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Tuesday, September 26th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 15

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-15

The first case is the secretion caused by some disease affecting a man’s sexual organs. The Hebrew word basar, translated "flesh" (Leviticus 15:2, et al.) has a wide range of meanings. In this context it clearly refers to the woman’s vagina (Leviticus 15:19) and so apparently to the man’s penis in Leviticus 15:2-3. The writer did not describe the physical problem in detail. The terms used seem to refer to either a diseased flow of semen (gonorrhea) or a discharge of pus from the urethra. [Note: Harrison, p. 160.] In either case this was a fairly lengthy ailment (Leviticus 15:3).

Another possibility is that this first case describes some affliction that both men and women suffered, such as diarrhea. The Hebrew words translated "any man" (Leviticus 15:2) permit this. However the structure of the chapter and the references to the sexual organs argue against this view.

Note that things that the man sat on during his defilement, those things under him (bed, chair, saddle), became unclean and a source of defilement themselves. Also any direct contact with an unclean man resulted in uncleanness for those who touched him (Leviticus 15:7). Here basar evidently refers to any part of the man.

"It is the uncleanness of the man and its consequences that are the main concern of this section. The striking thing about the uncleanness associated with these discharges is that not only the affected person becomes unclean, but also people and objects that come in contact with him, and these in their turn can become secondary sources of uncleanness. In this regard the uncleanness described here is much more ’infectious’ than the uncleanness of skin diseases dealt with in chs. 13-14. . . . In this respect, then, gonorrhea in men and menstrual and other female discharges are viewed as much more potent sources of defilement than others." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 218.]

Nevertheless the uncleanness that these discharges caused was less serious ritually than those associated with skin disease. The man could live at home; he did not need to move outside the camp. He just had to wash and wait until evening (Leviticus 15:16; Leviticus 15:18); he did not need to go through a more elaborate ritual. He also needed to offer only two inexpensive sacrifices (Leviticus 15:14; cf. Leviticus 14:10-20).

Verses 1-33

4. Uncleanness due to bodily discharges associated with reproduction ch. 15

This chapter concludes the regulations on uncleanness (chs. 11-15).

"The uncleanness laws start with uncleanness that is permanent: that associated with various animals and food (ch. 11). Then they deal with the uncleanness of childbirth, which may last up to eighty days (ch. 12). Chs. 13 and 14 deal with uncleanness of indefinite duration; it all depends how long the serious skin disease persists. Finally, ch. 15 deals with discharges associated with reproduction, pollutions which usually only affect a person for up to a week. Whatever the explanation of the order of the material within chs. 11-15, these laws illuminate the day of atonement rituals, which are designed to cleanse the tabernacle ’of the uncleannesses of the Israelites’ (Leviticus 16:16). Without these chapters we should be at a loss to know what was the purpose of the ceremonies described in ch. 16." [Note: Ibid., p. 216.]

Moses described four cases of secretions from the reproduction organs that resulted in ritual uncleanness in this chapter. Two of these cases arose from disease and two from natural causes. The chapter opens with an introductory statement (Leviticus 15:1) and closes with a summary (Leviticus 15:32-33), which we have come to recognize as typical in this part of Leviticus. In the four central sections, there is a definition of the type of pollution, a description of its consequences, and an explanation of the appropriate rite of purification. The rite usually involved simply washing and waiting until evening.

The first two cases concern continuing and occasional emissions of the male. Moses followed these with the last two cases that reverse this order and deal with the female. The writer apparently used this chiastic literary structure to reflect the unity of humankind in two sexes. Leviticus 15:18, the center of the chiasm, mentions sexual intercourse, the most profound expression of the unity and interdependence of the sexes.

Verses 16-18

The second case deals with a voluntary emission of semen. Note that it was not sexual intercourse generally that produced the uncleanness but specifically the emission of semen in coitus or at other times (cf. Exodus 19:15; 1 Samuel 21:5-6; 2 Samuel 11:4).

"The intent was to keep a legitimate but ’unclean’ biological function from defiling that which was [otherwise] holy." [Note: Harrison, p. 162.]

One writer pointed out that this passage does not condemn masturbation, though he did not argue for the practice. [Note: James R. Johnson, "Toward a Biblical Approach to Masturbation," in Journal of Psychology and Theology 10:2 (Summer 1982):137-146. See also Clifford L. Penner, "A Reaction to Johnson’s Biblical Approach to Masturbation," in Journal of Psychology and Theology 10:2 (Summer 1982): 147-149.]

The purification process involved no sacrifice, only washing and waiting until evening (Leviticus 15:16; Leviticus 15:18).

"The practical effect of this legislation was that when a man had religious duties to perform, whether this involved worship or participation in God’s holy wars, sexual intercourse was not permitted." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 219.]

"The banning of the sexual and the sensual from the presence of God (Exodus 19:15; Exodus 20:26; Leviticus 15:16-18) may have been one of the most noteworthy characteristics of Israel’s religion, uniquely distinguishing it from the other religions of the ancient Near East." [Note: Schultz, p. 78.]

"One valuable feature of this legislation that had an important bearing upon Israel’s cultic and social life was the rule which made partners in coition unclean for the whole day. This contingency separated sexual activity from cultic worship in a unique manner, and this precluded the orgiastic fertility rites that were so much a part of religion among peoples such as the Canaanites. Furthermore, the continuous state of ceremonial uncleanness experienced by the prostitute in Israel would remove any possibility of her participation in Hebrew worship, and take away anything approaching respectability from her way of life, if, indeed, she was at all sensitive to the requirements of the sanctuary." [Note: Harrison, pp. 165-66.]

"God was saying very clearly that sex, any aspect of sex, any bodily functions connected with sex, had to be kept completely apart from the holy place. He was not saying that sex and bodily functions were dirty or sinful, as some see in this passage." [Note: Ross, p. 307.]

Verses 19-24

The third case deals with the woman’s menstrual cycle (cf. 2 Samuel 11:4).

"By placing the woman in what amounted to a state of isolation, the legislation made it possible for her to enjoy some respite from her normal duties, and gave her an opportunity of renewing her energy." [Note: Harrison, p. 164.]

This law appears very harsh to the modern reader. It appears to consign virtually every woman in Israel to a state of being untouchable for one week each month. Some authorities, however, believe that women in ancient Israel had menstrual periods far less frequently than modern women. They believe that earlier marriage, later weaning (up to the age of two or three), and the prevalence of large families made these unclean periods far more infrequent. [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 224.] Those most affected by this law were probably unmarried teenage girls. The result would have been that God-fearing young men would have been wary of making physical contact with them. This law then would have had the effect of curbing the passions of the young.

Verses 25-33

The fourth case involves a woman who had continuing menstrual problems beyond her normal period. The ritual for purification was the same as for a man with an extended sexual malady (case one above, Leviticus 15:13-15; cf. Mark 5:25; Luke 8:43).

Leviticus 15:31 explains the reason for these regulations. God gave them so the Israelites would not fall into serious sin because of ignorance of how they should behave when unclean. The rules about bodily discharges helped the Israelites appreciate the seriousness of intermarriage with the Canaanites and the prohibitions against foreign customs and religion, which conflicted with Israel’s holy calling. God discouraged certain acts by designating them as resulting in uncleanness, which undoubtedly proved helpful in the area of private morality where legal sanctions are not as effective as in public life. [Note: Douglas, p. 124.]

"The sexual processes thus make men [and women] unclean, but that is not the same as saying they are sinful. Uncleanness establishes boundaries of action, but as long as these are not transgressed no guilt is incurred." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 220.]

What made these secretions unclean was perhaps their association with unnatural (irregular) bodily functions. Childbearing (ch. 12) and the bodily fluids involved in procreation (ch. 15) were ritually unclean because they have connection with what is abnormal in terms of regularity. They were not unclean because sex is sinful. It is not (Genesis 1:28).

Note the slightly different views of two other writers. Their emphases may be part of the total answer as to why these practices rendered an Israelite unclean.

"Within this framework it becomes clear why the conditions described in Leviticus 12, 15 are polluting. They all involve the loss of ’life liquids.’ ’Life is in the blood’ (Leviticus 17:11; Leviticus 17:14). Thus a woman suffering from any bloody discharge, whether it be the puerperal discharge (Leviticus 12:4-5), menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-24), or some other malady (Leviticus 15:25-30), is presumed to be losing life. Bleeding may eventually lead to death. So the discharging woman is regarded as unclean in that she evidently does not enjoy perfect life: indeed unchecked her condition could end in her death. Similarly too we presume that male semen was viewed as a ’life liquid.’ Hence its loss whether long-term (Leviticus 15:1-15) or transient (Leviticus 15:16-18) was viewed as polluting." [Note: Gordon J. Wenham, "Why Does Sexual Intercourse Defile (Leviticus 15:18)?" Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 95:3 (1983):434.]

"God was teaching the household of faith the distinction between the physical and the holy. Anything connected with sexual function was part of the physical world; it was categorized as common, not holy. Sex could never be brought into the sanctuary, for unlike the Canaanite view, sexual activity was not a way to enhance spirituality or commune with God . . ." [Note: Ross, p. 311.]

Sin is wrong done to God, but ritual uncleanness was a condition that, while related to sin, was not itself sinful. Sin separated the person further from God than uncleanness did. These unclean conditions did not result in the sinfulness of the Israelite but in his or her disqualification from public worship in the nation.

Jesus’ attitude toward the laws about bodily uncleanness was the same as His attitude toward the food laws (cf. Matthew 15:17-20). When He came He announced the end of their authority because God would open the church to Jews and Gentiles equally. These Israelite laws separated Jews from Gentiles by illustrating Israel’s unique function in God’s program, which ended temporarily (until the Millennium) with the death of Christ. [Note: See Rooker, pp. 207-10, for a longer explanation of how Jesus Christ fulfilled and ended these laws.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 15". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-15.html. 2012.
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