From time to time I get striking and odd questions from the people I know, and last night, while I was eating dinner, I got a message from a friend of mine that asked me the random question of whether the Israelites bathed in the wilderness or not. This is not as easy a question to answer as one may think, and the shortest answer that one can give is that we do not know. If we are not satisfied with such an answer, then we have to wrestle with a variety of complexities and probabilities. And we are engaged in a genuine mystery, one with no obvious solution, where one must state the case as it is and leave any certainty about the matter for that blessed moment when our curiosity will either be answered or when it will no longer matter, and we will have nothing else to question. I have my own thoughts on the matter, but when one is dealing with a matter as speculative as this, one must admit that these thoughts don’t really amount to very much.
The Bible does not speak a great about bathing as such. To be sure, baptism is spoken of a lot, and it is clearly immersion, and the importance for the priests of bathing before serving. 2 Chronicles 6:4 details how important it was for the priests to wash themselves: “He also made ten lavers, and put five on the right side and five on the left, to wash in them; such things as they offered for the burnt offering they would wash in them, but the Sea was for the priests to wash in. ” Nor was the practice of priests washing before serving God in the temple or tabernacle a practice that began in the times of Solomon. The Bible is very specific about how important it was. Exodus 29:4 tells us: ““And Aaron and his sons you shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall wash them with water.” And in the next chapter, God is very specific that this was not a one-off event, in Exodus 30:17-21: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it. When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die. And it shall be a statute forever to them—to him and his descendants throughout their generations.”” While we are used to having employees at restaurants or hospitals wash their hands regularly, priests were commanded to wash their hands and feet when they serve in the tabernacle, in the altar, lest they die. This was established from the wilderness onward.
There are at least a few questions we get from this. How extensive was the washing? Did Aaron and his sons have to bathe completely to serve as priests or did they simply have to wash their hands and feet before doing so? And if the priests had to completely bathe, how common was this practice when the children of Israel were going through the wilderness? At least implicitly, we can gather that bathing was not very common for ritual purposes during Israel’s time in the wilderness. After all, when Paul speaks about baptism, he speaks of it being in the cloud and in the sea. It is possible that this not only refers to the crossing of the Red Sea, but also with the fact that they followed the cloud during their time in the wilderness. Did this this cloud bathe them in a miraculous fashion while they marched? We cannot say. It is telling that there was no circumcision at all during the time in the wilderness, for Joshua 5 tells us that the younger generation had that grown up in the wilderness had to be circumcised in Gilgal after they crossed the Jordan River. Why was no circumcision done in the wilderness? We do not know.
It is rather telling when we look in the Bible that bathing is not mentioned often for purposes of personal hygiene. We do know that all believers are to be baptized, and so full immersion in water is not something that should be foreign to believers. We also know that religious service required a certain degree of cleanliness that required washing in lavers, and that was eventually viewed (if not from the beginning) as requiring a full immersion in a mikvah. Did the importance of ceremonial cleanliness imply a belief in the need for personal cleanliness through bathing? Were part of the items that the Israelites brought with them through the wilderness their own personal tubs and lavers for washing themselves in some fashion? Did they bathe with milk or oil or just water? Was the shortage of water at various points during their journey troublesome not only because they lacked the water for themselves and for their animals but also for bathing purposes? It is possible that this was the case even if we cannot know for sure.