I recently mentioned that the most common Hebrew word used to describe "sacrifice" is korban (קָרְבָּן), which comes from the root karov (קָרַב) meaning to "draw close" or "to come near." In the Tabernacle, korbanot (קָרְבָּנוֹת) were various ritual acts that were used for the worshipper to draw near to the LORD. I also mentioned that the general theme of the Book of Leviticus is holiness (i.e., kedushah: קְדֻשָּׁה) and noted that the Hebrew root for holy (i.e., kadosh: קדשׁ) occurs over 150 times in the book. The message of Leviticus is that since God is holy, we must be holy in our lives as well, and this means first of all being conscious of the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean, and so on: "You are to distinguish between the holy (i.e., ha-kadosh: הַקּדֶשׁ) and the common (i.e., ha-chol: הַחל), and between the unclean (i.e., ha-tamei: הַטָּמֵא) and the clean (i.e., ha-tahor: הַטָּהוֹר)" (Lev. 10:10, see also Ezek. 44:23). Just as God separated the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4), so we are called to discern between (בֵּין) the realms of the holy and the profane, the sacred and the common, and the clean and the unclean. Indeed, the Torah states "God called the light Day, and the darkness he called night," thereby associating His Name with the light but not with the darkness (Gen. 1:5).
Spiritually understood, the Mishkan physically represented the separation of these realms, as may be illustrated with the following diagram:
When applied to the Mishkan, the word "clean" (i.e., tahor: טָהוֹר) refers to that which is pure (such as the refined gold used for the Tabernacle furnishings), or that which is ceremonially clean (as animals fit for sacrifice, water used for purification, vessels, clothing, etc.). Metaphorically tahorah refers to ethical purity or cleanliness, such as pure eyes (Hab. 1:13), clean hands (Job 17:9), refined words (Psalm 12:6), and a pure heart (Psalm 19:9; 51:10). The word "unclean" (i.e., tamei: טָמֵא), on the other hand, denotes defilement or desecration that results in a state of tumah (טֻמְאָה), or "spiritual contamination." Personal uncleanness could be incurred through natural means (i.e., childbirth, menstruation, bodily emissions, skin diseases, sexual relations, contact with a corpse, etc.) or by various kinds of ethical misdeeds (sins, iniquities, and transgressions). Since impurity could be transmitted by physical contact (Num. 19:22), being ritually unclean meant you were disqualified to enter the Tabernacle for a prescribed period of time. (Note that the sages later said that the source of impurity defiled the first contact, which in turn defiled the second contact, but then the impurity transmitted no further in the chain.)
What is clear is that the realm of the holy must be separate from the realm of the unclean, and the two must never meet (Lev. 7:20-21; Num. 5:2-3). This explains the category of the "clean" and how it functions as an entryway to the realm of the holy. Both uncleanness and holiness are spiritual properties that can be transmitted (Exod. 29:37; Lev. 6:18; 7:19; 11:32; Num. 19:22). For instance, if a holy person (e.g., a priest) touched a corpse, he became unclean (Lev. 21:1); likewise, if an unclean person ate holy food, he would be "cut off" from the people (Lev. 7:20-21). Some things are decreed as inherently unclean (for instance, certain kinds of animals, corpses, and so on), though other things are potentially clean even if they are in a state of temporary uncleanness. For instance, while various natural factors can create a state of uncleanness (e.g., menstrual discharge, etc.), some causes of uncleanness (e.g., caring for the sick, delivering a baby, burying the dead, etc.) are actually commendable. In fact, even some of the Torah's most important sacrificial rituals caused a state of uncleanness in the offerer (Lev. 16:26, 28; Num. 19:7-8). For instance, the Red Heifer sacrifice made the priest who sprinkled its ashes tamei (unclean), even though the defiled person became tahor (pure) through the act of sprinkling. The picture of the priest here is one of sacrificial love - the giving up of one's own spiritual purity so that another person can regain his purity... In light of this, it is clear that uncleanness is not the same thing as sinfulness, even though it was indeed regarded as a serious transgression to bring uncleanness into the realm of the sacred. The way to the holy was through a regulated process whereby temporary uncleanness was purified by sacrifices and cleansing rituals administered by the priests.
It is noteworthy that being "clean" (tahor) is a sort of "in-between" (or default) state that separates the realm of the unclean (tamei) from the realm of the holy (kadosh). Ethically understood, being ritually clean provides the opportunity to draw close to God through faith in God's sacrificial provisions. As such, it is a place of decision, or more properly, it represents the condition that allows for faith to be expressed. Faith in the efficacy of sacrifice leads to sanctification (lit. "making holy"), which was the grace by which a person could draw near the Holy One (the portions of the sacrifices that were eaten - whether by the priest or by the offerer - had to be consumed in a state of taharah). On the other hand, unbelief leads to defilement (or pollution), which was the natural process of degradation that alienated the soul from the Divine Presence.
The purpose of the altar at the Tabernacle was to cleanse the unclean sinner so that he or she could draw near to a Holy God. Because of the radical separation between the realm of the unclean and the realm of the holy, no unclean person could make contact with God without facing death (the separation between the profane and the sacred is regarded as absolute). Because of this, God instituted sacrificial blood as the cleansing agent that purified from the effects of defilement and sin (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22).
הֶרֶב כַּבְּסֵנִי מֵעֲוֹנִי וּמֵחַטָּאתִי טַהֲרֵנִי
he·rev ka·be·sei·ni me·a·vo·ni, u·me·chat·ta·ti ta·ha·rei·ni
"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."
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We can see the process of purification by considering the case of the metzora (or "leper") as described in Leviticus 14. First, the unclean person was excluded from the camp, since the community was to be entirely holy (Lev. 7:21; 11:45; 22:3; Num. 5:2-3). If the one suffering from tzara'at (i.e., the metzora) had undergone teshuvah (repentance) and had apparently been healed, he would first call for the priest to be reexamined. If the priest saw no sign of tumah (uncleanness), a second examination was scheduled seven days later, and if the metzora was free from the disease, the process of tahara (purification) would begin.
The purification process was somewhat elaborate: After the second examination, the priest required that the metzora bring the following items for his cleansing:
- An earthenware bowl filled with spring water (mayim chayim)
- Two birds of the same type (whether turtledoves or pigeons)
- A stick of cedar wood
- A hyssop branch
- A scarlet thread
The priest then commanded that one of the birds should be slaughtered over the earthen vessel filled with fresh spring water, with its blood mixing with the water. The living bird, the piece of cedar, and the hyssop branch were then tied together using the scarlet thread, and the entire bundle was dipped into the earthen vessel. The blood and water mixture was then sprinkled seven times on the healed metzora, and the other bird was then set free.
Next, the afflicted person washed his clothes, shaved off all his hair, and was immersed in a mikveh (ritual pool for cleansing). After that he may return to the general camp - but he may not return to his home for another seven days. On the eighth day he would bathe again and offer a several offerings (a chatat, an asham, an olah, and a minchah), but the blood from the asham (guilt) offering was sprinkled on his earlobe, thumb and foot (Lev. 14:14). Only after all this was he pronounced tahor (clean) by the priest. His head was anointed with oil, his life of uncleanness would be over, and he would be like a soul brought back from the dead to newness of life.
This purification ritual corresponded with other rituals revealed in the Torah. The sprinkling of the hyssop by the priest recalled the blood of Passover; the offering made of the two birds - one which was sacrificed and the other set free - recalled the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur ritual. The washing of garments, the shaving of all hair, and the immersion in a mikveh recalled the birth of the Jewish people at the Sea of Reeds. The blood of the guilt offering sprinkled on the earlobe, thumb and foot, recalled the dedication of Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel (Lev. 14:14). In other words, the individual purification process mirrored the purification of the community of Israel, and healing ultimately meant being reidentified as a redeemed child of God. In a very literal sense, then, we see how the metzora was "reborn" by water and by the blood (John 3:5; 19:34; Heb. 9:19).
"The Messiah -- what is his name?... The sages say, the Leper Scholar..." (Sanhedrin 98b). But how was it that Yeshua was able to touch the metzora ("leper") and yet remain clean himself (Matt 8:1-4)? Only because He is the LORD, the Healer. Just as Yeshua spoke with greater authority than Moses (Matt. 5:21-48), so He was able to do what Moses (and those under the Levitical system of worship) could not do -- namely, reach down in compassion and take away the uncleanness from our lives.... Yeshua's blood creates the "waters of separation." He is the fulfillment of the "Red Heifer" sacrifice. Only Yeshua enters the "leper colony" of humanity and takes away our tzara'at (sin) by becoming ish machovot (אישׁ מַכְאבוֹת), a leper Himself, the Just for the Unjust, that He might make us acceptable before the LORD. As the prophet Isaiah wrote of Messiah:
"He is despised and rejected of men, a man of pains (אִישׁ מַכְאבוֹת) and acquainted with sickness (וִידוּעַ חלִי), and we hid as it were our faces from him. He was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he has carried our sicknesses (חֳלָיֵנוּ) and borne our pains (מַכְאבֵינוּ), yet we esteemed him as plagued (נָגַע), smitten of God (מֻכֵּה אֱלהִים) and oppressed. But he was pierced (מְחלָל) for our transgressions (פְּשָׁעֵנוּ), he was crushed for our iniquities (עֲוֹנתֵינוּ): the discipline for our peace was upon him (מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו); and in his blows we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, but the LORD has attacked in him (הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ) the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:3-6)
"The LORD has "attacked in him (הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ) the iniquity of us all..." (Isa. 53:6). Through the substitutionary sacrifice of the righteous Suffering Servant, Yeshua, we are both forgiven and made free from the power of sin and death. Because of Him we are no longer "lepers" or outcasts from the community of God but are made clean through His loving touch.
The Pharisees and Purity
According to Gunther Plaut (The Torah, Shmini, 724), the Pharisees later attempted to emulate the laws of the priesthood and devised various rules of purity in their daily life. For example, they formed "societies" whose members pledged to eat food only while in a state of ritual purity demanded by the priests. Yeshua, of course, had a problem with this, since it grossly distorted the divinely given means for purification (i.e., the sacrificial system) and thereby impugned His overall mission as the sacrificial lamb of God. The problem of sin, defilement, death, and so on, required nothing less than divine intervention on behalf of the leper colony of humanity, not game-playing by religionists.