Fear of defilement and uncleanness seems so foreign to us, so primitive. Ancient Jews, following the Mosaic law, treated women as unclean during their monthly periods (Lev. 15:9–24), and still today Muslims believe bodily fluids defile clothing. Tribal cultures are full of “taboos,” and Hindus of certain castes avoid contact with people of lower castes. We think we’ve outgrown these fears, and think the Pharisees are children who treated other Jews as if they had the cooties.
In one respect, “childish” is the right word. The law was given as a schoolmaster to lead to Christ (Gal. 3:24), a guardian and protector of Israel during Israel’s minority, until the time of maturity (Gal. 4:1–7). During that period, Paul says, Israel’s sonship took the form of a kind of slavery. There is something childish about the rules of defilement: they’re rules for children.
Purity laws were the protocols for both entering Yahweh’s presence and also addressing him. Through Torah, Israel was being trained to receive the coming King.
Still, merely dismissing these rules as childish misses some important features of these rules. A pedagogue doesn’t take care of children to keep them in permanent childhood. He conducts children until they are able to conduct themselves. And that, Paul says, was the purpose of the law. The Torah’s intention was to prepare Israel for the Messiah’s arrival.
In particular, the purity laws of the Old Testament developed certain instincts in Israel toward life, God, and the world. In refraining from blood, the truth that life belongs to God and should be returned to him was worked into the bones of faithful Israelites. Purity laws were the protocols for both entering Yahweh’s presence and also addressing him. Through Torah, Israel was being trained to receive the coming King.
Modern Purity Taboos
Dismissing purity regulations as childish also misses the many ways people today are still motivated by purity concerns. These are most obvious in non-Western societies like India, where “untouchable” is still a potent religious and social category.
More than we may acknowledge, our own behavior is still shaped by a visceral fear of pollution. How do you react when a homeless person walks up to you on the street and asks for a dollar? What kinds of emotions do you experience? You might be fearful, and in some cases fearful of your safety. But often our reaction is revulsion and fear of something other than physical attack. Our first thought is Ick, get away. Don’t touch!
How many of us are willing to hold the hand of an AIDS patient or a leper? We are decades beyond Jim Crow laws, but it’s not ancient history. What motivated separate toilets and water fountains and lunch counters? Racism, yes, but racism in the form of a fear of contamination. Why do some react so strongly to mixed-race marriages? Is it because such a marriage might be unwise, or is it because some continue to have a revulsion to what we think are abominable mixtures?
We moderns like to think we’ve outgrown all these primitive taboos, but modern society, philosophy, and culture is motivated in many ways by a drive for purity.
We moderns like to think we’ve outgrown all these primitive taboos, but modern society, philosophy, and culture is motivated in many ways by a drive for purity. The goal of much modern philosophy has been to isolate an area of pure reason, uncontaminated by the uncertainties of language, history, religion. Modern politics is founded on the imperative to avoid “mixtures” of religion and politics, church and state. Modern urban design pursues geometric clarity and cleanness, and resists the organic messiness of ancient and medieval cities. We sequester sick and dying people in hospitals, even when they aren’t contagious. Why?
Perhaps the question isn’t whether a culture will have standards of purity and defilement, but what those standards will be.
Where Purity and Defilement Really Come From
That, at least, seems to be Jesus’s assumption. Many Christians think that Jesus rejected all concern for purity, that purity was an old category that no longer pertained to his disciples. That’s not what Jesus says. Jesus was as concerned with purity and defilement as the Pharisees were, just as strict about avoiding defilement and maintaining and recovering purity.
What’s different isn’t the role of purity but its content. What defiles? For Jesus, it’s not a matter of foods, bodily emissions, or touching dead bodies. Instead, it has to do with what flows out of the heart (Matt. 15:17–20).
If you’re defiled by what comes from your heart, you do need cleansing—not by washing your hands, but with confession and the blood of Jesus.
Once we make that transposition, we see that Israel’s purity rules are still instructive. Someone defiled by murder, adultery, and slander spreads defilement, much as a menstruous woman communicated defilement under the law. Jesus wants us to react with revulsion to murder, slander, adultery, and lust, like a Pharisee around a person who had a flow of blood or skin disease. If you’re defiled by what comes from your heart, you do need cleansing—not by washing your hands, but with confession and the blood of Jesus.
Jesus makes it clear the defilements that should revolt us are the ones that come from within us. We should be repelled by our own sin, using all strategies we know to avoid and purge it. Defilements from the heart are far more virulent than anything that might come from outside. Kill it before it kills you.
Following Jesus in a World of Impurity
The change Jesus ultimately brings is more radical, and is at the heart of the gospel: Jesus neutralizes impurity’s power. Think of his own ministry: he regularly touches the ceremonially unclean, and is a friend of tax gatherers and sinners. Yet Jesus isn’t defiled. On the contrary, he cleanses by his touch and purifies by his presence. And he has given us his Spirit so we can carry on his purifying mission.
Jesus cleanses by his touch and purifies by his presence.
The Pharisees thought defilement was a power, force, or contagion that threatened them from without. They put up their defenses, cleansed themselves constantly, and avoided defiling people and circumstances, because there might be defilement around every corner. Pharisaical fears of impurity lead to a lifestyle of fear, fear of defilement and contagion, fear of others, fear of spreading death. It was a lifestyle of avoidance—avoidance of Gentiles, of less-than-pure Jews, of places and people and circumstances that might potentially defile us.
Jesus didn’t live in fear, and he calls us to follow him without fear. We’re not called to huddle in our clean enclaves to maintain our beleaguered but oh-so-pure fellowship. We’re to be like Jesus, entering a world defiled by evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders, in order to reverse the flow of impurity. We’re called to follow Jesus into the polluted world to bring the message of the kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies, cleanses, and renews.