by Nabil Habibi
One of the more challenging aspects of the biblical world is the focus of the ancients on purity laws. Many ancient Jewish groups and even common people were constantly aware of their ritual purity, especially concerning eating or praying in everyday life. They lived in fear of an invisible threat: impurity. The food they ate, the people they mingled with, the places they entered, and the things they touched all had dire consequences. As Covid-19 invades our world, we find ourselves living in a similar fear of an invisible enemy. Can biblical concepts of impurity help us in the current pandemic?
In biblical times, if your house became impure it could have to be destroyed (Leviticus 14: 33-56). If you touched a corpse, or even stood inside a room with one, then you were made impure and became a source of impurity to those who touched you (Numbers 19: 11-22). Impurity was not only transmitted via touch but had an airborne power. There was a social and religious responsibility to stay pure. Your impurity endangered yourself, your family and the entire community. For some Jewish sects, such as the Qumran, you could be banned from the community meal for over a year if you were impure (e.g. 1QS 513).
Interestingly, Covid-19 resembles that malicious impurity of old. It is can be airborne. Those who test positive are in danger themselves and become pollutants to others. In many settings, coronavirus patients are reviled. An under-researched TV report on a local Lebanese station even claimed that pets could transmit Covid-19, which moved hundreds across the country to abandon their pets on the streets. People are split into “clean” and “polluted” individuals. We live in apprehension of our neighbors and friends.
But why did the ancients fear impurity? Simply put, because “holiness requires purity.” For the Hebrews receiving the law, their camp- and later their promised land and holy city of Jerusalem- was organized concentrically with the sanctuary in the middle and the community around it. Any impurity in the community affected the sanctuary, thus purity created borders of inside and outside. The pure were allowed in while the impure stayed outside. Therefore, impurity laws defined both cosmic and social borders. The impure were unable to enter into God’s presence and risk polluting God’s presence in the entire city or camp. There were even such rituals as the Day of Atonement when the Holy of Holies itself was cleansed (Leviticus 16).
While God’s people of old feared impurity, Jesus, himself a Galilean Jewish rabbi of the early 1st century, took a whole new approach. We constantly encounter Jesus in scripture in direct attack towards impurity, crossing borders that impurity had set up. We see him storm the tombs, a place of extreme impurity for Jews, where the man possessed by a legion of unclean spirits resided, and see that uncontrollable man kneel in fear in front of Jesus, the holy one of God (Mark 5:1-20). We see him react in love to the impure woman with a blood discharge who touched his robe. Rather than scolding her for making him impure, he heals her and calls her daughter (Mark 5:24-34). Most importantly, we see Jesus’ famous conversation with the Pharisees over impurity in Mark 7 (interestingly, it is a quibble over washing hands). He brings forth a new principle, a new lens. What you touch or eat and who you sit with is of little importance. Who you are is of paramount importance.
Jesus did not live in fear of becoming impure. He did not allow the fear of impurity to dictate the borders of his movement and relationships. On the contrary, he made impure spirits afraid of his presence. God’s holy presence breaks upon our polluted world; the Holy Spirit rewrites human-to-human boundaries by erasing them.
What can we get out of this brief discussion about the impurity of old and this virus of our day? In essence, a simple reminder that we are called to be like Jesus. Let us live without fear. No, don’t leave your home unnecessarily. No, don’t dismiss medical advice (it is still important to wash your hands). But yes, while we wait with the rest of the world inside our houses, we need not tremble in fear. Covid-19 might infect us. It might also kill us. But suffering and death has never been on top of our list of fears. Jesus is risen. Let us live as followers of the risen Christ.
The coming days will continue to test our faith as individuals and as the Church. Let us be known as those who were full of love, hope, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, and strength while the airborne Covid-19 swept across the nations. In the end, it is not viruses or impurities that define us, but rather our own responses to them.
In troubled places, like Lebanon where I live, the coming days might see looting, crime, and social unrest as unemployment rates continue to skyrocket and economies continue their freefall. Let us be known as those who stood firm in their identity as children of God – people of honesty and integrity – in the face of the real polluting impurities of today: sin and evil.
The coming days might raise more walls between the healthy and the sick and the haves and the have-nots. Let us be known as those who choose to continuously build bridges across the borders, even risking contamination and bankruptcy, to show Christ’s love to all.
The Holy Spirit is breaking upon the world. The Kingdom of God is more contagious than Covid-19, impurity or sin. Let us infect the world.
 Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: OUP, 2006), 169.
 Hannah K. Harrington, The Purity Texts. CQS (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 23.
 John J. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 195.
 Christian Frevel, “Purity Conceptions in the Book of Numbers in Context.” In Purity and the Forming of Religious Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean World and Ancient Judaism. DHR 3 (eds. Christian Frevel and Christophe Nihan; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), 378-80.
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), 140.
Many thanks for this. Very insightful and a beautiful comparison.
Thank you Jonathan!
Nabil, thank you for sharing this interesting discussion linking ancient and biblical concepts of impurity with today’s experience of pandemic. It shows again that seemingly inconsequential and irrelevant scripture can be practically informative for us today in our times. I look at a passage like Leviticus 13 and can’t help but read aspects of the pandemic crisis into the text and then pull meaning out of the text to help me understand a pandemic crisis. Here’s a sample in verses 29-37 (written in CAPITAL LETTERS are parts that reflect public health concepts):
29“If a man or woman has a sore on their head or chin, 30 the priest is to EXAMINE THE SORE, and if it appears to be more than skin deep and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall PRONOUNCE THEM UNCLEAN; it is a defiling skin disease on the head or chin. 31 But if, when the priest EXAMINES THE SORE, it does not seem to be more than skin deep and there is no black hair in it, then the priest is to ISOLATE THE AFFECTED PERSON FOR SEVEN DAYS. 32 On the seventh day the priest is to EXAMINE THE SORE, and if it has not spread and there is no yellow hair in it and it does not appear to be more than skin deep, 33 then the man or woman must shave themselves, except for the affected area, and the priest is to KEEP THEM ISOLATED ANOTHER SEVEN DAYS. 34 On the seventh day the priest is to EXAMINE THE SORE, and if it has not spread in the skin and appears to be no more than skin deep, the priest shall PRONOUNCE THEM CLEAN. They must wash their clothes, and they will be clean. 35 But if the sore does spread in the skin after they are pronounced clean, 36 the priest is to EXAMINE THEM, and if he finds that the sore has spread in the skin, he does not need to look for yellow hair; they are unclean. 37 If, however, the sore is unchanged so far as the priest can see, and if black hair has grown in it, the affected person is healed. They are clean, and the priest shall PRONOUNCE THEM CLEAN.”
In this time when policy makers, health professional and regular citizens alike consider matters like testing, self-isolation and quarantine, social distancing, and recoveries, a text like this becomes much more about a human condition than an ancient condition. It makes the implications of your discussion more intriguing as well when we consider Christ-like responses to impurity. Again, it’s a reminder that to be faithful we our faith we should keep our eye on all the corners of the Bible (even the really “strange” parts like purity laws) as we mindfully consider the dynamics unfolding in the world today. Thanks for sharing Nabil!
I agree. I would warn, however, that Moses was not a medical reformer. The laws have medical and hygenic significance, but when we study them we search for the theological meanings of these essentially religious laws. It helps to remember that religion, politics, and every day rules (food, clothes, and social interactions) were very much one thing in those ancient times. Perhaps we need to regain that sense of holistic thinking, at least in part.