Physical cleansing is important in biblical law and extra-biblical Jewish tradition. It has obvious health implications but also symbolic significance, especially with regard to holiness, forgiveness and healing.

Ritual purification

Old Testament practices

The Old Testament laws describe complex criteria for a person to be considered ‘unclean’ or impure. These include skin diseases Leviticus 13:1-3, bodily discharges Leviticus 15:1-3, contact with the dead Numbers 19:11-12, and the touching or consumption of non-kosher (‘unsuitable’) foods Leviticus 11:1-8. It is not always obvious to modern read-ers why certain things were considered ‘unclean’, but often it was to do with:

  • Health and hygiene
  • Distinguishing between Hebrew and gentile culture
  • Emphasising wholeness/life over decay/death
  • Separating worship from sexual activity (important when the worship of many pagan deities involved sex cults).

Whilst unclean, a person was considered ‘unfit’ to participate in corporate worship (e.g.Numbers 9:6). An unclean priest, in particular, was obliged to abstain from duty (see Leviticus 22:1-3). 

The process of restoration varied depending on the nature and severity of the uncleanness. Those contaminated by contact with a carcass simply need to wash and wait until evening Leviticus 11:24-25. By contrast, leprosy sufferers (for example) became clean only if healed, and then after an eight day ritual Leviticus 14:8. Until then they were entirely iso-lated from their community.

Jesus’ reinterpretation 

In the gospels, Jesus frequently reached out to those who were considered ‘unclean’ (such as lepers) and healed them (see Luke 17:11-19). This angered the Pharisees, who promoted a carefully constructed system of tradition to help preserve cleanliness and cultural separation. However, Jesus was more concerned with the inner state of a person’s heart, rather than whether they had outwardly contaminated themselves Matthew 15:17-20. According to God’s standards, the Pharisees were hypocrites: for all their appearance of holiness they neglected ‘justice and mercy and faithfulness’ Matthew 23:23. Jesus accused them of being like attractive gravestones which concealed decomposing bodies Matthew 23:27-28 – i.e. ‘unclean’ themselves.


There are occasions in both the Old and New Testaments when physical cleansing plays a part in miraculous healing:

Conversely, physical healing can have the effect of restoring (ritual) cleanliness, such as the woman with a flow of blood who was healed when she secretly touched Jesus’ garment Mark 5:25-34.

Cleansing from sin

The notion of being ‘cleansed’ from sin (known as absolution) is a strongly recurring theme in the Bible. A famous Psalm attributed to King David is about his penitent desire that God cleanses him from his sins of adultery and murder (Psalms 51:1-19:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin! ..
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 

Psalm 51:2,7  ESVUK

Similar imagery is used to encourage repentant believers in the New Testament:

let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 

Hebrews 10:22  ESVUK

Blood that cleanses

As well as water, the Bible also introduces the visually paradoxical idea of being cleansed by blood. In the Old Testament, it is the blood of animal sacrifices that cleanses from sin Leviticus 16:14-16; in the New, it is the blood of Jesus 1 John 1:7-9.

Symbolic washing with water

When Pilate reluctantly handed Jesus over to be crucified he famously washed his hands as a public gesture of self-absolution Matthew 27:22-26. To ‘wash one’s hands’ has become a popular idiom for rejecting personal responsibility for and/or distancing oneself from a situation.


The practice of Christian baptism represents the washing away of sin Acts 22:16 and participation in the death and new life of Jesus Romans 6:3-4. See Big ideas from the Bible: Baptism.

Foot washing

The Washing of the Feet by TissotIt was a common custom in many ancient cultures to provide water (and possibly a servant) to wash the feet of guests (e.g. Genesis 18:4). When a ‘sinful woman’ interrupts a meal to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host is appalled Luke 7:37-39. Jesus, however, re-bukes him for his lack of basic hospitality and commends the woman for her love and humility Luke 7:44-47.

On another occasion Jesus astonishes his disciples by taking it upon himself to wash their feet – a menial servant’s job John 13:3-10. He tells them that they are to have the same atti-tude of humble service towards one another John 13:14-15.

Cleansing in literature

  • A famous scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1611) sees Lady Macbeth desperately trying to scrub imaginary bloodstains from her hands, despite her earlier claim that ‘a little water clears us of this deed’ (Act 2, Scene 2)
  • In Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1861) Jaggers the lawyer washes his hands (and his face and nails, if the case is 'grimey' enough) after each client meeting or court en-gagement
  • In the play Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw, 1913) Prof. Higgins sends Eliza the flower girl to be washed before she can face polite society
  • In To My Wash-stand (1932) objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky explores the connection be-tween self and ‘other’ via the twice-daily ritual of washing
  • Cleansing and baptism are themes in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (2014), about a woman ad-justing to family and home after a lonely, itinerant life on the road.


  • Artists such as Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Rubens and Gentileschi depicted the apocryphal story of Susannah, lusted after by two men as she bathed in her garden.

Related topics

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.