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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. Defilement in the Old Testament
Defilement in the Old Testament was physical, sexual, ethical, ceremonial, religious, the last four, especially, overlapping. (1) Physical: "I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?" (Song of Solomon 5:3 ). (2) Sexual: which might be ceremonial or moral; of individuals by illicit intercourse (Leviticus 18:20 ), or by intercourse at forbidden times (Leviticus 15:24; 1 Samuel 21:5 ); of the land by adultery: "Shall not that land be greatly defiled?" (Jeremiah 3:1 the American Standard Revised Version "polluted," usually substituted where the moral or religious predominates over the ceremonial). (3) Ethical: "Your hands are defiled with blood" ( Isaiah 59:3 ); "Neither shall they defile themselves any more with ... any of their transgressions" (Ezekiel 37:23 ). (4) Ceremonial: to render ceremonially unclean, i.e. disqualified for religious service or worship, and capable of communicating the disqualification. ( a ) Persons were defiled by contact with carcasses of unclean animals (Leviticus 11:24 ); or with any carcass (Leviticus 17:15 ); by eating a carcass (Leviticus 22:8 ); by contact with issues from the body, one's own or another's, e.g. abnormal issues from the genitals, male or female (Leviticus 15:2 , Leviticus 15:25 ); menstruation (Leviticus 15:19 ); by contact with anyone Thus unclean (Leviticus 15:24 ); copulation (Leviticus 15:16-18 ); uncleanness after childbirth (Leviticus 12:2-5 ); by contact with unclean persons (Leviticus 5:3 ), or unclean things (Leviticus 22:6 ), or with leprosy (especially defiling; Leviticus 13:14 ), or with the dead (Numbers 6:12 ), or with one unclean by such contact (Numbers 19:22 ), or by funeral rites (Leviticus 21:1 ); by contact with creeping things (Leviticus 22:5 ), or with unclean animals (Leviticus 11:26 ). (b ) Holy objects were ceremonially defiled by the contact, entrance or approach of the defiled (Leviticus 15:31; Numbers 19:13 ); by the presence of dead bodies, or any remains of the dead (Ezekiel 9:7; 2 Kings 23:16 : Josiah's defilement of heathen altars by the ashes of the priests); by the entrance of foreigners ( Psalm 79:1; see Acts 21:28 ); by forbidden treatment, as the altar by being tooled (Exodus 20:25 ); objects in general by contact with the unclean. Ceremonial defilement, strictly considered, implied, not sin, but ritual unfitness. (5) Religious : not always easily distinguished or entirely distinguishable from the ceremonial, still less from the ethical, but in which the central attitude and relationship to Yahweh as covenant God and God of righteousness, was more fully in question. The land might be defiled by bloodshed (Numbers 35:33 ), especially of the just or innocent; by adultery (Jeremiah 3:1 ); by idolatry and idolatrous practices, like sacrificing children to idols, etc. (Leviticus 20:3; Psalm 106:39 ); the temple or altar by disrespect (Malachi 1:7 , Malachi 1:12 ); by offering the unclean (Haggai 2:14 ); by any sort of unrighteousness (Ezekiel 36:17 ); by the presence of idols or idolatrous paraphernalia (Jeremiah 7:30 ).
2. Defilement in New Testament
The scope of defilement in its various degrees (direct, or primary, as from the person or thing defiled; indirect, or secondary, tertiary, or even further, by contact with the defiled) had been greatly widened by rabbinism into a complex and immensely burdensome system whose shadow falls over the whole New Testament life. Specific mentions are comparatively few. Physical defilement is not mentioned. Sexual defilement appears, in a figurative sense: "These are they that were not defiled with women" ( Revelation 14:4 ). Ceremonial defilement is found in, but not approved by, the New Testament. Examples are: by eating with unwashed, "common," not ceremonially cleansed, hands (Mark 7:2 ); by eating unclean, "common," food (Acts 10:14; Peter's vision); by intimate association with Gentiles, such as eating with them (not expressly forbidden in Mosaic law; Acts 11:3 ), or entering into their houses (John 18:28; the Pharisees refusing to enter the Pretorium); by the presence of Gentiles in the Temple (Acts 21:28 ). But with Christ's decisive and revolutionary dictum (Mark 7:19 ): "This he said, making all meats clean," etc., and with the command in Peter's vision: "What God hath cleansed, make not thou common" (Acts 10:15 ), and with Paul's bold and consistent teaching: "All things indeed are clean" (Romans 14:20 , etc.), the idea of ceremonial or ritual defilement, having accomplished its educative purpose, passed. Defilement in the New Testament teaching, therefore, is uniformly ethical or spiritual, the two constantly merging. The ethical is found more predominantly in: "The things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man" (Matthew 15:18 ); "that did not defile their garments" (Revelation 3:4 ); "defileth the whole body" (James 3:6 ). The spiritual seems to predominate in: "defiled and unbelieving" (Titus 1:15 ); "conscience being weak is defiled" (by concession to idolatry.) (1 Corinthians 8:7 ); "lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled" (Hebrews 12:15 ). For the supposed origins of the idea and details of defilement, as from hygienic or aesthetic causes, "natural aversions," "taboo," "totemism," associations with ideas of death, or evil life, religious symbolism, etc., see POLLUTION; PURIFICATION;
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Defile; Defilement'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​d/defile-defilement.html. 1915.