Leviticus Lessons From Lockdown
I’m currently reading through Leviticus. As I’ve worked through the laws on ritual purity (Lev. 11-14), I’ve been struck by some parallels with our current situation: a dangerous and contagious threat to the community, the requirement of periods of quarantine, the delineation of which places are and which are not safe, and even an affirmation of the importance of handwashing (Lev. 15:11)! These parallels got me thinking; perhaps our experience of the coronavirus pandemic can help us to better understand the laws for ritual purity.
In ancient Israel, there was a scale of three ritual states: the default state was purity (often referred to as ‘clean’), but in certain circumstances one could move down the scale into impurity (‘unclean’) or up the scale to holiness (‘holy’). Going down a step on the scale would happen through various circumstances (e.g. bleeding, some diseases, or contact with someone or something already in a state of impurity); while moving up the scale usually required ritual actions (e.g. bathing, changing clothes, offering a sacrifice, but sometimes just the passing of time).
Importantly, ritual impurity wasn’t about one’s legal status before God, so it wasn’t necessarily wrong to become impure. Being ritually impure didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t righteous, but it did mean you couldn’t come into contact with holy things or holy places. The reason that avoiding impurity and being cleansed of impurity was so important was because of the risk that uncleansed impurity might defile the tabernacle (Lev. 15:31).
It’s not clear and not stated why some things were considered impure and others weren’t, but the purpose of the laws is clear. The concept of ritual purity would have taught the Israelites about the utter purity and holiness of God and their need to be pure and holy to draw near to him (Lev. 11:44-45). Coming to the tabernacle required one to be in a state of purity, but even that wasn’t enough to enter the tent of meeting. Only those who were holy, the priests, could enter the tent, and only one who was most holy, the high priest, could enter the holy of holies. The fact that the purity laws affected many different areas of life taught the Israelites that their whole life needed to reflect the purity and holiness of God.
Ultimately, ritual purity was meant to teach the Israelites about the vital importance of moral purity: just as ritual purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God, so moral purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God.
What does all of this have to do with our present experience? Well, I’m not sure that’s actually the right question. The question is not what Leviticus can teach us about coronavirus, but what can coronavirus teach us about Leviticus? Often, one of the best ways to understand Old Testament law and history is to try and think our way into the experience of the Israelites. In doing so, we begin to get a sense of how the things they went through and the laws they lived under would have impacted them.
We no longer live with potentially dangerous and contagious ritual impurity all around us, but we are currently living with a potentially dangerous and contagious virus all around us. We now know what it is like to be placed into quarantine. We know what it is like to live with the constant risk that we might come into contact with, as it were, ‘impurity’ or that this ‘impurity’ might infiltrate our house and render it ‘impure’. We’ve had the experience of being unable to go to certain places and to see certain people because of the risk that we might carry ‘impurity’ with us. Some of us will learn what it’s like to contract such ‘impurity’ and to have those who interact with us need to protect themselves from it. Perhaps these experiences can begin to help us understand a little bit of what it would have been like to live under the laws of ritual purity and to learn the lesson they were designed to teach.
As new covenant believers, we are no longer under these laws. The sacrifice of Jesus’ blood for us was so effective that we have been brought into a constant state of purity and holiness. We are now ‘saints’, ‘holy ones’ (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil 1:1). But while that is our legal position, we are still called to live out that holiness in every area of our lives. The lesson which the laws of ritual purity were designed to teach is still just as relevant to us: ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; cf. Matt. 5:48).