Chapters 11 to 15 of Leviticus form what some commentators call ‘the cleanliness code’ or ‘the laws of purity’ for the people of Israel. We spent two weeks on chapter 11 which contain rules and regulations about clean and unclean animals and what the people had to do in order to cleanse themselves if they became unclean by touching the carcass of a dead animal. Today I’m going to try to cover the rest of the purity laws: so although I only read chapter 12, we’re going to be looking at chapters 12 to 15. And the importance of these laws for the Israelites becomes apparent in verse 31 of chapter 15 which I quoted before and which says:
You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling-place which is among them.
If someone unclean came into the tabernacle, that person would defile God’s holy dwelling place; and as a result, the unclean person would die. And so the priests — and this was their responsibility — the priests had to know these rules and regulations and to make sure that no one entered the tabernacle with an uncleanness.
Let me summarise the teaching of these chapters. Chapter 12 is about cleanliness after childbirth. A woman who gave birth to a son was deemed to be unclean for a period of seven days. After that time, her son was to be circumcised, but she had to wait another 33 days for her days of purification to be over. If she gave birth to a daughter, the mother was unclean for 14 days, but then had to wait another 66 days for her days of purification to be over. When her days of purification were over, she was to bring a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Lord. You’ll see from verse 7 that the thing that made her unclean was not having a child, but the discharge of blood that follows a birth.
Chapter 13 contains rules and regulations about infectious skin diseases. You’ll see from verse 2 that when anyone has a swelling or rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become infectious, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of the other priests to be examined. I was listening to another preacher preaching on this passage and he said he was glad these rules are no longer in force for the Lord’s people, because he — for one — didn’t want people coming to him with their rashes. I know exactly what he means; and I don’t particularly like looking at such things. But this chapter describes the procedure the Old Testament priest was to follow in order to determine whether someone had an infectious disease and whether the person should be declared unclean. If the diagnose was not clear, the person was to be put in quarantine until it was clear exactly what to do about it.
Verses 7 to 19 are really about chronic, ongoing diseases; and verses 20 to 46 are about skin infections that develop from boils, burns, scabs or sores, white or bright spots, and sores which might appear on bald areas of a man’s head. If you look at verses 45 and 46, you’ll see what those who were infected had to do: they had to tear their clothes; leave the hair unkempt or uncovered; they had to cover the lower part of his face — their mouth presumably — and cry out: ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ And as long as they had the disease, they were unclean and had to live alone and outside the camp. Just as Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden of Eden because of their sin, so those with diseases were sent out of the camp because of their uncleanness, away from the presence of the Lord and away from the company of their friends and family.
Having dealt with skin infections, verses 47 to 59 are concerned with mildew or mould that might appear on their clothes. If their clothes were unclean, then the people wearing them would also become unclean. And so, such clothes either had to be burned if the infection was serious or cleansed if not so serious.
That’s chapter 13. The first part of chapter 14 explains how to cleanse someone who has recovered from an infectious skin disease so that they could be allowed back into the camp and back into the tabernacle to worship the Lord. The second half is about how to cleanse a house that has become infected with mildew or mould. So, there can be infections on your skin, infections on your clothes, and infections in your house. All of these things could make you unclean and action needed to be taken to preserve the ceremonial cleanliness of the people and of the camp.
And finally, chapter 15 is about certain discharges that made the people unclean. It deals with long term male discharges, short term male discharges, short term female discharges and long term female discharges.
That’s a very brief summary of these chapters, dealing with infections and discharges. Bearing in mind again that all of these ceremonial laws are no longer in force for God’s people, but have been discontinued, what can we learn from them?
The first thing to note is that these chapters provide helpful background knowledge to some of the things we read in the gospels. For instance, the laws about uncleanliness after childbirth forms the background to what we read in Luke 2 about how Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple when, it says, ‘the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed’.
The laws about infectious skin diseases are the background to those miracles when the Lord healed people with leprosy and other skin diseases. From Leviticus we get an insight into their suffering, for not only were they suffering from a serious disease, but they were prevented from living with the family and friends and they were prevented from going to the temple to worship the Lord. And so, when the Lord healed them, he not only cured them of their disease, but he allowed them to return to their families and he allowed them to return to the temple and to the presence of the Lord. And do you remember in Mark 1 when the Lord healed the man with leprosy, he told the man to go and show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing. Well, the Lord was instructing the man to abide by the rules and regulations of Leviticus 14.
Then the laws about discharges form the background to the story of the woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. So, for twelve years, so was deemed to be unclean. And so, what joy she would have experienced when she touched the Lord and was healed of her illness and could once again be declared clean and able to join God’s people in worshipping him.
The rules and regulations which we read about here in Leviticus provide the background knowledge we need to help us to understand what’s going on in the gospels. But then, we need to remember that the ceremonial uncleanness which we read about here symbolises our sinfulness. The laws about ceremonial uncleanliness and impurity speak to us about the sinfulness of our hearts.
The people were taught in the days of Moses that nothing unclean could come before the Lord; and since our hearts are full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations, then we are unclean and we are unfit to come into his presence. God is holy and pure and perfect and nothing unclean can come before him; and therefore we cannot come before him while we remain in our sins.
However, just as it was possible for the people to become clean again, so it’s possible for sinners to be cleansed from the guilt of our sins. In Leviticus, they had to offer a sacrifice; and all of their sacrifices point forward to the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice which the Lord Jesus offered to God on our behalf, when he offered himself on the cross to pay for our sins and to reconcile God and sinners. Look at chapter 14 for a moment where it says:
The Lord said to Moses, ‘These are the regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease, the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean.’
So, one bird was slaughtered and its blood was sprinkled on the Israelite using the branch of a hyssop plant. Do you remember what David wrote in Psalm 51?
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
That’s how the psalm begins; then later he writes:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
David wasn’t talking about having a skin disease; he wasn’t talking about a skin infection; he was talking about his sin and his guilt. But he used the language of Leviticus 14 to express how he knew he was a guilty sinner who needed the Lord to cleanse him from his sin. And, of course, our hearts are not cleansed by the blood of a bird, but by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, having referred to the blood of the Old Testament animal sacrifices, the writer to the Hebrews went on to say in Hebrews 9:
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ — who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God — cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Under the law of Moses, the people were cleansed by the blood of birds and other animals. But those rituals pointed beyond themselves to the Saviour, whose blood washes away our guilt forever. And so, having been cleansed by the blood of Christ, we can come before the Lord with confidence to worship him and to pray to him; and we know that one day we will come before him in glory to be with him forever.
These chapters provide background knowledge to help us to understand the gospels. And they point to Jesus Christ whose blood is able to cleanse us from the guilt of our sin so that we have peace with God and can come before him with confidence. And finally, let’s remember what I said last week that all of these laws about cleanliness teach us that the Lord’s people are to be careful to keep ourselves morally pure. Just as there were many things which made the Israelites unclean, so there are many things which make us unclean today. And sometimes, the only solution for the Israelites was to destroy what was infected.
So, if their clothes were infected, the Israelites had to destroy them. If the walls in their home were infected, they had to remove the infected stones. If the mildew spread, the whole house had to be torn down. They needed to take this action so that the uncleanness was not passed on and did not spoil the camp. Well, in the same way, believers today must separate ourselves from all that is evil and cut out of our lives all that is wrong. Having been cleansed by the blood of the Saviour, we must aim to keep our thoughts and words and our ways pure.