In these chapters Moses recorded important laws of sanitation and purification. These particular regulations may seem strange to us today, but we must remember that when God gave them, His people were living close together in the hot climate of a wilderness for forty years. God prepared these guidelines to prevent transmittable diseases or viruses from spreading throughout the camp. The reason for these sanitation and personal hygiene regulations would not be understood and appreciated until many centuries later.
The writer S. McMillen in his book None of These Diseases comments on the bizarre remedies used in Egypt during Moses’ time:
“Several hundred remedies for diseases are advised in the Papyrus Ebers (written in Egypt). The drugs include ‘lizard’s blood, swine’s teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat, moisture from pigs’ ears, milk goose grease, asses’ hoofs, animal fats from various sources, excreta from animals, includ- ing human beings, donkeys, antelopes, dogs, cats, and even flies’” (page 11).
Because Moses spent the first forty years of his life in Egypt, he would have been aware of these Egyptian “quack cures,” yet none of these ridiculous remedies are found in the Torah. Instead, God the Creator gave unique sanitation codes to prevent the spreading of germs and disease.
One notable feature of these laws is that God believed in washing and cleanliness. God instructed the priests to wash their hands and feet before ministering and slaying the sacrifices (see Exod. 30:18-21). The inwards (entrails) and inside legs of the sacrifices were to be washed (see Lev. 1:9-13). A person touching a dead carcass needed to wash his clothes and his body (see Lev. 11:24-28) with running water and was considered unclean until evening. If someone touched a scab, a running sore, a possible leper, or anyone with a skin disease or infection, both the clothes and the person making contact with the afflicted individual had to be washed in water, and in some cases, running water (see Lev. 15:13).
In ancient medical circles, no one knew that certain diseases, infections, and germs could be passed from person to person through physical contact. God commanded running water to be used to cleanse and purify a person. The importance of washing was understood in the early twentieth century at the Vienna Medical Center Hospital, when doctors noticed that one in six women were dying in childbirth of infections. Previously, doctors had washed their hands in a basin of water. Later it was discovered this was a source of passing infection to the other women. Today, doctors scrub their hands in an alcohol-based soap or hand scrub and use warm running water, thus helping to prevent the passing of infections to their patients. This simple procedure was revealed to Moses 3,500 years ago.
Also unknown in ancient times was the fact that diseases, infections, and germs could be passed on by the bacteria on a dead carcass. Throughout the Torah, God emphasized the importance of washing when a person touched anyone or anything considered ceremonially unclean, such as the dead carcass of an animal or a person. Leviticus chapter 15 lists specific things that caused a person to be unclean and required ritual purification:
• Any bodily discharge or sore (v. 2-3)
• Any bed, chair, or clothes of a person with a discharge (v. 4-6)
• Any person who is spit upon by an unclean person must wash (v. 8)
• Any clay pot touched by the unclean person must be destroyed; a wooden vessel must be cleansed in water (Lev. 15:12)
• The law of washing prevented the spread of germs and disease during a time when the Hebrews lived in close confinement in tents in the wilderness. This law protected them then, just as practicing healthy sanitation today protects us from germs and disease.
Don’t Forget Your Paddle
In Deuteronomy, God instructed the Hebrews in the wilderness to carry a small wooden paddle on the side of their outer garment. When they needed to “ease themselves,” they would walk to the outer edges of the camp, dig a small hole, and afterwards cover up the excrement with earth (see Deut. 23:12-13). This rather strange process is another example of a life-saving sanitation code.
In Moses’ time, six hundred thousand men, not counting women and children, camped in a hot, rocky desert. If they allowed open sewage near their tents, dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases would spread quickly. Today we know that open sewers become a major source of disease in third-world countries. During biblical times, God established a simple yet healthy way to dispose of human waste, thus preventing the spread of dangerous diseases among His people. These regulations are as practical today as they were thousands of years ago.