What happens when you touch something dirty?
I was setting up an electronic keyboard on its folding stand the other day. Both had been stored in our basement for a while, and weren’t very clean. The stand, especially, had some kind of black grease on it…which I found out the hard way.
- I unfolded the stand, set the keyboard on it, and only afterward saw the black streaks on my hands.
- I set the keyboard on a chair and moved the stand to see what was wrong. The black was on my nice clean floor, also!
- I cleaned my hands, the floor, and then the stand…only to see black on the keyboard itself.
- So I picked up the keyboard — getting more black on my hands — and cleaned it.
- Then I had to clean my hands again, then the chair where I had set the keyboard aside.
- I finally laid towels down, first under the stand and then on top of the stand and under the keyboard, before one last round of cleaning everything.
All because the grease kept transferring from surface to clean surface, over and over. 😟
The Bible describes the same contagion happening with things named as “unclean”. Touching an unclean person or thing transferred that uncleanness to the toucher. That toucher would have to stay away from the community until they were considered clean again. If not, anyone they touched would in turn also become unclean.
What was Unclean?
Some animals were declared to be unclean, not to be used for food or even touched (Leviticus 11). The same held true for an animal that was “roadkill”, not properly slaughtered (Leviticus 17:14-16). And, again, the same rules held for handling the body of a person who had died (Numbers 19:11-19).
A woman was considered unclean during her monthly cycle, and after giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-5). This also applied, for both men and women, to any other kind of bodily-fluid discharge (Leviticus 15).
Also listed among the things that made a person unclean was the skin condition called leprosy (Leviticus 13-15). The modern use of the term is a synonym for Hansen’s Disease, but in Biblical times it was more generic for several kinds of skin disorders.
What to do about Uncleanness?
Touching anything unclean made a person guilty and cut off from the community. Becoming clean again sometimes required a guilt offering to be sacrificed at the temple (Leviticus 5:1-6). Other times, it meant waiting a specific period of time — a day, a week, two weeks, one month, even two months — and washing the body, the clothes, maybe even the room. In some cases, the house had to be demolished to get rid of the contamination (Leviticus 14:43-45).
Why such a drastic response?
Knowing what we do about bacteria and contagions, we can see that many of these rules had a practical health reason. But they also had a spiritual purpose: They were a part of making God’s chosen people distinctive, marking them as being set apart for a special calling (Leviticus 20:22-26).
God was also making a point about sin: that it contaminates everything it touches. It requires special measures to clean away its stain.
Notice something about all these examples, from my keyboard stand through ritual uncleanness and on to sin: The dirt always gets onto the clean, and makes it dirty. It’s never the other way around: Cleanness doesn’t rub off onto a dirty surface. As the prophet Haggai put it when rebuking sin in the nation of Israel:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Ask now the priests for a ruling: If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?’” And the priests answered, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?” And the priests answered, “It will become unclean.” Then Haggai said, “ ‘So is this people. And so is this nation before Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.Haggai 2:11-14
And Job said the same:
Who can make the clean out of the unclean?Job 14:4
That is what made Jesus so unique: When He touched someone unclean, He didn’t get dirty. Rather, His cleanness “contaminated” and cleansed the person He touched. That was unheard-of!
Think what it meant to the lepers He healed (Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-42, Luke 5:12-13, Luke 17:11-19), or to the woman with a 12-year-long bleeding disorder (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48). These people had been totally outcast. They couldn’t be cleansed, so no one could touch them or anything they had touched. They couldn’t live with their families. They couldn’t go shopping in the markets. They couldn’t go to temple or synagogue. They had to stand far off, and yell to warn anyone from getting close to them. For years…….but then….
They met Jesus. He touched them, the first person to physically lay hands on them since their affliction had started. Not only was their physical problem immediately healed, but their spiritual problem was also. Now they could go to the synagogue, or offer sacrifices at the Temple, worshipping and participating in community again.
Note: This article was partly inspired by The Chosen scenes depicting these healings. Here are links so you can enjoy those scenes for yourself: Season 1, Episode 6, Healing the Leper; Season 3, Episode 5, Woman with Issue of Blood
That still describes the interaction whenever anyone comes to Jesus. Our sin doesn’t contaminate Him.
True, He did take it onto Himself. He became sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24). But then He defeated that sin: It was nailed to His cross and died with Him (Colossians 2:13-14), then was left behind when He rose again in victory.
Now, we get to be contaminated by His righteousness (Romans 5:19, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Everything touched by dirt becomes dirty. But everyone touched by Jesus becomes clean!