How does touching a dead body make one unclean in Haggai 2:13?

How does touching a dead body make one unclean in Haggai 2:13?              By Jack Kettler

“And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” So, the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.” (Haggai 2:13)

Introduction:

Haggai’s prophecies to the people of Jerusalem took place in 520 BC, approximately eighteen years after the return from exile in Babylon (538 BC).

Outline:

  • The Setting: 1:1-2
  • The Rebuke: 1:3-6
  • The Summons to Rebuild the Temple: 1:1-15
  • The Way of Repentance: 1:7-8
  • The Response of the People: 1:12-15
  • The Path of Repentance and Hope for a Future Temple: 2:20-23

Why does touching a corpse or something unclean make a person unclean? What is the solution to restore cleanliness?

Two relevant cross-reference passages:

“If a descendant of Aaron has a skin disease or a discharge, he may not eat the sacred offerings until he is clean. Whoever touches anything defiled by a corpse…” (Leviticus 22:4)

“‘He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days.” (Numbers 19:11)

In verse 13, Haggai echoes Moses from Leviticus and Numbers. What can be learned about the nature of this uncleanness?

The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament comments on the cross-reference passage from Numbers 19:11 and informs the reader on the nature of the uncleanness:

“Whoever touched a corpse, “with regard to all the souls of men,” i.e., the corpse of a person, of whatever age or sex, was unclean for seven days, and on the third and seventh day he was to cleanse himself (התחטּא, as in Numbers 8:21) with the water (בּו refers, so far as the sense is concerned, to the water of purification). If he neglected this cleansing, he did not become clean, and he defiled the dwelling of Jehovah (see at Leviticus 15:31). Such a man was to be cut off from Israel (vid., at Genesis 17:14).” (1)

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers notes a unique characteristic of this type of defilement:

“(13) Unclean. — The defilement incurred by contact with a dead body was one of the deepest. (See Numbers 19:11-16.) On the force of the term tmê nephesh, compare the passages Leviticus 21:11; Leviticus 22:4; Numbers 6:6.” (2) (underlining emphasis mine)

The Pulpit Commentary elaborates further on the seriousness of this defilement:

“Verse 13. – Unclean by a dead body; Septuagint, ἀκάθαρτος ἐπὶ ψυχῇ: Vulgate. pollutus in anima. These versions are closer to the Hebrew, “unclean by a soul,” than the Authorized Version, but not so intelligible. “Soul” (nephesh) is used to mean a person, and, with the attribute “dead” understood, a corpse, as Leviticus 21:1. The full phrase is found in Numbers 6:6, 11. Contact with a dead body produced the gravest ceremonial uncleanness, which lasted seven days, and could be purged only by a double lustration and other rites (Numbers 19:11, etc.). This uncleanness was doubtless connected with the idea that death was the result of sin. Any of these. The things mentioned in the preceding verse. It shall be unclean. In accordance with Numbers 19:22 A polluted human being communicated his pollution to all that he touched. It was owing to the defilement that accompanied contact with the dead that the later Jews used to whiten the sepulchres every year, that they might be seen and avoided (Matthew 23:27, and Lightfoot, ‘Her. Hebr.’ in loc.). Haggai 2:13” (3)

The Pulpit commentators connect Haggai 2:13 with Numbers Chapter 19; identical cases of defilement are seen.

Consulting Christ in the Bible Commentary, The Complete Old Testament, the reader learns about how the cleansing of defilement for touching a dead body is cleansed: 

“The most impressive of all the ordinances provided for the wilderness life of Israel was that which is known as the ordinance of the red heifer, described in Numbers 19, and referred to explicitly in Heb. 9:13, as the special type of the provision which Christ has made for our continual cleansing and keeping amid the defilements of our earthly journey.”

“The Type of Christ 2. The selection of the heifer was expressive of the person and sacrifice of Christ. She was to be red, and the rabbis tell us that there must be no single hair of any other color. She must also be without blemish of any kind, and must never have come under the yoke (Num. 19:2). This was fulfilled in the spotless purity of the Lord Jesus, and in the fact that He was under no obligation on His own account to suffer for sin, or to take the place of the criminal; but was purely voluntary in His sacrifice, and able through His perfect righteousness to make atonement for the guilty. The unmixed color of the living victim vividly portrays the sufferings of Christ, and the emphatic truth that His one business was to be the sacrifice for sins. His mission was all pure crimson. He had not two aims—to please Himself, and save men. He only came to redeem a lost world. 3. The heifer was next taken outside the camp and slain, so Christ was crucified outside the gate as an outcast and a criminal (Num. 19:3; Heb. 13:12). 4. The blood was then sprinkled seven times before the Tent of Meetings, implying the offering of Christ’s life is a perfect satisfaction for the guilt of man and a complete ransom for the soul and its forfeited inheritance (Num. 19:4; 1 Peter 1:19).” (4)

More on defilement and how only Christ can cleanse an individual:

“9. The causes of defilement for which this ordinance was to be applied were extremely suggestive. They were chiefly for persons who became defiled by touching the dead (Num. 19:2, etc.). This represents the presence and influence of the carnal nature which the apostle describes as the “body of death” (Rom. 7:24) hanging about the soul, unless it is wholly laid off. The corpse of the victim, as in ancient times, was chained to the body of the murderer (Rom. 7:24). A poor criminal in St. Louis told the chaplain of his prison one day, that every night in his dreams he saw the body of the man whom he had slain fastened to him by ropes and dragging him down into a horrible vortex, and that he could not shake it off. So many souls are carrying themselves as weights of corruption and death, and there are no sources of defilement so terrible as those that come to us from our sinful nature. Sometimes the touch of the dead comes from our taking back, in recollection and reflection, our former and our forgiven sins. This always contaminates the conscience. Sometimes from not wholly leaving off the old man and reckoning ourselves dead indeed, by the habit of faith. It is only as we refuse to count him our true self that we can be free from his contagion. It is the believer’s privilege to hand him over to Christ, to be by Him held and slain. But if for a moment he forgets this in the wild assaults of natural impulse, and allows a fear to assert itself and intimidate him from his new vantage ground, he will become defiled and unable to hold his victory. More frequently the touch of the dead arises from yielding to the instigations and desires of the flesh, either willfully, or under sudden or hasty temptation. Of course, such yielding is always sin, and brings contamination and condemnation; and there must be instant cleansing, or there will be a complete loss of communion and peace. These two considerations are the most important elements in a life of victory over the flesh, and they are both emphasized again and again in the sixth chapter of Romans, which is the very manual of this teaching. “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Rom. 6:12), is the apostle’s statement of the one; and, “count yourselves dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11), is the equally important direction in respect to the other. If, for a moment, either of these is disobeyed, the soul will be swept by the breath of evil, and must instantly repair to the water of separation before its purity and communion can be restored. Happy indeed are they who have learned this secret of continual cleansing. It is further implied, however, that defilement may come unconsciously from the elements of evil that are around us constantly in a sinful world. Every open vessel which had no covering bound upon it was unclean. The air was so full of contagion that in order to avoid it even the vessels had to be closed. This is intensely true in Christian life. The soul must keep its doors locked, or it shall be continually denied. Some natures are so open to everything that comes, that they just absorb the floating particles of evil that are in the air, even as in some manufacturing cities the purest linen absorbs the coal soot from the atmosphere. Walking as we ever do through such an atmosphere, we must just live in the blood and Spirit of Christ as the very elements of our spiritual existence, even as the pebble in the running brook is kept ever shining with the freshness of the crystal stream. This was what Jesus meant when He said to His disciples: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3); and then added with solemn emphasis, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15:4).” (5)

In closing:

The pronouncement of defilement upon one who touched a corpse is symbolic of the predicament of the human race that is fallen sin and dead, awaiting the wages of sin, eternal punishment. God called His people to be separate from the impurities of the world. The Old Testament purification processes pointed to Christ’s perfect sacrifice. 

If Judah follows the instructions laid out by Haggai, this will be the results:

“In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the LORD, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:23)

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Notes:

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at Amazon

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