In the classic chorus, “Sanctuary,” by John Thompson and Randy Scruggs, the lyrics are a prayer: “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true; / With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”
For the people of Israel, purity and holiness had both internal and external dimensions. The topics in today’s reading are thus connected by an emphasis on physical, moral, and spiritual purity. The first topic was skin disease and contact with corpses (vv. 1–4). Both made people unclean, meaning that they were disqualified from being with the community where God was dwelling with them so as not to bring death into God’s presence.
The second topic was restitution (vv. 5–10). Wronging one’s neighbor was a grave sin that also defiled the community’s worship. To make restitution, the sinner not only had to make up for the loss but also add a 20 percent penalty along with a confession of their sin.
The third, longest, and most difficult topic was marital purity or sexual unfaithfulness (vv. 11–31). This procedure applied only in the case of a husband’s jealousy without evidence, since when adultery was proved both the man and woman were to be put to death (see Deut. 22:22). But a husband could not act on mere suspicions. Instead, the priest would perform a ceremony to test the wife through a kind of trial-by-ordeal. She would either be cleared or found guilty, but in any case the matter would be settled, so in a sense this process gave the wife some protection against her husband’s jealousy. If she failed the test, her punishment was barrenness, a serious disgrace in that day.
God cared about the purity of His people, and He could not tolerate sin in their midst or death in His presence.