Leviticus 15

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron:

2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean.

These rules must be taught to the Israelites so they can make their own diagnosis. In this verse the Hebrew word basar (“body”) is a euphemism for the penis. Throughout chapter 15 the Hebrew word zowb (“discharge”) is used of the various conditions of both men and women. Verses 1-15 pertain to an abnormal discharge.

3 Now this is his uncleanness in regard to his discharge – whether his body secretes his discharge or blocks his discharge, he is unclean. All the days that his body has a discharge or his body blocks his discharge, this is his uncleanness.

This verse defines the physical symptoms of the ailment. The first category of symptoms refers to abnormal secretions from the penis. The second category of symptoms refers to an obstruction of the urethra. Milgrom identifies the disease as Blennorrhea urethrae or Gonorrhoea benigna (not to be confused with Gonorrhoea virulenta).1

4 “‘Any bed the man with a discharge lies on will be unclean, and any furniture he sits on will be unclean.

5 Anyone who touches his bed must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

6 The one who sits on the furniture the man with a discharge sits on must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

7 The one who touches the body of the man with a discharge must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

8 If the man with a discharge spits on a person who is ceremonially clean, that person must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

Spitting was a gesture of extreme contempt (Num. 12:14; Deut. 25:9).

9 Any means of riding the man with a discharge rides on will be unclean.

A “means of riding” refers to a saddle or similar object that is used when riding a horse.

10 Anyone who touches anything that was under him will be unclean until evening, and the one who carries those items must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

11 Anyone whom the man with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

The exact meaning of this verse is somewhat uncertain. One possibility is that a man with a discharge did not transmit uncleanness if he rinsed his hands first. Levine offers a second possibility:2

The sense seems to be that one with a discharge who touches another person with his hands (hence the reference to hands) prior to purification renders that person and his clothing impure. The resultant impurity lasts until evening and is removed by bathing and the laundering of clothing.

12 A clay vessel which the man with the discharge touches must be broken, and any wooden utensil must be rinsed in water.

13 “‘When the man with the discharge becomes clean from his discharge he is to count off for himself seven days for his purification, and he must wash his clothes, bathe in fresh water, and be clean.

The seven days are counted off from when the ailment terminates. The man is to bathe in naturally flowing water.3

14 Then on the eighth day he is to take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and he is to present himself before the Lord at the entrance of the Meeting Tent and give them to the priest, 15 and the priest is to make one of them a sin offering and the other a burnt offering. So the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for his discharge.

The entrance of the Meeting Tent reached to the outer gate of the sanctuary courtyard. The unclean man could not have approached the inner courtyard. “A sin offering is required here not because the person in question offended God by any intentional or unintentional act but because the impurity, which is to say the ailment, threatened the purity of the sanctuary.”4

16 “‘When a man has a seminal emission, he must bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until evening, 17 and he must wash in water any clothing or leather that has semen on it, and it will be unclean until evening.

Verse 16 refers to an involuntary emission of semen.

18 When a man has sexual intercourse with a woman and there is a seminal emission, they must bathe in water and be unclean until evening.

The declaration of semen as unclean in this passage illustrates the sharp distinction between Israelite religion and the pagan religions of the ancient Near East. In pagan religion sexual activity among worshipers was believed to activate the gods into fertilizing the soil with rain. This activity was often performed within the sacred precincts of the pagan god’s shrine (see Hos 4:12–14). This practice and the mythological role of sex was shown to be ungodly by this legislation because sexual activity in fact placed one in the category of uncleanness. Thus it would be an abomination to engage in sexual activity in the tabernacle precinct (see 15:31). This demythologizing of sex thus has a polemical role; the legislation does not indicate that sex was sinful and without value.5

19 “‘When a woman has a discharge and her discharge is blood from her body, she is to be in her menstruation seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening.

Verse 19 refers to normal menstruation. The laws suggest that a menstruating woman would have her own bed and chair for this time of the month. According to Milgrom, women did not menstruate as often in ancient times as they do in modern times.6 Improved nutrition in modern women has pushed the onset of first menses earlier and delayed the onset of menopause. Ancient women were more likely to be pregnant or breastfeeding, which they did for longer than most modern women and which suppresses menses, during their fertile years.

20 Anything she lies on during her menstruation will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.

21 Anyone who touches her bed must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

22 Anyone who touches any furniture she sits on must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

23 If there is something on the bed or on the furniture she sits on, when he touches it he will be unclean until evening, 24 and if a man actually has sexual intercourse with her so that her menstrual impurity touches him, then he will be unclean seven days and any bed he lies on will be unclean.

Lev. 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman and prescribe the penalty of being “cut off” from the people. It may be that this verse envisions a couple inadvertently having intercourse while the woman is menstruating while the other passages envision a couple brazenly breaking the prohibition.

25 “‘When a woman’s discharge of blood flows many days not at the time of her menstruation, or if it flows beyond the time of her menstruation, all the days of her discharge of impurity will be like the days of her menstruation – she is unclean.

Verse 25 concerns irregular blood discharges. The woman’s impurity lasts as long as the irregular discharges last. This passage supplies background to the woman who was healed by Jesus in Matt. 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48.

26 Any bed she lies on all the days of her discharge will be to her like the bed of her menstruation, any furniture she sits on will be unclean like the impurity of her menstruation, 27 and anyone who touches them will be unclean, and he must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

28 “‘If she becomes clean from her discharge, then she is to count off for herself seven days, and afterward she will be clean.

29 Then on the eighth day she must take for herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and she must bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Meeting Tent, 30 and the priest is to make one a sin offering and the other a burnt offering. So the priest is to make atonement for her before the Lord from her discharge of impurity.

The categorical difference between abnormal and normal conditions is that abnormalities ultimately require ritual expiation as part of the purification process, whereas normal conditions, though inducing impurity, require only bathing and laundering of clothing and observance of the proper period of waiting. Such normal conditions do not of themselves involve the sanctuary directly, unless a person in such a state actually enters the sacred precincts.7

31 “‘Thus you are to set the Israelites apart from their impurity so that they do not die in their impurity by defiling my tabernacle which is in their midst.

The primary purpose of these laws on ritual purity in regard to sexual discharges was to separate from the holy any activity that belonged to the sphere of the common, the sphere of earthly existence. These laws relegated sexual activity to the common area. There sexual intercourse was to be fully enjoyed as long as couples displayed moral responsibility in relating to each other (cf. chaps. 18 and 20). But sexual intercourse was never to take place in the area of the sanctuary. Sexuality was not a way to achieve spiritual enhancement, nor was it a way to commune with God. There was to be no confusion on this issue among the covenant people. The belief that sexual congress could manipulate the productivity of the natural order, as was believed in the various fertility cults of Israel’s neighbors, was despicable in the sight of OT law revealed by God. All practices based on such a belief, therefore, were to be banished from Israel.8

32 This is the law of the one with a discharge: the one who has a seminal emission and becomes unclean by it, 33 the one who is sick in her menstruation, the one with a discharge, whether male or female, and a man who has sexual intercourse with an unclean woman.’”

Bibliography

Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.


  1. Milgrom 1991, p. 907 
  2. Levine 1989, p. 95 
  3. Levine 1989, p. 95 
  4. Levine 1989, p. 96 
  5. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 5594-5599 
  6. Milgrom 1991, p. 953 
  7. Levine 1989, p. 98 
  8. Hartley 1998, p. 214 
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