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Types of sin, as defined by the Mosaic Code in
the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament)

Part 1: About the Pentateuch. Human evil.
Causes of ritual impurity.
Why do things and deeds pollute?

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About the Pentateuch:

The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). It contains 613 injunctions "248 were positive; 365 were negative." 1  This list, commonly called the Laws of Moses or the Mosaic Code, describes activities that were either compulsory or prohibited to all Hebrews in ancient times. Similar laws appeared in legal codes found in other areas of the world before and since the Mosaic Code was written. They were supported by many of the world's religions at the time. Many other religions still promote them today.

Theologians differ as to the source and degree authority of the Pentateuch and its Mosaic Code.

bullet Many religious conservatives consider the books to have been written by Moses, circa 1450 BCE. They believe that the books are unique within world literature. Its author was inspired by God to write material that was completely inerrant -- free of error. For this reason, they often refer to the Pentateuch, and to the rest of the Bible, as the "Word of God."

bullet Many mainline and most liberal theologians look upon the Pentateuch as a very human historical document written by many authors, each of whom was promoting their own -- and their group's -- religious and spiritual beliefs. These theologians have generally rejected Moses as the author. They have accepted the documentary hypothesis, which attributes authorship to four anonymous authors or groups of writers, who lived between 922 and 587 BCE, and who held conflicting religious beliefs. Author and theologian R.E. Friedmann suspects that Ezra was the redactor. 2 He was the individual who merged the four documents into a collection which closely resembles the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures as we know them today.

Almost everyone will agree that certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures are no longer applicable today. Examples are those requiring the stoning of non-virgin brides to death, or regulating how violently a slave owner can act when beating his slaves. Almost everyone will agree that other parts of the Pentateuch are of universal significance. The prohibition of murder and adultery are two prime examples. However, there are certain behavioral laws in the Pentateuch about which people cannot agree about their relevance today. 

Since conservative, mainline and liberal theologians start with such different foundational beliefs about the origin of the Pentateuch and its laws, they often reach very different conclusions about their significance in today's cultures. This is particularly true of passages which deal with two types of evil: moral sin and ritual impurity.

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Human evil in the Pentateuch:

"The Mosaic code itself contained dietary regulations, clothing specifications, etc. – a plethora of civil, social, and religious minutia." 1  A main purpose of the Code was to eliminate or control human evil among the Hebrews and to differentiate them from other nearby tribes.

Author and theologian Dan O. Via defines human evil, within in ancient Israel, as: "...conditions and acts that are against God, create distance from the divine, and injure the human subjects." 3 He, and many other theologians and commentators, have identified two distinct types of evil within the Hebrew Scriptures:

  1. Moral sin: This is: "...a conscious, intentional, personal attitude and act. It originates in a corrupted heart, the seat of the will and understanding. It is religious, rebellion against God." He cites Genesis 3:1-7; Isaiah 1:2-5; and Jeremiah 5:23, 7:13-14, 13:10, 17:1, and 17:9-10. He also cites Amos 4:1, 5:11-12, and 6:4-6 as an indication that "Since the God of Israel wills that the poor and marginalized be treated with justice and concern, rebellion against God is also an offence against one's human community." 3 This is close to the concept of moral sin that most present-day Christians believe it to be. (This web site describes morality and ethics in a separate section.)

  2. Uncleanness (or impurity, ritual impurity, ceremonial uncleanliness): This second form of sin is caused by coming into contact with some forbidden object or by engaging in some prohibited activity. Dr. Via describes it as becoming involved with "...certain animals or foods, corpses, pagan rites, sexual processes, etc. It is like a contagion; it gets on you. It has nothing to do with motive, intention, or the disposition of the heart." 3 The impurity is immediate and automatic. In most cases, the impurity can be removed in one or more of the following ways:

    bullet A ritual animal sacrifice at the temple.
    bullet A ritual washing of the body.

    bullet The passage of time.

    However, some ritual impurities are so serious that they cannot be undone. The person must be executed in order to rid the land of pollution. The rest of this essay will deal primarily with this type of sin.

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The cause(s) of ritual impurity:

According to Via, "there is no clear theory about" why these objects or activities are considered polluting, and were believed to cause ritual impurity. Some ideas have been suggested, but none appear to cover all of the cases. He refers to the writings of:

  1. Jacob Neusner and Mary Douglas who showed that the rules were unrelated to hygiene, dirt, or aesthetics.

  2. Phyllis Bird and Mary Douglas who have disagreed about whether they are related to the authors' "instinctive revulsion" towards some objects and activities.

  3. Mary Douglas who suggests that the purity rules reveal the "wholeness, completeness or perfection" of God." 3 By following these codes, the Children of Israel can reflect the holiness of God.

Via concludes that this third option is the most promising. It appears to give a basis for many of the injunctions.

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Why do things and deeds pollute?

bulletThey detract from the condition of the body as "a perfect, unflawed, unblemished container:" Some examples are related to bodily discharges, childbirth, alteration to the body, or disability. They include:

bullet Giving birth to a boy made a woman unclean for seven days. She had to go through a purification ritual for 33 additional days. Having a girl is apparently twice as polluting. The mother is unclean for fourteen days, and then must go through a 66 day purification ritual. Afterwards, she would bring a yearling lamb to the temple to be ritually sacrificed by the priest as a burnt offering. If she could not afford a lamb, she was allowed to substitute a turtledove or young pigeon. A turtledove or young pigeon was also required as a sin offering. (Leviticus 12:1-8)

bullet A person with an imperfection on his skin was to go to the priest for an examination. If he met one of various criteria, the priest judged him to be contagious. The priest pronounced him unclean and placed him in isolation for one or more periods of seven days. If the person was finally diagnosed with an infectious disease, then he had to wear ripped clothes -- apparently because leprosy and similar diseases were believed to have been a curse from God for prior sinful behavior. He must cry out "Unclean! Unclean!," cover the lower part of his face, and permanently isolate himself from society. (Leviticus 13).

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Wayne Jackson, "Some Contrasts Between the Nature of the Mosaic System and Christianity," Christian Courier, 2001-NOV-30, at:

  2. R.E. Friedman, "Who Wrote the Bible?" Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, (1997).

  3. D.O. Via & R. A.J. Gagnon, "Homosexuality and the Bible: Two views," Fortress Press, (2003), Page 5. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Copyright © 2003 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-DEC-12
Latest update: 2014-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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