Troublesome Topic: The Two Key Uses of “Unclean”

Lesson 2 of 9

The dictionary style definition of the Hebrew word for “unclean” has not been very helpful. Scholars often start with the secular definition of the word, and they also look at its relatives in cousin languages such as Arabic. When the definition of “unclean” is determined in that way it means precisely what it sounds like it means – “polluted, defiled, filthy or foul.”

But in the Former Covenant, it is the usage of the word in many different situations that gives us a full understanding of its intended meaning. It appears that God took a word they already knew, and He filled it with the meaning He desired. We dare not overlook the usage of this word among the Children of Israel or we will miss its true meaning and find confusion instead. This is not unlike a few words in English which have changed in their usage even during my lifetime and therefore they now mean something different than they did before.

 There are two primary points I want to make about the way this word was used in the Former Covenant:

1. I struggled for a very long time with how to communicate in my paraphrase the various concepts involved in “unclean.” Part of the problem is that the word was used in several different ways that seem to point in very different directions. There were things to stay away from because they might contaminate you, and then there were blood and semen, good things that are necessary for life and the propagation of life. See my lesson called WHY WERE SEMEN AND BLOOD UNCLEAN? There were also different levels of “unclean.” The word was used of things that are obviously not sin, and also of serious things like idolatry!

I am convinced that the basic idea behind this word is that of “Be careful!” or “Watch out!” Yet the emphasis seemed to be on the action taken to fulfill the command to “be careful!” I needed to find a way to express it in English in a way that is one step beyond saying “Be careful!” I needed something that focused on the action taken in order to be careful. Finally I hit upon the idea of “quarantine,” or “isolate.” I like “isolate” best because it is more general. It points to the result, not the cause, and the same was true for the word “unclean;” it was the resulting condition, and someone could become unclean in a variety of ways. Using the word “isolate” allows me to show in the paraphrase that the same basic result can come about because of a wide variety of causes.

 Think about the phrase “Watch out!” It can mean, “Watch out, don’t break that because it is delicate and expensive,” or it can mean, “Watch out, don’t touch that because it is bad for you.” Now think about isolation for a moment. Sometimes we isolate bad things, for instance, we isolate (quarantine) people who are a risk to others because they have something bad the rest of us don’t want. But sometimes we isolate good things. Imagine that you inherited a bar of gold. Those things are 438.9 oz, and each ounce is worth well over $1,000. Would you display it in plain sight, such as under the windshield of your car, or would you “isolate” it somewhere safe? The point here is that the word “unclean” in the Old Testament was used of both good and bad things. Context had to determine how it was being used.

2. Although this does not appear in their formal definitions, the words “clean and unclean” were used in a way that is similar to our concepts of “normal and abnormal.” But they referred to normal and abnormal in a very specific way, i.e. in relation to God’s standard. The idea of a standard was key to understanding their use of “clean and unclean.” The Principle was this: God has established a standard that is right and proper. The idea of a standard and a norm are very similar. It is expected that we follow the standard that has been set up; likewise a norm is an expectation; it is not actually something normal until we follow that expectation time after time. The proper thing to do is to follow God’s standard. When we do so, the results will be positive consequences. We could say that God expects us to follow His standard and make it the norm in our lives just like He has made it the norm in His kingdom.

I will return to this idea of “normal or abnormal” in future lessons.

Could the ancient Jews understand the ideas I am expressing with words like “isolated” and “normal/abnormal?” I believe they did understand them even if they may have used different words to describe them. They understood that things that are dangerous or really good needed to be treated differently than other things in their lives, and that there was a standard which should be followed so consistently as to make it normal in their lives.

The next lesson in all three series on Covenants is: Be Vigilant of Those Things That Need to Be Isolated

The next lesson in Why is that in the Bible is: Be Vigilant of Those Things That Need to Be Isolated