Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel

The archaeology of a purification ritual


The summit of Tel ‘Eton, an archaeological mound in the southeastern Shephelah. Photo: Sky View and Griffin Aerial Imaging; courtesy of the Tel ‘Eton Expedition.

The idea of clean and unclean is universal, and we distinguish between clean and unclean things on daily basis when we ask ourselves: “Should I wash my hands? Do I need to have my jacket dry-cleaned? Do I need to wash this spinach?” In religious and ritual contexts, however, objects are not the only things that can become unclean or impure. People and actions can be deemed unclean, too.

Possibly every human society distinguishes between religiously clean and unclean things, people, and actions. And different cultures have developed different ways of coping with these—usually by imposing restrictions on the behavior and movement of the impure in order to prevent more people and things from becoming ritually defiled.

Writing for the March/April 2019 issue of BAR, archaeologist Avraham Faust explores what we know about how the ancient Israelites dealt with issues of religious purity and impurity during the Iron Age—long before ablution in a mikveh became the norm. In his article “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel,” Faust explains that restrictions of movement of the impure necessarily have “a spatial dimension, and rules governing impurity had to be formulated in relation to space.”


Crumbled limestone found at the entrance to Room 101 J at Tel ʿEton points to a purity ritual that used to occur at this place to help make the transition from the ritually unclean state to the status of a full member of the household. Photo: Avraham Faust / Courtesy of the Tel ʿEton Expedition.

Director of the Tel ‘Eton archaeological expedition, Faust then introduces this Iron Age site in the southeastern Shephelah, where ten seasons of excavations yielded rich data on household life and practices in the tenth through the eighth centuries B.C.E. Faust affirms that a large four-room house at Tel ʿEton offers a unique glimpse of how Iron Age Israelites coped with the issues of ritual impurity; he even proposes to reconstruct the purification ritual that once might have taken place there.


Placed at the edge of the crumbled limestone by the entrance to Room 101J, this limestone basin was used in the purification ritual that included pouring water on the unclean person. Photo: Avraham Faust / Courtesy of the Tel ʿEton Expedition.

To explore the archaeological clues that reveal a room at Tel ʿEton designed to house unclean individuals in the tenth through the eighth centuries B.C.E., read the article “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel” by Avraham Faust in the March/April 2019 issue of BAR.

Subscribers: Read the full article “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel” by Avraham Faust in the March/April 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Four-Room House: Typically Israelite?

Was Biblical Israel an Egalitarian Society?

Ancient Israel Through a Social Scientific Lens

Israelite Cosmology and the Orientation of Iron Age Houses

Jewish Purification: Stone Vessel Workshop Discovered in Galilee

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