Concepts of Purity in the Bible
As in many religious traditions past and present, ancient Israelites categorized persons, places, and other things as “holy” (kodesh) or “common” (πol) and as “pure” (tahor) or “impure” (tame’) (Lev. 10.10 ). These sets of categories are not identical: What is pure is not necessarily holy, nor is the common necessarily impure. Moreover, ancient Israel had multiple conceptions of purity, each of which developed over time, possibly under the influence of distinct religious ideologies. One notion of impurity, moral impurity, concerned the dangers of defilement associated with grave sins such as idolatry, incest, and murder. Another notion of impurity, ritual impurity, concerned contact with various natural substances relating to birth, death, and genital discharges. Contact with ritual impurity had serious consequences in one's religious life, rendering one temporarily unfit to encounter holy space and objects. To understand and appreciate these distinctions is a challenge for modern readers who are accustomed to looking down on hierarchy in general and to scoffing at seemingly irrational avoidances, especially when they pertain to death and sex.
In the early days of modern biblical scholarship, conceptions of defilement were treated with outright scorn. James Frazer (1854–1941) and William Robertson Smith (1846–1894), two founders of modern anthropology, could barely conceal their disgust for the avoidance behaviors of the Bible. Smith, Frazer, and others approached purity rules as if they were a random collection of primitive taboos. Their origin lay in savage fears of blood and demons; their preservation by Israel was simply a matter of perpetuating ancient custom. Making matters worse, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) in Totem and Taboo famously compared religious avoidances with the obsessive behavior of psychotics. Whether they were seen as the products of primitive fears or primeval obsessions, ritualized avoidances were dismissed by many as irrational, pointless, and just plain foolish.
The situation changed dramatically only in the 1960s. Under the influence of structural anthropology in general and the works of Mary Douglas (b. 1921) in particular, biblical scholars began approaching purity rules in new ways. Scholars came to recognize that avoidance behaviors could no longer be dismissed as something inherently or distinctly primitive. Many societies draw boundaries around certain behaviors (especially when it comes to death and sex), and these boundaries are certainly not always rational. Second, scholars also began to recognize that the avoidances of any religious tradition or culture had to be treated systemically or structurally. While earlier scholars would collect and analyze taboos in an encyclopedic fashion—comparing, for instance, various cultures’ attitudes toward blood or hair—scholars would now focus on how the avoidance rules of any single culture work together to form a coherent conception of things permitted and prohibited, of things sacred and defiled.
A third important development was the willingness of scholars to recognize that a system of avoidance behaviors may be symbolic in nature. Where earlier scholars had assumed that the laws must be connected to primitive notions of health or hygiene, scholars now recognize that there might be more to these rules than a simple desire to avoid dirt or disease. In line with this perspective, scholars are increasingly translating the Hebrew terms tame’ and tahor as “impure” and “pure,” instead of as “unclean” and “clean.”
Yet some interpretive challenges remain. One error introduced under the influence of some anthropologists is the assumption that the ancient Israelite purity system was put in place in order for priests to subordinate Israelites and for Israelite men to subordinate theirwives and daughters. Yet it is increasingly recognized that the ancient Israelite purity system affects men and women, priests and Israelites. While Israelite society was hierarchical and patriarchal, the ritual purity system did little to enforce these social demarcations; in any case, this certainly was not the system's primary purpose. Another common error is the identification of ritual impurity with sinfulness. The distinction between ritual and moral purity—also increasingly recognized by scholars—allows us to see better the complex relationship between impurity and sin.