Posted in theology

Hygiene laws of the wilderness years

By Elizabeth Prata

Sometimes in an elementary school, in the kindergarten bathroom, older students find that when they went to sit down, a little tyke perhaps missed the toilet, and a little brown pile on the floor greeted the next occupant. The mess was cleaned up swiftly with modern cleaners and disinfectants, but it got me thinking. What did the wandering Israelites do in the wilderness? Did you ever wonder about ancient bathroom practices?

Clean! EPrata photo

I participated in an archaeological dig some years ago. It was in Italy, and the goal was to discover any structures or artifacts that would help date the current medieval castle back to Late Antiquity or Early Medieval days, of Charlemagne’s time. I happened to have been placed in a spot where I did dig up a structure. Unexpected! Yay! Excitement all around! It was a latrine! Oh… The cobblestones around the tell-tale hole in the ground were nicely laid, and it was obvious this wasn’t a hastily constructed structure. So that is my claim to scientific fame, I discovered an ancient latrine! Then I got to thinking, ew, medieval bathroom practices, what did they do about it?

Sometimes I wonder about our glorified bodies in heaven. IBS will be gone and likely also toilets? I hope.

So my train of thought goes back to how did the Hebrews stay clean while they were in the wilderness? I think often about the verse in Deuteronomy 29:5, And I have led you in the wilderness for forty years; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot.

On the one hand, it confirms and comforts us to see how detailed the LORD is in His care of us down to our sandal straps.

On the other hand, it makes me wonder about the mechanics of things like, um, latrines…washing clothes, teeth cleaning etc. How did the Hebrews remain clean, not just spiritually by practicing the rituals, but personally?

Leviticus takes care of any questions we may have about the rituals for spiritual cleansing. They are numerous and detailed. This was a matter of huge import because the Israelites were required by God be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Cleanliness was an aspect of spirituality and morality. As Matthew Henry describes it there was ceremonial pollution and moral pollution, and there was natural pollution.

As for personal hygiene and simple cleanliness of the body, we see it defined as:

On the purely physical side a person is considered clean when obvious indications of dirt or similar defilement have been removed. A clean person is also one who habitually maintains a pattern of personal cleanliness and hygiene, while at the same time taking care to ensure that his or her environment is in a clean condition so as to forestall possible accidents, infection, and disease. Harrison, R. K. (2003). Clean, Cleanness; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.

Ancient Public toilet in Ephesus

God is concerned with the details of our lives, not only the external such as clothes and shoes, but internally, our food intake, digestion, and excretions. Amazing! He gave instructions for these processes too.

You shall also have a place allocated outside the camp, so that you may go out there to relieve yourself, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn and cover up your excrement. Since the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp to save you and to defeat your enemies before you, your camp must be holy; so He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14).

By that verse we see that sanitation, cleanliness of all forms really, are closely related to the states of holy and profane. Matthew Henry comments on the Deuteronomy verse:

[T]he camp of the Lord must have nothing offensive in it, v. 12–14. It is strange that the divine law, or at least the solemn order and direction of Moses, should extend to a thing of this nature; but the design of it was to teach them,
1. Modesty and decorum; nature itself teaches them thus to distinguish themselves from beasts that know no shame.
2. Cleanliness, and, though not niceness, yet neatness, even in their camp. Filthiness is offensive to the senses God has endued us with, prejudicial to the health, a wrong to the comfort of human life, and an evidence of a careless slothful temper of mind.
3. Purity from the pollutions of sin; if there must be this care taken to preserve the body clean and sweet, much more should we be solicitous to keep the mind so.
4. A reverence of the divine majesty. This is the reason here given: For the Lord thy God walketh by his ark, the special token of his presence, in the midst of thy camp; with respect to that external symbol this external purity is required, which (though not insisted on in the letter when that reason ceases) teaches us to preserve inward purity of soul, in consideration of the eye of God, which is always upon us.
5. A regard one to another. The filthiness of one is noisome to many; this law of cleanliness therefore teaches us not to do that which will be justly offensive to our brethren and grieve them. It is a law against nuisances.

Source: Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (pp. 265–266). Hendrickson.

The Lord is concerned with our cleanliness, moral, ceremonial, spiritual, physical, natural. All of it. We see in the Deuteronomy verse that He walks amid the Israelites and is holy and wants to see nothing profane. How much more so should we be with the Holy Spirit who is God, IN us?

We have modern toilets, soap at the ready, toilet paper, not a scraper and not a sponge on a stick. We have privacy. We have ability to be as clean as we ever could be, inside and out. God cares about our cleanliness. So should we, both inside and out.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

One thought on “Hygiene laws of the wilderness years

  1. So perfect for my S.S. Class. I’m teaching on the wilderness wanderings of Israel right now to 4th-6th graders. (The people are just abut to pick up and leave Sinai in Numbers 1 – 10.) Thanks! The kids (esp. boys) will love that reference in Deuteronomy about taking a shovel, etc. There is a bunch of verses telling how to identify adultery and thepunishment there too. I wondered why. Then thought it is very important that God considers Himself “married” to Israel, who is often SO UNFAITHFUL. And also, for believers… we are the bride of Christ. Just sayin….

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