Old Testament Law: The Unclean and Clean

by Anthony Weber

As noted in the previous post, Old Testament law is not meant to be read in a literary vacuum.  We need to consider context and purpose in order to understand what God was trying to accomplish in the world.  While this may not make Exodus and Leviticus leap off the page, this will hopefully allow us to more clearly see a God whose desire was for humanity to flourish.

In some ways, the flourishing brought about by the Law was a very practical one.  The dietary laws God gave Israel have proven to be remarkably good even by 21st century standards.  Laws for cleaning mold out of a house sound a lot like the processes we use today. Laws about quarantine were insightful from a medical perspective.  So in one sense, many of the laws were simply instructions on how to stay physically healthy. (Even the laws for more controversial issues like slavery and marriage point away from human subjugation and toward a society in which people are intended to flourish – but I will address that in the next post.)

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 I believe, however, that the fundamental purpose of the law was much greater. God intended for the Law to help the Israelites understand holiness in every aspect of life.  The  laws emphasize that  holiness is “separateness.” God is holy, and by extension His people are to be holy. They are “called out” or “called away” from things that could corrupt them. The law was intended to create a wholeness within the community of Israel and a distinctiveness from the surrounding pagan cultures.

This idea of separateness goes back to Genesis One. Over and over, God separates and categorizes the natural world.  The creation account brims with the language of dividing, gathering, and classifying. This orderliness reflects a fundamental reality of creation: there is a nature to things such that they exist best inside of boundaries. Without this understanding, there would be chaos. What’s good for humanity’s universe is apparently good for humanity, too. God seems determined that every time His people did anything, they would be reminded of order, wholeness, and completeness.

We see an example of this in the Old Testament dietary laws.The Law divides animals into four general spheres presented in Genesis 1 and elucidated further in Leviticus 11


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