The beauty behind Leviticus’ clean and unclean

If I had to choose my favourite Bible books, Leviticus would probably be in the top 5 (and Job in the bottom five, not because of the theme of suffering but because of how long-winded and insensitive Job’s comforters are; but I digress) so it’s always exciting for me to learn new truths from the third book of Moses.

In a recent interview, Nancy Guthrie, who is writing a series of Bible studies on seeing Christ in the Old Testament talks of what she learned in Leviticus. Mrs. Guthrie has had two children born with severe genetic birth defects. Under the Old Testament law, they would not be allowed in the tabernacle/temple. Why would God make such a rule?

I’ve set up the video to start at the relevant point, and I’ve included an edited transcript below. You may also download the audio and/or video of the entire interview .

Nancy Guthrie: [In writing the books] I’m specifically looking for big picture that points us to Christ. And I determined that the big message of Leviticus is about holiness: “Be holy for I am holy”. And so as I studied Leviticus—my process is that I read and study, I read commentaries, of course, and other books… I listen to a lot of sermons, especially by people I know who have a sound redemptive-historical emphasis and have the ability to beautifully display the gospel in Old Testament passages. So I began to work on holiness, but of course you know what’s really hard is the whole clean and unclean thing, right? And, you know, honestly, I read a lot of things by very sound Reformed, redemptive-historical people, but that was still… Honestly, I finished my chapter and I was done with that… I had read some who talked about it being somewhat random, that God was just asking to us to trust His designation of what was clean and unclean.

And I’d finished my chapter and then I listened to a sermon by Paul Blackham, formerly at All Souls in the UK. He did a sermon on clean and unclean and light bulbs began to go off when he connected clean and unclean to before and after the curse. And that all of the things that were designated as ‘clean’ are the things the way things were before the curse. For example, animals that are vegetarians. And that all the things that were designated unclean reflected the effect of the fall, reflect death and the whole mould and mildew, deterioration. And even some of the sexual things, about sexual intercourse or a woman menstruating, those things reflect the effects of the fall. In fact as we look at them, you can trace many of them directly to Genesis 3 and what God says is going to be elements of the curse.

And that was a real light bulb for me and it especially helped me… You know, some people, when we read Leviticus, especially if like me you’ve had a child born with a severe birth defect… Because a surface reading of Leviticus, because people with defects were not allowed into God’s presence… I mean, that on the face of it, that’s just… that hurts. It hurts when you’ve had… “What are you saying, God? My child’s not good enough for you?” A surface reading says that.

But if we instead begin to see this, I think actually the message of Leviticus is the exact opposite. Because God is saying, “I am not going to put up with the effects of the curse in my world forever.” And when He doesn’t allow a person with defects, He is saying, “All the effects of the curse are an interloper in my perfect healed and whole world. And I am on a mission to put an end to the effects that the curse has on the creation and on people and on bodies and on the way we relate to each other.” And so actually I think Leviticus offers hope to the person who has a child born with a birth defect because it is God saying I’m going to put an end to this. And His way of showing clean, unclean and then made holy. Because it’s that progression: what is unclean can become clean and what is clean can be made holy.

Isn’t that our hope? That we who are unclean can be made clean in Christ? And yet even more than that, we can be made holy, not because of a sacrifice we’re going to offer on an altar but through the sacrifice of Christ and that God is in the process of accomplishing that. He is making what is unclean clean and ultimately He will make all that is clean, He will make us holy and perfect and beautiful in His sight. So that’s where we went with Leviticus.

Jared Oliphint: I was hoping you would touch on that because we had a chance to talk on that briefly. This is a nerdy way to put it, but isn’t that one case where Christology and eschatology just have to go hand-in-hand? Seeing that as a temporary thing that ultimately gets resolved in Christ and ultimately when Christ comes again for the second time, that has got to be part of how we read Leviticus and minister to people and apply that to their lives.

Nancy: And doesn’t that inform us about the parts of the Bible, I mean, you know, frankly, Leviticus for some people it bores them. [Laughter] For many people it offends them. It’s very bloody and it can seem irrelevant to me because I don’t have to offer animal sacrifices so I don’t need to know this, and I don’t have to follow those clean and unclean laws and so basically we relegate it to that category of “it’s not going to be on the test and so I don’t need to know it”. Right? [Laughter]

And yet, the whole Bible is so rich for us and I keep discovering over and over again, and I hope I never stop discovering this, that the parts of the Bible that on first blush seem irrelevant or boring—you know, when we get to a genealogy list and we go oh brother! But aren’t those some of the richest parts of the Bible when we understand why they’re there? And similarly, I think I just found Leviticus that way. You know, all of the detail about the different sacrifices, each one of them shows me a different aspect of the perfect once-for-all sacrifice that Christ offered in himself. And all of those clean and unclean laws, now I just look at them and instead of a bunch of random ridiculous laws, I see that God, from the very beginning, was trying to impress on us our sinfulness, His holiness and His intention to make us clean and holy before Him.

Jared: Yeah, it adds elevation to it. Instead of just a first flat reading you have the topography of what’s going on in there and you’re right. It does the same for me.

I don’t know if you had any follow-up Camden?

Camden Bucey: I agree 100% and I think it’s just a wonderful picture when we see what Christ has done for us, not only now is the one who was unclean, somebody born with a defect—not only are they as clean as the best Jew, but now they dwell in the Holy of Holies better than anyone has ever been able to do before because of the mediation of Jesus Christ. So we see again the blessing that Christ comes to provide is not just a restoration, but an even further, greater blessing than we had ever seen or imagined before.

Nancy: And we are made clean only because He was willing to become unclean. What could be more unclean than entering into the filth of this world and touching lepers? But then the ultimate uncleanness was to be crucified on a Roman cross, to become sin…

That’s also the beauty of what we discover in this whole business of clean and unclean in Leviticus. The amazing wonder that the Son of God, the way He makes us clean is that He becomes wholly unclean.


4 Comments on “The beauty behind Leviticus’ clean and unclean”

  1. Jeremy says:

    I love the value placed upon the OT Law in these words. There are bigger concepts in the Law that reflect the major themes of Scripture. I had never connected clean and unclean with “before and after the curse” but that seems to make sense. Thanks for sharing the post, Nelima!

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  3. Great point about ‘clean’ being linked to ‘before the fall’, and unclean to those things after. New thought, and a beautiful one.