Purity Codes, Holiness, and What God Requires


Purity Codes, Holiness, and What God Requires

Everyone loves a legalist and a Pharisee. We raise the bar for everyone else, making it difficult to jump through. Christ said he came to fulfill the law not to destroy it. So what does that mean? It seems that there is a royal law that everything hangs upon in scripture Love God, and Love your neighbor. So why do legalists, we embedded in religiosity, and us Pharisees run around saying who is clean and unclean? Who is an abomination, and how we can point them out? I think we rather prefer puffing ourselves up than letting Jesus like kenosis enter into our lives.

In Leviticus, the wandering people of God read instructions on how to live their life. These instructions set them apart from the previous cultures who oppressed, right[2]?  Leviticus is then a boundary setter between the people of God and the Canaanites.[3] Near eastern ancient persons often dominated enslaved persons[4] or conquered people by sodomizing them, or subjecting them to being in the sexual position of a woman, murdered children in cultic practices[5], valued profits over people, sacrificed swine, snakes, and “unclean animals” to Canaanite deities [6]and worshipped foreign gods. Israel was a holy nation. The law urged followers to separate themselves from other nations and cultic practices.[7]These codes give laws on things like not wearing mixed fabrics (Leviticus 19:19) or having sex with a wife who is experiencing menses (Leviticus 18:19) or not sacrificing children to Molech.  Richard Boyce states that these were boundary laws, having to deal mostly with each man’s personal property.[8] Some scholars suggest that these codes affect the order or nature of things. Other academics link holiness with wholeness,[9] contending that liquid displaced in life cycles- sex, childbirth, death, and sacrifice was unwhole, such as blood, semen, and other fluids. Scholars argue why and what these purity codes represent. The precise meanings do not stand out even to the “Judeans of post-exilic” age.[10] Does uncleanliness merely result from contact with animals or contagion, and not deal with matters of the heart?[11] Are purity codes an outward symbol of an inward intention?[12] Did the expression or outward symbols really count as much as the heart?[13]

The word used for abomination in much of the purity codes of Leviticus is To’e’bah. This word is often translated as “taboo” or relating to the worship of foreign gods.[14] Others suggest the word directly related to unclean or impurity.[15]

Is Leviticus, following the strict letter of the law necessary? Is it salvific? The sacrifices ceased several times within Jewish history. Modern day observant Jews no longer bring bulls and cows to a temple. Neither did the Hebrew people in exile between 587 and 539 BCE, or when Antiochus raided the temple in 168 BCE, or after the destruction of the temple in 70CE.[16] Furthermore there are references in the apocalyptic literature and prophets that the functioning of sacrifice cults were not essential.[17]

The prophets seem to demand a different holiness, a different righteousness, and a different justice than the purity codes put forth. As a matter of fact, righteousness Tzedek means justice and righteousness[18] which gives a whole new spin on “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his justice.” Tzedekah (justice and righteousness) related to justice in relationships. Misphat (Justice) seems to mean justice when dealing with someone in social order. This was the holiness that was required by God. Righteousness in the world instead of liturgies and offerings, pleased God.[19] All that other stuff seemed to get in the way with Loving God, and Loving people.

The prophets love screaming at the Temple system, begging it to come back to justice, away from its cult of socially established tradition and parroting of beliefs versus practice of relational holiness:

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

12 When you come to appear before me,[a] who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

(Isaiah 1:10-17)

Isaiah rails against the temple system and their purity codes. He even calls them Sodom and Gommorah. Is that because all those so called religious people were having homosexual relationships or was it because they weren’t treating others with hospitality? It seems Yahweh is fed up with purity codes, sacrifice, and a false sense of religion, but really requires equity.  Holiness as described by the prophets is not merely a matter of “creedal correctness”[20] as many modern cultural Christians suggest, it is rather a matter of methodical relational living. We have neglected to love our neighbor. Most of us are really good at personal piety and devotion, and many of us can feel good about our clothes line religion. Yet God equates holiness with how we treat others, not our feasts, rituals, purity codes, or our sacrifices.

Amos seems to sputter a similar message to those who have fallen into legalism and neglect of justice:

Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. 7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name, 9 who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.

14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; 17 in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.

18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5)

At this time, religion became equated with a celebration of national optimism and a preoccupation of how blessed the ritual observers were.[21] In fact, they were so blessed materially, that there was great economic inequity. The poor walked around hungry, while the temple goers ornamentally donned gold and fine clothing.[22] Amos tells them to shut down their worship, their ritual, their sacrifice, and all their pomp and circumstance and to care about their neighbors.

Ezekiel comes back to equating Israel with an adulterous woman, and called her sin worse than Sodom. He also says that Sodom did abominable things- root word To’e’bah. Did they do taboo things, things that would be similar to spreading contagion, gang rape which would break down a man’s property and dominion, or is that cultish practices?

48 As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16)

According to Ezekiel, Sodom and Gomorrah did not take care of the poor and needy either. They did not act with justice and righteousness. Perhaps they also broke ritual purity. Is ritual purity necessary to please God? What does Micah say?

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).

The prophets show disdain for legalism, and hatred towards religiosity. In biblical faith, the practice of justice is the primary expectation of God.[23] God requires righteousness or justice[24], yet we accidental Pharisees and legalists neglected justice in turn for “religiosity parading as religion.”[25]Israel possessed all the externals and white wash of true religion- fine buildings, passionate displays of worship and ritual, solemnly impressive sacrifices, great praise bands, and well trained choirs. Yet those varnishes, facades, and externals do not “beget communion with God- Justice and Righteousness, fair dealing with others-these are indispensable conditions for any traffic with God.”[26] How much of our modern church organization is varnish, facades, white wash, and externals? How much of it is right-relationship with God and others? Is loving our neighbor our overriding rule?[27]

Some would say that the New Testament is divorced from the Old Testament. Some say that we never have to live under the law again. I think in a way, we do not love under legalism, but we should always live by the Spirit which will bring about the two greatest parts of the law.

Jesus himself never broke the law[28], never sinned, but he fulfilled it in a way outside of the religiosity of the time. he met with those considered unclean:  the diseased and sick (Matthew 4) a woman caught in adultery, a half-breed theologically unorthodox Samaritan who was sleeping with a man she wasn’t married to, lepers (Matt. 8), a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15), a Roman centurion and his slave boy( Matt. 8), a dead person(Matt. 9). The list goes on and on. Jesus observed righteousness rather than purity code-legalism He plucked grains of corn on the Sabbath. His disciples did not wash their hands (matt.15). He hung out with drunkards and tax collectors. Jesus was harsh in his treatment with many religious persons.  He responds back to them many times. He throws down their purity codes with one answer:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15)

He then explains to his disciples that they are not defiled by what they eat, or what customs they have, but rather what thoughts rule their hearts. The very next pericope challenges this further when Jesus speaks to a Canaanite woman Seems strange, that she is a Canaanite, since these people lay slaughtered with the other seven nations in Joshua. Yet, he calls her a dog, to play on the classism, racism, and religious superiority at work in the social system, and then he heals her, despite her being “unclean” or To’e’bah.

Jesus then goes on to the woes:

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Jesus sets forth that outward purity, ritual, and sacrifice do not matter.  He  then goes on to talk about the religious people, and how he loves them, even though at their hands he will die, as do all prophets.

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’[c]

Paul came along preaching against legalism. His letters are marked with notions of “purity codes” and outward holiness, specifically when it came to circumcision. Peter struggled with these codes, customs, and traditions until Acts 10.

καὶ φωνὴ πάλιν ἐκ δευτέρου πρὸς αὐτόν· Ἃ ὁ θεὸς ἐκαθάρισεν σὺ μὴ κοίνου.

And What God has made clean you should not call profane. Acts 10:15

. The animals the Canaanites used for animal sacrifice are delivered to Peter three times. Yet the message is clearer than that. Socially, Peter was afraid of eating with gentiles or associating with them. Yet the purity codes, and piety separation modes were obsolete. The word here is ekatharisen .The Greek word for unclean, profane, is very much like impure Unclean. Not good. Impure. Very similar to To’e’bah. God has now decreed that all persons are clean despite what enters their mouth, what fluids are exchanges, what boundaries they cross, what customs they have. After the old legalists argue with the other faction of Antinomians, something happens were Jerusalem finally agrees in Acts 15 to love the gentiles and, boom, the Gospel burns like wildfire across everywhere.  So the question remains, are we treating people like they are unclean because of their customs, they way they handle bodily fluids, the way the eat, dress, or what enters into their body? Are we calling people unclean? Perhaps we have called postmodern culture and LGBT persons abominations, unclean, impure, and other words. In light of these scriptures, should we?

Do we practice legalism? is that what God requires? Does God want us to sacrifice bulls, children, or give huge offerings or have big church services? what does God want us to do?


[1] Matthew 28:19-20, KJV

[2] Boyce, Leviticus and numbers: purpose of purity codes to set apart from slave owners

[3] Knox preaching Leviticus 80

[4]http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dmg2/what%20did%20ham%20do.pdf accessed April 10,2013. David Goldburg explains in his “What did Ham do to Noah” looking at his father’s genitals is to be understood in its Ancient Near Eastern

context, in which such an act is considered a serious “breach of boundary,” and may

also account for the biblical punishment of slavery; and (2) that the rabbinic

interpretations of Ham’s act as sodomy and castration are to be understood on the

basis of a linguistic association of the Hebrew root >_h meaning ‘to commit a sexual

act, to sodomize,’ in the first case, and by an implied hermeneutic of midah keneged

midah, with slavery and castration understood as forms of ‘death,’ in the second case.

[5] Homoeroticism in the Biblical World 39.

[6] Knox preaching levticus 15.

[7] Homoeroticism in the Biblical World. 38

[8] Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers 66.

[9] homosexuality and the Bible two Views: 7.

[10] Knox preaching Leviticus 13.

[11] homosexuality and the Bible: Two views 5

[12] Walter Kaiser, The Old testament and the Christian, 9

[13] Knox preaching Leviticus suggest “the intention of the heart “ mattered more than the expression of obedience to purity codes, sacrifices, and rituals. 17.

[14] Homoeroticism in the Biblical World. 39

[15] Homosexuality and the Bible, Two Views. 7

[16] Knox, preaching Leviticus. 12

[17] Knox, preaching Leviticus, 12

[18] Amos: James Luther Mays Ot Library 108

[19] Amos: James Luther Mays.

[20]  Knox,Preaching from Leviticus. 19.

[21] Amos: james luther mays OT Library. 11

[22] Amos: james luther mays Ot library 11.

[23] To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly 5.

[24] John Marsh, Amos and Micah 54

[25] John March, Amos and Micah 57.

[26] John Marsch, amos and Micah 62

[27] To act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly 15

[28] 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

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