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Today’s blog is about Leviticus, fulling, and hyssop. Fullers are part of a complicated process preparing wool from sheep shearers for tailors. Wool on sheep is dirty and first needs to be “scoured” of foreign particles, then fulling takes place. Today soap is used for this process, plus heat, agitation, and other products plus processes. In the first-century Jews made soap from the ashes of burned olive pits. But the Romans apparently didn’t use soap, and used urine for fulling wool as well as making their garments white. Same with the Europeans during the Medieval Ages.
DID THE JEWS USE URINE TO CLEAN AND PROCESS WOOL?
I researched a lot to establish whether the first-century Jewish fullers used urine like the Romans. The conclusion I reached is it didn’t seem likely that the Jews used only soap. We have evidence of dung collectors for the tanners, but no evidence of urine collectors for the Jewish fullers. Yet collecting urine would likely be much easier for Jewish fullers, living on the outskirts of the city. At least, compared to collecting animal dung, since animals were likely to be spread across the country. Also, we know fullers were located outside of the city like the tanners. Although perhaps the fullers weren’t as “downwind.”
…in Isaiah 7:3 we read of “the field of the fullers,” which lay “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway” to Joppa.From Sketches of Jewish Social Life
WHY USE HYSSOP?
How did hyssop purge the Psalmist in Psalm 51:7 (“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow”)? When I went to Neot Kedumim, Israel, my guide showed hyssop to me. She explained it was a plant much like a sponge. It holds liquids somewhat like a paint brush. That’s why the Jews used hyssop to paint blood on the doorposts in Egypt that first Passover (Exodus 12:22). And this process seems to have given a symbolic significance to hyssop. Observe its use in sacrifices found in Leviticus 14:4, 6, 49, 51-52, Numbers 19:6 and 18.
I Googled “cleansing properties of hyssop” and found some interesting information. Perhaps this was on the mind of King David when he wrote Psalm 51:7, but I don’t think so. He was feeling guilty for Uriah’s death and his adultery with Bathsheba. He needed God’s cleansing power and reconciliation. Hyssop was connected symbolically with the shed blood and sacrifices.
Note also the Romans used hyssop when giving Jesus vinegar while he was on the cross. John 19:28-30, NIV says they used a sponge on a stalk of hyssop.
THE “FILTH” FOUND IN LEVITICUS
I remember reading Leviticus before going to Israel the first time, thinking people didn’t actually take this book seriously. But I’d wonder how much they’d take it seriously. Then when I went to Israel our local tour guide turned that around. I remember him talking about women being unclean because of their periods. They were allowed to have sex with their husbands only at that time of the month when they were fertile, which was why they had big families. And I started to get the significance of Leviticus to the ancient Jews.
Then lately, I found this in my most recent book (a commentary on Leviticus):
As I studied and commented on…Leviticus…I often felt greatly weighed down. At times, the tedium…overwhelmed me…. But as I daily persevered a new thought began to emerge, and now that I have finished the work the thought has become crystal clear. The laws of Leviticus are meant to weigh us down. As we read the laws, we are to realize our sinfulness (Romans 7:7), and our inability to keep the law. Leviticus highlights our guilt and condemnation….From An EP Study Commentary Leviticus
I look forward to writing in the next blog or two about whether I think Christ offered any sacrifices while he was here, and why. But for now, I must say we need sacraments like the Lord’s Supper and baptism to remind us of our need for Christ. Just like the ancient Jews needed all those ceremonial laws to remind them of how hopeless they were without God’s plan for redemption. King David needed the blood of Christ to purge him, symbolized by the hyssop. And we need to be made whiter than snow, like fullers made wool with soap. Or perhaps even with their urine.