A member of the congregation asked me a very astute question this week. Why do certain forms of impurity in the Old Testament have sacrifices to atone for them, whereas others (like murder, adultery, and idolatry) do not? To properly understand the answer to this question, we have to first get a grasp on what is happening with purity in the Old Testament.
The work of two scholars are of primary importance in this question: Jonathan Klawans and Jacob Milgrom. What they noticed was that purity in the Old Testament tends to take two forms, which Klawans labels “moral impurity” and “ritual impurity.” He breaks it down into a handy chart that looks something like this:
|Ritual||Bodily Flows, Corpses, etc.||Temporary Contagious Impurity||Bathing/Washing|
|Moral||Sins: Idolatry, Sexual Sins, Murdery||Defilement of Sinners, Land and Sanctuary||Atonement or Punishment, and Ultimately Exile|
Sins that are considered ‘moral impurity’ include sexual sins (e.g. Lev. 18:24-30), idolatry (e.g., Lev. 19:31; 20:1-3), and bloodshed (e.g. Num. 35:33-34). The OT uses a Hebrew word to describe these which is typically translated “abomination.” This type of impurity is problematic for ancient Israel because it defiles the sinner (Lev. 18:24), the land (Lev. 18:25) and the Temple (Lev. 20:3) which will eventually result in expulsion from the land.
Acts of moral impurity are differentiated from ritual impurity in some pretty important ways. First of all, moral impurity is not contagious. If I touch a corpse, and then touch you, you are considered to be impure and you must ceremonially wash in order to enter the Temple. But if I kill someone then touch you, it does nothing to you (whew!). But perhaps more importantly, whereas ritual impurity could be cleansed (i.e. the contagion is impermanent, so a menstruating woman could become pure again after her cycle), moral impurity is long-lasting, and can even lead to permanency in the case of the sinner and eventually also to the land of Israel. The only remedy for moral impurity is atonement or punishment. This idea comes out quite clearly in Numbers 35:33-34 and Psalm 106:34-41. Murderers were admitted to the sanctuary because they were not ritually impure and not physically contagious, but their act of sin itself defiled the sinner, the sanctuary, and the land of Israel.
What we’re left in, then, is a pretty bad spot. Israel, by constantly committing acts of moral impurity which continued to leave the sinner, land, and sanctuary in a state of defilement was in a state worthy of punishment and expulsion. Was this condition permanent? Well, Leviticus gives no indication for the removal of these defilements. Sacrifices for ritual impurity are not effective here. The only possible remedy is the Day of Atonement which purges the altar and shrine and removes the stain left upon the sanctuary (Lev. 16:11-19 – notice, what is being cleansed in the day of atonement is the altar from the sins of the people).
Unfortunately, these sacrifices don’t seem to purify the sinners or the land. The only solution we find in the Old Testament is in Ezekiel 36:16-18 and 22-25 . . . punishment, the wrath of God, and exile.
But Ezekiel gives us a hint of something that will take place in the future that will bring purity to their moral sins that cannot be washed away. It is only through the power of God that their sins will be washed clean and he will give a new heart and a new spirit. The point here, is that without God’s power, the defilement of the people by sin is permanent.
This is why Hebrews 9 and 10 are so important in the history of redemption. Because the OT makes it quite clear that moral impurity has no remedy outside of punishment, so, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us “indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22), and why he follows up by saying “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins . . . but when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:4, 12-14). In other words, Jesus Christ solved the previously unsolvable problem of ritual and moral impurity! Praise be to our savior!
Hope that clarifies a pretty tricky topic,