Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)
What did Yeshua mean when he criticized the scribes and Pharisees saying they were “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness”? Why did he use the imagery of whitewashed tombs? How would his listeners have understood this?
In Temple times, ritual impurity was extremely important, especially in and around Jerusalem. The Torah warns that a person who is ritually contaminated “and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Numbers 19:13). Therefore, it became critical that a person know if there was a potential of becoming ritually contaminated or not, so that he could take steps to avoid it.
But can ritual impurity actually be contracted through merely walking on or too near a grave? Or is this just a Pharisaic invention? The book of Numbers makes it clear, ritual impurity is not just transmitted through the touching of a corpse, but can even be transmitted through contact with a grave as well:
Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. (Numbers 19:16)
A grave has the potential to transmit the highest level of ritual impurity, the same as if a person touched the corpse itself. The steps involved in the “decontamination” process were lengthy. It was a seven day process that involved the sprinkling of the water that contained the ashes of the red heifer:
Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him. (Numbers 19:11–13)
Because of the seriousness of corpse contamination, a kohen (priest) is restricted from coming within four tefachim (hand-widths) of a cemetery or grave if it is walled or fenced. The kohen is restricted to ten tefachim if it is not wall or fenced. Because of the lengthy procedures by which a person must undergo for ritual purification, the Sanhedrin had ruled that the graves and tombs should be given a fresh coat of whitewash in the days leading up to the pilgrimage festivals, replacing the previous coating that had been washed away by rain (Shekalim 1:1). This was so that the Jews who were traveling to Jerusalem for the appointed times would notice them and not accidentally defile themselves by stepping on or coming too close to a grave. If they did accidentally become impure through corpse contamination, it would take them a full seven days to become pure again and most likely cause them to miss out on participating in the festival entirely. Luke’s account of Yeshua’s teaching draws attention to the possibility of accidentally becoming ritually impure because of unmarked graves:
Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, which men walk across without even noticing. (Luke 11:44)
Visually marking graves was especially important for nazarites and kohanim (the priests). Regarding nazarites, the Torah instructs:
All the days that he separates himself to the Lord he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord. (Numbers 6:6–8)
The regulations for the kohanim—particularly the kohen gadol (high priest)—are equally as stringent:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may make himself unclean) … [the high priest] shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother.” (Leviticus 21:1–3, 11)
As we can see, ritual impurity was critically important for those who were anticipating participation in the Temple rites, and especially so for those who were required to maintain ritual purity such as the nazarites and kohanim. Yeshua’s point is that unknowingly, some people were following after the hypocrisy of certain scribes and Pharisees. And by associating themselves with these hypocritical leaders, they were metaphorically “walking on unmarked graves.” Yeshua was pointing out the hypocrisy of these leaders in order to warn people about becoming contaminated by their hypocrisy. He was “whitewashing” them in order that they may be avoided. He knew the potential damage their influence could make:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:14–15)
Please bear in mind, however, that he was not talking about the scribes and Pharisees as a whole. In the midst of his most scathing rebuke against the Pharisees he reminds his disciples that they wield legitimate legislative authority over the interpretation and application of Torah—they “sit in the seat of Moses”—and are to be obeyed. However, his rebuke is entirely against their hypocrisy and warns his disciples against such duplicity in their behavior.
If we are pursuing the LORD wholeheartedly, we should take every effort to avoid hypocrisy on our journey. We should constantly ask ourselves if our actions reflect what is in our hearts, or if they mask what’s behind closed doors. As disciples of Yeshua we should be bearing the fruits of righteousness through our deeds. But our deeds should never be a smoke screen for our hypocrisy. They should be a genuine reflection of the transformation that has taken place within all who have encountered the Rabbi from Nazareth.