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?
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.
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
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very human historical document written by many authors, each of whom was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
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.
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
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.)
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:
A ritual animal sacrifice at the temple.
A ritual washing of the body.
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.
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:
Jacob Neusner and Mary Douglas who showed that the rules were
unrelated to hygiene, dirt, or aesthetics.
Phyllis Bird and Mary Douglas who have disagreed about whether they
are related to the authors' "instinctive revulsion" towards some
objects and activities.
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.
Why do things and deeds pollute?
They 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.
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)
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).