Purification (in the Bible)

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In biblical usage the term "purification" refers to a certain rite in the external worship of God. Purification seeks to remove legal uncleanness so that the purified individual may resume normal activity in society. Special holiness arising from close contact with divine things is also something that at times requires subsequent purification.

The rites of purification are found chiefly in the section of the Priestly Code known as the Law of Purity (Lv 1116). This postexilic codification of rituals of the period of the second Temple contains much ancient material that is used to emphasize both the separation of the Israelites from pagan peoples and the holiness of Yahweh.

Origin. The origin of these rites is lost in antiquity, since they are based on the notions of pure and impure that stem from primitive ideas of tabu (see pure and impure). There are indications in the Bible that this distinction between the clean and unclean, with the consequent need of purification, was present among the patriarchs and must have been inherited from the common Semitic culture (e.g., Gn 31.35; 1 Sm 20.26). Exposure to contamination was presented by the prophets as a punishment of Yahweh for the infidelity of the people (Am 7.17; Hos 9.34; Ez 4.1314). Although purification had such origins, it must likewise be recognized that the rites received a much deeper significance in the light of the covenant and of the development of religious ideas. Accordingly, a metaphorical interpretation is given to a ritual action in Ps 50 (51).9.

Types. The rites of purification in the Bible are of different types and degrees. There are, first of all, simple ablutions and temporary quarantine (Lv 11.25; Dt 23.12). Then there are purifications brought about by ablution with specially prepared water (Nm 19.1122; 31.23). The preparation of this lustral water (Nm 19.110) is itself related to ancient customs known to have existed in Arabia. Finally, there are purifications accomplished by letting a determined period of time pass and then offering a prescribed sacrifice (Lv 12.67), or by ablutions, lapse of time, and the offering of such a sacrifice (Lv 15.1315).

The distinction between these various rites is not based on a notion of the voluntary or involuntary occurrences of contamination, as can be seen from the fact that the same rite is used for both types (cf. Lv 15.8 with Lv 11.40). Their differences may be explained as the concurrence of various traditions and a heightened sense of moral guilt leading to the use of sacrifices of expiation even for occurrences that were not voluntary (Lv 15.1315; Lv 15.2829).

The legal uncleanness that is to be removed by these rites may be divided into several distinct categories that have a certain aura of mystery about them. The first of these is connected with the functions of reproduction or sexual activity. Sexual intercourse itself renders the parties unclean and requires the purification of simple ablution and lapse of time (Lv 15.18), a tradition evidenced also in Ex 19.15. Nocturnal emissions or any unnatural flow is a cause of uncleanness requiring the purification of ablution and lapse of time (Lv 15.212; Dt 23.10). The same is true for the menstrual flow or any unnatural flow affecting women (Lv 15.1927). Childbirth results in a legal contamination that is purified by passage of time and the offering of sacrifice (Lv 12.25).

Another category of legal uncleanness results from contact with dead bodies, whether of animals or human beings (Lv 11.2425, 3940; Nm 19.1120). It is notable that in the tradition of Numbers, the purification is accomplished with the specially prepared lustral water mentioned above. The contamination from these dead bodies, as from all unclean objects, can be transmitted either directly or indirectly so that even objects that come in contact with such bodies must likewise be purified or broken, as in the case of articles of clothing or wooden or earthen jars (Lv 15.12).

leprosy or various forms of skin disease were a source of contamination, contact with which required purification. Upon being cured, the victim of such diseases could return to normal activity in society only after an involved ritual of purification (Lv 1314).

Special holiness resulting from contact with divine things was also something that required purification. This is the signification of the sacrifices offered at the term of the nazarite vow (Nm 6.1012), as also at the conclusion of the ordination of Aaron and his sons (Lv 9.17).

The rites of purification were used as needed, but during the last centuries of OT times some elements of these rituals were connected with a feast that was a sort of feast of national purification known as the Day of atonement (Lv 16).

The heightened sense of guilt and need for purification that existed among the Jewish people at this late period of OT history carried over into the NT, where the excessive zeal of the pharisees for ritual purity became the object of Jesus' condemnation (Mk 7.6; Lk 11.38). Such concern for purification was prevalent also in the qumran community of the essenes, as evidenced by their writings and suggested by the architectural features of their monastery.

Bibliography: h. lesÊtre, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux (Paris 18951912) 3.1:857861; 5:872874, 879880. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 196667. r. de vaux Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions (New York 1961) 460466. w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961) 1:133141.

[s. m. polan]