Taking precautions: like a surgeon preparing to operate
Leviticus 11:47 You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean.
For many years surgery remained a desperate last resort for the hopelessly ill. Surgeons knew nothing about germs. Without washing, they would don operating garb, usually an old coat caked with blood and pus from numerous operations. They would pick up the scalpel, wiped clean with an old rag after the last operation, and go to work. Half of those operated on died.
One pioneer after another stumbled on the correct sterile techniques. But each was scorned and humiliated by fellow doctors. Professor Ignaz Semmelweis, for one, discovered that making doctors wash their hands could dramatically cut the death rate in maternity wards. Yet his colleagues opposed Semmelweis strenuously, and though he argued for handwashing throughout his life, he died without seeing his ideas take hold.
Why So Slow?
Why were doctors so slow to adopt sterile techniques? The answer is simple: Germs had not yet been discovered. Doctors could not see—and reformers like Semmelweis could not give them—any reason why washing hands should make a difference.
Then Louis Pasteur discovered micro-organisms under his microscope. Sterile procedures began to make sense: They made war on germs. Even so, each reform, from rubber gloves to gauze masks, was accepted only grudgingly and with considerable opposition. It was as though doctors had a hard time remembering that something invisible could be so devastating. Fifty years of constant education and reform were necessary before “sterile technique” became a routine part of surgery, and germs became “real” to most medical minds.
Why All the Rules?
As germs are to a surgeon, “uncleanness” is to Leviticus. Leviticus 11—15 describe elaborate precautions—what animals to avoid and how to treat “unclean” skin disease, mildewed clothing or walls and bodily emissions.
Scholars point out that many clean and unclean rules have good health habits behind them, such as the rule to quarantine a person with an infectious disease or the rule against eating pork (which carries many parasites).
Others say that dietary laws were meant to keep the Israelites apart from their neighbors. Pigs were prominent in Canaanite worship; therefore the Israelites were not to eat pigs. A different dietary standard would keep the two groups from mixing socially, for a meal was always part of Middle Eastern hospitality.
Still other scholars suggest that the uncleanness rules simply fit into what Israelites intuitively thought proper. God was reinforcing a natural sense of repulsion toward creeping insects, scavenger birds, bodily emissions and skin diseases.
The Habit of Carefulness
All these explanations have merit, but the underlying basis of clean and unclean was religious. Being unclean was not dangerous or wrong. In fact, you could hardly avoid it. Practically everyone became “unclean” from time to time. But you could not worship God in the tent of meeting while you were unclean, nor bring anything unclean into the presence of God. His holiness would destroy it—and you (see Leviticus 15:31).
So Leviticus trains God’s people to watch their lives as carefully as surgeons watch their sterile techniques. They must develop the habit of carefulness, even about something they cannot see or feel. They must think about preparing themselves for God, not just do whatever “feels right.”
It was not a question of how they felt about God, any more than a surgeon’s concern is how he “feels” about germs. Clear, absolute standards laid out what could be acceptable to a God who is perfectly clean, absolute, unchanging. Just as surgeons had to struggle to take germs seriously, so God’s people must learn to “purify themselves” for God.
Touching the Unclean
The uncleanness rules of Leviticus are outmoded because of Jesus’ declaration that all things are clean (see Mark 7:19; see also Acts 10:9–16). But the lessons behind these rules remain valid. God still may not be approached carelessly. Each person must examine his or her life to be certain that God’s purity is not violated.
Until Jesus’ day, the slow spread of uncleanness seemed irreversible. You could avoid it, but you could not get rid of it. Contact with anything unclean made you unclean yourself. Naturally, certain diseases, notably leprosy, were twice cursed: They were both dangerous and unclean. You kept away from leprosy, absolutely.
Then Jesus touched a man with leprosy, and the man became clean. Jesus touched a woman suffering from internal bleeding, and she was healed. For the first time, cleanness rather than uncleanness spread. The rules of Leviticus tell how to avoid uncleanness. Contact with Jesus, however, changes the unclean to clean.
Suppose sin were visible—small green spots that break out on the skin. Do you think this would help people to take sin more seriously?