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What are the bodily discharges mentioned in Leviticus 15, and why did they make a person unclean?

bodily discharge

Leviticus 15 contains rules for the Israelites under the Mosaic Law concerning various bodily discharges. The end of the chapter sums up: “These are the regulations for a man with a discharge, for anyone made unclean by an emission of semen, for a woman in her monthly period, for a man or a woman with a discharge, and for a man who has sexual relations with a woman who is ceremonially unclean” (Leviticus 15:32–33).

The four bodily discharges mentioned in Leviticus 15 all rendered a person ceremonially unclean and required a cleansing. The discharges are as follows:

1) A running discharge from a man (Leviticus 15:2–15); based on the context, we assume the discharge flows from a man’s sexual organs, although the text speaks only in general terms of “an unusual bodily discharge” (Leviticus 15:2).

2) An emission of semen, whether involuntary (Leviticus 15:16–17) or occurring during sexual intercourse (Leviticus 15:18).

3) The monthly period of a woman (Leviticus 15:19–24).

4) An issue of blood from a woman unrelated to menstruation (Leviticus 15:25–30).

These conditions fall into two groups: two of the discharges are the result of some type of disease or malfunction of the body, and the other two are natural, the result of normal bodily function, with no hint of pathology.

In every case, cleansing a person after one of these bodily discharges required washing clothes and bathing. But, if the discharge was related to a malady or a chronic condition, the affected person had additional steps to take: he or she had to wait seven days after the end of the discharge and on the eighth day “take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement . . . before the LORD” (Leviticus 15:29–30). Normal bodily discharges, such as happens when a married couple has sex, did not require a sacrifice and did not require a seven-day wait; for a normal discharge, the uncleanness only lasted one day.

Some of the rules concerning bodily discharges obviously helped promote personal hygiene and prevent the spread of disease. But in Leviticus 15:31 God gives a higher purpose: to “keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.” The tabernacle was a sacred place—the place where the people would meet with God—and the Israelites were to approach God with the utmost veneration and respect. The rules in Leviticus 15 remind the people that they are flesh and God is spirit; that they carry a personal pollution even when they do not sin outright; that they are privileged to be set apart by God and invited to His tabernacle; and that what happens in secret is seen by God.

The laws concerning bodily discharges did not concern morality any more than those concerning diseases of the skin (Leviticus 13) and childbirth (Leviticus 12). There’s nothing immoral about a husband and wife having sex or a woman having a period. The laws in Leviticus 15 governed ceremonial purity, not moral purity. Of course, if a person spurned the rules and approached the tabernacle unwashed, at that point it became a moral issue, as then it was a matter of disobedience to God’s direct command.

Christians are not under the Law of Moses (Romans 6:14) and are not bound by the law’s strict requirements concerning bodily discharges. However, the principles contained in Leviticus 15 are still valid: we reverence God; we remember that we are flesh and God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24); we are unrighteous in and of ourselves and need God’s cleansing (1 Corinthians 6:11); we are privileged to be set apart by God and made part of His church (1 Peter 2:9); and God sees what happens in secret (Psalm 139:12).

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What are the bodily discharges mentioned in Leviticus 15, and why did they make a person unclean?
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This page last updated: January 13, 2023