the workplace, they often work with ungodly people who can influence them to sin.  Fortunately, they can be cleansed by going to Jesus, the Living Water.

Earthen vessels such as pottery, ovens, and cooking stoves are an exception to ritually cleansable work related items and must be destroyed.  Any food or drink that is in them will become unclean.  These items must somehow retain an unclean condition to the point they are not cleansable. 

This kind of unclean condition might compare with someone like the Pharaoh who had no regard for Joseph.  His spiritual condition was so bad that God hardened his heart and set him aside for destruction.   He was so unclean, he was no longer cleansable.  Sometimes our work situation may be so bad that the only way we can escape the evil influences around us is to quit and find another job.  It’s better to do that than wake up one day to discover we are in the same condition as a broken clay pot.

As we thoroughly wash ourselves daily in the Word of God and fellowship with other believers, we can remain clean.  We just need to remember not to come in contact with that which is unclean.

A dry seed does not become clean if the carcass of a creeping thing falls on it but if it falls on a seed that is already wet, it becomes unclean.  What can we learn from this commandment other than its literal meaning?  A non-Christian (dry seed) doesn’t normally become a Christian (clean) when he associates with other non-Christians (dead creeping thing).  A Christian is someone who has been washed by Living Water yet by regularly and intimately associating with those who are non-Christians, he can be spiritually affected by it and become unclean.  He must confess his sin in order to be forgiven and cleansed of unrighteousness.

Leviticus 11:39-40 – Dead kosher animals transmit contamination

“And if any animal which you may eat dies, he who touches its carcass shall be unclean until evening. 40 He who eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. He also who carries its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.”

This commandment refers to contact with dead kosher animals that die by a means other than slaughter.  Note these animals do not transmit a more extensive rule of uncleanness.

Leviticus 11:41-47 – The point/goal of the laws of kashrut:

A  “And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination.  It shall not be eaten. 42 Whatever crawls on its belly, whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet among all creeping things that creep on the earth — these you shall not eat, for they are an abomination.  43 You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps; nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them.

B – 44 For I am the Lord your God.  You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy.

C – Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

B’– 45 For I am the Lord who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God.  You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

A’ 46 ‘This is the law of the animals and the birds and every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth, 47 to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.’”

The Lord brought the children of Israel out of Egypt to be their God.  He intended for them to remain separate from the Canaanites in the Promised Land.  The command of what not to eat [labeled “C“ – “Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth” is repeatedly emphasized by being surrounded by the message [labeled “B” and “B’”] to be holy because He is holy.  This kind of literary structure is known as a chiasm or chiastic structure.  Statement “C” is the center and emphasis of this chiastic structure.  The Bible is full of these kinds of literary structures.  Chiasms can also be embedded within larger chiastic structures.  In this particular chiasm, God stressed the need for His people to distinguish between the clean and the unclean and between what could and couldn’t be eaten because those who are holy can become defiled by eating certain things.     

The idea that certain animals are unclean while others are clean is very strange to many of us but this is what God taught His people.  Another idea that seems strange to us is that certain animals and objects can receive and/or transmit tumah (ritual contamination).  This is not the same as transmitting disease caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses.  God was using these commandments to teach His people something very important. 

Let’s consider what the Lord said through Haggai to His people who had returned from the exile to see what that might be.  At this point in time, the Lord was commanding the remnant to build the second temple.

Haggai 2:10-20 says, “On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Now, ask the priests concerning the law, saying, 12 “If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?”’ “Then the priests answered and said, “No.” 13 And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.”  14 Then Haggai answered and said, “’So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. 15 ‘And now, carefully consider from this day forward: from before stone was laid upon stone in the temple of the Lord —  16 since those days, when one came to a heap of twenty ephahs, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw out fifty baths from the press, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you with blight and mildew and hail in all the labors of your hands; yet you did not turn to Me,’ says the Lord. 18 ‘Consider now from this day forward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid — consider it: 19 Is the seed still in the barn? As yet the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have not yielded fruit. But from this day I will bless you.’”

God’s people were supposed to be holy.  They had become unclean by their association with the people and gods of Canaan (Promised Land).  God’s people had not been able to transmit their holiness to the people who they were supposed to have eventually driven out of the land.  Instead they had become defiled.  Now that God’s people were back in the land, they wanted to make sure that they weren’t exiled again.  The remnant created many oral traditions during the second temple period in order to build a fence around the law to accomplish this goal.  Expecting everyone to obey all of the oral traditions eventually created a burden that was too great for the people to bear.

We need to stick to the basic laws that were originally given and just do what was commanded in the first place.  Paul reminds us what the Lord said in 2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1: Therefore “Come out from among them [unbelievers] And be separate, says the Lord.  Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”  18 ‘I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty.” 7 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

This verse commands us not to touch unclean things and indicates that there are things that can contaminate both body and spirit!  In today’s church communities we always emphasize keeping our spirits clean from things like greed, malice, jealousy, and bitterness but don’t bother to think much about keeping our physical bodies from becoming contaminated too.  We need to stop this and be vigilant about keeping both our bodies and spirits from becoming defiled with various abominations in order to be holy as the Lord desires.  As we do this, we will experience the blessing of the Lord instead of curses.

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