In his best-selling book, The Year of Living Biblically, secular Jew A. J. Jacobs endeavors to follow biblical laws literally for a year. His escapades with mixed fabrics, stoning Sabbath-breakers, handling serpents, and honoring widows are enthralling and often sidesplitting, and they led to a CBS sitcom spinoff.

In one entry, he explains his attempt to avoid the ritual impurity associated with genital discharges while his wife is menstruating (Lev. 15:19–23). Unamused, she makes it a point to sit in every chair in the house before he returns home. Ultimately, he opts for a portable Handy Seat, because really, who can be sure who might have just sat in any particular subway seat or restaurant booth? (Rachel Held Evans completed a similar tongue-in-cheek challenge in her 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.)

Part of the reason this story is so humorous is its utter absurdity, especially as seen through our modern Western lens, which unwittingly informs our interpretation of Scripture. We find it awkward or wildly inappropriate to act differently—let alone to ask—if a woman is menstruating, and therefore the notion of a biblical regulation or restriction over a woman’s time of the month seems preposterous.

It is easy to overlook or disregard that, in the Bible, issues of ritual purity matter. Far from being some legalistic and archaic Old Testament oddity, engaging impurity deeply mattered to Jesus as well.

The ritual purity system is a cornerstone of second-temple Jewish life, and Jesus’ actions reveal that he embodies a kind of contagious holiness, which overcomes the sources of impurity that contaminate God’s people. Without understanding how the ritual purity system works, and ...

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