“When the one with a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, he shall count seven days for his cleansing: he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in fresh water, and he shall be clean” (Leviticus 15:13).
To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.
Ray Comfort continues to amaze and astound with his inept reading of biblical texts in his book Scientific Facts in the Bible.1 Quoting Leviticus 15:3 he writes,
The Bible states that when dealing with disease, hands should be washed under running water. Up until the 1800s doctors washed their hands in a basin of still water, leaving invisible germs and resulting in the death of multitudes. We now know that doctors must wash their hands under running water. The Encyclopedia Britannica documents that in 1845, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis in Vienna was horrified at the terrible death rate of women who gave birth in hospitals. As many as 30 percent died after giving birth. Semmelweis noted that doctors would examine the bodies of patients who had died, then go straight to the next ward and examine expectant mothers. This was their normal practice, because the presence of microscopic diseases was unknown. Semmelweis insisted that doctors wash their hands before examinations, and the death rate immediately dropped to 2 percent.2
Comfort’s recounting of Ignaz Semmelweis is more or less accurate and so there is no need to address it. Instead our focus will be on Comfort’s (mis)understanding of the regulations found in Leviticus 15:13. Comfort’s central claim is that “[t]he Bible states that when dealing with disease, hands should be washed under running water.” Is Comfort correct? Is this evidence of advanced epidemiological knowledge in the Priestly text of Leviticus?
Determining the Context
Leviticus 15 is primarily about what ordinary people are to do when they have some ritual impurity. The text is divided into two basic categories: male genital discharges (15:2b-18) and female genital discharges (15:19-30). These two categories can be further subdivided.
- Male genital discharges (15:2b-18)
- Abnormal genital discharges (15:2b-15)
- Normal genital discharges (15:16-18)
- Female genital discharges (15:19-30)
- Normal genital discharges (15:19-24)
- Abnormal genital discharges (15:25-30)
Regardless of gender, for normal genital discharges there is no sacrifice required. Instead those experiencing such discharges are unclean for a specific period of time: “until the evening” for males and seven days for females. If a man and woman engage in sexual intercourse and the male achieves orgasm then both of them are unclean until the evening.
Things are quite different for abnormal genital discharges. If a woman experiences a “discharge of blood” that is not part of her normal menstrual cycle or if her menstruation lasts longer than it normally does she remains unclean and all she has touched are considered unclean as well. Once her discharge has ceased, she is to count seven days before she can be considered clean. Then on the eighth day she is to take either two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest at the tabernacle so he can offer up a sin offering and a burnt offering to “make atonement on her behalf before the LORD for her unclean discharge” (15:30).
Similarly, males who experiencing an abnormal genital discharge are considered unclean during the period of discharge. Once the discharge has ceased he is to count seven days, wash his clothes, and “bathe his body in fresh water” before he is considered clean. Then on the eighth day he is to take two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest at the tabernacle so he can offer up a sin offering and a burnt offering to “make atonement on his behalf before the LORD for his discharge” (15:15).
The role of mayim ḥyym
As noted earlier, Comfort capitalizes on the phrase rendered in the NKJV as “running water” (mayim ḥyym). Literally, mayim ḥyym is “living waters” with ḥyym functioning adjectivally to mayim. To what is mayim ḥyym referring? The NRSV renders the phrase as “fresh water” which doesn’t truly capture what is being said here. The NKJV is much closer to the Hebrew in this regard. But considering that modern plumbing was not a feature available to ancient Israel, what exactly does running water entail?
The key is what we read in Leviticus 14:5: “The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered over fresh water [mayim ḥyym] in an earthen vessel.” In context, the passage is describing what must be done to declare and make one with a skin disease ṭāhēr – “clean.” Normally such a slaughter would take place at the tent of meeting but because of the nature of skin disease everything happened outside the camp to avoid spreading the infection. As part of the ritual, a priest would take one of two birds that were brought for the ritual and slaughter it over a vessel containing mayim ḥyym. But how can it be considered running water if it is in a container? Well, it depends on how it got to be there. If it came from an underground source like a well (cf. Genesis 26:19) or from a river or stream then it was suitable for use.3 Such water could be stored in a vessel for later use in rituals as it was considered mayim ḥyym. In other words, if the water was taken from a source that was flowing then it was deemed appropriate for use. It did not matter that in a container like the earthen vessel it was no longer flowing.
Let’s return then to Leviticus 15:13. When the texts says that the one with the genital discharge is to “bathe his body in mayim ḥyym” it isn’t saying necessarily that he must wash in water that is currently flowing. Rather, the water must have come from a source that was, i.e. a river or an Artesian well. Water in an earthen vessel as we read in Leviticus 14:5 is still considered mayim ḥyym even though it is no longer flowing.
And so yet again Comfort has misunderstood the biblical text, this time by failing to look at surrounding context and how mayim ḥyym is used.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016).
2 Ibid., 6.
3 John E. Hartley, Leviticus, WBC vol. 4 (Zondervan, 1992), 195.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.