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The Jews used animal skins to carry wine or water and as clothing. Did that make everyone "unclean"?


Boy, our fellow-readers ask interesting questions! I never thought about this before.

This question was asked during our study of Leviticus 11, in which we learned that some animals are unclean, and things that touch unclean things are unclean. So how can John the Baptist ever have been ritually clean while wearing a leather belt around his waist? How can wine in a wineskin be suitable for human consumption? I went back and reread the rules in Leviticus about clean and unclean. I also did some searching around on the Internet, and I learned that we are not the only ones with questions about this topic.

It turns out that I was mistaken in saying originally that only clean animals may be touched. The carcasses of unclean animals will make a person or anything else that touches them unclean, although not permanently. The carcass of a clean animal that is mauled to death by a predator or that dies of disease or old age is also unclean. However, as near as I can now tell, living unclean animals (e.g., donkeys) may be touched without incurring uncleanness, and the body of a clean animal that is properly slaughtered – that is, in such a way that all the blood is spilled out – is clean. Leviticus 13:47-59 gives specific instructions for how to tell if “anything made of skin” has become unclean, and if so, how to make it clean again. So obviously leather and wineskins made from clean animals are capable of being clean.

The rabbinical interpretations of clean/unclean are horrendously complicated, however. For example, one reference I looked at, The Comparative Hermeneutics of Rabbinic Judaism, Vol. 5, Seder Tohorot, by Jacob Neusner, has pages and pages on the cleanness or uncleanness of leather. The state of cleanness of leather may depend on, for example, whether a shoe is still on the last or not, the size of the piece of leather, or whether the piece of leather is flat or made into a pouch. In a somewhat spooky anticipation of Schroedinger’s Cat, the mere intention of the person who is working with a leather utensil can make it unclean, without any physical act (Neusner, p. 92). I decided that this is way too complicated for Gentiles like me to understand.

However, the bottom line is this:

Follow-up Question From Another Reader

'Gentile converts.' Does that mean converts to Judaism? (8/13/2010

In this particular case, Acts 15, the “Gentile converts” were pagans who had become, or wanted to become, Christians. The debate was this: “Are we, the Church, going to make these folks become Jews in order to become Christians? Because so far, all of us Christians used to be Jews, and that’s the only model we know.”*

The word translated Gentiles in the Old Testament, goy, means Gentile, heathen, nation, or people, and pretty much boils down to “non-Jewish,” which is also how it’s used within Judaism today.

In the New Testament there are a couple of words translated Gentiles: ethnos means Gentile, heathen, nation, or people, and Hellene means Greeks, i.e., any Greek-speaking pagan (which was just about everybody in the Roman Empire). Both of them boil down to “non-Jewish” or “non-Jewish non-Christians (i.e., pagans),” depending on the context. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints today, “Gentile” means “non-Mormon.”

Most religious groups seem to have a word that mean “non-us.” Shame on us.

* The answer, which is immaterial to today’s question, was no.

Copyright 2010, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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