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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Ritual and Moral Impurities

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the passages that articulate the idea of moral impurity are often understood as metaphors. Metaphor is a complex phenomenon; even its definition is still debated by linguists and philosophers. According to some, metaphor is so pervasive that it could accurately be argued that all rituals involve metaphor on one level or another. But when scholars refer to moral impurity in particular as metaphorical, the implication is that the passage is not to be taken literally: The defilement in question is not real. There is, however, no reason why the defilement of the land by blood shed upon it (Num. 35.33–4 ) ought to be a metaphor, while the defilement of a person who merely enters a tent in which a corpse lies is real (Num. 19.14 ). Though the sources and modes of transfer of moral and ritual impurity differ, we are dealing, nonetheless, with two analogous perceptions of contagion, each of which brings about effects of religious, legal, and social consequence. There are indeed differences between ritual and moral defilements. But the difference between ritual and moral defilement is not accurately understood by describing one (ritual impurity) as literal and the other (moral impurity) as metaphorical.

The ritual impurity rules constitute a set of avoidances that symbolically express the notion of imitatio Dei. The moral impurity rules constitute a set of danger beliefs, and the symbolism involved here works differently. When ancient Israelites believed that the land and sanctuary were defiled by idolatry, sexual sin, and murder, they believed that God finds these behaviors so abhorrent that He would not and could not abide on a land that is saturated with residue left by their performance. It is precisely this ramification of moral defilement that is depicted quite dramatically in Ezek. chs 8–11 . Upon Israel's performance of grave sins, God's “glory” departs from the sanctuary and Israel's exile then ensues. The doctrine of moral defilement underscores the fact that grave sins affect not only their perpetrators and victims, but also Israelite society as a whole. If God cannot abide in His earthly sanctuary because it has been defiled, then all Israel will suffer exile together.

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