The Hebrew verb טהר taher (Strong's #2891) literally means to clean or be clean as seen in Numbers 8:7 - and wash their clothes and cleanse (taher) themselves. Derived from this verb is the noun טהור tahor (Strong's #2889) meaning clean and is often used in the context of "clean gold" - And you shall overlay [the ark] with pure (tahor) gold (Exodus 25:11). Clean gold has had all the impurities (dirtiness) removed from it. This same word is also used in the context of animals - to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean (tahor) and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten (Leviticus 11:47). Many would consider this a "ritualistic" clean but I believe that this is a literal application. Those animals which are not allowed to be eaten (the unclean) have within them some "impurity" in the same manner as impure gold does. For instance, pork, an "unclean" animal, is known to carry trichinosis, an impurity within the meat and the meat of shell fish, also an "unclean" animal, can cause severe allergic reactions in some people.
When a person came into contact with a dead body they were considered "unclean" and were required to wash themselves with the ashes of the red heifer and in seven days they would be considered clean (טהר taher). Is this just a "ritualistic" procedure or a literal cleaning? The procedure for making the ashes of the red heifer is outlined in Numbers chapter 19. The red heifer was burned along with cedar wood (containing an irritant that causes one to vigorously scrub themselves), hyssop (containing carvacol, an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent) and scarlet stuff (tola'at in Hebrew, literally the Kermes worm and used as a natural anti-bacterial agent). This ash mixture becomes a potent anti-bacterial soap when mixed with water and is clearly a literal cleaning agent to remove the bacteria that can be transmitted by a dead body to the one who touches it.
God's laws were not just a set of rituals with no physical substance, they were actual procedures for the preservation of life (i.e.: salvation) from injury or disease just as it says in Proverbs 3:1, 2;
"My son, do not forget my teaching (תורה torah) , but let your heart keep my commandments (מצות mitsvot) , for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare (שלום shalom, usually translated as peace but literally meaning whole or complete) will they give you."
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Related Pages by Jeff A. Benner
|Ancient Hebrew Dictionary (Book)|
This Biblical Hebrew dictionary contains the one thousand most frequent verbs and nouns found within the Hebrew Bible.