Pure and Impure

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The OT concept of the pure and impure, a notion shared with most of the ancient religions, does not derive its origins from moral considerations. Rather, its origins are found in primitive disgust with the loathsome, a dynamic consideration of sin, and the consciousness, proper to Israel, of being a holy people, striving for holiness, separated and apart from other peoples. This article treats the pure and impure in this order: consideration that it is not a moral concept, it is related to the holy, the concept's growth and change, and its position in NT Christianity.


The pure (tāhēr ) is not to be identified with physical cleanness or moral purity; on the other hand, the impure (tāmē ) positively suggests something mysterious and dangerous and, consequently, to be avoided at all costs. Hence the impure is strictly forbidden or taboo. Thus a person, an animal, a certain thing or action may be impure, e.g, a woman after childbirth, a camel, a corpse. Words that convey this concept of pure or impure appear more than 500 times in the Bible. Purity seems to become a matter of national life and death, its loss causing Yahweh to turn away His face: "According to their uncleanness and their transgressions I dealt with them" (Ez 39.24). This attitude stems from Israel's response to the holiness of Yahweh: "Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy" (Lv 19.2). Cleanness or purity implies holiness; yet, in certain respects, the impure resembles the holy.


The idea of the impure and the holy are closely related. This is well illustrated by the Semitic root rm with its polarity of meaning, signifying both the holy and the abominable [see W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (New York 2d ed. 1948) 176]. That which is holy (qādôš ) is untouchable (Lv 11.3140; 15.412, 2028). Therefore, after performing his sacred duties, the priest had to take off his holy garments and put on others (Ez 44.19; Ex 28.43; Lv 6.34; etc.). By touching sacred objects, such as the red heifer (Nm 19.110), one became impure; hence the priest who sprinkled the blood contracted impurity that necessitated washings before he could approach the Holy One. Although the removal of impurity is called "sanctifying" (Jos 3.5; 1 Sm 16.5), to be pure and to be holy are not the same. Purity seems to be a condition or prerequisite for holiness, a positive power of worthiness for approaching the "Holy One." The "holy" God can not tolerate the impure, which shows that the foundation of the purity prescriptions in the OT are of a religious nature. [see holiness (in the bible)]. Since Yahweh is a jealous God and tolerates no other gods, His people become impure by worshiping other gods (Jer 2.7, 23; Hos 6.10; etc.), by consulting fortunetellers (Lv 19.31), shaving the hair above the forehead for the dead (Dt 14.1), etc.; because other gods are worshiped in foreign lands, these lands (Am 7.17; Is 52.1) and all that comes with them, including their food, (Hos 9.3; Dn 1.516), are impure. Consequently, Canaanite sanctuaries and their contents had to be utterly destroyed (Dt 7.5, 25) and the booty of the Madianite war had to be purified (Nm 31.2024). Returning from Babylon, the Jews purified themselves (Est 6.2022) and the walls of Jerusalem, which had been defiled by foreigners (Neh 12.30). As illustrated by the practice of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian Exile, the center of the laws of ritual purity in the postexilic age was the theological notion of the holiness of separation [see J. Bonsirven, Le Judaïsme Palestinien au temps de Jesus-Christ 2 v. (Paris 1934) 2:183185]. In NT times the Jews are mentioned as avoiding impurity, i.e., contact with foreigners at the time of the Passover (Jn 18.28).


The distinction between the pure and impure existed among the Israelites before the codification of the Mosaic Law. Having taken over and sanctioned the customs, the Law transformed them into religious precepts. Their observance became a sign of the holiness of the people of God (Lv 11.44) and served to preserve monotheism among the Israelites since it set them apart from the pagan nations (Dn 1.8, 12; Tb 1.1012; etc.); moreover, because the precepts of purity were regarded as God's commandments, their observance fostered morality. In fact, this practice led to heroic deeds, such as the martyrdom of Eleazar (2 Mc 6.1831). Nevertheless, the danger of formalism was ever present and an exaggerated zeal for ritual purity arose. The preexilic Prophets inveighed against abuses in cult practices of purification: "This people draws near with words only and honors me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me, and their reverence for me has become routine observance of the precepts of men" (Is 29.13; see also Hos 6.6; Am4.15; Jer 7.2124). The Prophets continued to emphasize that the real impurity that stained man was sin (Ez 36.1726), a stain in man that only God could purify (Is6.57). The radical purification of lips and heart and of the entire being comes with the messianic promises: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you " (Ez 36.25; see also Zep 3.9; Is 35.8; 52.1).

The Psalmists also celebrate moral purity. God's goodness turns to the clean of heart [Ps 72 (73).1]. Approach to the Lord is for the sinless, whose heart is clean [Ps 23 (24).4]; the Lord rewards according to one's justice [Ps 17 (18).21, 25]. More than all other Psalms, the "Miserere" [Ps 50 (51)] manifests the transition to moral purity: "Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (v. 9). Paralleling Ezechiel (36.25) and crowning the OT tradition, the Psalmist cries: "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me" (v. 12). The other Wisdom teachers also stress purity of heart, hands, and prayer (Jb 11.4, 14; 16.17), while noting a radical impurity of man before God (Prv 20.9; Jb 9.3031).


Side by side with the tradition accenting moral purity in postexilic Judaism, there is found also the legalistic tendency, which continued to the time of Christ, that placed increasing emphasis on the material conditions of purity, i.e., repeated ablutions (Mk 7.38), cup washing (Mt 23.25), avoidance of sinners (Mk 2.1516), and the like. Jesus Himself observed certain rules of purity (Mk1.4344) and seemed to condemn only excesses [Mk7.613; see V. Taylor, The Gospel according to Mark (London 1952) 342347]. It is not likely that He explicitly and categorically abrogated the dietary laws of Judaism; otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the early Christian community had to go through such painful searchings before finally eliminating these laws (Acts 10.14; 15.2829; Gal 2.1117; Rom 14.14; Col 2.2022). Yet, Jesus decisively proclaimed that moral impurity, not ritual, is the true defilement: "Hear men, all of you, and understand. There is nothing outside a man that entering into him, can defile him; but the things that come out of a man, these are what defile a man" (Mk 7.1415). In this sense devils can be called "unclean spirits" (Mk 1.23; Lk 9.42). It is then the pure of heart (Mt 5.8) who have access to God. To see God and to come into His Presence, not only in the Temple but also into His Kingdom, moral purity is not sufficient. The active presence of the Lord is necessary; only then is man radically pure or holy: "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you" (Jn 15.3; see also 13.10).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 19694. g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:641648. p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456) 2:204216.

[j. lachowski]