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Ritual Purity Regulations According to the Dead Sea Scrolls

Even in their fragmented form, much can be learned about the Jewish laws of ritual purity from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which number more than 900 documents. The ancient parchment and papyrus texts were first discovered in 1947 in a long-forgotten cave in Qumran, near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. As a young child, this writer developed a curious fascination for the scrolls, eagerly anticipating the day when more information would be made available to the general public. Sadly, it was many decades before the fragile texts were released from the hands of a few select scholars, who withheld them from a wider scope of textual experts. Presently, replicas of many of the scrolls are exhibited at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

Written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek during the Second Temple period, the documents are divided into three groups: Biblical manuscripts, Apocryphal writings, meaning hidden or secret, and Pseudepigraphical manuscripts, meaning “falsely inscribed.” Authorship of non-biblical scrolls remains controversial, with some scholars crediting the Essenes with having produced the manuscripts. Invaluable for their religious, historical, and cultural significance, the scroll collection includes all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of the book of Esther. Undoubtedly, deciphering minute fragments is tedious work. Much admiration and appreciation is afforded the scholars who have undertaken this critical area of research and study.

The ritual purity laws stated in the scrolls are in harmony with those of the biblical text. For example, from Fragment 69 of scroll 4Q512, we read, “And You commanded us to separate ourselves from [uncleanness lest we die…]. A simple comparison with the following biblical passage demonstrates unity between the two texts:

“Thus you shall keep the sons [and daughters] of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by defiling My tabernacle that is among them.”  Lev 15:31

As evidenced by this verse, observing the laws of ritual purity was a matter of life and death to the Israelites. Uncleanness concerned three primary areas: leprosy, bodily discharges of both men and women, and contact with the dead, both animal and human remains. Although this type of ritual impurity was not regarded as sin and required no sin offering, it created an impediment between man and God. In each case, separation from the camp was required by the offending party, the duration of which depended on the type of uncleanness.

Fragment 1 of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q278, which discusses ritual impurity, appears to be a commentary of Leviticus 15:19-24:

[…and he shall] rinse [in water…] […N]o one may lie [with an unclean woman…And any furniture] which she shall sit [upon shall be unclean…And]if he has not touched it, [he shall be clean…on the th]ird [day], those who touch […any]one, contact with the bed […] in the place […]”

Should an unclean individual touch a clean person or object, that which they touched or sat upon was rendered tamay: amej’, meaning “unclean, polluted, contaminated.” Because the discharge of liquids was believed to transmit uncleanness, anyone touching a contaminated person or object was judged unclean and unfit for temple worship until lengthy, costly, ritual purifications rites were performed according to biblical regulations. Although there are a number of religious and cultural reasons for the prohibition, the practice affords privacy to menstruating women, who are not noticeably singled out from the ritually clean women.

Fragment I of 4Q276 and Fragment 1 of 4Q277 discuss the complex ritual use of the ashes of a red heifer deemed necessary to purify those who had been sullied by a corpse. The scrolls correspond with the divinely mandated practice described in Numbers 19. Because death was the strongest defilement and the final result of sin, it had to be dealt with in the prescribed manner. A perfect red heifer, void of even one white hair, was taken outside the camp to the Mount of Olives, claimed by some to be the place of Yeshua’s agony, where it was slaughtered in the presence of the priest.

Interestingly, the priest became unclean during the ceremony because of the presence of the animal corpse, but the one to whom the ash mixture (a paste-like composition of ash and pure water) was applied became ritually clean. The blood sacrifice, of course, pointed to Yeshua, who suffered defilement and was killed outside the camp for the purpose of cleansing sinners: “Therefore Yeshua also that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Heb 13:12). The shed blood of the Lamb of God became the cleansing fountain of the redeemed. Hallelujah!

For additional information on these topics, see: Grooming the Bride – Preparation for Eternity and Holy Cow – The Mystery of the Red Heifer, by Dr. Noreen Jacks, available from