Cleanness and Holiness

October 21, 2009
Holiness as Cleanness
I’ve taken a longer break than I wish at this whole holiness exploration thing due to moving and so forth. It’s good to be back meditating on this, and I can only pray that God will give me insight.
In my analysis of the Hebrew word(s) for holy, I concluded by saying that holiness is a kind of separate-plussness, but I wasn’t sure what that “plus” was. I believe that it’s a combination of things. Tonight, I’m going to write about a part of that “plussnness,” namely, holiness as cleanness. As I’ve read through Leviticus and pondered other things that I’ve heard in the past, I believe that God gave us the distinction between clean and dirty, in part, as a means of understanding holiness.
In the OT times, the distinction between clean and dirty was a powerful one. It goes back, in some form, at least as far as Noah, who was commanded to take different numbers of clean and unclean animals into the ark. It was recorded in writing and cemented in the Jewish law. Cleanness/uncleanness became a religious, ceremonial concept. If you were unclean, you had to stay away from the temple, and if you were clean, you could enter it (reference needed). If you were unclean, you would stay away from people, because if you touched them, they became unclean. Objects you used also could become unclean.
Leviticus 10
I’ll pick up in Leviticus 10 for some more specifics. Chapter 10 is a continuation of the narrative of Chapter 9, which records the dedication of Aaron and his sons as the first Hebrew priests. Chapter 10 begins with Nadab and Abihu (sons of Aaron) being consumed with fire from the Lord for disobeying His commands in how they burned incense in their censors. Why did God do this? Because He would be honored and show Himself holy before all the people (10:3). It was like another, small-scale, golden calf incident.
We’re given an interesting command regarding the priests in verses 10-11. The priests, during their service, are not to drink wine or other fermented drink. I think this is a matter of respect for God, primarily, that they must come before a holy God in utter reverence, not drunk.
Whatever other reasons there may be, the next command is that the priests must teach the people to distinguish between holy and the common, clean and the unclean. They must also teach the Israelites the commands of God.
As I read this, I say, “aha!” Right there, we see holiness and cleanliness next to one another as things the priests must teach. And this is not the only time.
Leviticus 11: dietary laws
Chapter 11 is where it gets really interesting to me. It’s where God starts writing about dietary laws. He divides certain animals as clean and certain animals as unclean for the Israelites, then tells them to detest and not eat the unclean ones.
In verses 24 and 25 (and elsewhere), we see regulations concerning the touching of unclean things. People also become unclean, clothing becomes unclean, clay pots they touch must be broken (11:33), etc.
These clean/unclean laws often come with something like the following pattern: 1) The process of becoming unclean (i.e. touching a carcass of an animal) 2) An inspection by a priest (in non-dietary laws) 3) The cleaning process or what to do with unclean things (i.e. washing people and clothing, breaking pots, etc) 4) A time period for the uncleanness after the washing (usually till evening).
The relationship between holiness and cleanness.
I believe that verses 43-45 show that there is a certain relationship between holiness and cleanness: “Do not defile yourselved by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am Yahweh your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am YHWH who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy, because I am holy.”
Again, the famous “Be holy, because I am holy.” However, look right above it! Ponder the implication of that statement, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground… Be holy…” The implication is that if they were to be made unclean by means of these unclean animals, they would also be spoiling their holiness. I take this to mean that their holiness included cleanness. That cleanness is a part of holiness.
Another great example of these two concepts closely tied together is chapter 21, which contains regulations for priests. Again and again priests are said to be holy. And at the same time, they are told that they must not make themselves unclean, even when a relative dies, because as priests, they’re especially holy. The two are intertwined.
Why cleanness?
I said from the beginning that the holiness of God is a mystery too high and grand for us to grasp in its entirety. An assumption that I have made is that therefore, to help us understand it as best we can, He has given us analogies in the Scriptures. Separateness I think is the analogy that captures the essense of it best, but cleanness also helps us in our understanding.
Why cleanness? What is it about being clean that is supposed to help us understand that “plusness” of holiness?
First, cleanness is a good thing. In that ancient culture, and in all cultures I know of, being clean is good, and being dirty is bad (whatever clean and dirty mean in that culture). So with holiness: it is separateness, but separateness in a good way! It’s an inherently good thing!
Cleanness is also a purity. If you are clean, you are not polluted by bad things. God, as supremely clean, is not polluted by sin or anything else in the world: He is clean and telling His people to be clean.
I think that another part of this analogy is that dirt gets on other things. This was repeated in various ways with the different regulations. For example, anyone who entered an unclean house became unclean till evening (14:46-47). Just as things that touch unclean things become unclean, so it is with unholiness. Holiness, when it is mixed with unholiness, becomes dirty, defiled. That’s why God constantly tells His people: “Be holy because I am holy.” It’s so easy to become unholy!
Well, I still have more to write about cleannness and holiness, so stay tuned!

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