ritual washing

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Exodus 30:17-21

17 The LORD told Moses, 18 “You should also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You should put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you should put water in it, 19 with this, Aaron and his sons can wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, they should wash with water, so that they may not die. When they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the LORD, 21 they should wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It should be a permanent statute for them, both to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

ritual washing

This rule was hijacked by the Pharisees and their followers, and made into a requirement for all kinds of spiritual service. So, today the rabbis today claim that the rule “has been observed by the pious in all ages, who wash their hands before beginning any of the statutory services, which the Rabbis declare to be the present-day equivalents of the sacrifices.”[1] In Jesus’ day, it had been made into a custom that every meal should begin with this ceremonial washing. Jesus did not encourage his disciples to adopt this tradition, and they were criticized for it.[2] Jesus explained that defilement comes from within – that eating with ceremonially unwashed hands does not defile anyone.[3] So, is Jesus ignoring this command, and teaching others to do so?

If we look at the command itself, we will see that it clearly has limitations. It has only to do with Aaron and his descendants – the priesthood. the washing is to occur only as they approach either the altar in the courtyard or the holy tent itself. Were the priests to test this rule by attempting to approach their service unwashed, they would be struck dead.

So, Jesus is right in his exegesis to reject this external rule that tradition has set up requiring ritual washing at every table. The Aaronic priests were to be set apart from the people as holy to the LORD, because of their special work of intercession. Their washing was to remind them of the holiness required for that service. It was to encourage the inner cleanliness that Jesus spoke of.

It is this inner cleanliness that is so elusive for those of us who have submitted to the new covenant priesthood. I refer not to ordained ministers (which I am), but to the priesthood of all believers in Christ.[4] We have no earthly tabernacle to enter as we approach the LORD to intercede on behalf of his creatures. But we do have a requirement to come before him undefiled. James instructs us that “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”[5] That is how we prepare ourselves to enter the LORD’s presence on behalf of others. It involves loving and serving others, and keeping ourselves from spiritual compromise. Without this preparation, washing of the externals is hypocrisy.

LORD, we seek to serve you, and others in your name. Clean us, that we may appear before you and not die.


[1] J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. (London: Socino Press, 1985), 353.

[2] Mark 7:2.

[3] Matthew 15:20.

[4] Revelation 1:6; 5:10.

[5] James 1:27 NET.

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About Jefferson Vann

Jeff is a Christian missionary.
This entry was posted in Aaron, holiness, prayer and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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