The ritual laws of the Old Testament demand that a man should wash himself, or part of himself, and perhaps also his clothing, on certain specified
Sometimes the washing is an obvious physical necessity.
If a man has been suffering from a discharge of some kind, or if blood has been spilt upon him, then clearly he and his clothing should be washed.
The various requirements are described in careful detail, especially in Leviticus.
But even as a physical necessity, it can be done with symbolic purpose.
If a man has been “set apart” because of pollution, or because of leprosy, then he will have one final wash at the end of his time of separation
to mark the moment when the cleansing is complete and he can re-join society;
“And he who is to be cleansed [of leprosy] shall wash his clothes, and shave off his hair, and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean; and
after that he shall come into the camp”. Leviticus ch14 v8
Sometimes it is not physical pollution that is being washed away, but spiritual pollution.
That’s probably how we should understand the healing of Naaman the Syrian, who came looking for a cure for his leprosy, and was told to wash in the
river Jordan (2 Kings ch5).
While the need for washing after contact with the dead (Leviticus ch19) is not just about the physical contact, because it even extends to those who
have touched a grave. Evidently there is something “unclean” about Death itself.
And why is a garment washed if it has been soiled with the blood of the sin offering? (Leviticus ch6 v27). This will be partly because the blood is
physically unclean, but also, presumably because the blood is too holy (as belonging to God) for casual human contact to be permitted.
From the washing of blood, to the washing of metaphorical blood.
A man who has killed another is said to have “blood on his hands”.
So a person protesting his innocence could act out his claim, by washing his hands to show there was “no blood on them”.
Thus if the body of a murdered man was found in the open country, “All the elders of the city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over
the heifer… and they shall testify ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed’” (Deuteronomy ch21 vv6-7)
Of course this is exactly what Pilate was doing in front of the Jerusalem crowd.
Following on from this physical washing, acting out a metaphor , the washing itself can become just a verbal expression;
“I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence”. (Psalm 73 v13)
Therefore the prophets and the psalms speak of the need for the people to “wash themselves” from their sins.
Isaiah urges the people of Jerusalem to “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean”, because their hands are “full of blood”.
This “washing” is then explained as “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the
widow”. (ch1 vv15-17)
And the prophet looks forward to a time when
“The Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem” (ch4 v4)
Jeremiah makes a similar demand;
“O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?” (ch4 v14).
The same language applies to the sins of the individual.
In Psalm 51 we find the plea;
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin…
Purge me with hyssop and I will be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (v2, v7)
And this is another way of saying
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v10).
[One of the replies in this thread has reminded me of this additional reference;]
originally posted by: Lazarus Short
Taking the washing metaphor a little further, Malachi 3:2 describes God as being "...like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap."
On previous occasions, I’ve described Original Sin as humanity taking itself out of alignment with God’s will, a misalignment which interferes
with their relationship with the God who made them.
If this is a fair description, then it’s obviously not possible for sin to be literally “washed away”.
The act of washing is a dramatized metaphor.
The language of the prophets shows that they already understand it as a metaphor.
The metaphor is expressing and teaching two important points;
1 ) It is necessary
for sin to be remedied. It must not be allowed to remain part of the life of the people.
2 ) It is possible
for sin to be remedied.
These are lessons which we can still absorb from contemplating the act of ritual washing.
edit on 31-7-2015 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)