The Bible contains several verses that instruct people not to touch dead bodies. This was a commandment given by God to the Israelites in the Old Testament, and it continued to be followed in the New Testament era. Here are some key reasons why God established this rule:
The prohibition against touching dead bodies is first mentioned in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Numbers. God gave the Israelites various laws to follow after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and one of those laws was to avoid contacting corpses.
This rule applied to all dead bodies, whether of Israelites or foreigners (Numbers 19:11). God said that anyone who touched a dead body would be ceremonially unclean for 7 days (Numbers 19:11).
While this command originated under the Old Covenant, it continued to be followed even after Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, his sisters Mary and Martha told Jesus not to enter Lazarus’ tomb because it would make him ceremonially unclean (John 11:39).
So the rule against touching the dead has Biblical origins and was taken seriously by God’s people throughout Scripture. But what was the purpose behind this rule? Here are some key reasons why God established it:
Key Takeaways on Why the Bible Says Not to Touch the Dead:
- It was about ceremonial purity and holiness before God
- It prevented the spread of infectious diseases
- It was a sign of respect for the dead
- It represented spiritual truths about sin and death
- Jesus’ death and resurrection nullified the need for this regulation
Let’s explore each of these takeaways in more detail.
It Was About Ceremonial Purity and Holiness Before God
One of the main motivations behind the prohibition against touching dead bodies was spiritual in nature. God wanted the Israelites to be pure and holy before Him. He gave them various ceremonial laws to follow so they could be set apart for His purposes. These laws covered issues like diet, sacrifice, and purification rituals.
The laws said that contact with a dead body made someone ceremonially unclean and disqualified them from participating in religious rituals and entering sacred spaces like the tabernacle or temple. This ceremonial uncleanness lasted 7 days, and then the person had to undergo ritual purification involving washing their clothes and bathing before they could be declared clean again (Numbers 19:11-13).
So the prohibition against touching corpses was partly about maintaining ritual purity and holiness before God. Here are some verses that mention this motivation:
“Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean.” (Numbers 19:11-12, NKJV)
“Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.” (Numbers 19:16, NKJV)
God wanted His people to avoid corpse contamination so they could enter His presence and fulfill their religious duties in a state of purity and holiness. Touching the dead would render them spiritually unfit for sacred service.
It Prevented the Spread of Infectious Diseases
In addition to the spiritual motivation, the prohibition against contacting dead bodies likely had a practical health benefit. It prevented Israelites from being exposed to infectious diseases that can spread from corpses.
In the ancient world, knowledge of microbiology was non-existent. People did not understand how diseases spread. But God knew that contacting dead bodies could transmit illnesses like cholera, tuberculosis, and the plague.
So His laws acted as an early public health measure, even if the Israelites did not fully grasp the medical reasons at the time. Avoiding contamination from the dead protected them from contracting deadly diseases that could spread through the camp.
Here are some verses that show how seriously God took infectious diseases in order to protect His people’s health:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “When someone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean.” (Leviticus 13:1-3, NKJV)
“The Lord said to Moses, “If anyone has a bodily discharge, they are unclean…They will be unclean till they are cleansed from their discharge.” (Leviticus 15:1;15:13, NKJV)
So the prohibition against touching corpses helped prevent infectious diseases from ravaging the Israelite community. God acted to protect their physical health through these laws.
It Was a Sign of Respect for the Dead
Another motivation behind banning corpse contact was to show respect for the dead. Bodies were seen as sacred vessels that once held a living soul. Mishandling them was considered deeply disrespectful.
For example, when King Saul and his sons died in battle against the Philistines, the Philistines hung their bodies on the walls of Beth Shan (1 Samuel 31:8-10). But when the Israelites heard about this, they were appalled and traveled all night to retrieve the bodies and give them an honorable burial. They knew it was forbidden to desecrate human remains (1 Samuel 31:11-13).
A key example is the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion. The Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea secured Jesus’ body and buried it in a tomb hewn from rock. But before burying Jesus, Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body with spices in accordance with Jewish customs (John 19:38-42). Even in the mournful shock of Jesus’ death, they honored tradition and treated his remains with utmost care.
So avoiding unnecessary contact with corpses was viewed as a sign of respect. It prevented the dead from being treated like objects instead of sacred vessels.
It Represented Spiritual Truths About Sin and Death
On a symbolic level, the prohibition against touching dead bodies represented spiritual truths about the consequences of sin.
Death entered the world because of human sin. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, death became humanity’s common fate as part of the curse (Genesis 3:19). Every dead body stood as a reminder that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
In a ceremonial sense, contact with dead bodies made Israelites spiritually unclean. This pictured the corrupting stain left by sin and separation from God. Every corpse confrontation was like a mini-lesson that sin leads to spiritual corruption and death.
God wanted His people to take sin seriously and embrace holiness. Banning corpse contamination helped communicate spiritual truths about the deadly ramifications of unrepentant sin.
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Nullified the Need for This Regulation
Once Jesus came and died for humanity’s sins, He nullified the need for many Old Testament ceremonial regulations, including the prohibition against touching the dead.
Jesus’ sacrificial death offered atonement for sins once and for all (Hebrews 10:10). His bodily resurrection overcame the curse of death (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). All who put their faith in Christ are spiritually cleansed and have victory over death.
So followers of Jesus have “died to sin” and are empowered to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:2, 4). The old regulation against contacting corpses is made obsolete when believers experience new spiritual life in Christ (Hebrews 8:13).
An example is when Jesus raised a young man in the village of Nain. Moved with compassion, Jesus touched the funeral bier and resurrected the man from death (Luke 7:14). Through His sinless sacrifice, Jesus overcame the power of sin and death.
Therefore, regulations like avoiding corpse contamination are fulfilled in Jesus. Believers still treat bodies with respect, but they need not fear spiritual uncleanness. Jesus’ resurrection has rendered death a defeated foe.
In summary, the Biblical prohibition against touching dead bodies had several motivations rooted in ceremonial holiness, public health, respect for the deceased, and spiritual object lessons. But this Old Testament regulation finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
As Hebrews 9:11-14 explains, Jesus came as the supreme high priest and entered the heavenly tabernacle to secure permanent redemption with His own blood. All who believe in Him receive cleansing from sin’s corruption and the gift of eternal life. He is the one who truly sets people free from both the penalty and power of death.
So while there is still wisdom in treating corpses with care and avoiding potential disease transmission, followers of Jesus need not fear that contact with the dead will rendering them spiritually defiled. Jesus’ death and resurrection has nullified the old regulations and opened the way to new life through faith in Him.