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Holy and Unclean in Judaism

Anyone who has spent time in the the book of Leviticus realizes that there is a lot of talk about being holy versus being unclean. However, many of these same people (myself included) get confused over what this is all about. Jacob Neusner’s Judaism When Christianity Began provides a helpful overview.

Holiness = God and life. Uncleanness = death.

  • “To be holy in Judaism means to be like God, who is called the Holy One, blessed be he, and to be unclean means to belong to the realm of death.”
  • Holy means set apart for God and stands for life. Unclean refers to that which is to be kept from contaminating the sacred and stands for death.”

Because holiness = God, it is also true that holiness = God-like living.

  • “In line with the fundamental character of Judaism as a religion of ethical monotheism, holiness bears profound implications for ethical conduct. One cannot be both holy and unethical.”

Holiness = Uncommon.

In addition to holy vs. unclean, the Bible provides another contrast that is important for understanding holiness. Specifically, holiness is contrasted with the profane.

  • Profane means common, or, “that which is available in everyday terms.”
  • Holy is a common item that “is attached to the life of service to God that is conducted in the Temple and its sacrifices.” Therefore, “holy means not only like God but designated for the service and use of God.”
  • A good example of this is the Sabbath. There are six days which are “common.” These days are for normal life. However, there is to be one day (Sabbath) that is “holy.” On the surface, there is no difference between the Sabbath and the other six days. Each has 24 hours, each has light and darkness, each may have rain or sunshine. What makes this day holy is that it is “designated for the service and use of God.”

Holiness is Possible!

Neusner concludes this discussion on an important note: humanity has the ability to be both unclean and holy. Leviticus outlines the many ways in which a person can become unclean (touching a corpse, for example). However, Leviticus always provides an avenue for the unclean person to become clean again (read: holy). Therefore, “what is most susceptible to uncleanness also is most available for sanctification.”

Is that the wonderful truth of the gospel? We humans who are experiencing death through our uncleanness may experience life through the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.

For the first time in my life I can see preaching a sermon from Leviticus!

  1. jlemke
    April 1, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Mary Douglas makes the same point about holiness and unholiness in “Leviticus as Literature.” Moreover, she has good explanations for why a lot of the laws are in place and those explanations are based on Genesis. It’s a good read.

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