Washing in Bible times

By Mark Morgan | Jeremiah

Jan 28

In the last year we have all become familiar with calls to wash our hands frequently. With COVID-19 spreading across the world, everyone has been told to use soap, hand sanitiser and disinfectants, and now we are being encouraged to take a vaccine as soon as we can. How does this compare with washing in Bible times?

“Hand-hygiene” and “social distancing” are on everybody’s lips as we try to avoid the disease and save lives.

Here in Victoria, Australia, we are told, “Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds, using soap and water or use a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.”[1]

Many people have observed that the Law of Moses has a strong concentration on cleanliness and frequently mentions washing, and it is not the only part of the Bible where this is true.

In this article, we will look at some aspects of washing, cleanliness and hygiene in the Bible.

Washing in Bible Times

In Bible times, one of the most common reasons for needing washing was that they wore sandals.[2]

Walking on dusty roads in sandals made dusty feet common and there are plenty of references to people washing their feet or having others do it for them.[3] As you might imagine, washing someone’s feet was not a coveted job, and it appears that if people were rich enough to have servants, a servant would wash the feet of visitors.[4] This is part of the point Jesus was making in John chapter 13 when he washed the feet of his disciples. If Jesus, our Lord, was willing to do something as demeaning as to wash the feet of his disciples, we should be willing to be servants to others also.[5]

When we read the Bible, we also read of people washing their hands,[6] their face,[7] their entire body,[8] their clothes[9] and even in one case a chariot.[10]

The Law of Moses

The Law of Moses had instructions for washing many other items, particularly if they had been in contact with unclean things such as dead bodies,[11] the carcasses of unclean animals,[12] items touched by people who were unclean for various reasons, and so on.[13] There were even instructions for washing to remove uncleanness due to menstruation[14] and sexual intercourse.[15] Priests and Levites must wash as part of their consecration,[16] and during their subsequent work as priests.[17] Offerings must be washed,[18] and if the blood of offerings was spilt on clothes, they must be washed.[19]

The people conducting particular religious observances also had strict requirements for washing, particularly on the Day of Atonement. The High Priest had to wash both before going into the Most Holy Place,[20] and after leaving it.[21] The man who went outside the camp to burn the skin, the flesh and the dung of the bull and goat offered as sin offerings had to wash his clothes and bathe his body with water before he could re-enter the camp of Israel,[22] as did the man who led the scapegoat away and released it in the wilderness.[23]

However, some things could not be washed if they were religiously unclean or holy – such as pottery.[24]

People with diseases often had to wash themselves and/or their clothes as part of their treatment,[25] and this was also true with fabric or buildings in which “leprosy” was found (probably referring to what we would call moulds or fungi).[26]

With all of this concentration on washing, it’s no surprise that by Jesus’ time, the Jews had decided that washing was very important, to such an extent that they had added many extra rules about washing.[27] It seems that they began to treat physical cleanliness as if it were godliness.[28]

Disinfectants

Most of the washing described in the Bible seems to be with water only. However, there are a few references to products that can be used as disinfectants.

In Luke chapter 10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in which a Samaritan poured olive oil and wine on an injured Jew.[29] We can assume that these would be known to work as disinfectants or sanitisers.[30]

Other products such as soap[31] and lye[32] are also used for cleaning.

Cleansers

Most of the time nowadays, our society uses something extra to clean rather than just water. We use soap, disinfectants, antiseptics, soft soap, liquid soap, hand cleaner, grease removers and various solvents – often because we need to clean off processed or manufactured things that are far harder to remove than most natural products are. Isn’t it funny how changing one thing often requires other changes as well?

Yet this need to remove oily substances arose quite early because of our love of wool.

Sheep have glands which excrete lanolin to coat their wool and stop the fleece from becoming waterlogged. Sheep also can’t help picking up dirt, seeds, sticks and other bits and pieces in their fleece. We like to use the wool for clothing and many other things, but to do so, we need to clean the fleece after we have shorn a sheep. This cleaning is called fulling, tucking or walking/waulking.

In the Bible we read about fulling and places where it was done in a few passages.

A fullers’ field

When Hezekiah was king of Judah, we read of an invasion by Assyria. One army group was sent to Jerusalem as a show of force to intimidate Hezekiah, hoping that he would capitulate. The point of interest for this article is that the Assyrian army stopped on the highway to the fullers’ field (2 Kings 18:17; Isaiah 36:2), which also appears to have been near a good supply of water. Several years earlier, God had told Isaiah to go to the fuller’s field outside Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:3), which was probably the same field.

Malachi 3:2 describes the coming of Jesus with some similes. He is said to be like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. The fire assists in the removal of impurities as part of purifying metal, while the soap helps a fuller clean a fleece. Both are examples of an “ingredient” that helps the cleansing process.

In this passage, however, the cleansing being described is symbolic. It is not describing refining of real metal or cleaning of a physical fleece; instead, it is describing the work of Jesus in cleaning up the world spiritually. So now let’s look at symbolic washing or spiritual cleaning.

Washing in symbol

One thing that really stands out about cleanliness in the Bible is that it is often used symbolically. For example, even before the flood (long before the law of Moses), living things were categorised as clean or unclean,[33] and this doesn’t seem to be based on whether a species is neat and tidy, large or small, mammal or insect.

The symbolic meaning of this is shown even more clearly when people (nations and individuals) are spoken of as being clean or unclean,[34] depending on whether their behaviour is good or bad.

Since we are familiar with the idea of cleaning something that has become dirty, it should be easy to understand the symbolic use of cleaning also. King David, after he had committed adultery, asked God to wash away his sins,[35] or to go even further by creating a clean heart in him.[36]

Washing away sins

In the New Testament, the idea of washing away sins is also presented to anyone who wants to listen. As one example, after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was told to get baptised and wash away his sins.[37]

Paul also spoke to believers in Corinth about what was expected of them as part of becoming Christians. He gives a long list of sins that will exclude people from the kingdom of God and observed that some of them had done such things in the past, but reminded them that they had been washed to clean them from those sins.[38] He urged them to stay clean.

Ephesians 5:26 speaks of “the washing of water with the word” which seems to refer to baptism and reading the Bible as essential parts of removing sin. I suppose it makes sense that we can only avoid sin and pursue righteousness if we have a clear understanding of which is which! And the Bible is the only place we can find that distinction.

Paul also links washing through baptism with renewal in the Holy Spirit,[39] reminding us that we cannot wash ourselves clean; instead it is the work of God through Jesus Christ.

Why do we wash?

Have you ever thought about the reasons we have for washing? Many of them also apply when the washing is spiritual or symbolic.

We wash to remove things that are dangerous, messy or unsightly. If our hands are dirty, we wash them so that clean things are not dirtied by our hands.

We wash clothes to remove unsightly spots of dirt or unpleasant smells.

All of these things can also have a meaning in the washing away of sin and evil, which should be the goal of our lives.

In the book of Revelation, we are shown the picture of a great multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb (Jesus) dressed in white robes.[40] It was explained to John that these people had come out of the great tribulation and washed their clothes to make them white.

What did they wash them with?

The blood of the Lamb![41]

Now blood is something that we would always want to wash off. Yet this blood, in symbol, is the only way to actually remove sin and make us clean before God.[42]

Washing our hands can make our hands clean for a while, but in a short time we need to wash again.

Washing ourselves in the blood of Jesus can make us clean forever:

“Blessed are those who wash their robes,
so that they may have the right to the tree of life
and that they may enter the city by the gates.”

Revelation 22:14

 

See also

Notes

Notes
1 Victorian government page on Hygiene and physical distancing: https://www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/staying-safe-covid-19.
2 See Bible Tales article “Sandals in the Bible” (https://www.bibletales.online/sandals/).
3 Genesis 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32; Judges 19:21; 1 Samuel 25:41; 2 Samuel 11:8; Song of Solomon 5:3; 1 Timothy 5:10
4 1 Samuel 25:41
5 John 13:12-17
6 Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32; Job 9:30; Psalm 26:6; Matthew 15:2; 27:24; Mark 7:3
7 Genesis 43:31; Matthew 6:17
8 Exodus 2:5; Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; 2 Kings 5:10-14; Job 9:30; Ezekiel 16:4, 9; 23:40; John 13:10
9 Genesis 49:11; Exodus 19:10, 14. 2 Samuel 19:24 speaks of Mephibosheth not washing his clothes in such a way that indicates he normally would have washed them.
10 1 Kings 22:38
11 Numbers 19:14-22
12 Leviticus 11:25, 28, 32, 40; 17:15-16
13 Leviticus 15:5-8, 10; 15:19-22, 27
14 Leviticus 15:19-22
15 Leviticus 15:16-18
16 Exodus 29:4; 40:12, 30-32; Leviticus 8:6; Numbers 8:6, 21
17 Leviticus 16:26, 28; 22:6; Numbers 19:7-10; 2 Chronicles 4:6
18 Exodus 29:17; Leviticus 1:9, 13; 8:21; 9:14; 2 Chronicles 4:6; Ezekiel 40:38
19 Leviticus 6:27
20 Leviticus 16:4
21 Leviticus 16:23-24
22 Leviticus 16:27-28
23 Leviticus 16:26
24 See Leviticus 6:28; 11:32; 15:11-12 and Bible Tales article “Pottery” (https://www.bibletales.online/pottery/).
25 Leviticus 13:6, 34; 14:8-9; 15:13; 2 Kings 5:14
26 Leviticus 13:54-56; 14:47, 52
27 Mark 7:3-4; John 2:6
28 eg. Matthew 23:25-28; Mark 7:3-5; Luke 11:39
29 Luke 10:34
30 See “Antimicrobial activity of olive oil, vinegar, and various beverages against foodborne pathogens” (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17536679/).
31 Soap on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap).
32 Lye on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lye).
33 Genesis 7:2, 8-9; 8:20
34 Isaiah 1:16; Haggai 2:14
35 Psalm 51:1
36 Psalm 51:10
37 Acts 22:16
38 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
39 Titus 3:4-7
40 Revelation 7:9-10
41 Revelation 7:13-14
42 John 20:31; Acts 4:12; 10:43; Romans 3:24-25; Galatians 1:6-7; 1 John 1:7