Pollution and Purity In the Age of COVID-19

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This COVID-19 crisis has caused many of us to view life through new lenses. In the first five books of the Old Testament, there are different types of laws: civic, moral and ceremonial/ritual. Among these laws are rules that define what it means to be clean and unclean. This is a framework that anthropologists called “purity and pollution” and for many of us in the West, it seems brand new. But, this framework is hardly novel to many cultures.

Often we find the Old Testament’s purity language strange and uncomfortable. We’re inclined to entirely sweep it aside in light of Jesus, who has fulfilled the law on our behalf. This it understandable, but if we ignore purity and pollution in the Bible, we miss out in two ways:

  • The God of the Old and New Testament is one and the same and if we never take time to understand these laws, we’re missing out on a lens that shows us what God is like.
  • We miss a view into the Biblical cultural worldview where concepts of purity and pollution are under the surface of almost everything.

However, in this COVID age, we’re suddenly thinking in these terms, even if we use the language of health and infection instead.

Two Purity Laws from the Old Testament

  • Leviticus 13 &14 give direction on how to handle various skin diseases. If someone is found to be contagious, they are declared unclean by a priest: “He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46). But, God provides a way back to community. First, the priest goes outside the camp to examine them and, if they’re found clean, they are allowed back into the camp, although must remain physically distant for a week. On the 8th day, the formerly ill person brings sacrifices to the Tent of Meeting. The priest marks their bodies with blood and oil from the offerings and they are declared fully and visibly clean, ready to be received back into community life.
  • Leviticus 12 & 15 explain the proper way to deal with bodily discharges. There are three categories:
  • Unhealthy discharges: treated in a similar fashion to skin diseases and applying to both men and women.
  • Normal discharges: especially those to do with procreation and menstruation. These render a person unclean but after a waiting period and simple washing, they can re-establish cleanliness. Again, these apply to both men and women.
  • Childbirth: a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for a number of days after giving birth. “She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed” (Leviticus 12:4).  After the waiting period, an offering was brought to the to the Tent.

While these codes are essentially equal, they apply disproportionately to women, leading to a different social and religious impact for them. But, it would be a mistake to think that female bodies themselves were considered unclean. This is by no means a God-ordained caste system which God preferred men over women. Perhaps part of the reason behind this is the same reason Muslim women do not fast while on their period: it’s not considered an exclusion, it’s considered mercy from Allah as fasting is not to be a hardship, but an ease. As childbearing was particularly difficult in those days, perhaps these limits are reminders of God’s mercy.

Since the Fall, the question has been “How can impure people come close to a pure, holy God?”. Laws about purity and pollution are simply ways to deal with the fallout of life outside the Garden, “lest they die in their uncleanness” (Leviticus 15:31). God set up these laws because He wants to be with His people: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).  

Purity in the New Testament 

Jesus is the clearest way God has spoken. If you want to know how God feels about something, watch what Jesus does. The gospels are full of instances where Jesus is with those who should pollute Him. Matthew 8:1-3 is the story of a man with leprosy whom Jesus touches and cleanses. He should be socially distant but Jesus responds by touching him while he’s still ill. Instead of carefully preserving his ritual purity, He moves towards those who should be contaminating Him. He doesn’t just diagnose like an Old Testament priest, He intervenes and changes the situation. Jesus doesn’t get dirty; He makes people clean.

He’s done the same thing from birth. Luke 2 shows Mary, finished with weeks of quarantine, offering the sacrifice required of her by the law. But think, all those weeks she was recovering and ceremonially unclean, God lay in her arms. The Holy of Holies was God’s presence among His people but there was Christ, in the outer court, in the arms of his earthly mother.

So, what do we learn about God by looking at purity and pollution? It points to the holiness and otherness of God: we can’t presume to approach God on our terms, but He delights to come to us. The good news for Jesus followers is that God is the one who makes the move so we can know and enjoy Him. John 1:14 says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”. He chose to be born from the body of a young, ritually unclean, poor, unmarried woman from a persecuted minority. He went to the region of the unclean and instead of just diagnosing the illness, offers up His own life to make us clean. He doesn’t lower His standards; He fulfils them Himself. Those who accept His sacrifice are marked by the Holy Spirit and welcomed into the community of His purified people.