Under the Law of Moses, an Israelite was to purify themselves following specific events that made them ceremonially unclean to GOD.
In the Law of Moses, GOD specified four categories of uncleanness that required a form of ceremonial cleansing:
- After childbirth
- After Leprosy (used to generally refer to skin diseases, molds, or defects in garments, or even houses)
- After a discharge
- After a death
Here is what the Law said about each of these categories:
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘If a woman conceived and bore a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as in the days of her menstrual isolation. 3 Then on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 She will then continue in the blood of her uncleanness thirty-three days. She is not to touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are fulfilled. 5 But if she bears a female child, she will be unclean two weeks, as in her menstrual isolation, and she will continue in the blood of her uncleanness sixty-six days. 6 When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she is to bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a whole burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of testimony. 7 Then he shall bring it before the Lord and make atonement for her, and it will cleanse her from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bore a male or a female. 8 But if she is unable to afford a lamb, she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a whole burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”Leviticus 12:1-8 OSB
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. 3 The priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprous infection is healed in the leper, 4 the priest shall give orders to take, for the one declared clean, two small birds, live and clean, and also cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. 5 Then the priest must give orders that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water. 6 As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood, the scarlet and hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird killed over the running water. 7 Then he shall sprinkle the water seven times on the one cleansed from his leprosy, and he shall be clean; then he shall send away the living bird into a field. 8 And the one who was cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water; and he shall be clean. After this, he shall come into the camp, and shall stay outside his tent seven days. 9 But on the seventh day he shall shave all the hair from his head, his beard, and his eyebrows—all his hair he shall shave off. He shall wash his clothes and wash his body in water, and he shall be clean.
10 “Then on the eighth day he shall take two one-year-old lambs without blemish, a one-year-old sheep without blemish, three-tenths of the finest wheaten flour for a grain offering mixed with oil, and also one cup of oil. 11 Then together with these things, the priest who cleanses shall present before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of testimony the man to be made cleansed. 12 The priest shall then take one lamb and offer it as a trespass offering, and the cup of oil, and set them apart as a wave offering before the Lord. 13 Then he shall kill the lamb in the place where he kills the sin offering and the whole burnt offering, in a holy place; for as the sin offering is the priest’s, so is the trespass offering. It is most holy. 14 The priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and put it on the tip of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall also take some of the oil from the cup and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. 16 Then he shall dip his right finger in the oil in his left hand, and sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the Lord. 17 The priest shall then put some of the remaining oil on the tip of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, and also on the thumb of his right hand, the big toe of his right foot, and on the blood of the trespass offering. 18 Then the priest shall put the rest of the oil on the head of the one to be cleansed. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord. 19 Afterward, the priest shall offer the sin offering, and by it make atonement for the one to be cleansed. Then he shall kill the whole burnt offering. 20 The priest shall offer the whole burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar before the Lord. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.
21 “But if he is poor and cannot afford it, he shall take one lamb as a choice portion for a trespass offering, along with one-tenth of fine flour mixed with oil and a cup of oil as a grain offering, and 22 two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to afford: one shall be a sin offering and the other a burnt offering, to make atonement for him. 23 He shall bring them to the priest on the eighth day for his cleansing, to the door of the tabernacle of testimony, before the Lord. 24 The priest shall take the lamb of the trespass offering and the cup of oil and put them as a deposit before the Lord. 25 Then the priest shall kill the lamb of the trespass offering, and take some of its blood, and put it on the tip of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, then on the thumb of his right hand, and the big toe of his right foot. 26 The priest shall then pour some of the oil into the palm of his own left hand, 27 and sprinkle with his right finger some of the oil in his left hand, seven times before the Lord. 28 Then the priest shall put some of the oil in his hand on the tip of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, and also on the thumb of his right hand and the big toe of his right foot, on the place of the blood of the trespass offering. 29 The rest of the oil in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of the one to be cleansed, to make atonement for him before the Lord. 30 After this, he shall offer one of the turtledoves or young pigeons, such as he can afford— 31 one as a sin offering and the other as a whole burnt offering, with the grain offering. Thus the priest shall make atonement for the one to be cleansed before the Lord. 32 This is the law for one who has a leprous infection, who cannot afford the usual cleansing.”Leviticus 14:1-32 OSB
After a Discharge
13 ‘Now when he who has a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, he shall count for himself seven days for his cleansing. He shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. 14 On the eighth day he shall take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring these before the Lord, to the door of the tabernacle of testimony, and give them to the priest. 15 Then the priest shall offer them, the one as a sin offering and the other as a whole burnt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord because of his discharge.Leviticus 15:13-15 OSB
28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 Then on the eighth day she shall take for herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of testimony. 30 The priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a whole burnt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord because of the discharge of her uncleanness.Leviticus 15:28-30 OSB
After a Death
Touching a Corpse
11 ‘He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. 12 He shall cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Whoever touches the dead body of any person who has died and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the Lord. That soul shall be destroyed from Israel. He shall be unclean, because the water of sprinkling was not sprinkled on him; his uncleanness is still on him.Numbers 19:11-13 OSB
Contact with the Environment of a Corpse
14 ‘Now this is the law if a man dies in a house: Everyone who comes into the house and whoever is in the house shall be unclean seven days; 15 and every open vessel which has no cover fastened on it is unclean. 16 Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain by a sword or who has died a natural death, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. 17 So for the unclean, they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt offering of purification, put them in a vessel, and pour running water on them. 18 Then a clean man shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the house and upon all the vessels and the souls who were there, and upon the one who touched the human bone, or the one slain by the sword, or the one who died a natural death, or the grave. 19 The clean shall sprinkle the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, wash his clothes, and bathe in water; and he shall be unclean until evening.Numbers 19:14-19 OSB
Punishment for Not Cleansing
20 But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself, that soul shall be utterly destroyed from among the congregation, because he defiled the holy things of the Lord, and the water of purification was not sprinkled on him; he is unclean. 21 This shall be an eternal ordinance for you: He who sprinkles the water of purification shall wash his clothes; and he who touches the water of purification shall be unclean until evening; 22 and whatever the unclean one touches shall be unclean; and the soul who touches it shall be unclean until evening.’”Numbers 19:20-22 OSB
Ceremonial Cleansing of the Priest (Possibly in Connection with Passover Observance)
Numbers 19, the text that gives the purification instructions regarding cleansing rituals following a death, begins with this curious set of instructions to priests. The text seems out of place, as though we are missing context.
The Daily Bible inserts a note that this is regarding the Passover with a reference to Numbers 9:10, which says:
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the first month of the second year, after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 “Speak, and let the children of Israel keep Pascha at its appointed time. 3 On the fourteenth day of this month, at eventide, you shall keep it at its appointed time. According to its rule and practice you shall keep it.” 4 So Moses told the children of Israel to keep Pascha. 5 Thus they kept Pascha beginning on the fourteenth day of the first month, in the Sinai Desert; as the Lord commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did.
6 Now there were men who were unclean on account of a dead man, and so were unable to keep Pascha on that day; therefore, they came before Moses and Aaron that day. 7 So those men said to him, “We are unclean on account of a dead man. Why then are we prevented from presenting the Lord’s gift at its appointed time among the children of Israel?” 8 Moses then said to them, “Stand here, and I will hear what the Lord commands concerning you.” 9 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone of you becomes unclean on account of a dead man, or is on a distant journey, or is among your families, he shall keep the Lord’s Pascha. 11 On the fourteenth day of the second month, at eventide, they shall keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the rule of Pascha, they shall keep it. 13 But the man who is clean and is not on a distant journey, but fails to keep Pascha, that soul shall be utterly destroyed from among his people, because he did not bring his gift to the Lord at its appointed time; that man shall bear his guilt. 14 But if a resident alien dwells with you in your land, he shall also keep the Lord’s Pascha, according to the rule and regulation of Pascha; you shall have one rule, both for the resident alien and the native of the land.’”Numbers 9:1-14 OSB
Given the text’s immediate proximity to the other instructions on the topic, I include the text here without further comment:
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “This is the injunction of the law, whatever the Lord ordered, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and let them bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and upon which a yoke has never been placed. 3 You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and he shall take it outside the camp to a clean place, and they shall slaughter it before him; 4 and Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood and sprinkle it seven times directly in front of the tabernacle of testimony. 5 Then it shall be burned in his sight: its hide, its flesh, and its blood with its dung shall be burned. 6 The priest shall then take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet, and cast them into the midst of the fire burning the red heifer. 7 After this, the priest shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and come into the camp; the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8 Also the one who burns it shall wash his clothes in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. 9 Then a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the red heifer and put them away outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept in reserve for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is for purification. 10 Then the one who gathers the ashes of the red heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. It shall be an eternal ordinance to the children of Israel and to the resident alien who dwells among them.Numbers 19:1-10 OSB